Listing Off Course

Annie Dillard once said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” What I’ve come to realize is that I spend a huge percentage of my days making up lists. Of things I must do. Of things I want to do. Of things I’ll never get to do. I make these lists in an attempt to bring order to the chaos that is my life.

I like the legitimacy of putting down something on a list. It means I’m committed to a task fulfilled, an intention kept. Groceries, gifts, errands… appointments, calls, social engagements… there is no formality to how they’re written. They are as basic as can be, just words on paper. Often they’re written on small scraps of Post-its with whatever I can get my hands on, pen if I’m lucky, pencil or even crayon if I’m not.

A day where everything on my to-do list is accomplished is rare; so very busy and productive am I. If I don’t write it down, I tell myself, I won’t remember. If I don’t write it down, it’s not important. And if there’s not a list of important things for me to take care of, then who am I and what am I worth? It’s embarrassing how satisfying I find crossing things off my list.

Most of the time the supermarket list sits on a pad on the kitchen counter. My Costco list lives under a magnet on the refrigerator. Too often they’re still there when I’m at the store. Work project lists wind up accompanying me to dinner, while the list of at least a dozen suspicious skin cancer sites on my body, carefully recorded for months, mysteriously disappears the day of my dermatologist appointment.

There’s a list of niggling, hateful chores thumb-tacked to my office wall, of tasks to be completed when I have nothing to do. Once a job spends more than a year on this list undone, I remove it, figuring I’ve been punished enough staring at it for twelve months. It’s time to accept I’m the kind of person whose linen closet will forever remain an awful mess and whose photo album awaits at least three years worth of happy occasions. What remains is daunting enough. I’ve got to write a letter to that expensive restaurant about how rude the maitre d’ was, and I must take four watches, broken since the last century, in to be repaired. It’s time to make up another set of house keys so I don’t have to squeeze the garage opener into my purse whenever I go out and don’t drive. And way past time to read the instruction manual for my digital camera. Yeah, that’ll happen.

There’s one more list I keep under my desk blotter, full of pleasurable things I’m going to treat myself to… soon. On it are the promise of six books, bought but unread, four movies, recommended and recorded but unwatched, five lunches with friends, promised but unscheduled, and five gift certificates for beauty treatments, gifted but unredeemed.

As I work on my latest list….of what I have to buy in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner… I remember Erma Bombeck talking about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night, planning for the future. Life has a way of accelerating as we get older. The days get shorter and the lists of promises to ourselves gets longer. Join me in cutting the length of the items to be repaired and replaced on your lists this season… so we can more fully live the width of our lives as well.

Marcia Byalick

Marcia Byalick

Marcia's written three novels, three self-help books and dozens of essays for women’s magazines. She’s taught memoir writing, wrote for the Long Island section of The New York Times, and served as the content editor of beinggirl.com

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