On Lists, Old and New

When Eric and I first met, we quickly discovered that we were both seriously enamored of lists. Planning lists, grocery lists, library book lists, goal lists, idea lists: you name it, we like it. I took much delight in the fact that Eric actually had a book about lists, Sasha Cagen’s pretty To-Do Lists, with all kinds of ephemera from daily life, collected from list lovers such as ourselves. I took it as a happy miracle when I stumbled upon it myself in a tiny bookshop in Sonoma one winter when we’d gone up for a drive. Sasha poses questions and makes list suggestions along with the lists she shares, and one of the questions, which Eric randomly opened to and read aloud, was “Make a list of desired qualities in a romantic partner.” I almost fell off my chair my laughing when he immediately proclaimed, “Number One. Likes Lists.” This is just one of many things we share, notecards and scraps of paper strewn over both our desks (okay, mostly mine), that make me feel like I’ve found not only someone wonderfully fantastic, but someone who was actually somehow a part of me already.

Personally speaking, my love of lists goes way back to childhood. I remember scouring my mom’s bookcases one summer and writing down every book I planned to read. I think I was about 8. Those who know me will not be surprised by this, even those who also know how many books my mom has. In middle school my best friend and I made long lists of things we loved and things we loathed. I don’t remember too much, but on the loathe list was the smell of a wet dog and the sound it makes when you stir macaroni and cheese, and on the love list was 25-cent machines and the fruit they bear. We were nothing if not specific. As an adult I kept the lists up and began to think about what drew me to them in the first place: a sense of organization? a sense of having everything in one place? the pure pleasure of putting pen to paper? I think all of those things are certainly true, but now more than ever it is the sense of creating a personal document, the sense of being one in a very long line of humans striving to gather their thoughts, bring order to their lives, commit dreams and schemes to paper that they might never utter aloud.

But my love affair with lists took another turn last year when I worked through Julia Cameron‘s The Artist’s Way. Ironically enough, this was a book I had taken from my mom’s bookshelf. I had meant to read it for years, but finally the right place and time came: my other half was in Australia for months on a research trip, and I had a break from teaching and thus, a fair bit of time on my hands. I could write for days about the effect the book had on me (and many people have!), but one of the most wonderful of them was that it renewed my list-making enthusiasm. I started to write down all kinds of things as they flitted through my head: places I wanted to go, skills I wanted to learn, things I wanted to try to cook, projects I wanted to undertake, tiny indulgences I could give myself on rough days, to inject a bit of beauty into a gray afternoon. I hung my lists on the kitchen wall with pride and kept adding to them every day.  People who came over noticed them and commented on them. I am sure some of them thought I was crazy (and maybe I am!), but those lists made magic in my life time after time. One of the sweetest things they brought about was that Eric’s dad, who could not be any more thoughtful, noticed that I wanted to learn how to weld, and he remembered that for months until I came to visit the farm. He happens to be an expert welder, and he had a whole lesson set up as a special surprise for me. I could not have been more touched.

The day came when Eric and I moved away from that sunny apartment in Oakland, and when I unpacked the lists in Pasadena, I found that they had faded tremendously in the sun. Some of them I actually couldn’t even read because the ink was so pale. So I set about trying my best to retrace them, and I found that a beautiful act: an excavation, but at the same time a reinscription of my past self. Although nothing more than a thin line on paper, those words were part of me, a record of myself at a specific point in space and time.

I quickly found that many of the items on my list were indeed specific to space and time: places in the Bay area that I wanted to explore, organizations and publications I wanted to get involved with, groups at the university I thought about joining. It was sad to see those things lost, but not overwhelmingly so: the lists were meant to be a place for dreams, tremendous ones, ones I wouldn’t have allowed myself to consider before I read Cameron’s book. If I could sum up in one pithy sentence one of the most important things I learned from her, it’s that we have to allow ourselves to dream impossible dreams–if we don’t allow ourselves to dream them, how will we allow ourselves to do them? And so I set about making new lists, adding new places to see, projects to explore, events to attend.

Now I’ve got them all hung up on a shady wall of my office, ready to inspire me. Aesthetically speaking, they’re nothing to write home about, but that doesn’t bother me at all–it just makes it easier for me to wander over there and scribble down a new thought or idea. I have them categorized in a way that makes sense to me: big projects that need planning, possibilities to investigate, creative projects to undertake, things to bake or cook, and, my all time favorite, small little gifts to give myself. This is the one I look to after I’ve been staring at a computer screen so long my eyes have gone crossed. Then I say, ah yes, hot chocolate and a bubble bath does sound like a good idea, or ah yes, I should go take a walk in that neighborhood I haven’t explored yet. These lists are truly a part of me, and they have made my life so much richer, so much brighter.

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