Wednesday, June 16, 2010

the fine art of making lists

Yesterday afternoon the sheer number of possibilities of things "to do" around here became overwhelming and I found myself suddenly stuck, not able to do anything at all. I ended up focusing my efforts on laundry, because that always needs doing and at some point with two adults, two teens, barn chores, and sweaty weather, we actually run out of towels.

In between laundry loads I floundered around trying to pick just one thing to work on. I finally ended up flinging myself onto the bed and finishing a novel I was reading. But then I had to pick the next novel to read and that process propelled me right back into all the things that "need to be done."  Writing things.

Sometime last night I realized what I needed to do was make a list. I have a love-hate relationship with list-making. I seem driven to do it, and I feel it helps, but at some point my own imagination and broad scope get me into trouble.

My lists can be so comprehensive they become yearly plans. Except I often see them as what needs to be done - today.

I've gotten good at tossing entire lists when they begin to feel too restrictive, but yesterday I was clearly at the opposite end of the line. I needed some structure.

So I made a list of the top five things I wanted to do "tomorrow" - which is now today. Seeing that when I woke up has helped. I can pick from the list and get those things done. It's a reasonable, do-able, meaningful list.

I used to keep my lists in notebooks, which was interesting because I could look back and see that some of the items that kept showing up on my lists over the course of time NEVER got done, and in fact, nothing bad happened as a result. I also saw that some things repeated themselves over and over, which indicated that those things were part of a daily routine and probably didn't even need to be listed, which helped carve the lists down over time.

There was a sense of satisfaction knowing that I had done all those things that were crossed out and checked off.

It was also a creative process. Many of those notebooks contained detailed sketches of garden plans that never happened, redecorating schemes that never quite came together, renovation plans that were huge and possibly not affordable. But I loved noting all the ideas, and planning them to the smallest detail. A year later, when I glanced back in the notebook, I'd realize that I now had an even better plan to think about, or that some aspect of that earlier plan would never work in the present, so what a good thing I hadn't actually DONE it!

I sometimes used those notebooks when I wanted to go on catalog shopping sprees. I'd sit with the many catalogs that came in the mail, and carefully itemize in my notebook every item I wanted to buy. I'd list the prices, calculate shipping, and total it up. Usually the grand total would be such that I would instantly know I would never spend that amount of money on a bunch of "stuff" - with that amount we could take a trip, or do one of those renovations I'd been plotting. But the process was satisfying in some way - giving myself permission to list all the things I wanted, and then realizing I didn't want them that badly after all.

For the past couple of years I've been on a recycling binge, and I save all the junk mail that has clean writing space to use as note paper. So my lists have appeared on the backs of envelopes, the backs of advertisements for services we'll never use, and on lovely envelopes from gift cards that have only our names written on the front side. And these scrap paper lists get tossed when no longer relevant.

I realized last week I had an extra blank book sitting on my desk, and in a moment of whimsy and old habit, decided to make it my new "list" book. It has lines and is so satisfying to write in. It is so new that yesterday I forgot I even had it, but when I started the list last night, I remembered.

Writing my lists in the book is a way to honor the process. I'm thinking of it as honoring all the things I do, and also the things I never manage to get done. We can't do everything! We're not meant to do everything. So even those items I write down, in a grand moment of thinking I can do it all, honor my human-ness and remind me that in fact, the world doesn't end because my to do list didn't get done.

One of the items that has been on my list since about 1985 is the J. Peterman "Counterfeit Mailbag," shown to the right.

I don't know what it is about that bag, but I wanted it then and I want it right now. One of these days I'll treat myself and order it. Here's the catalog description:  (and if you've never seen a J. Peterman catalog, do yourself a favor and order one - every catalog is like its own novel!)

The secret thoughts of an entire country were once carried in leather bags exactly like this one. Except this one, a copy, isn't under lock and key in a museum. It's for sale.
I borrowed an original from a friend, a retired mailman who, like thousands before him, was kind enough to test it out, for years, on the tree-lined streets of small towns everywhere. Before you were born.
The test was successful; even though discontinued, it can't be improved upon. It's simply perfect as a device for carrying important ideas and feelings back and forth. And the same as with those old and scarce and beautiful mailbags, people will look forward to seeing what you've got inside.
The Counterfeit Mailbag (No. 1005). Containing one vast unzippered pocket, and another zippered. Shoulder strap and handle. Size: 15" long x 7" wide x 12-1/2" tall. Strong, soft leather that will only get better. A beauty. (Imported)
How to take care of the Mailbag.

The first scratch will kill you, but in fact, it's the first step in the right direction: patina.
So the sooner it gets scratched, nicked, bumped, dug, hit, squeezed, dropped, bent, folded, and rained on, the better. Really.
When you receive your mailbag, it's so fiercely new looking I'm almost ashamed of it. But there's no choice. It would cost too much to pre-age each mailbag before sending it out to a customer. (Antiques cost more than new, for a reason.)
Here's my recipe for “accelerating” the aging process. First, spend one day (the day you get it) the way it is. Brand new. Then, the next day, scratch it all over with your fingernails. Lightly. This will horrify you, at first. Then, spray-mist it with plain water, lightly. Let it dry. The scratches will lose their rawness. They will look old. Repeat this treatment as often as you can stand to; once a week for 5 weeks. Then once a year. (Clean mailbag with plain water only. Not petrochemicals, not oils, not detergents, not mystery solvents, not leather “cremes.” It will do just fine with plain water and will outlast both of us.)


Anonymous said...

Love the bag. I'm a compulsive list maker, but I don't keep them. Now I'm thinking maybe I should...

Grey Horse Matters said...

The bag is gorgeous and has been one of my favorites for years. I didn't buy it because I have absolutely no use for it. But I think you should treat yourself to it, you deserve to carry around your lists and future novels in style. After all we only go round once, life is not a dress rehearsal, and all those old cliches...

I'm a list maker too, especially for my kids when they were home. I think they never bothered to read them though as nothing ever got done here either.

billie said...

Susan, I could probably write a book on "self-insight via old lists." :) It's an amazing thing if you can look back over the span of a number of years, and as you might imagine, it brings back a lot of pleasure to view lists made when children were very young.

My favorite was the "poop diary," which I kept when son was first born. I was totally intent on making sure he was getting enough breast milk! Ha.

billie said...

Arlene, I agree with you about the bag - on another level it almost seems like I have come to love the *idea* of this bag as much as the bag itself. So in my slightly crazy way, I am in an ongoing limbo about actually buying it! LOL - the things we humans think about and ponder. It's no wonder I love being with my horses so much. They are not nearly so complicated.

Marjorie said...

Your blog popped up on my Facebook page today when I was awake early after obsessing about all the things I have to do...They are all lined up in my head, nagging at me. So after a clearing walk with my dog, I think I'll sit down and write a list so I can cross things off. I'm not much of a list maker because I usually lose them before I can see much accomplishment, but maybe keeping them in a notebook would help.

You should write a book or article on Self-Insight via Old's a neat idea.

Beautiful horse picture above :)

billie said...

Marjorie, give it a try. There is something reassuring about seeing it on the page and knowing you no longer have to "carry" the list in your head.

I have another notebook for all my book ideas, so I will add this one to it. :)

Keil Bay thanks you for noticing his handsomeness!

Anonymous said...

Ah, lists are beautiful things and sometimes the most fun when you find them four years later....

The bag would be an Excellent B-day or Christmas present from hubby and family to you....

billie said...

Perhaps they will read this and that might happen... :)