I recently got a postcard from my friend Molly, who moved away a year ago. It made me inordinately happy. Not because I'm particularly starved for postcards. It was more because she hadn't given up on me.
If you could see all the (more) permanent places I build my to-do lists (date books, notebooks, the backs of my eyelids when I'm trying to fall asleep) -- not to mention all the ephemera my lists manage to subsist on (Post-its, receipts, any white space near the crossword) -- you would see what looks like a veritable homage to Molly. In list after list, where everything from paying my rent to getting more exercise has been crossed out (whether from accomplishment or a relinquishing of overly high hopes), the simple imperative, "Write Molly," or sometimes just the modest prompt, "Molly," rests alone and unadorned amidst the ink scratches of accomplishment.
That's the thing about to-do lists -- they serve both to inspire you to productivity, as well as a very incontrovertible reminder of what you have as yet failed to do, of what has been put off and is therefore now off-putting.
I have (for better or worse) read enough Middle English literature to know that "to list" is a rich verb. Among other connotations (including our sense of cataloging or grouping, as well as hearing, being attentive, and inclining), to list once meant to desire, like, or wish to do something.
I've always loved making lists. I love the sense of organization, of being put together and in control, that they give me. I don't know what makes me happier: to achieve the listed goal, or to sit down and cross it off my list at the end of the day. Lists are lovely in the way they let you see how your life is running, or how you want it to run.
In its arbitrary mix of the mundane and the meaningful, there's something very intimate about a to-do list. Sometimes on the bus or in class I've happened to see the person next to me ruminating over her (and it always has been a her) own to-do list. I glimpsed things like "Buy leeks" right next to "Call mom" and "Be more assertive." I feel very voyeuristic reading these inventories, like the guilty impulse to read someone's diary.
During a particularly rough time with my mom and sister when I was in high school, I "happened" on a list of my mom's that was taped to her closet wall. The first line read, "Be more nurturing with the girls." I felt terrible, first that she clearly was trying in some way and I hadn't given her enough of a chance; and second that "nurturing" was so foreign to her she had to remind herself via a list.
I also remember the night before my first day of high school. I had left a to-do list on my desk that, naively, demanded I do such things in high school as "Get good grades" and "Join lots of clubs." Later that night my mom came up to me and said she was so proud of me, so happy I was looking ahead to the next four years. I was stunned she had read my list. Stunned and mortified. I've never left a to-do list out in the open since.
Although I love them, lists are often a source of some shame for me. I don't want people to see them, to see the quotidian, very banal scaffolding of my life; to note that I cant even do the seemingly simplest of things without reminding myself over and over, without my own little booster club of asterisks and exclamation points. Also, all this list-making seems to be a stand-in for doing, a way to postpone the hard things with a more manageable busyness. And, most important, I don't want people to know what I haven't done, to see what the list clearly displays as undone, uncrossed-off, lacking, what I still list or desire to do.
Who knows why I can't just put pen to paper and write my friend Molly, who I certainly do like and miss? There are probably too many reasons, and then some certainly more than simple listing can hope to contain or explain.
© Maggie Trapp