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The list-driven life


December 19, 2012

This is the season for lists—holiday gifts, cards and those letters to Santa, who is understood to be making a list of his own.

It can all get to be too much so that it seems that life itself has become winnowed down to a list of “to-dos” dictated by half-legible scraps of paper.

“I can take that off my list,” I hear people say, in a world-weary kind of way, whether it be, say, cleaning the fish tank or attending the kid’s holiday concert.

Still, it is true that lists bring organization to chaos and help us remember things. I keep a number of running lists for the usual things like groceries and appointments. I also keep a weekly outline of day-to-day operations on the shelf that my family likes to call “Mom’s Command Center,” where I store my car keys and the nail polish remover. (It is also currently piled with boxes of Christmas cards and the new tights for my daughter’s ballet recital.) I keep other lists, too—books to read, people to visit, and (perhaps most elusive) ideas for poems.

And there are things I know will never come off my list—like “Learn how to thread the sewing machine”—a statement which is written cloud-like on the list’s upper margin. Or the simple but next to impossible mission: “dust.”

Of course, lists can have profound consequences too, think of Steven Spielberg’s famous film “Schindler’s List,” which was based on the true story of a German businessman who used a list of names to save Jews from the concentration camps during World War II. And where would we be without the pro and con lists that have helped us sort through many dilemmas?

There are fun lists like People Magazine’s annual issue devoted to best- and worst-dressed celebrities, and David Letterman’s top 10 lists, to name a few. There is Casey Kasum’s “American Top 40” song list. There are “bucket lists,” “shit lists” and short lists for the Nobel Peace Prize.

We all know what the holiday season is supposed to be like, rather than the frenzied and jaded time of year it can become. Our lists can help us or hold us down. Let them relieve stress rather than create frustration.

I like to remember when my son was a little baby. At first, I was so afraid that I wrote down every time he ate and every time I changed his diaper. But I began to feel, in caring for him, as if it were Christmas every day. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of late-night crying, but each day he woke up like a gift to be opened. He was sunny and smiling. He was serene and ready to open the day. I’m still trying to figure out just how it is that babies can do this—so that I can do it, too.