When I realised some time during my early 20s that my fate was very much in my own hands, I began writing lists.
The list provides order from a turbulent storm cloud of decisions. When choices seem overwhelming, when that dreaded sense of urgency looms – the one that nags about life direction and fulfilling your purpose before it’s too late – the list really comes into its own.
These days I still rely on the list. Most mornings after a wasted hour of digital distraction, I draw one up. I like to mix them up a little, and yesterdays was a doozy.
It had ‘get purchase order for graphic designer’ above ‘write up plot’. I imagine the former task may not carry the same level of effort as the one below it, which was to attempt writing the complex romantic storyline to my first-ever novel. But there it was, a simple few words on a very practical To Do list. Just putting it out there!
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the satisfaction of crossing it off at the end of the day. With exactly five minutes to go before the start of a fitness class I wanted to attend, I was up to my armpits in the online copy of the Shropshire Parish Register (because another thing on my To Do list was ‘discover ancestry’).
In the past 15 years of being a parent, lists have become complicated, meaningless, unrealistic records of big dreams that never get crossed off. Somewhat like the past lives in that ancient register of births, deaths and marriages, those dreams have arrived, shone bright and gone.
Some of the names on the parish registry may have been ancestors of mine, but all of them I’m certain, had intriguing, painful and at other times joyous hours and years of living. It mattered not if they were a bastard child, a travelling woman, a pauper or esquire.
Scrolling through the lists of names, occupations and records of christenings, marriages and burials on that parish registry was sobering for the realisation that all of these people’s experiences - their very existence - had been reduced to a list.
On one page I noticed the date of the christening of an infant child, and the next day, the same child’s name followed by a ‘b’, indicating she had been buried. The same parents of this child had christened and buried another infant just 10 months prior.
Maybe for us too, the list is all that we’ll have left to tell our story when we’re gone?
I lament that my list no longer compares the pros and cons of ‘a new life in London’ vs ‘new life in Hong Kong’ , as it did when I was a single woman with an ambitious sense of boundless possibility.
But the complexity of my current lists also hint at the richness of my life as a mother.
It can be overwhelming that I’m expected to factor the happiness of three offspring, a husband with lost and found dreams of his own and a co-dependant Jack Russell into my list. But when I think about it, the lists I wrote when I was 20-something also contained dreams that were never pursued, even though I had very few people to whom I needed to be accountable.
Perhaps the function of the list is as a record of inward contemplation, and the value is in the process of imagining a future of wide open possibilities, as frightening as they may be.
If you're spending a lot of your day in bare feet, then chances are you have found the kind of balance that Hook & Arrow writer Alison Smith has found in life.