Place paper in front of you on table. Pick up pen. Hold firmly.
Touch point to paper surface. Move wrist and hand across the page horizontally while pressing downward. Form letters in print or cursive. Lift pen from paper surface for spaces between words as needed. Take your time.
So what do you think?
Is that a list? A set of instructions? Is it vague? Is it helpful? Does it depend on the context?
We malign the lowly list – the checklist in particular – sometimes experiencing it as an unintentional shaming device when it comes to our obligations. We measure performance against expectation, and we come up short. I suffer from this tendency myself, too often a slave to my desire to document the day’s doings, convinced I’m more likely to accomplish the tasks at hand if they’re enumerated on a page.
It also feels good to check something off, doesn’t it? Ah, for that sweet moment of satisfaction in an overscheduled life!
But lists serve as more than a contemporary badge of busyness, or a set of reminders to guide us through our jobs, our parenting, our household duties.
Lists as Tools and Teasers
A light and enjoyable musing in the New York Times, “Our Longing for Lists,” describes the pleasures (and variations) of the list. Among other things, the article features an illustration of a list written by Johnny Cash to himself which, charmingly, included “Kiss June” (his wife) in the number two slot.
Also mentioned are notations used in the creative process, checklists vital to any gargantuan undertaking (hello, moon launch?), and an inclusion highlighting exclusions when it comes to lists:
Lists can reveal personal dramas. An exhibit of lists at the Morgan Library and Museum showed a passive-aggressive Picasso omitting his bosom buddy, Georges Braque, from a list of recommended artists.
Lists as reflective of our obsessions? Our moods? In addition to our lists of preparedness in case of emergency, our directions for completing applications, installing software, or assembling the latest filing cabinet to hold our store of lists?
What other lists do we need – and adore?
The bucket list is much in current usage, and takes its origins as a collection of “things to do before you die” – referenced in a 2007 movie of that name. But according to Slate:
In 2004, the term was used—perhaps for the first time?—in the context of things to do before one kicks the bucket (a phrase in use since at least 1785)…
And what about the list poem? That’s been around for some time, and as a writing exercise, it’s a wonderful vehicle for encouraging observation – of our immediate surroundings, our interior landscapes, our belief systems – transforming the tangible into the lyrical, or at least allowing us to view the everyday with a more discriminating eye.
Can You List Your Lists?
What other lists are commonplace? Here are a few that come to my mind immediately:
- Shopping lists
- Wish lists
- Book lists
- Agenda items
- New Years Resolutions
- Packing lists
- Planning lists
- Course lists
- Sightseeing spots on vacation
- Steps to learn a new skill
- Steps to reach a destination
Isn’t the “how” of almost anything easier to follow when laid out sequentially in a list, even if there are interdependencies? Don’t lists enable us to simplify, identifying discrete elements which require that we complete them before moving on to the next?
Are you wedded to your lists?
Listing Pros and Cons
Aren’t lists capable of encouraging creativity, as well as providing comfort in their structure?
As for the list, the list poem, the poetry of fulfilling the potential of a word, an instruction, a good deed, a good day, a small piece of dream – I plan to stop chiding myself over my list-making habits. And with that, I’ll mention the list of pros and cons – perhaps one of the most widely used means to assess a situation and make a decision – about a job, a relocation, a relationship, a vote.
Place paper in front of you on table. Pick up pen. Hold firmly. Touch point to paper surface. Move wrist and hand across the page horizontally while pressing downward. Form letters in print or cursive. Lift pen from paper surface for spaces between words as needed.
Think. Consider. Take your time.