The Flip Side of Usual

Quote and still photo – Schindler’s List

I don’t want to be overly dramatic. Likening what is essentially just an unusual crappy day for me to the substance of Schindler’s List is ridiculous and pretty dreadful. But it’s not the subject of the movie that I’m thinking about today. That line, “The list is life,” just stayed with me over the years. As a chronic list maker, literally addicted to churning out lists by the dozen, I was wrangling with the “why” of them this morning. Instead of waking with my usual even keel, I was in a wretched mood. A welcome gray day, with the promise of rain in our droughty summer, felt like a good thing, even though I’m not sure a bunch of my plants which never showed up, or those which have bloomed as if the effort has been more than they can handle, seem lost for this year. Have we arrived in the new climate world which will worsen from this point going forward? Seems that way. Last year I was living in monarch heaven. They were making a comeback.

This year, only one of my fifteen milkweed plants blossomed, while the others look anemic. My tithonia, a beautiful and popular orange sunflower, popular with monarchs has two blossoms on it. I saw a couple of them a week ago, flying over my yard. Today one finally landed, so high up on an upright yew, I could barely see it.

My young little dog becomes a quivering, panting mess at the sound of thunder, requiring constant contact to feel safe. But the welcome rain means no swimming which I depend on heavily for some endorphin relief. I’m just angry about too much stuff. Ordinarily, I’m able to be okay, coping as a single in a couples’ world. But on a day like today, especially when thinking of the long-term marriages I know well that I think are simply matters of convenience, I just want to scream about how unfair life can be, that my life partnership was better in every way, more loyal, trusting, loving and sexy. Not very nice, but who cares? I want to be with Michael for some comfort, contact, love and relief. Tough luck for me. So on this unusual grumpy, selfish day, I started thinking about all my lists, the ones I’ve made and the ones I want to make, like which songs I want played at my death, and which of my favorite women singers had the most bell-like voices, and which were my number one songs from my favorite groups, and which were the best concerts I’ve ever seen, and on and on and on. In the midst of my spinning, grouchy mind, all I could think of was these stupid lists and who cares about any of this anyway? Then I remembered that I’d addressed my list obsession some time back, before the pandemic. Suddenly it occurred to me that, increasingly, over time, my lists represented the fact that I was truly living, beyond all the rotten world issues surrounding me, beyond Michael’s death, like a validation between me and me. I remembered that line from Schindler’s List. The lists are life. So I dug up that meditation from three years ago, which kind of tamped down today’s lousy mood. Trying to get back to the usual, to the more even place from which I try to operate daily, I re-read that meditation. Here it is, from September 19th, 2019. (Before Covid)

List of friends from my 1963 diary

I started making lists when I was about twelve. I know this because I have them. Mostly the lists were about people. People I liked, people I had crushes on, people I hated. The lists changed frequently, sometimes almost daily. Often there were ties for first, second and even third place. When my friend Fern and I spent hours on the phone at night, reading each other our diary entries, we’d sometimes make lists together. We had enemies lists which often included politicians we heard our parents discussing. I’m trying to remember what we had against Ben Adamowski but that’s slipped away.

I get it now – I was always less than thrilled with Chicago prosecutors

We had favorite athletes lists and music lists, teachers lists and of course, lists of our peers and family members. We changed popular song lyrics to reflect our current passions and we had so much fun singing them, especially the ones that were Beatles songs. I still find myself substituting our adjusted lyrics when a tune pops up in one of my playlists. You’d never have known that either one of us had a care in the world. But of course we did. My lists got more complicated as time passed. There were the standard lists that were more like timetables, when work needed to be done, birthdays and events needed to be remembered, the stuff of calendars. But I had lots of other lists too. In my attempt to keep my priorities straight, I managed to write lists for a wide variety of topics. I had self-improvement lists, lists of books to read and movies to see, lists of subjects to become knowledgeable about, lists of places to see and goals to accomplish.

You don’t want to make my “permanent list.”

I have a list I call “the permanent list.” That’s the one that has unforgivable words or actions that I’ll never forget or forgive until either my brain or breath goes. Not a desirable place for the perpetrators. Right now I have a list of nicknames Michael called me. I also have a list of his terrible jokes and funny quotes that are part of our family’s vernacular. I have lists of birds and butterflies that have visited my garden. I have lists that are so obtuse I can’t recall what the various words are doing on the same page. The habit of list-making is a part of me which I suspect will go on until I don’t. After years of waking up and thinking of the day ahead, asking myself what I should think about first, I figure this was a pretty rational response to the flood of thoughts that’s my typical response to opening my eyes. I suspect that some of my dreams are my subconscious attempts to keep sorting through the ever burgeoning thoughts stacked in my head. My sister says she doesn’t think I really sleep at all, rather that I’m thinking with my eyes closed. Some people hoard stuff. I hoard words, ideas and feelings. I’m aware that the sorting by list is ineffectual at times. For now, it’s become clear to me that I can’t anticipate how long it may take, if ever, to always remember that Michael is dead. I mean, I know that he is. But when ambling through my days, there are countless times when I expect him to walk through the door. If I feel like ignoring a text, I always think, wait, it might be Michael. I’ve called my son his name periodically. Today I was in a bookstore and saw a thick shiny book on the history of GTO’s and walked straight over to it, thinking I’d buy it for him and how much he’d love it.

These moments are fleeting but real. If I don’t like my dreams when he and I are arguing, it sours my day. When I have a good dream about him, I wake up and acknowledge the feeling before going back to sleep. And I’m still writing the letters that represent our constant dialogue over so many years. I can’t list myself out of these deeply ingrained habits that had to do with our life together. Although not quite a complete germophobe, I don’t expect that I’ll ever be without a small container of hand sanitizer in my purse.

When he was immunocompromised, I was determined not to let him get sick. I sprayed surfaces with Lysol and suspiciously counted the number of times people near us touched their mouths and noses, and then put their hands on common surfaces. Whatever I could control I did control. Endless hand washing and hyper-awareness. Good luck getting rid of that. I know it’s a peculiar preoccupation to watch people spreading their contagion around but it’s just normal to me now. I forgive myself. I try not to be angry about all that he’s missed and that we’ll miss together. That’s a terrible place to be. I only allow myself those thoughts for short moments. I think my quality of life would truly be pathetic if I got stuck in those mean, jealous places. The list habit comes in handy during those times. I can think of about a zillion things that should supersede that negativity. Right now, I’m in the midst of other people’s hardships. I’m knowing more and more sick people and I have one very dear friend who’s in hospice awaiting her death. That’s at the top of all my lists now, along with the knowledge that as I’m aging, I’ll face more and more of those sad times. My dad always used to say that if you’re lucky enough to survive to age 70, sometimes you can just cruise along for awhile. He never got there. Neither did Michael or my favorite brother-in-law. All lost at age 67. I’m past that age now. I wonder when my turn will come to face my own demise. I don’t know if I’d think about it as much as I do except for how many early deaths I experienced. Nah, I probably would. I always expected to just keel over one day like a tree felled in a wood. I certainly didn’t expect to be around longer than Michael, who came from a family where everyone routinely lived into their 90’s. I think we’ve all been led to believe that’s possible for the majority of people but I don’t think that’s right. For every octogenarian, there are dozens of people who’ve already checked out.

Photo – Getty images

I’m in the middle of three history classes this semester which are jamming huge swaths of time into 8 weekly hour and a half sessions. I come out of those classes dizzied by the compression of geologic time and long-gone civilizations that can be glanced over and set aside before tackling thousands more years. You realize how teeny you really are when looking at the world in these abbreviated segments. It’s fascinating stuff, but absent a time machine, wrapping your mind around the brevity of our lives on a comparative scale is pretty daunting. And kind of comforting at the same time. It’s only Wednesday and this week, I’ve considered the pre-Scottish elders and the Bog people alongside the Greeks and the Babylonians. We’ve looked at art and religious rituals, at least insofar as archaeologists have theorized about them and shared with us. I’ve been in ice ages and ridden tectonic plates and recognized that the Scottish oceanside rocks are basically the same as Maine’s because they used to be connected. All quite dazzling ideas that stimulate me to make more lists of things to explore, knowing full well there isn’t enough time for me in this universe to get through even a twentieth of what I’m writing down. But the habit is there and so I do it.

I-stock photo

Lately, because a cell phone makes it so easy to photograph anything, I’ve begun supplementing my lists with pictures to illustrate them. I have a photo of every place I’ve ever lived in but one, that one missing only because it was demolished a long time ago. I have my butterfly and bird photos to go with their documentation as yard visitors. I keep having my storage on my phone fill up because I’m recording everything. Maybe there’s a gene for this need to list and illustrate. It’s so much a part of me that I’m lucky to have plenty of my own long-ago writing, along with pictures of me in so many moments with Michael and my family, including really intimate ones. Ah, the days of the self-developing Polaroids. I was compelled to record. I think my daughter is like me. A record keeper. Maybe it’s a coping skill, a way to not be overwhelmed by the complexity of our lives. We certainly have more than our share of angst right now and I think lots of people feel the stress. So I’ll keep trying to organize everything and try not to forget what’s important. I guess I could have worse habits. Carrying a little bottle of Purell isn’t that bad.

Post-script – Written months before the pandemic, I had no idea at the time that all my efforts to keep Michael alive would be so well-suited to contending with the past few years. Life is full of unexpected twists. And as my mood shifted back to my less heinous state, wouldn’t you know that I caught a shot of a monarch in my garden, at last.

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