An open letter …
On ticking off life’s tasks
Wedged on my kitchen bench between the mortar and pestle and the Sodastream is a passel of papers. An automatic payment form for Oxfam. Usernames and passwords for homework extension sites. Some diagrams of daily neck stretches. Largely untended to, it is an archive of my very best intentions. Among it all lays a single sheet. Tatty and tea-ringed, to no one else would its worth be apparent. And yet in a fire, I would save it over passports and above jewels. My running to-do list; on it I have noted every task I must achieve, from repotting a parlour palm to updating our wills. Some are the definition of mundane (replace fly repellent), while others are less tangible (make meditation part of morning routine). Every few months, with a shortlived elation, I cross off one or two items, then add three or four more. When more items are crossed out than demand attention, I begin another. It is the existence of the list that matters more than the piece of paper itself. And without its ordering presence I fear I should be quite rudderless.
Friends and family have long poked gentle fun at my need to itemise and tabulate, to record and inventory. I have let them laugh because I knew when something required organising, I was their woman. I fancied that somehow my list-making proclivities gave me above average skills at managing life. Then a few weeks ago, counting down the days in my cycle on a calendar, I realised August is almost upon us, and, with a flash of disquietude, that I had still to file our 2016 tax returns. Sighing, I went to add it to my list, and as I skimmed past the other bullet points (clean oven, file recipes) I saw DO TAX. This was not a new addition, just a leftover from last year, but I felt a quite unexpected wretchedness wash over me. Not because I had neglected to do our 2015 return. I was confident I had, in fact the refund was long spent. No, it was more a sense of the futility of my to-do list in the face of life’s relentlessness that gave me pause. A sudden awareness of the great paradox, that while I prize my list, my aim is in fact to be done with it, for in my fantasy world theere is nothingh leftl f f for me to do.d
After a friend atten nded a funeral recently, I asked her ho ow it had gone. “Oh, I don’t know,” sh he said. “It just all seemed so boxed-u p. You live your life with its many small woes and joys and then it’s over.o If you’re lucky a few people sayy some kind words about you, havee a bit of a cry, and that’s it.” Whe en I went to a funeral last weeke end her words came back to me.m We were farewelling a man who’d had several wives, done time in jail and battled alcoholism. Those who spoke were breathtakingly honest, and there was so much love and pain in that room it was almost too much to bear. He’d lived such a messy life; I don’t imagine he was one for lists. And even if he was, when the end came, probably very little was ticked off. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s how it’s meant to be.
Linda, 62, has just finished bikingb from the Swiss Alps to Avignon, and enjoys surpprising younger people with her exploits. Howeveer, she said, she also recognised herself in last week’s column on old age. “When we go out to dinner withh our very modern uckland family, I often notice mym daughter cringing fter seemingly inappropriate commentsc from her mother. Food is especially connfusing, and I remind my husband not to comment when the main ourse is served. ‘God, I orderedo a meal, not flower arrangement,’’ he has been known utter.” Like me, Alison is not a fan of social media, preferringp to share photos and informationi privately with friendds and family. “No needd for the world to know, is thhere?” Given the often confesssional nature of this page thouugh, I wondered if Alison’s emaail was more ubtle rebuke than warm commenddation.
It is the existe ence of the list that t matters more than the piece of pa aper itself. Without t its ordering prese ence I fear I should d be quite rudderle ess.