You. List.

You can find out some astonishing things about yourself if you’re just willing to write the first thing that pops in your head.

I have spiral bound notebook after spiral bound notebook devoted to this task. The hard part is being honest. I always have plenty to say, but there is so very often much of the time I want to gloss over things, want to not say what I’m really thinking, or am suddenly caught in the paralyzing fear of: “What Happens If Someone Reads This? OMG.”

Recently, for whatever reason, I have been stumbling over a bunch of “Simplify Your Life! Live Meaningfully!” blog posts. They always leave me feeling annoyed. I think it’s because they give off a “3 simple trick to lose-tummy fat!” vibe. “We sat down, drew up our list of priorities, and our life got so, so much better!! 🙂 🙂  ❤ ❤ ❤ !!!”

Am I being mean? Sorry. I’m not trying to be mean. It’s just that I have a really hard time believing you can just draw up a list and re-haul your life.

We had wave after wave of sickness come through the house, and although I was graciously spared the worst of it, my body has clearly been working overtime to fend it off–levels of exhaustion that are no where near commensurate to the amount of effort expended. I was finally reduced to the point where I was overwhelmed by everything–everything. And what did I do?

I drew up a list.

When I get that panicky feeling of drowning under way too many things, I’ve found that some of it is psychological. I am intimidated by that which is not quantified. A few detailed to-do lists later, I feel like I have a better grasp on reality, and after I see a whole slew of things crossed off, I begin to think there may be hope. Once the emotional pressure passes, I find I go on my merry list-less way.

I was struggling with the to-do’s, yes. But also struggling with the idea of pretty much starting my life over again in 3 months–a life which I know will tempt me to burn out, and phenomenon I have gotten to know very well over the past 4 years, and guess what? I’m tired of it. There has got to be a better way, and yet I feel powerless to change things.

So, yes.

A list.

Without even consciously meaning to, I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing down things that, in the state of drowning, seemed very important to me. This clarification is very important, because when one feels to be in a very good place, one becomes less and less serious and more and more philosophical. The list that I would write when I felt like I was on  top of the world is drastically different from the list I would write in crucible. The high-and-mighty list would have a lot more to do with theory, and things that I intellectually believe to be good and important things. The down-and-out list is raw and visceral–those things I know at a gut level that I may not always be aware of but are always influencing who I am.

You can see why the down-and-out list is much more useful than the high-and-mighty list. If I were to make a high-and-mighty list (okay, I have–multiple times; hence my annoyance with “make a list and fix your life posts”), it would be unattainable. It would be all good-intentions-paving-paths-to-places-you-don’t-really-want-to-go. Also importantly, it would not really tell me anything about myself, which is what the whole exercise is supposed to be about. It would be, as my self-writings are often tempted into being, and explanation of who I think I should want to be. Very pious and completely useless. (I meant that to refer to the list, but it occurs to me it could probably apply to the person I think I’m supposed to be, too.)

Do you know what surprised me the most? The thing that my pencil blurted out first, before any other thing.


I was so shocked, I nearly wanted to erase it and start again. Cleaning is so totally not the most important thing.

Right then and there, I wanted to start re-arranging my list, changing the presentation of myself on paper instead of reflecting who I really was. In all reality, that one item has helped me more than any of the other things I wrote down (so if you do feel like playing along, you might only have to write down one thing!).

I grew up with more brothers than you can guess, and I have watched too many struggling young moms apologizing for their houses. I have seen people fall so victim to the urge to clean that they can’t even enjoy life. And so many things are more important than cleaning! I take as my stance that “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life.” I protest my list. I protest it mightily.

But here’s the thing: it’s my list. Mine. I want to clean. Me. And what has me been doing? Shoving it aside because it “doesn’t really matter” and “other things are more important” and making myself miserable.

I don’t want to clean because it’s the only socially responsible thing to do. I don’t want to clean because I “ought” to. I don’t want to clean because I think I’m morally obliged to or because I’m afraid of what other people will think. I want to clean because I like to have things cleaned, the way I like to bring in flowers in jars, the way I like to have plans of action, the way I like to have things right at my fingertips. I want to clean, because I find sweeping floors and washing dishes to be calming and peaceful and almost meditative. Your hands are busy and mind is free to go, and afterwards everything is better.

So, yeah. I bumped “cleaning” up several notches of importance on my to-do lists, and I have been feeling happier ever since (2 days. Don’t go crazy). That’s not the point. The point is, it’s my list.

Too often my lists are full of things I think I should do, things I feel obliged to do, things I think are “good ideas”, ideology I cling to even though it has little relevance to who I am, things that I have accepted I should value even though I really don’t. Too often, the to-do lists I’m following aren’t mine.

I thought about this more while I swept the floor this morning. My modus operandi has been to first cram in the dutiful responsibilities–work, school and the like–and then if there is anything leftover, I might have a chance to be me with that. But I’m thinking that what I’m supposed to do is be me first, and whatever is leftover from that I can expend on work and school.

No, this is not a bid for wanton living. It is a bid for realizing that this is my life, and taking responsibility for that fact. If life is living me, I’m not owning up to the one obligation I really have: to be me. Everything I do should be subservient to the truth of who I am, not assuming expectations of others or even just mindlessly accepting burdens.

If I stop and think about the people I’ve admired, they weren’t the dutiful ones. They were the crazy, fearless ones. The ones who didn’t exactly live to break the rules. . .more like lived however they wanted because they weren’t aware there were rules. The ones who didn’t seem bound by the “I should’s” and instead lived the “I am’s”. The ones who weren’t worried about having life “just-so” because they always knew they were just about ready to embark on a new adventure anyway. (Admit it–“If you were going to move to China tomorrow, what would I take with me?” is the best piece of de-cluttering advice you’ve seen all week!)

Life should be an adventure. . .but all too often I get hung up on how to do it right. Is there a “right” way to have an adventure? Apparently, in the world according to me, yes. But I think I’m confused on the meaning of life. No, silly-billy. I might not have the adventure I thought I set out to have, but I can’t not have an adventure. What I have to do is dare to value myself more than the things imposed on me.

My resolution heading into graduate school may very well be to only get a 3.5 GPA. I’ve done the 4.0 out of stubborn insistence for far longer than I should have, and you know what? It isn’t really worth it. I just felt like that if I had to do school, I ought to do a good job at it. Now I’m looking a little wider, and if I have to be me, I’d better do a good job at it. And if that means not doing homework because I’m making tin-can lanterns, maybe that is actually the more valuable choice. Because you know what? I’ve wanted to make tin-can lanterns for a long, long time.

What do you want to do?

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