Sunday, January 11, 2015

January Column


The lists in life, even the impossible ones, all have a purpose

I’m guessing I was 5 years old when I made my first list of gifts I wanted for Christmas, and for years the first four items were always the same:
1. Big doll
2. Little doll
3. Walking doll
4. Talking doll
I had a homemade doll named Susan and a plastic baby with molded hair named Susie Jane, and I loved them both. But a doll that walked and talked, like the ones in the catalog or the one my sister’s lucky friend brought to show and tell — how wildly wonderful that would be, how it would lift you beyond the plane of normal, mortal life, and how impossible it was.
We were so poor that we hardly got any gifts at all for birthdays and Christmas. Mom always wrapped an orange and a few pieces of homemade fudge in Velveeta cheese boxes to make it seem like we were getting more. The Christmas I was 6, I believe my one other gift was a dot-to-dot book that I had finished before the day was over.
Part of me knew very well that a walking, talking doll was, if not a complete impossibility, then about as attainable as a TV set in our Amish home.
But a girl could dream for free, and writing it on paper, in a numbered list, somehow gave it the power of possibility that it just might overcome all the odds.
I still make lists.
Since 2014 was a complicated year, and simplicity is always a good idea, I thought I would distill my goals for 2015 into a list of simple verbs.
I figured that, oh, maybe five words would summarize my aspirations in all the major areas of life such as work, ministry, travel and hobbies.
I started in: Host. Bless. Visit. Call. Mentor. Counsel. Clean. Organize. Downsize. Decorate.
Create. Sew. Knit. Stamp. Plant. Grow. Walk. Publish. Manage. Edit. Post. Speak. Study. Teach.
That wasn’t nearly all of them, which shows the danger of a scattered but obsessive person planning ahead and making a comprehensive list.
My list became a project of its own, swallowing whole chunks of my Christmas vacation. I was so paralyzed by fear that I might forget one subcategory that I spent hours perfecting the list, finding the right printable paper on Pinterest, with perfect borders and lines, and then writing every possible particular on the numbered lines, because if I forgot something, the year would wallow in chaos, out of control — kind of like it often does on its own, list or no list.
FlyLady, the online organizer, addresses this very thing on her insightful website.
“Just find a scrap piece of paper already,” she says, “and make a list. Don’t take time to find the perfect pen. Don’t make the perfect list.”
“Just write down the reasonable basics,” she says.
“It’s OK if you forget something. Progress not perfection.”
She implies that it is actually possible to do this without obsessing. I can follow FlyLady’s directives to set out my clothes for the next morning and to shine my sink, but I must have my perfect lists.
Just maybe, if I have all those pretty, detailed lists to go by, I will actually get it all done.
This is the lure of the list: Surely in this orderly line of carefully chosen words lies the magic that will turn our unpredictable lives into tidy and manageable entities as well. Surely the discipline of planning, so difficult for us of the spidering, creative thought patterns, will make us ready for each new morning and any crises that lie ahead.
“Please, could it be that way?” I think. If I add a subcategory of teeth-cleaning appointments, maybe?
We celebrate the new year at midnight on Dec. 31, but we all know the year really begins the day everyone goes back to school and work.
College students, husband, warehouse guy and teenager, up and down stairs, in and out of the kitchen.
Coffee poured, lunches packed, out the front door, out the back, and with a final crunch of tires on gravel they were all gone.
All right. Time to officially begin to reach my lofty goals.
I made more tea, clicked on a Pinterest link about pruning roses, and posted a status update on Facebook.
“It’s Monday,” I told myself. “Gotta take on the week slowly, you know.”
My 15-year-old daughter, Jenny, called from school. She ached all over and felt like throwing up. Could I possibly come and take her home?
Oh great.
I tried to call the son at OSU, hoping he could pick her up after class. He didn’t answer.
The only vehicle available was our huge old van, but at least I had that.
The gas gauge was awfully low, but I was sure I could get gas after I picked up Jenny.
A mile from school, the van ran out of gas.
By the time the sick daughter was resting on the couch, temperature taken and cup of tea beside her, the morning and the year’s ambitious beginnings were long gone.
So was it a waste of time, all that organizing of ideas and laying them down in words?
I don’t think so. I still think a list sets invisible stories in motion.
We opened most of our gifts this year on Dec. 26, after our oldest son arrived from Washington, D.C.
“But you have to open this one Christmas Day,” Jenny insisted, tapping a large square box in red polka-dotted paper. The tag read, “To Dorcas, from Fred.”
Fred is my brother. He lives in Oklahoma.
“It’s something Uncle Fred left here this summer and told me to give to you for Christmas,” Jenny said, all mature, the Keeper of the Gift.
I opened it carefully and lifted aside the white tissue paper.
There was a doll, blond and smiling and strangely heavy. “Press her stomach,” Jenny instructed.
“Hi! I’m Amy,” said a cheerful voice, and the pink-shod feet moved methodically.
After 47 years, a walking, talking doll, from a big brother who remembers the strangest details, such as that completely impossible list I made every Christmas.
We set the doll down and she lumbered slowly across the floor.
Our nefarious daughter Emily, who didn’t respect the gravity of the moment, grabbed a banana peel and, snickering, dropped it in front of the robotically stepping doll, who turned aside just enough to bypass the peel and keep going.
What a smart doll. “Hold my hands, Mommy!” she chirped, and little 5-year-old me looked on and laughed in wonder and disbelief.
“A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul,” says the Bible’s book of Proverbs, and I know it to be true.
No wonder I believe in the power of a list written down, in planning for the seemingly impossible, and in tangled paths coming to a meaningful end when the time is right.


  1. Donna Pearson1/11/2015 10:56 PM

    If I were an accomplished author like you, I might be able to think of a more appropriate adjective, but this will have to do: Wonderful story! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Your ability to tie everything together always amazes me. Master Tie-Gatherer, that's what you are.

  3. As an I inveteraterate list maker and also a scrappy bit list person.... I loved this column.... I almost held my breath when Dolly neared the banana peel... You paint a great picture, thanks!