Life Is Not a To-Do List


I adore the concept of bucket lists.

I love reading “life lists” my friends have posted online.

In theory, I think the idea of keeping a running tally of things you want to do before you die is fantastic.

In reality, I have to consciously, forcefully prevent myself from making a life list of my own.

I use lists every day to organize work and personal projects both big and small. I manage my days, weeks, and months with a series of interlinked and automatically updating lists and calendars. My appreciation for lists teeters on the edge of obsession, and it is all too easy for me to lose myself in the accomplishment of an experience rather than the experiencing of it.

I’m especially susceptible to list overload when I travel.

I have to see this, and eat that, and do all of those very necessary things before I can check off a place as having truly been visited. In order to meet all my self-imposed requirements, I deny myself rest, ignore my body’s signs to slow down, and inevitably end my “getaways” feeling fevered and fatigued.

Aside from the vacation hangover, the real problem with force-feeding myself an ambitious itinerary is that I miss the really good stuff. I miss the sounds and smells, the subtle feel of a place and its people. I miss the point, in other words, if I’m not careful.

I run the same risk with the rest of my life. With Life, capital L.

I want to do it all.

I want to tour the country and live in Manhattan. I want to ride a bicycle through rice patties in Cambodia. I want to write a book and make a photo journal with my children. I want to learn to meditate and take a vow of silence and become an expert yogi. I want to speak French in Paris and Spanish in Madrid and teach my kids how to set the table for a holiday meal.

Just typing the beginnings of that list makes my pulse pump harder in my wrists and throat.

There is so much to be experienced in life! God, it’s exhilarating when you think about it. But for me, it can also be a recipe for half-ass enjoyment and morning-after regret. I look at the possibilities of life like a middle class American faces an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet – with gusto and determination to get more than my money’s worth. Of course, that just leads to a meal where the tastes all blend together anyway, and the belly bloat lasts longer than the appreciation of any one bite.

I hate belly bloat.

And I don’t want a long list of beige memories that run together.

Last week, as I walked the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, I had to keep pulling at my own reigns. You’ll be back, I tried to remember. You can’t see it all, but you can see the hell out of this.

I missed the Katrina tour and I only saw the Garden District from the window of a streetcar. I still have no idea what a levee looks like.

But I can tell you what the French Quarter smells like, and how that smell changes as you move back and forth across Bourbon street. I know what the Quarter sounds like and where both God and Voodoo dance to its music. I’ve tasted a charbroiled oyster and made friends with a woman from New England who insists you try the oyster shooters.

And I’ve learned that you can’t get to know a 300 year old city in one week anymore than you can master a craft in a weekend.

Or conquer a planet in a lifetime.

As our big RV trip draws closer (only 5 weeks now!), I feel like I need to pound this lesson into my cells as deeply as possible.

I cannot do it all.

There are corners of this country – of this world – that I will not see. There are facts I will not learn and memories I will die without.

But by God, the ones I do have will not be beige and blurred. I will see, smell and hear with depth. I will give subtlety time to make my acquaintance.

And I will not be afraid to die with an unfinished list.


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