I’m the sort of person who makes lists.
I make lists of things to do. I make lists of things I’ve done. I make lists of books I want to read, clothes I want to buy, tasks I want to complete. I find that lists help me clarify my thinking, focus on my goals. And of course it’s always satisfying to cross items off once you’ve found, achieved, or completed them.
Several years ago, I started making lists of things I wanted in my life — not just what I wanted to read or buy or do, that week or the next, but ultimate goals. The lists contained anywhere from eight to twelve items. I would describe them elaborately, I suppose from the notion that if I could articulate what I wanted, I could have it . . . naming it would function as a kind of magic, a summoning. And it did in some ways — at least it helped me clarify in my own mind what it was I actually wanted (rather than what people told me I should want), and focus on getting those things in my life. I still have one of those lists pinned to my cork board, where I can look at it every day and see whether I’ve worked on the items listed. Today I’ve worked on six of the items — unintentionally, since it’s been such a busy day that I haven’t thought of anything but the immediate tasks at hand. Still, it’s a good way to check oneself . . .
But recently, I sat down to look at those lists again, potentially revise them, and it occurred to me that what I wanted in life could be described very simply, in three words: love, home, work. And that I was doing very well at one of those, somewhat well at another, and at yet another, not well at all.
The one I was succeeding at was work. This goal was about doing the work I love, and I’ve succeeded at that: I’m teaching writing, and of course I’m also writing. The last few years have been difficult, but they’ve been difficult because I’ve done so much. I will soon have had three novels published in three years, and there are all sorts of other projects in the offing. Work can be hard, work can be frustrating, but I’m very lucky to be doing what I do. It’s also the category that I have the most control over — I design my courses and seminars, I decide which books to write. It’s where I have the most freedom.
The one I was doing somewhat well at was home. Recently, I was told the building in which I live would be renovated, and I would need to find a new apartment. I looked around me and realized that despite living here three years, I had never finished furnishing this apartment. There are still paintings stacked against a wall, still furniture that needs to be reupholstered. It’s a charming apartment, but it has never felt like home. I spent two weeks looking for a new one, stressed and worried about trying to find a place to live in one of the most difficult rental markets in the country. Finally, I found a place — the first floor of a house in an old neighborhood with tree-lined streets, where, when I walked down the street, all I heard was birdsong. I was anxious about the expense — it was, of course, right at the top of my price range, the very most I felt I could afford. But it’s large and sunny, with high ceilings, tall windows, and old plank floors that are probably original to the house. It has an office for me, and a porch on which I can grow flowers. It’s not, I’m sure, where I will ultimately end up, but for now at least, it will be a perfect home. And I intend to make it that — this time, I will hang all the pictures on the walls.
Love was the one at which I was failing. I use the word “love” both broadly and specifically, including the wide network of family and friends, all the people one loves, all the significant others as well as any particular ones. In doing all the work, I realized, I had not left enough time for people. There is always this tension in the lives of what we call “creatives” — art takes so much time and effort, and often there is no time to socialize, to form bonds, even to talk on the phone. Last month, when I was finishing up my third novel, everything else fell by the wayside as I tried to meet a deadline. My cat, whom I had rescued from the streets of Boston as a kitten, died. I took time to be with her during her illness, but afterward, I did not have time to grieve. I realized then that there was something missing from my life, and that I would need to recalibrate, to find my bearings again.
So I guess I learned three things. The first was that what I want is really much simpler than I thought, that it doesn’t take elaborate lists. The second is that the things I want are variably under my control. I can seek out and create work, I can find and make a home, but I can really only make space and time for love. Human relationships, and other human beings, are still the greatest mysteries of all. The third is that I need balance — that I need love and home as well as work.
You can consider that my new to-do list.
(This is the park near my new apartment, where I will move in the fall. And that was one of the days when I was realizing all this, when it was running through my head, changing my thinking about what I had prioritized, about how I allocated my time.)