• The Virtues of List-Making In a Dark Time

    by Julia Cho

    I still have a copy of the digital to-do list I had up on my computer the day my 33-year-old husband died suddenly almost ten years ago.

    The list included everyday things (“Take the car for an oil change; Return library books”), as well as summer plans (“Go raspberry picking in August”).

    That list was a stark contrast to the list I created immediately after his death (“Cancel car appointment,” “Pick out funeral outfits,” and “Visit burial plots”).

    Mostly, my expectations were lowered to a mental list that included “breath, shower, eat.” But we grieve who we are and I was a list-maker, so I kept making lists.

    Later, I took a giant sheet from the roll of my daughter’s easel paper, taped it up on the bedroom wall, and started to write out to-do lists for every area of my life to get through that first year.

    Now that I’m quarantined at home on the outskirts of New York City, the epicenter of the virus, I have returned to list-making as an anchor and a way to structure these timeless days.  

    I realized after the first couple of weeks that this may not be the time to organize all of my photos or to bake something Instagram-worthy. This certainly isn’t a sabbatical. Our collective consciousness is bearing a tremendous weight. I thought back to my mental to-do list after my husband died: “breath, shower, eat.” I lowered my expectations. My mental list now includes making beds, showering and getting dressed, making nutritious meals, moving/exercising, getting outdoor time, making contact with others, and doing some kind of prayer or meditation.

    As the weeks have gone on, I’ve found myself making more and more lists. I write them on scrap paper, envelopes, and post-its. My now eleven-year-old daughter and I make one called “A Guide to Wellness During the Coronavirus” and list the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual things we can do for ourselves each day.

    I make a list of all of the items in my refrigerator and pantry, and household items I might need. I make a list of people I know who work in healthcare so that I can remember to encourage them. I make a list of ways I can help—sew masks, write, and call to check on people. It makes me feel less helpless. 

    But in the moments when I am too overwhelmed to write complete sentences, I sit outside with my journal and write lists of a very different kind. These aren’t the bullet journals and productivity hacks we normally use to feel in control or productive.  They are not a means to nail things down, but a way to open things up. Lists don’t have to be rigid or demanding. They don’t have to be confining. They can offer space, room for evolving, and even grace. Things can be crossed off. New lists can be made. Old ones can be crumpled and thrown out, even if they’re unfinished. 

    I follow Mary McEntyre, the writer and author of “Make a List,” and use her cue and write creative open-ended lists in my journal. I pick titles like “Things I’m Afraid of,” or “Things I Can Let Go” or “What I need Right now.” McEntyre says that making a list is “a way of calling to our own attention those things that might have lingered at the margins of our awareness giving them a place as we reorder our priorities.”

    This is certainly a time of reordering priorities. “In the process of making a list, I generally find that I can, as a therapist used to advise, ‘go to the place in me that knows,'” she writes. On the long days and weeks of this pandemic, I go to that place.  

    Even the humblest of lists can bring us a sense of grounding and connection. After a move a couple of years after my husband died, I found another woman’s shopping list while trying to navigate my new, unfamiliar grocery store. On one side of the unused return envelope was a list of errands: “K-clothes, J-clothes, laundry, cleaners, library,” and on the other, her grocery list under the heading “Shabbat Dinner”: “eggs, turkey, onions, apple chips, 4-6 pound brisket…” I picked up the envelope and kept it. In a new town I somehow felt comforted and less alone. There is a website that actually collects these types of found grocery lists and has over 3000 of them, so I am not alone in that feeling. 

    More than seven years later, I still have that woman’s grocery list. I also still have that giant torn sheet of IKEA art roll paper. In many ways it represents my survival. Tacking up that to-do list on my bedroom wall was evidence that I was still alive, despite what I had lost.

    Never underestimate the power of a list. It is a way of moving forward even when things feel stalled. It’s an act of creating when creating feels hard.

    In this time of quarantine, my lists are offering me space outside of the walls of my home, a way of making sense of chaos, a self-imposed structure on structure-less days, and even a way of hope. I’ve heard it said that planning is a form of hope. In some small way, the lists offer me a chance to believe in a future in a world of uncertainty. Somewhere in my pile of mismatched papers is a list of all of the things we will do after this passes. 

    Julia Cho’s work has been published by The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, among many others.

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  • The Window: The Lockdown, My Mother, and Me


    by Emily Blake

    My mother and I had, for many years, an excruciating relationship. 

    My father was a loving, charming and brilliant man, and my mother seemed a repressive, ill-tempered presence in comparison. Her efforts to rein me in were the bane of my adolescence, and our hostility lingered after my father’s death, which devastated us both.

    I moved to France after he died. (He was a French historian, so it seemed like the proper tribute.)  Twelve years later, I received a message telling me that my mother was in the hospital, the ICU, in sepsis, with a tear in her intestine.  I got on the plane immediately, and when I arrived was afraid that the sight of me would push her over the edge.  It didn’t. She recovered and was transferred to a nursing home.

    Slowly, as she healed, she grew sweeter, and all the things I thought we’d lost returned.  She was as affectionate as she had been when I was little.  She began to tell me she loved me, and to permit me to say the same.  I couldn’t believe I had her back.

    In March of this year, when the crisis came crashing down, I suddenly realized that leaving the city to be near her might become impossible if I waited too long.  Perhaps air travel would be curtailed; perhaps it would be eliminated.  In a great rush, I put all my things in storage, packed two suitcases, and flew to the small city where she lives.

    Her nursing home is in lock-down.  No one is allowed in or out.  I quarantine myself — in a modified way, going out only for quick runs to the grocery store and long rides on an old bicycle through the lush park that is the centerpiece of her town, pulling up outside her room to greet her.  When occasionally aides offer to open the window between us, I frantically gesture for them to keep it closed, terrified that microbes will float in and kill not only my mother but ten or twenty other elderly, frail people inside.

    Her bed is flush with the window.  On one side it has a screen, with a faded, rusty smell, which slightly obscures the vision of my mother’s face.  The other side of the window is clear, except that it now bears smears where I have pressed my face against it.  Next to the window is a bird feeder on a narrow pole.  It is filled every week with the greasy birdseed the birds love, and is a joy of my mother’s life, as she can look out and see finches, sparrows, and sometimes a tufted titmouse, eating their fill and fluttering about when she wakes. 

    We are fortunate to have this window. Not all the beds have one, and past the bird feeder she can see a bicycle path with passing riders, trees, a few shops, and the sky.

    We have a daily ritual.  She calls me at ten.  “Good morning, darling!” I cry.  She replies, “Good morning, darling!”

    This by itself is such a change from our angry exchanges of years ago that it lifts my heart at once.  

    We then confirm my afternoon visit.  I cannot take anything in or out of the facility —though I did put together a small Easter basket with a blue bunny, sprayed it lavishly with disinfectant, and handed it to an aide with gloves, who took it in — but I can stand at the closed window and gesture to my heart’s content.  I take my phone. My mother gets out hers.  We call each other.  I jump up and down in delight, and she laughs.  Then, when she can hear —she is quite deaf but can make out singing — we have the song of the day.

    My mother’s repertoire of poetry and music is immense.  I never cease to be amazed at how she can remember every line of Irish, English and Scottish folk songs, Elizabethan love songs, and salty sailors’ shanties.  A particular favorite is The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, most of which I know.  If I have the tune, I will hum along or do harmony.  Sometimes I pretend to know the words, and imitate them. Sometimes I just give up, and wave.

    Through the window my mother makes small gestures as she sings.  She waves her hands, mostly her fingers as her joints are stiff, and makes small conducting movements, as with a baton.  The song may go for quite some time, if she knows ten verses.  She will keep on, even if I say perhaps that’s enough.  (I don’t often say this.)  I will, sometimes, suggest a merrier tune, as the long Celtic folksongs tend to be sorrowful, and I like to end on an upbeat.  

    A song she loves is one I brought home from school in the first grade.  She was charmed by it and has remembered it ever since:

    Horsey, horsey, on your way,

    We’ve been together for many a day:

    So let your tail go swish, the wheels go round,

    Giddy-up!  Giddy-up!  We’re homeward bound!

    We have been together for many a day, my mother and I.  She is 95 years old.  This division of the window, this closing of the nursing home, this shutting-down of daily life, has brought us closer still. 

    Through the window I see, not the repressive parent of my adolescence, not the antagonist of my adored father, but the enchanting, intelligent, childlike person I first knew when I came into the world, the person who rocked me in a great old wooden rocking chair in Maine and sang me the very songs we are singing now, in the same alto voice.  This closed window has sealed the rifts between us.  This shutting down has opened everything up.  

    And if indeed my mother is homeward bound, it’s in this way I’d like to end the journey.

    Emily Blake is an actress and writer who has lived between Paris and New York for the past twenty years. Her theatre studio, Théâtre de la Solitude, is devoted to the development of new work, especially by women. She teaches writing and literature at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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