Ten years ago, I composed a list of things I want to do before I die. I typed up and filed the page at the back of a white binder containing over two dozen lists I depend on to classify and decipher my life, touchstones I consult during reflective and watershed moments. When a love collapsed in my late 30s and I realized I might not raise a child, the “Before Dying” list guided me back to alternative paths to nurture the world. I found an entry that said “Publish a book for children facing depression.” A few years later, after reading Che Guevera’s account of motorcycling through the Andes and realizing I had shrunken my life into routine provinciality yet again, I returned to that back page to revisualize those essential places on earth I felt calling me before the journey ends: 1. Dharamsala, to absorb the patience of exiled Tibetans, 2. South Africa, to run Indian and Atlantic beaches at the boundary of a democratic miracle, 3. New Zealand, to fall deep inside the color green.
As life seasons imagination, I permit myself to amend the list. Recently, I deleted having sex on a majority of the world’s inhabited continents, and added swimming with dolphins. Space remains to be filled in after the more recent entries: design a solar cottage in the woods, club hop in Dakar, raise a Boston Terrier, train to save a stranger’s life.
My wish in naming this essential collection of desired quests is to design a precise cartography of fulfillment. Catalogs and maps serve me so well walking the mundane steps of everyday life, so why not also on a more lofty scale? When driving to the supermarket, before throwing a dinner party, I carry a shopping list. Planning for the full arc of my future, I want a comparable sticky note. It would sting my soul, arriving on the other side only to realize I’d forgotten a key ingredient.
“Before Dying” is but one panel of a greater patchwork of titled lists I use to quantify the accomplished, celebrate the cherished, interpret patterns lived, envisage the future, and preserve echoes of experience. Among many others are:
1. “Most Precious Objects”
2. “Possible First Dance Wedding Songs”
3. “Elements of My Dream House”
4. “Quarter Mile Tracks I Have Run”
5. “Dog Incidents”
6. “Unfinished Relationships”
7. “Recurring Dreams”
8. “Body Scars”
9. “Healing Rituals.”
Stitching these lists together convinces me I can capture the full fabric of my life, a testament of my essence. I want to believe that joy can be enumerated, grief segmented, and love classified. I want a life that is lyrical, and also measurable.
This practice might run counter to certain ancient spiritual teachings and modern self-help texts that claim serenity derives from releasing into life’s uncapturable flow. Close reading of the Tao te Ching and The Road Less Traveled likely reveal that cataloguing all my insights, dreams, dreads, and definitive moments will not package a satisfying appraisal of existence. In fact by claiming to enumerate life’s inexpressible richness I may end up losing touch with the abundance.
My ex-girlfriend Vanessa argued the point more tersely when we were still together.
“You’re turning our relationship into a psychology project.” She had found me at the computer adding to “Favorite Dates” the day after our return from a weekend in Sonoma we’d spent bicycling and sampling local olive oils and jams.
“But that was such a cool idea,” I said. “I just want to honor it.”
“I can think of better ways,” she replied. “And tell me, since I notice you have this one listed as number 14, do you keep those dates ranked?”
Vanessa drove off in the Volvo to some unannounced destination, leaving me to brood in the bedroom. I was repentant at this point, so I returned to the computer, and altered “Favorite Dates” to “Favorite Dates With Vanessa,” removing all the other entries with previous partners and archiving them in a separate list. Then I looked toward our future and pulled up “Potential Dates.” When experiences from this list work out well, I transfer the entries over to “Favorite Dates.” Intuition told me Vanessa might not want to know that.
Vanessa and some of the world’s wise spiritual teachers just don’t understand how I honor life. Why can’t a spiritual practice blend reverence and economics, convert the unbounded into a format that contains, parses, and quantifies? List-making for me is serious meditation and celebratory romance. It’s both anthropology and literature. Lists express my soul more than an autobiographical précis ever could, each list a thematic storyline, and each constituent item a revelatory episode. Collectively, they encode my being.
I first began to discover the wondrous power to possess and quantify the flow of experience at age five during a family road trip through the Midwest. As we trailed across Iowa farms, Minnesota lakes, and the Dakota Black Hills in a state of constant impermanence, I followed an impulse to seed bits of the travel stream in a clear plastic bag. When we stopped at the Broken Spoke Diner or Hiawatha Motel, I solicited a matchbook cover, packet of sugar, whittled Indian figurine, or some other artifact to build what my family called “The Collection.” Perhaps just as adult tourists learn to trust a visitation only if they retain a photograph to document the event, I learned these travel stops would not fade into dreamscape images as long as my hand held “The Collection.” Children, being concrete thinkers, experience the world more as a collection of objects than facts, and need more than journals or stories to preserve memory. Geography for me was always about tangible shapes, not places. For my sixth birthday my parents gave me a 50-piece puzzle map of the United States, each state graspable between the fingers. On our driving trips, every time we crossed the threshold of a new state, into Tennessee, Mississippi, or Louisiana, my mother would prompt me for the border sign with the familiar state icon.
Several years later, I became a more systematic archivist when I began to collect baseball cards. In storage boxes customized to card dimensions, I could locate any of several thousand cards within seconds. For a 1969 Willie McCovey Most Valuable Player, I scanned through the typed alphabetical team name tabs to find the San Francisco Giants, then chronologically back to 1969, and alphabetically again to Mc. I had gained dominion over the overwhelming statistics of the baseball world.
By age twelve, I had even begun to take command of sex. Late at night in my basement, I showed my 6th grade buddy Russell how to shuffle a deck of cards representing all the girls in our class and rank each one from ace down to two based on relative sexiness. According to the ritual I designed, Russell and I had to randomly pick a card and then act out a date with the girl selected. For weeks after one of our sleepovers, he goaded me about what I allowed myself to do with face card Laurie T after a night at the shopping mall. But I didn’t care. In my mind, the system had mastered the inscrutable power girls had to manipulate my desires.
Today, in adulthood, my collected lists, spiritual descendent of “The Collection,” attach meaning to vast categories of experience, assign proper locations to seemingly incongruous thoughts, mediate uncertainty, and offer hope. “Offbeat Restorations” has transformed an assortment of strange, inconspicuous moments issuing from an eccentric universe into a register of faith. I see a pattern of strength and optimism having passed through: 1. The Canned Dog Food Experiment, 2. Houston Without a Visa, 3. Kittenitis, 4. Parthenon Blizzard, 5. The Fake Funeral, and 6. Feminist Bitch Killer.
Feminist Bitch Killer recalls my first month teaching at San Francisco’s Mission High School when Rashaun, a young tough came into American History with a baseball hat that read “Bitch Killer.” Nervously, I asked him to stay after class.
“Rashaun,” I ventured, fumbling for some kind of authority, “if you taught this class would you want everyone here to be able to do their work? You know, juniors, seniors, guys, girls, geeks, gangsters?”
He glanced up at the mention of gangsters.
“And let’s say you were a girl in our class.” That got his attention again. “And you were trying to focus on your work. Then some guy walks into class wearing a hat that says “Bitch Killer.”
Rashaun smiled, to my relief, rubbed a finger in thought across his upper lip, and then tossed me a nod of recognition. Against proper teacher protocol, I joined him in a good laugh. An inadvertent moment of male bonding had opened the path to a small reparation.
“Wear it outside, my friend, not in the house.”
Rashaun shook my hand soul style. On the way out he didn’t look back, but at the door, unscrewed the hat 360 degrees around his shaven head before depositing it to his backpack. It was the first assignment of the semester I’d gotten him to complete on time.
While “Offbeat Restorations” reminds me there will be unexpected graces, “Most Precious Objects” confirms that the highest values can be located in material form: 1. the letter from William Styron, 2. the Robben Island Mandela rock, 3. the 1918 swimmer pajamas, 4. Dad’s high school track shoes.
For years Dad had resisted giving me those Spot-Bilt track shoes. Like me, he fears that without material records, lived experiences may be lost. As a high school sophomore in 1945 he
had scraped together his savings and made the best of those new shoes. His Stuyvesant High 4 x 400 relay team came in second in the 1946 New York City championships. Fifty years later, after I showed him the shoes in which I had won my age bracket in the Humboldt Redwoods Half Marathon, he brought the Spot-Bilts up from the basement.
“The leather is in perfect condition,” he said.
“They look good,” I agreed, “but see, the heel is totally worn down.”
“Did I ever tell you about the 1946 New York City championships?” he asked. “We should have won.”
“Yeah, I know, if only you hadn’t stumbled in the baton exchange on the anchor leg.”
Back home in San Francisco the next weekend, I went down to Kezar Stadium at sunrise when no one else would be there. The leather had stiffened over the years and the toes felt tight. I couldn’t manage a distance run without risking injury, but I could finish a 400. On the second turn, I tried to compensate for the misshapen heel and it hurt. I knew this would be their last attempt.
Certain objects, events, and psychic energies thrust themselves forward to receive official recognition. I just aim to comply. Several night dreams that have repeated themselves in unsettled zones of my psyche insist on titles, so I offer them their own document, “Recurring Dreams.” For ten years I have awoken from Stuck Graduation, finding myself again in the final month of college, unable to track down key sources for a history thesis on a topic that wavers between nights from the anti-apartheid struggle to the Mongol invasions to the descent of the Iron Curtain. I sit trapped in the dark library stacks behind a Gothic stained-glass window watching students sunning in the courtyard below. Something feels irretrievably lost. After last year, when I finally gave the tale a home in “Recurring Dreams,” it hasn’t returned.
Whatever remains missing from my college years, I still hope to possess by giving it a rightful place in my sacred white binder of lists. I believe the act of listing can retrieve precious losses, or even deliver the seemingly unattainable. I keep a list of “Women I Could Not Have.” The wise spiritual masters and several ex-lovers might say I am cleaving to the inaccessible, but maybe I am tapping unrealized inner energies: Ariel, the Celtic mystic my Jewish self has never felt, Sasha, holding a child, the peaceful parent I might be, Therese my spontaneous inner pixie. The women I cannot make lovers, I turn into archetypes of my hidden layers.
I remain certain that lists might recover the unrecoverable and even name the unnameable. A loss that by definition is irreparable, I reclaim by venerating with an official position in the register. Sometimes, those losses do not even need to be written. One such list is inscribed on my body. Scars could be seen as disfigurements, but given a name and location, they become emblems of transformation: the shoulder realigned after the train track motorcycle crash, or the extra line on my palm from the apple tree incident— that might lead a psychic reader to interpret my life along an alternative path. I translate these entries from forehead to ankle down the full length of my skin. Nature itself has written upon me. So, I am certain that list-making is not some synthetic procedure of a man who lives counter to the flow.
Someday, I will have a new lover and she will understand. As we lie naked in bed, she will trace the contours and know one intimate thread of my life. When I am ready, I will let her read the others.