Creative Writing – The Unending List of Everything


W. James Jonas III

January 2006

Where is that list?  It is not in my purse.  It is not in my pocket.

What do I need to do next?

It is hard for me to remember how I functioned before my first To Do list.

My life must have been very random; I do not think it could have been very happy, but most of all, there is no mental picture of my life before my list.  Lists give you a plan.  Lists keep you focused.  Any of the management or leadership approaches we see today have, at their core, a simple to do list.

I keep my list close.  I follow it carefully.  The human brain simply cannot keep things in the right sequence like a list can.

Today, the trouble is I cannot always remember where my list is.  Children and grandchildren have attempted to help me by putting the list on my website and one time they gave me a piece of technology to carry around that had my list in it (and was supposed to replace my precious paper).  Quite soon, I misplaced the gadget and kept my paper list close at hand.  Now without exception, my list is a piece of paper, and nothing else feels quite right.  Without that list, shopping would not get done, birthdays would be forgotten, and my day would be so cluttered.

For years, my friends have marveled at how much I can accomplish by just sticking to my list, adding items as they come up, and making sure each item is completed before the next one is considered.  When they asked my secret, I just smiled and showed them my piece of paper.

Personally, I know that loosing the list (something that seems to happen almost every day) is only one more sign that things are falling apart.  I can remember things to obsess about, but other forms of recall are less consistent.  The list of medications I have used to try to limit this problem are not a problem to recall (on most days), but the simple things do not come to mind when needed.  If I could only find my list, the day would fall into place.  There is so much to be done, but where to start without the list?

My first list was just a piece of paper with some random crayon lines.  While not yet able to write, observations during trips to the grocery store and doing errands with my mother had seared in my young mind that the way you got things done was to follow your list.  It must have been immediately after this juvenile epiphany that I found a scrap of paper and a black crayon to create my own to do list.

It did not take long for my mother to notice how I referenced my list while playing in the children’s room of our house.  As it was her custom to check on me in the middle of the afternoon, she asked me about the piece of paper.  I quickly responded that this was my list of things to do for the day.  With great care, I recited to her what each of my scribbles signified.  When mother suggested a couple of items I should be doing as well (it was probably a specific household chore along with picking up the room), my immediate response was to make additional marks at the bottom of my list.  Learning to write and read would come later, but the power of my list was already part of my life.

It was in the early grades when the list became a point of connection with older adults.  The great breakthrough happened when I referenced my list when my mother asked me, “What did you do at school today?”  My response was not particularly insightful but was better than the standard response for my age group (i.e., “nothing …”).  The fact that the response was based on a list made it unquestioned, quick to receive praise, and limited lingering on the topic.  My Sunday school teachers praised my dedication to the scripture (if they only knew it was more about the list for me than the Bible verses).

As a teenager, I never experienced the grilling other girls endured upon returning home from an outing with friends; the list was my defense.

My observation is that most people in my life are not asking questions because they are interested.  The reason people ask questions is an attempt to establish a superior power position in the conversation or the broader situation.  When you produce a list for your response, the message is clear.  You are better prepared to respond to the question than the person making the inquiry.  This makes the person asking, usually, doubtful of achieving their hoped for result.  The questions stop, and you can go back to doing the things on the list.

Whenever I find a person irritating me, I just begin looking at my list.  They get the message.  I am more prepared then they are.  They get out of my face and go away.

In High School, obtaining the desired role or assignment in a group school project was never a problem.  I was the one who had created the list of things we needed to accomplish.  When you have the list, it is easier to take the lead in making the assignments including the assignments to yourself.

My time in the armed services was infinitely different because of my list.  Without an officer’s commission or even a college degree (at the time), there were no impediments to my being one more enlistee trying to help our country, except for my list.  Starting in Basic Training, my superiors noted attention to detail as a positive trait in my evaluations.  Except for one illiterate Drill Sergeant (who thought I was spying on her) this approach limited the negative impact of any of my failings.  It also gave me an unending list; there was always something to work on, improve, or fix.

I never asked myself the question, “what am I going to do tomorrow?”  My list defined my next day.

My list was never restricted to work items; it was a list of everything.  So, it became a help rather than a problem in social settings.  I was always the one answering the question “what are we going to do next?”  The list gave me power, and I loved it.

I have never been at a loss as to what to do on a weekend.  My list has kept me doing productive things for work and helpful things for others.  This is not merely an organizational tool; it is the way I center my life and interact with others.  That is why it is so critical that I find my list.

Some folks think of their lives in terms of the dramatic or traumatic events, for me it is the list.

Finishing my time in the military and going to finish college gave me my first five page list.

Planning my wedding was the first time I tried a typed list.  I have little doubt that typing that list was the first sign that things were not going to work out.  The marriage ended ten years later, and after the divorce, I have never typed a list again.  It is important to add things to the list at any moment as well as cross things off.  The practicality of stopping everything and going back to my desk (at work), coffee table (at home), or car (yes I kept a typewriter in my car for those years) every time something was accomplished or needed to be added to the list became a bit cumbersome; I never really miss my spouse (whatever his name was) or all of that typing.

There must be a number of things I need to accomplish today, but without the list it will be impossible to determine what I should do first.  Thank goodness I hear someone coming.  It is my oldest and dearest grandchild.  Her name is not important; I cannot recall it right now anyway, but she will help me find the list.


“Yes mother.”

“Would you be a wonderful little lady and help me find my list?  I am sure it is here somewhere, but it is not in my purse and I cannot think of where to look.  As you know, I have many things to do today, and it will not be possible for me to get them all done without finding that list.  If you are able to find it and I get all of my projects done today, maybe we can go out for a special treat.”

“Here it is.”

“Oh that cannot be my list.  You know I always write in black.”

“OK.  I will be right back.”

She is such a bright and charming little girl.  And, she is very clever and resourceful.  I know she will find my list, and we will go down to the Drug Store for a Coke Float.  But all of that can wait; this looking for a list has made me tired.  I will take a nap until my granddaughter comes back with my list.


The 65 year old “little lady” shuts the door and goes over to the nurses’ station.

“Excuse me.  Do you have a blank sheet of paper and a black crayon?”

The request required the nurse to get up.  It was not one she anticipated, but she was never shocked at the request family members made while they were visiting.  It only took her a moment in the waiting room to find a children’s coloring book with crayon set and a blank piece of paper.

When the nurse returned with the requested items, she noted how carefully the woman folded the paper into the size of a list you would tape to your refrigerator or take shopping.  She then took the black crayon, and made a series of marks.  No words.  Merely scribbling, but uniform in length and lined up down the left hand side of the piece of paper.  She then walked back into her mother’s room.  This was the first time for the nurse to witness this ritual, but the daughter had been doing this now for over 20 years.


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