Listing from one emotional state to another

17th June 2011 at 01:00

"Mark Year 9. Buy coffee. Mark Year 10 ."

When did life become a list? I don't remember. All I know is that I have a stormy relationship with lists. They make me feel jaunty and vigorous on some days; doomed and skittish on others. I can't imagine life without them, but sometimes I wish they would leave me alone.

There is a great thread on The TES website's forum called: "Are you a `list' person?" To some of us, they are as calming as pets: "I love writing lists, as I find it very therapeutic," says Wildmillie. Others treat `em mean: "It's not the lists . it's the savage crossing things off the list I enjoy," snarls dancetiludrop. Milkandchalk pinpoints the trouble with lists: "I used to spend so much time making lists I'd run out of time to actually do the stuff on them."

Lists can be sneaky. They begin by giving you a sense of control over your life, but then they become silent little tyrants. A list starts off looking short and friendly, as if it has magically simplified our lives for us. It's lying. A list can go on forever, but we can't. We use lists to try to make life manageable, and mostly it isn't.

I start new lists with a few things I have already done so I can tick them off straight away. If I am lying awake, making a list gets the worries out of my head and on to the page. They can go to sleep and so can I. That's a good list.

A bad list is the kind I make when I'm too tired to be selective. I don't trust my brain to remember anything so I write down everything. In that strung out state, I put in too much detail and my powers drain away into the list. If I lose that list I will die. Never tell a list too much.

I learned some helpful things about lists during a period of clinical depression. Burnt out, I was given a list that was incredibly soothing to read. Instead of targets for other people, here were nice, simple things for me: "Take a nap", "Be with animals", "Sit in the sun". Teachers have lists that are all about other people. You have to remember to put yourself on that list, too.

What I love about lists is their optimism. A list is a leap of faith. It says that tomorrow is another day and what we need to do is worth doing and can be done. When I was depressed I stopped making lists. What was the point? It is a much darker place than it sounds, to be listless.

Other people's lists are fascinating. Whenever I find one in a library book I always read it and then feel strange afterwards. A list is such an intimate thing: the secret mental footprints of another life. We are too used to our own lives to see them as remarkable. There is a medieval cookery book that lists the ingredients for a banquet. To somebody, it was once normal to need "11,000 eggs and 50 swans".

Lists can make us feel trapped or liberated, often on the same day. Written when we are off guard, they reveal what matters to us. "Wrap B's present. Buy dog food." Lists are the everyday language of love.

Catherine Paver is a writer and part-time English teacher.

Forum thread: Are you a list person?


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