When my daughter was three and my son a baby, we took a road trip from our home in Nebraska to Montana to visit family. I made endless lists to prepare for the trip—stuff for the three-year-old, stuff for the seven-month-old, stuff for the adults, perishable and nonperishable foods, stuff to do before we left, stuff my brother needed to do while we were gone, stuff I needed to do upon returning. I ended up with so many lists on so many different sheets of paper that I created a separate list—titled The Master List of Lists—to keep track of them all.
During the two-day drive, after having exhausted the picture books, sticker books, coloring books, and audio books, the three-year-old came up with an engrossing new activity. “Let’s make lists!” she cried exuberantly, so we occupied ourselves for the rest of the drive by making lists: Relatives We’re Going to See, Things We’re Going To Do, Favorite Songs, Favorite Numbers, Favorite Books, Reasons Baby Brothers Cry, Good Things to Eat, Beautiful Colors, Friendly Animals. She proudly held the growing stack of pages in her hands. I had—inadvertently—taught her well.
But later, back from our trip, we were sitting on our front lawn when my daughter curled into my lap. “I want to go back to Montana,” she told me. Distracted, I replied, “What were your favorite things about Montana? Let’s make a list.”
“Just being there,” she said. “It’s not something you put on a list.” And I will never forget the look of exasperation she gave me, the way she climbed out of my lap to go sit next to her brother who was chewing on a blade of grass, the way they both sat looking away from me at the crab apple trees in front of our house. Chastised, I watched my children sitting there as the deep blue began to seep into the sky, as the trees became dark silhouettes etched into the twilight. And I thought of all the things I did each day that never appear on a list: Read books with my children. Look at the sky. Enjoy an apple. Listen to a song. Tell a joke. Watch a bird. Touch a tree. These—and so many others—are beyond the reach of my lists.
I sit writing this post—which I never planned to write, which wasn’t even on the list—and I watch the clock, trying to resist the urge to flip open my notebook. For the moment, I am here, but too soon I will be consulting the list, looking for the notation that will tell me where to go from here.