Life Lists

life lists, journaling, paying attention,

What do you want to remember?

The most avid bird watchers keep Life Lists, tracking the first time they sight a bird. They write down information like order, genus, and species. Usually they note much more. Things like date and place the bird was spotted. The more detail, the more a birder’s Life List becomes something greater than a factual log of avian sightings. Years later the pages can return that person to an afternoon standing in the dappled sunlight of a New England forest when a blue, orange, and yellow flash heralded the arrival of a Painted Bunting. It can evoke a remarkable trip to Mexico where along a riverbank three distinctive wavery notes of a Great Tinamou were heard, and all the rest of that day bird after bird was sighted until darkness arrived. It can bring back time spent with dear friends in whispered conversation waiting hours for a glimpse of a single Black-Capped Vireo.

I’m no birder. I appreciate but know next to nothing about our feathery friends. But I am intrigued by the Life List concept. Life Lists keep birders motivated. The lists also alert them to a wavelength most of us ignore. A wavelength sensitive to birdsong, flight, and the faint hush of a wings on a nearby branch. Keeping track of any one thing is entirely unnecessary but such lists cue us to a chosen frequency.

What do you want to notice and cultivate in your life? Here are some possible Life Lists to consider.

Books That Made A Difference   I’ve often thought of books that changed my worldview or opened doors inside me with their insights. Do I remember the titles and authors? Only sometimes. I truly believe there are pivotal books that make us who we are. I started such a list years ago but let it lapse.

If you keep such a list, add more than title and author. Include a quote or two, some quibbles you have with the text, questions you’d like to ask the author, why this book came at the right time for you, where you were when you read it, what it means to you. Many people are keeping their book lists on GoodReads and Library Thing.

Wildlife Seen  Like a hugely expanded birder’s list, this could be open to all species or your own particular fascination, perhaps spiders (that would keep you busy with something like 38,000 species). And like a birder’s list, you could note species, location, description, your impressions, and much more.

Trips Taken  My mother made an effort to write about the long summer trips my family took, filling spiral notebooks with destinations and mileage and her impressions. I cherish them now, even if those trips left me with the wrong kind of lust.

If you keep such a list, fill it with photos and memorabilia. Make notes about your expectations and how they were fulfilled, about sights and sounds and tastes, about conversations and funny moments.

Favorite Movies (or Movies Seen)  This can be remarkably helpful if, like me, you find yourself starting to watch a movie that sounds good only to realize you’ve seen it. A list of movies seen, with details about favorites, is something I marginally keep up on Netflix just to keep myself from re-watching something I didn’t enjoy in the first place. I have friends who attend yearly film festivals, keeping extensive notes that they share with non-festival goers like me when those movies are released. Again, the more details the better. Write down who you were with when you saw the movie, where you saw it, snippets of meme-worthy dialogue, your favorite scene, actors you predict will go places, and your review.

People Who Have Influenced You  So many people flit in and out of our lives. Sometimes we don’t realize their impact until years later when we see they served as role models (like the woman I met during my brief espionage career) or anti-role models (a surprisingly important motivator). This is one of the few lists that can be made retroactively. Think of neighbors, friends, classmates as well as public figures. Note what they did and said along with behaviors that contributed to that influence. Once you start writing these observations down you may be more attuned to daily influences of people in your life, from the spirit-lifting cheer of a clerk to the resolutely calm example of a friend in trouble.

Dream List  Sure, you could write a bucket list and cross off each experience. But I’m talking about keeping a list of dreams you remember. I’ve written down only my most memorable and startling dreams for years, usually the ones that refuse to leave my mind. There are potent messages in dreams, coming to us from deep places where wisdom waits to inform us. If you want to more fully remember your dreams, try this. Before falling asleep, remind yourself to remember and understand your dreams. As you waken, pull the threads of your dreams into your conscious awareness. Whenever possible, write them down. It helps to take the images in the dream (ladder, teacher, highway, blue car) and note what each means to you. Look back at your dream list every now and then, you may find themes unspooling into new awareness.

Paths Hiked  There’s something about coming upon new vistas along the trail that prompt reflection. Those musings might be interesting to record along with hike data like location, distance traveled, terrain, weather, and date. Note who you hiked with and maybe what you talked about or laughed over. Include photos. Some folks contribute their photos and thoughts on Tumblr sites or blogs.

Words That Cut To The Center   This is a list I’ve kept on and off since I was a teenager. I find a quote or poem that distills meaning to the essence and write it in a journal (or now, on a Word doc). I’ve lost several of these lists, only to find them years later and catch a glimpse of what occupied my heart during those times. I’ve also found such lists remarkably useful, perfect when I want to share a poem or quote with a friend.

Gratitude List    This is a popular one, even recommended by mental health experts. I’ve learned it’s possible to look past what we label “good” and “bad” to appreciate mistakes, doubt, and crisis. I’m sure a gratitude list filled with sweetness and light can lift a mood. But I suspect a gratitude list more fully fleshed out might lift our spirits into a realm of blessed understanding.

Belly Laughs, Inside Jokes, Made-Up Words  Laughter is good for us, but we rarely remember what caused us to laugh ourselves into tears. I wish I’d started a list years ago with just a few notes about who, where, and particularly what we found so funny. I suspect I’d laugh all over again.

I’d also love a list of all the inside jokes and words unique to my family and friends. Some trigger us to laugh, some promote a feeling of solidarity because they remind us of shared experiences. How easily we forget.

Here’s one my family still uses, “You no see big thing like train?”  A friend drove a truck for a business started by an immigrant whose English wasn’t easy to understand. The business made money in part because of the owner’s extreme frugality, he barely even maintained the truck. One day the friend was making a delivery when the truck’s brakes failed. Unfortunately they failed as he was approaching railroad tracks where a train was stopped. It was a large truck and much as he tried, he only managed to slow down. He crashed into the train. He was fine, the truck was not. He called his boss to explain. The boss yelled, “What, you no see big thing like train?” This line has proven itself handy in many circumstances, thankfully none involving real trains or failed brakes.

Tastings  Savoring the good things is a tasty reason to start a list.  Consider wines, beer, cheeses, chocolate, or heck, start a list of Chomping Something From Every Street Cart I Can Find. Take notes on subtle flavors, good pairings, and circumstances such as where you were and who you were with. Highlight the very best. Hmmm, I like that street cart idea…

Perfect Moments   We live in a happiness-chasing culture, perhaps because advertisers tell us in every possible way that it’s easily purchased. But if we pay attention we find that perfect moments happen all by themselves. It’s a father rocking a baby to sleep, a calf taking first tottering steps in a pasture, a turn on the dance floor made of movement and beat and sheer exuberance.  These moments aren’t easily remembered. They enlarge our lives only briefly before drifting into fragments of memory. Taking time to sketch a perfect moment is an unexpectedly rich way to capture it (try these drawing hacks for non-artists). You might also draw a mind map or write a poem. Who said lists have to be list-like?

Juncture List  You know those junctures when a decision is made that shifts the course of your life. Sometimes we realize something big is about to happen: picking which college to attend or starting a job or ending a relationship.  Sometimes the choices seem minor at the time, like not answering the phone or telling a white lie or ignoring a symptom. This is another list that is more easily written while looking back. It may not seem valuable to parse out where things changed, but it helps us see larger patterns, feel synchronicity’s strange power, and appreciate the mysterious paths we’ve taken to arrive at this moment.

It's about paying attention.

6 thoughts on “Life Lists

  1. I love this. I want to start a Juncture List right away! There are particular moments that are still so vivid in my mind, like the day I was waiting for the subway when I was in college and I knew, with perfect clarity, that I should not continue my studies in nursing but do something else. It was like the heavens opened up and angels started singing. Or the day I decided to pull together my courage and visit a place where I knew no-one, First Parish in Cambridge (UU), where I ended up meeting my dearest friends as well as my husband. Or… okay, I should just write about this and post it on my blog. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Also I wanted to tell you that I’ve been reading “Free Range Learning” and loving it. It’s just what I needed. The encouragement and ideas are making a huge difference in our homeschooling. Thank you a thousand times for writing it.


    • I don’t have a Juncture List but I know those moments too. They stand out don’t they? But it’s only looking back that we can see the oddly beautiful circumstances those junctures created.

      Thank you for the kind words about FRL. You made my day. Okay, my week.


  2. I used to do my ‘gratefuls’ every year on new year’s day, writing in my journal each thing I could remember from the year before that I was grateful for. My own personal tradition. I’d get over 100. But after I became a single mom, my journaling died down. (Maybe that was after I started spending so much time online, actually.) I am grateful to be a mommy, and the other 99-plus gratefuls will just have to go unstated for a few more years.


  3. Pingback: {enchanted} lovely links, July 16, 2012

  4. I should be keeping a list of things my kids say now that they’re older (I wrote such things down when they were toddlers.) My daughter described my whole grain, veggie-intensive cooking as promoting “Colon of steel, kind of like buns of steel but inside.” She also said a few other things today that were hysterical, along with her equally clever siblings and their father, who surely played a part in creating such sardonic offspring, but I’m not writing them down and thus, can’t even remember them a few hours later.


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