to do vs. have done

I looked at my to-do list yesterday night with a sense of dread.  On it were three unchecked items; I hadn’t done any laundry, I didn’t get to church in the morning, and I barely began the week’s assigned graduate reading.  Nevermind that I did have a lovely brunch with my family to celebrate Father’s Day, I did clean the bathrooms and the kitchen floor, I did take the dog out for a walk, and I did celebrate Father’s Day with my husband’s family that evening.

For years I have depended on my to-do lists.  I have insisted to myself that in order to be productive, I need to see the tasks written out, to enjoy the feeling of crossing something off when it is finished, to not worry about what to do next, but to have it planned already.  The problem with my to-do lists lately, though, is that at the end of the day, all I can see is what I did not accomplish.  Maybe that’s motivating for some people; it motivates them to do better tomorrow, to try harder, to use their time more wisely.  It’s done that for me, in the past.

But what it’s done lately is convince me that I’m lazy, that I manage my time poorly, that no matter what I’ll never meet the expectations that I set for myself, that I’m not good enough.  It’s not always I feel that way, but it’s right now, and I realized last night, as I sat there silently berating myself over my unfinished to-do list, that the current system isn’t working.  Instead of helping me, it’s hurting me.  No, I do not want to spend nine hours a day watching Netflix.  But neither do I want to belittle myself and break down my self-worth because I didn’t finish all the laundry.

So I’m switching it up from a to-do list to a have-done list.  Last night I thought this was a completely novel and new and innovative idea I had come up with all by myself.  Then I ran a Google search and realized it’s not a new idea at all, and I’m way behind on the times not thinking of it or hearing of it before.  It’s a good alternative, though, to manage your time, see how you are spending your time, and put the focus on the accomplishment rather than the lack.

Because let’s be real, to celebrate Father’s Day with two different families, clean the bathrooms, clean the kitchen, and still get out to take the dog for a thirty minute walk on a Sunday is not a failure, but rather quite a nice way to start a week.

We are Mike and Laura

When I was a kid, we lived in a twin home in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  Our next door neighbors were a young couple named Mike and Laura.  Now, I recognize them as a young, newly married couple.  To my six-year-old-self of 1994, they were grown-ups.  Nice grown-ups, but still grown-ups.

I remember that Laura loved frogs, and had little stone frog statues all over her yard.  Whenever she would come outside I would run into their half of the yard and count them, and ask her if I was right, and ask her if she had frogs inside her house too.  One day she invited me inside, and I ran through their house, counting frogs.  When my mom realized where I was, she told me it was fine to talk to Mike and Laura, but not to become a nuisance.  I couldn’t see how I was possibly being a nuisance.  Mike and Laura were my friends.  Mike and Laura thought I was fun.  Mike and Laura loved hanging out with me.

Twenty-some years later, and I stand in my own yard, with my own husband, talking to the three kids next door.  They’re sweet kids.  They’re also kind of obsessed with our dog.  (Though with a face like hers, who wouldn’t be obsessed with our dog?)

Colette
Hi! I’m Colette! Want to play?!
Every time she is outside in our backyard they yell from their trampoline, “Hi Colette!” and ask to give her treats, pet her through the fence, and throw a ball to her.  It doesn’t bother me.  I like that they like her, that they’re comfortable talking to us, and that my dog gets loving attention from some very nice kids.

But what I realized, with a frightening start yesterday as I made dinner, listening to the kids play with Colette in the backyard with my husband, was that I have become Laura.  Without even realizing it, I have grown from that seven-year old kid counting frogs and bothering my grown-up, newlywed neighbors to the newlywed neighbor of three kids who just wanted to play with their grown-up neighbors’ puppy.

I am the grown-up neighbor.  We are Mike and Laura.

It’s funny how we don’t notice it happening.  I know that we do, in a sense, but it happens so slowly, we don’t realize what’s happening until one day it hits that we’re not growing up anymore, but we’re grown.  And we realize, then, as grown, adult people, what myths we held about adults before.  The world we understand grows with us; always, we fit and understand just enough world to make us feel small and insignificant.  As a child, the world felt so big, but as an adult, I realize how much bigger it really is.  What will I learn in the next thirty years?  Will my world grow yet again to be twice as big as I know it to be now?  Will my perception of what it means to be sixty change from what it is now?  I don’t doubt it.  I hope it does.

We talk about the wonder of children, and the loss of it as adults.  I disagree.  I am still filled with wonder as an adult.  My wonder is different, now, though, as I see the world and the people in it from a different perspective.

Preoccupation and distraction

I love the use of preoccupation as a noun.  We use the word more commonly as a verb, “to be preoccupied,” but as a noun it has more teeth.  “I have a preoccupation with Victorian-era sea shanties” is significantly different than “I am preoccupied by this Victorian-era sea shanty.”  As a verb, the word can be temporary, fleeting, but as a noun, it denotes something that is long-lasting and defining.  I like it.

Distraction, too, is a lovely noun.  “You are such a distraction,” works beautifully as both a compliment or an exclamation of aggravation, depending on the context.  But whether it functions as a verb or a noun, it is quick and transitory.  It is less heavy and more momentary than a preoccupation.

So here we have two words, one enduring, another more temporary.  Our identities, too, have facets that are enduring, and those that are more temporary, changing with a day, a season, an event, a mood.  Can you see where I’m going with this?  The task I’ve set myself is to describe my identity through my preoccupations and distractions.

I have a preoccupation with literature.  Good books, bad books, novels, novellas, classics, science-fiction, fantasy, theology, quick reads, long reads, poetry, songs.  The art of words on a page fascinates me and pulls me in to places my mind would otherwise not know to explore.  Literature in all its forms is one of my enduring preoccupations, something I have never and will never release.  The knowledge to be learned, the emotions to be felt, the ideas to explore, and the revelations to experience through literature is a gift to the world, one that I relish unwrapping day after day after day.

I am distracted by clutter.  My bedroom is a mess, but I don’t work in my bedroom.  If my workspace is cluttered, my mind is even worse.  Nothing is completed until the clutter is cleared.

I have a preoccupation with perfection.  This is a tough one to own up to, but it’s such a force in my life, to ignore it would be untrue to myself.  Sometimes my preoccupation with perfection helps me to do jobs well, work with precision, and see things through in the best possible way.  Often, it cripples my ability to finish something, it draws out projects into days and weeks and months, and it seeds self-doubt, destroys confidence, and paralyzes me into inaction.  It produces extreme anxiety and fuels depression.  My acknowledgement of this preoccupation, however, has also produced a desire to embrace imperfection, love myself, and fight the demons brought forth from within.

I am distracted by people.  What they say, how they move, who they’re with, why they’re there, what they want, why they want it.  People are interesting, their personalities and decisions are unique, they are guided by such varied goals, dreams, fears, and passions.  Don’t mix this up with the idea that I like talking to people.  I am an introvert through and through, and while I like the one-on-one conversation as much as the next introvert, the crowds of people in a busy city or push of people against me at a crowded party are not on my list of favorite things.  But put me on a park bench with a cup of tea, a good book, and a few people scattered throughout the park?  I love those people.  They are fascinating.

I am distracted by cute puppies, hot beverages, and loud music.  I am distracted by uncomfortable clothes that fit too tight, soy candles that smell like the past, and that one person who won’t stop texting at dinner.  I am distracted by birds perched on my backyard fence, the sound of running water, British television, reapplying sunblock at the beach, and beautiful old houses that look like they could be haunted.  My list of distractions goes ever on.  It must stop somewhere.  Here it stops.

I have a preoccupation with dreams.  Dreams of all sorts: daydreams, lucid dreams, nightmares, average dreams, dreams for the future, and unrealistic or unobtainable dreams.  I see nothing wrong with staring out a window and daydreaming about how my life would be different if I were a warg, or what our marriage is like from the perspective of my husband, or why God created ticks.  I wake up from a particularly scary or inspiring dream and consider it for the rest of the day.  Dreams, no matter what they are, have meaning to the person dreaming them.  They represent, in all their forms, our fears, aspirations, emotions, fantasies, relationships, anxieties, and affections.  They are beautifully odd, and truthful, and sometimes incomprehensible, but I think that human souls are all those things too.  They are worthwhile of a preoccupation.

Here, then, is a small piece of me, through the lens of distraction and preoccupation.  It is an incomplete, but still solid, beginning.  A start.  It is imperfect in many ways; and I will admit that it makes me uncomfortable.  But discomfort is a sign of motion, of action and change.  It can be distracting too, yes, and some people may become preoccupied with it.  Let me not be that person.  Not today, at least.

Today, I am present.