In elementary school we were made to create a flipbook showing the different parts of the flower, each part listed on a different note card accented in red crayon, its name recorded in my sloppy childhood scrawl:
It was an ongoing project that was completed bit-by-bit each day. My flowers never looked right: each sepal out of proportion to the other, the petals drooping, the style too narrow. My hand refused to cooperate with the vision I saw. Instead of making progress, I spent day after day re-drawing each part, quietly crumpling each ruined drawing into a tiny ball. I soon realized that I’d never finish before the end of the quarter. I fretted over this and cried to my father in the evenings over my fears. What would happen if I didn’t finish? Would I be reprimanded? Shamed by my teachers? Kicked out of school? I told him that I couldn’t do it right, no matter how hard I tried. He called my teachers, and in a conference, the adults in my life agreed on their bafflement of how much anxiety was contained within my small body.
What would it have taken for me to gain some perspective at that early age, to turn away from that tug of irrational concern over the little things? How could I have learned to just draw the damn plant, finishing what I started without also succumbing to the gnawing feeling in my stomach?
I wish I could say that I’ve gained some perspective, and maybe I have, won and lost in equal measure over the years. But the truth is that my anxiety overwhelms me most of the time, and so it made a practical ally, something to do its bidding. Lists became the physical manifestations of my desperate and never-satiated attempts to contain, format, and conquer the far-reaching constellations of my anxiety. This task is never finished; rather, it is constantly just beginning.
When I was a child, my mom kept an index card inscribed with the social security numbers of everyone in our family– Mauri, Janet, Leah, Hans – tucked away in her purse. She didn’t know what she’d need this information for—an intake form at the emergency room or to file a missing person’s report, perhaps. Maybe it wouldn’t be needed for anything at all. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. Our house was covered in her notes-to-self, oddly-shaped scraps of paper taped to every surface: the microwave, the refrigerator, the back door. Sometimes she even taped a note on her glass of water to remind herself of something important. She was walking out of the kitchen, perhaps, and didn’t want to forget that she had put the oven on to pre-heat.
In the final months of 1999, the Y2K apocalypse was imminent, and Mom prepared by making a sofa from stacked containers of nonperishable foods. Smaller shoeboxes full of brown rice made the arms, and larger crates of black beans and canned vegetables formed the seats. She covered it with throw pillows and a floral sheet. You could hardly tell it was actually a form of defense against impending doom, and not a couch at all. Concealment was the goal: when the looting started, maybe our bare pantry would be taken at face value, and our foodstuffs spared from theft, hidden in plain sight among the common landscape of our homewares. She had a wood burning stove installed in our basement and stashed 25 pound sacks of red lentils in pillowcases. I sometimes cried at night, trying to fall asleep as I pictured shadowy figures rummaging through our house and taking all our stuff. She did her best to soothe and comfort me but couldn’t tell me that everything would be okay. It probably wouldn’t, she said, and it was better safe than sorry.
Y2K turned out to be a nothing, but there was always something new on the worry radar. The dental insurance company was slow to send reimbursement for my wisdom teeth extraction, and so my mom was certain it would never come at all. The pilot light on the water heater continuously burned out, and this indicated that the whole unit was dying. George W. Bush’s war machine was going to kill us all. The tractor was making a weird noise. The lettuce crop wasn’t thriving. Financial aid for my brother and me to attend college was unlikely. The worrying was a vast web, its spinning a constant activity whose sticky threads grabbed at me and clung to my arms.
The summer after I graduated from college, I had no job lined up. I arranged my few skills and larger number of interests into various configurations using online search engines. Reading through each listing, I relented to self-pity, and considered the possibility of spending my life watching The Food Network from morning ‘til night. No matter what time of day, Giada always seemed to be making some kind of pasta, or perhaps a no-bake cheesecake. My roommate Kelly and I were stragglers, staying behind in our senior-year apartment after graduation, with the primary difference between us being that she actually had a job, whereas I had “plans” to get a job. My plans turned into a daily obsession with finding out which vaguely Italian-sounding word Giada would over-pronounce. Eel Don-tay. Ree-gah-toe-ni. My computer screen sat open on the table in front of me, at this point abandoned for several hours, a list of words that I would never measure up to glaring at me as I slumped deeper into the couch cushions. Usually I fell asleep around five, my face sticking to the terrible red vinyl. Kelly came home from work; one of us cooked dinner, the other did the dishes. We watched Chopped at 9:00, and again at 10:00. She went to bed. I scoured the internet for information about Ted Allen (Kelly and I had wondered about the host of our favorite show. What were his credentials? Was he a chef? Or just a savvy “foodie”?) Eventually this derailed into watching YouTube videos featuring a Japanese cat who likes to dive into boxes from across the room. I made a list of things that needed my attention the next day, and then didn’t do them.
Every year for as long as I can remember, Pat Stambaugh, my mom’s next door neighbor, has cheerfully delivered a plate of Christmas cookies to our house. We devour her Rudolph-shaped sugar cookies and ginger snaps, pressing our fingers to the crumbs left on the plate. But the real prize is the Buckeye ball, a homemade candy consisting primarily of peanut butter, rice krispies cereal, and chocolate coating. There are never enough; two or three for filler between the cookies. “We should make more of these!” I proclaimed one year to my mom and brother. A quick Google search yielded a recipe, a list of just four or five ingredients, and what could be easier than mixing four or five things together in a bowl? Six hours later, with peanut butter and chocolate in every fold of my skin and every crevice of the kitchen, with too-hot chocolate that smeared my lumpy peanut butter balls into a runny, shit-colored mess, with a sink full of dishes and nearly raw, red hands from washing, washing, and washing away the peanut butter, I became convinced that Pat Stambaugh is some kind of candy sorceress. My mother, who saves every sheet of paper that comes into her house (“It’ll make great scrap paper!”) looked at my chocolate-covered face, tears of frustration welling in my eyes, and tossed the recipe into the burn pile.
In counseling at 25, my therapist said: “Make a list of new things to try. Make them small, make them manageable, so there are no excuses to be made. Get out of the rut.” For a few weeks, I kept up with a regimen of change. I took evening walks, looked into sewing classes, and emailed a local barn about getting back into horseback riding. I still go on evening walks sometimes when I’m feeling guilty about the rut.
Lists have always been a favorite of my therapists. More than a decade ago, a family counselor printed out a list from the Alzheimer’s Association website, a list of 101 activities that you can do with the person in your life who has the disease (my father, who died slowly and without dignity.) I scanned the suggestions at home that evening before tossing the list into the bin: Look at family photographs. Play dominoes. Ask the person about his or her favorite childhood book or cartoon characters. Sing songs. Take a walk around the yard. Make a cherry pie.
Could I map it, could I chart it, could I trace a winding line of memory back to its starting point and stick a pin in the moment that my brain began to work in this way? I’m not sure. It may have started with the fretted drawing of plant diagrams in second grade, but I have suspicions that an earlier origin is more likely. In photographs taken during my peewee ballet recital as a three year old, I recognize a certain eager but distant and distracted look on my small face as I try to replicate the perfect plié pose and footing of fourth position, following along as the instructor demonstrates the moves. It is the same face I fight today when I’m not quite measuring up, certain I’ll be discovered at any moment as the phony that I am.
As I write this essay, I have a list of notes at the top, questions and ideas that I need to consider: sharpen that line, expand on that theme. I almost cannot write it, for fixation on what is yet to become good enough.
At this point, it probably goes without saying that making a list precludes most of my big decisions. When I was 24, I had an impressive-sounding job that I hated, and made a list of questions for myself to consider, to take a hard look at my life, and to get the ball rolling on my next move:
1. Should I go to graduate school?
2. What should I study in graduate school?
3. Would I survive graduate school?
4. How much TV can I reasonably watch before I do permanent damage to my eyeballs?
5. Speaking of eyeball damage, do I still have health insurance?
6. Do I know enough about the Affordable Care Act?
7. Should I read more news?
8. Do other people my age read a lot of news, or do they just re-post things on Facebook that they skimmed in order to make themselves seem smart?
9. Should I apply to that job? Or that job? Raising money for puppetry arts might make me hate my life less.
10. Should I take a job offer simply for guaranteed income, regardless of the fact that when I went for my interview, the fire alarm was going off after a teacher’s aid burned some toast, and there were 300 crying children in the parking lot?
11. Should I even be a teacher? Or a teacher’s aid? Or have anything to do with the molding of children’s minds, when, after all, my own mind is a scary abyss of craziness?
12. Or should I wait and see what else comes my way?
13. Is my father on a more accelerated path to death than he was last year?
14. Okay, maybe don’t think too hard about that.
15. Should I drink less?
16. Should I drink more?
17. Should I choose today to make a change or two?
No matter how many times I am spun into a fit of anxiety merely from the process of making a list, I seem to experience a kind of amnesia, like women who say that they forget the pain of childbirth after the fact. I always think the list can learn to be my friend, that whatever our differences, we can work things out.
If herbal supplements could save a person’s life, my dad would be alive today. Ginkgo Biloba. Ginseng. Green tea capsules. Flaxseed. Hawthorn. He ordered massive quantities of these supposed “miracle cures” from late night infomercials and health food catalogs. To make the daily routine more convenient, he divvied up a month’s worth of daily dosages at a time. He enlisted me to line up empty pill bottles around the edge of the bathroom counter. Then he counted out the appropriate number of pills from each supply and I dropped them 1, 2, 3, plop, plink, clunk into each of the empty bottles. “What are all these pills for anyway, Dad?” I asked. “To keep me sharp! Remember last week when I slipped up and told you that the state capital of Louisiana is New Orleans?” It was a favorite pastime of ours, mostly on car trips, for Dad to quiz my brother and me on the state capitals. “But it’s not! It’s Baton Rouge!” I said. “Exactly! I gotta make sure I’m smart enough to keep you on your toes.”
The pills weren’t enough, as we sometimes tricked ourselves into believing they would be. Some ugly mix of memory loss and muscle deterioration caused my father to lose his speech in the several years leading up to his death. We talked to him, and sometimes he “talked” back by squeezing our hands in response to simple “yes or no” questions that we mixed into the conversations. “Dad, Hans and Leah just got to town yesterday. They flew in on a United Boeing 757. You used to be a pilot for a United, right?” my brother Scott would ask. Two squeezes for no, a flash of playful frustration in his eye. Dad was a Delta pilot. He used to dazzle our young imaginations by naming the makes and models of the airplanes that flew overhead as we drove down the interstate. Whether he actually could make these distinctions, or made random guesses to entertain us, I’m still not certain. For me there was no ease or joy in interacting with Dad through these questions, as my older brothers found. Quite the opposite, I hardly knew at all what to say or what to ask. I took to communicating with my father through pictures, pouring over my albums and stashing away five or ten images in my suitcase: Dad and me planting some pansies in the long trough on our back porch; me unwrapping toys on Christmas morning while Dad looks on; my hands pressed to a giant whale tank at SeaWorld, Dad pushing a dolphin-shaped stroller in the background; my brother and I leaning on the side of his motorized wheelchair as we boarded a cruise ship to the Bahamas. I didn’t know what to ask, so I just told stories, flipping through the pictures, conjuring any and every detail I could remember.
The list is a sticking point in my marriage. I am no longer permitted by my husband, Daniel, to write my own lists. He has caught on to the abuse I endure in the maintenance of my lists, and tries, often in vain, to prevent me from hitting the same wall over and over again. If I’m really desperate, he will allow me to dictate a list to him, of no more than five items, to be completed over no less than 24 hours:
1. Buy brick for retaining wall
2. Get an emissions test
3. Research options for new window treatments
3a. Take measurements
3b. Color scheme?
(To get around the five items rule, I sometimes sneak in extra details)
4. Grocery shopping
4a. Are we out of butter?
5. Clean rubber seal on washing machine
In other words, no lists of 10 things that have to be done right away are permitted. If he comes across as controlling in this way, he is. I both deserve and need these limits.
Daniel: “But what is the point of the list, if not to release the things from your mind? People make lists so that they can get everything out of their head and feel less anxious. You make a list for the purpose of staring at it and hating yourself until you’ve crossed everything off.”
Leah: “But if I can just do these things right now, I promise, it won’t be like this next time.”
On the night my father died, I took the phone call from my brother in a dark corridor of the building where I attended choir practice each Wednesday. The vending machine glowed bright against my face, humming low and slow, as I laid my face in my hands and did not cry. I don’t remember walking to my car or what was on the radio, although it occurs to me that I dropped my keys in a puddle while I fumbled to remove them from my purse, and there was some kind of noise in the background while I was driving. I only remember that Daniel was folding laundry when I walked in the door, and I said plainly, “My dad is dead,” and Daniel hugged me but I couldn’t hug him back because my arms were pinned to my sides. I sat on the couch for a few minutes, staring up at the crown molding, before announcing that I needed a pen and paper. Picking your battles is key: I think that Daniel knew it was not the time to deny me this request.
I walked to the counter and began placing the bar stools on top so I could sweep and mop the floor. We moved the dining chairs and table into the living room. We pulled the refrigerator back from the wall and dragged the bar cart into the hallway. The kitchen was transformed into a blank canvas for my strange and indescribable grief. It had been on my mind that the floors needed a deep clean: there had been an unidentified sticky substance clinging to my socks for the past few days. I had no other avenue through which to experience my feelings. The words “mydadisdeadmydadisdeadmydadisdead” ran over and over through my head as I scraped a gray, sticky callus from the tile under the refrigerator, my fingernail splintering with the effort.
I sent an email to my office and mechanically ate the dinner Daniel brought home, not because I was hungry, but because he asked me to, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no. Several hours that first night were spent considering new paint colors for the bathroom, an old project that had barely gotten underway before we’d shoved the booklet of samples into a drawer and moved on to some other task. The dingy, yellowing white of the walls in that room had depressed me since we first moved in. I taped “Chestnut Stallion” and “Maplewood Trail” to my walls and tried to imagine new possibilities.
I called the electric company about the rebate we still hadn’t received for the water heater and turned the couch upside down to replace the little felt pads that keep the plastic legs from scratching the wood floor. I knew I would not remember these things, so I made meticulous notes about the three days I spent slogging through a list of arbitrary tasks. I made a list of my lists.
On the third day of lists and grief, I got bored of actually painting the bathroom and left Daniel to apply “Burnt Sienna” to the walls. In the other room, I sank into the sofa, laptop resting on my knees, settling deep into research on the merits of various types of sun-tolerant shrubs to plant in our front yard. The shrubs made me think of the blueberry bushes my dad planted while I was growing up, and blueberries made me think of bananas, which made me think of how he ate one every single morning, which made me think of him cheerily asking, “Want a banana? They’re soooo good for you!” even though he knew I hated bananas. The final thought in the chain was simple and devastating: I would never hear his voice again, the nasal-y Midwestern twang, the slight upward inflection at the end of each phrase. At that moment, a loud sob mixed with a gasp escaped from some place deep inside. It was so unexpected that I looked around my house, reasoning that it must have come from someone or something else. Daniel came out of the bathroom and took the laptop from me, placing it on the coffee table, a chart of bushes that prefer acidic vs. alkaline soil glowing onto my face as he closed the lid. He spoke gently but firmly: “Tomorrow, it’s still going to be the wrong time of the year to plant shrubs” he said, “and your dad is still going to be dead whether or not you spend all night writing a list of everything you’ll ever do in your whole life.” He was right, but I wasn’t ready to concede. A moment of sorrow was all I needed, and I finished my shrub pro/con list before rinsing the paint brushes.
And what has the list given back to me, for all it has taken?
✓ There must be something, right?
On the exact one year anniversary of my dad’s death, I still hadn’t done anything with the quart-sized mason jar containing roughly 1/6 of his ashes, which were given to me by my brother, unceremoniously and without much explanation, on the day of our father’s memorial.
I carried my little canning-jar urn around the rolling hills of my dad’s old family farm—known in our family as simply “the farm,” and later, when he bought a new farm in Georgia, “the Wisconsin farm”— with me all afternoon, the tips of my fingers cupped firmly over the flecked and dented gold lid. It occurred to me that these may not even be new mason jars. The thought delighted me, that Scott had gone into the cabinets of his kitchen, patching together a collection of six jars that once held garden tomatoes or pickled okra, bits of our father mixing with remnants of vinegar and oil. The thought and the potential act itself was cheap, crude, and somehow charming. It made me smile, mercifully. My brothers walked ahead, surveying the lands of their childhood home, and I lingered behind, trying to find something in this land to connect with. Little by little, the older brothers unscrewed the lids of their jars and scattered bits of ashes around the rock where they used to take picnic lunches, on the banks of the rippling creek, near some antique farm equipment that had been a fixture of the landscape for the last 100 years. I didn’t open my jar, not even once. I carried it back with me to Georgia, through airport security, in my purse. The TSA officer flagged my bag for inspection, removed the jar, and asked me what it was. The opportunity to make a startlingly macabre joke at the expense of an unsuspecting stranger was too compelling to resist, and I replied, deadpan: “my dead father’s ashes.” He quickly and wordlessly handed the jar back, and I made my way into the terminal for a soft pretzel before the red eye back to Atlanta.
At home, I placed the jar on top of the filing cabinet in my office and promptly covered it with all manner of detritus – explanations of dental benefits, stacks of bank statements, a handful of 3D-printed knickknacks, my binder of choir music. A year later, I lifted the garbage in search of a book of stamps. A birthday gift “thank you” to my grandmother was overdue. My anxiety was high that day, and I needed an easy thing to cross of the list. And when I moved the papers to the side, there he was again, the bright light in the room reflecting off the diamond pattern of the glass, splintering the gray dust into a thousand refractions against the beige wall. “Shit,” I said to Daniel. “My dad’s ashes are still fucking sitting here.”
And so I abandoned the quest for stamps and started on some research. I vaguely remembered reading something about turning ashes into a tree with a composting urn that grows into a Maple or a Ginkgo. There were some options involving jewelry, though that one was too creepy for me, so I didn’t write it down. Launching his ashes into the sky inside a biodegradable balloon would have been my first choice, but it was too expensive. In sane mind, Dad frequently expressed a desire to be pushed into the sea at old age, a custom practiced among Inuit tribes. Maybe I could put his ashes on a raft and float them out to sea? That option was sure to have its own list of preparation items. Legality? Logistics? Wouldn’t the tide just keep pushing the raft back to shore?
But that wasn’t the only thing I was working on that day; it was far from all that needed my attention in a “put down everything else right now, this is the most important thing” kind of way. I was leaving the next day to attend a friend’s wedding, and I needed to assemble a packing list, and then actually pack the things on the list. Her gift was stashed away in the closet, and needed to be wrapped. There wasn’t any wedding-appropriate wrapping paper in the house, so a trip to Target was probably in order. There was a big grant due at the end of the month for work, and I owed a budget template to the accountant and a program statistics request to the education department. When was the last time I had cleaned the floors? The sticky substance had returned again, as it always seemed to do. I could say goodbye to my plan to go running; the weather had finally cooled off and I was antsy to move but unwilling to compromise the precious time. The cat food was running low – add it to the Target list.
Warm autumn light was streaming through a tiny wedge of open space, where the window blinds fell just short of the ledge. The sharp rays bleached out the screen of my computer so that all of my precious words of reminder were temporarily obscured. It was all too much to keep in my mind, that’s why I had the lists. The warring tasks collided all at once, what few of them I could immediately recall, and everything went blank, quiet for a moment. Oh, yes, I remembered suddenly. The sticky spot on the floor. A good, easy place to start.
The ashes are still on my desk, hidden beneath a mound of distractions.
Leah Kuenzi is currently pursuing an MFA at Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA. She previously spent several years in nonprofit fundraising before committing full-time to the writing life. Other interests include step aerobics, cheese-intensive cooking, starting (but rarely finishing) home improvement projects, and listening to every podcast under the sun.