The Tyranny of the To-Do

This week I was gently reminded of a few things, one of them being my propensity to bury myself in to-do lists. Lists of good things that really do need to get done and can thereby take over my life. Those little black dots that line up neatly in front of things I must accomplish taunting me.

I was also reminded this week about community. Not the kind that shows up in cheesy books or as defined by the people who have jumped on that word as an elixir for the woes of our age. I think that sometimes I recoil from the thought of community because it has become a fad, a trend, if you will. Something that we have to be engaging in if we are to be good people. There is good in community, but at times the expectations can exhaust.

And in addition to remembering my need for community and the tyranny of the to-do, I was also reminded to have some fun.

As much as life is a balance between community and solitary time and to-dos and space to just be, this balance seems to be a never-ending challenge for me. As I writer, occasionally I have a tendency to become a little bit housebound. When I am in the middle of a project, outings can seem forced, like interruptions to my lists that keep me from doing what I have purposed to get done.

Sometimes I envy people who have regular jobs. I think that it must be nice to get dressed up in the morning and put mascara on and pack a lunch and head out to an office where you know people. And then I think about early Monday mornings and traffic and meetings, and I am reminded that I love what I do. I love being mostly in charge of my schedule and working on projects that I value and not having to get dressed up and wear mascara and go to meetings.

But being a writer (or a freelancer or probably even a stay-at-home anything) can sometimes feel like a rather solitary pursuit. You make your own lists, you plan your own time, you are left to find your own community.

It can be tempting in the solitary life to hide away and just plug through the lists that pile up. I know that some of you have days and moments when life is very thick, and in the middle of it all, hiding away or burying ourselves in the things that need to be done sometimes seems like the best—or at least maybe the easiest—solution.

But this week I was reminded of another truth about being a writer (or maybe just an overwhelmed person). While the pursuit is at times solitary, the construction of the life of a writer (or really anyone at all) is anything but being alone. In my submerged state, lately I have been searching for material. I have been too in my own work, slugging through projects. As some of you know, I am in the process of publishing a book, and with that adventure comes lots of lists and things to do. I am so excited about it. When I pick up my manuscript and flip through it, I can’t wait until you all can have it in your hands to read. Because while I may most happily create in solitary spaces, I write so that people can read. I think at some level we all write or create or do whatever we do so that the people around us engage with our life.

For me, what I lay down on the page emerges from people, from interactions, from those moments when I am not alone. Perhaps if I were a philosopher, I would write from the depths of my own mind, my ruminations that dive deeply into my own perceptions. But I am no philosopher. I am a writer who writes to ruminate and reflect on what I see in the world around me. And if I am going to do that, I have to open my eyes and see the world.

The last few days have delighted me. I was overwhelmed, and if I waited for that list to be gone, I think I would never leave. So instead, I took it upon myself to venture out just to breathe and see what is around me even though the list is still there. I sought out beautiful spaces, places I enjoy and where I feel refreshed. And in those adventures I have been blessed to run into wonderful people. I saw an old friend, and we poured over a cookbook together, admiring the beauty of a watermelon torte in all its perfectly pinkness while we chatted about our lives and what changes in a year. I was thrilled to have another friend explain to me the wonder of slow-cooking pork belly and in the middle of that conversation challenge me to take a risk when I wasn’t sure if it made sense, which of course it may not. But my dear friend reminded me that that is the beauty of the risk. To step out and maybe lose, but to take that scary step out into the beauty and invite the win.

My close-to-home adventures this week included dealing with rush hour traffic to go to a friend’s book talk for her brand new memoir about life and cooking and family and everything else in between. And there in the middle of rows and rows of other people’s writing far, far away from where I grew up, my husband and I met a guy who went to the same college I did, and we chatted with him and his wife and were reminded of home and history and things we love.

And then there was the moment when I met up with a group of people for a dinner. I was the outsider, invited by one person in the group, and I wasn’t sure that it was for me, and yet it ended up being so nice to sit and talk and hear about the lives of people I may never see again. To talk and connect and see the world just a little differently because of the stories that other people tell.

I think that is what makes our lives richer. To take what we know and what we see and then listen and learn about the way that other people make sense of this world. This is beauty. This is life.

I took the long way home one afternoon this weekend, a detour through traffic into a part of town that I love to visit where there is a delightful French Asian bakery. It was not a special day. It was a Saturday, and I had forgotten my wallet, and I had to scrounge around for change in the glove box, but even with all of that, I spent a few minutes in a deliciously warm and wonderful place where people pile buns and rolls with fillings I have never heard of onto trays The refrigerators hold fantastically beautiful cakes, and with the quarters scavenged from the car, I bought a mango mousse, just because I love them, and they are beautiful, and they are not on my to-do list.

I pushed further into the space of letting myself enjoy. I chose to go out for coffee when I really could have gone home and worked. I chose to let the laundry pile up some so that I could let my mind relax as I poured over a collection of exquisite cookbooks at my friends’ beautiful café. Just because they are lovely and they give me space to be and to revel in beauty.

Today I wanted to see the sun. I wanted to pull myself away from the long list of emails and to-dos, and so I headed over to that same lovely café run by my friends, a beautiful, homey space where I can drink amazing coffee and let the sun drench my skin. And in those moments, when I was sitting at a rustic wood table working away on an art project that is dear to my heart, a friend walked by and we began chatting about horses and trans-Atlantic flights and learning to live in the space where you are. She encouraged me, she reminded me of dreams, and she laughed with me until I did not feel alone.

I know that it’s not easy to get out. Really I do. I know that pulling myself away from my work or my things around the house that need to be done or even just the coziness of my couch and my Netflix account can be hard. I know that life can be crazy-busy and pile up to our necks and almost choke the will out of us. And I know that some of you feel that way too.

But this week, I have been reminded that it is worth it. It is worth leaving some things to wait because if we are honest with ourselves and we take a step back, some things can wait. They really can. Even when they feel like they can’t.

And in all these moments of beauty, I have also been reminded that community is a real thing. A real thing that I need. Not just so that I have something to write about, but so that I remember who I am. Community is not something in a book that we try to define and wrestle and make happen. It is something that happens when we venture out into the world and let ourselves be in the spaces where other people are. When we say hello to the person sitting next to us or when we listen to the person who just needs to talk.

And in those moments when we have set down our lists and let ourselves have fun and enjoy the world around us, we leave space to be refreshed. We laugh, and we give ourselves the space to hear truth and love. And we take risks. Knowing full well that people may not be kind or loving and it may rain while we are wandering around, but that life can be beautiful, and sometimes we just need to do what my friend reminded me this week—to step out and maybe lose, but to take that scary step out into the beauty and invite the win. Because otherwise we might be so alone and in our lists that we forget that life is beautiful and people can be kind and we are all in this together.

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