Ten years ago, just before my 25th birthday, I fell into a state of despair. Looking out of my bedroom window, still hung with a blue batik from college, my life suddenly seemed very far from the one I thought I should be living.
In retrospect, my life was actually pretty nice at the time. I lived in Brooklyn with my two best friends from high school, saw a lot of my college friends, and spent most evenings companionably in bars or on the futon. I took vacations. And I had a job, which was hard-won in 2003. As a marketing coordinator for an architecture firm, I spent my days writing about “architectonic iterations,” simultaneously hand-binding color brochures and battling the deep existential anxiety well known to many an upper-middle-class college graduate (think Girls).
While I knew I was lucky in life, I primarily felt ashamed at how little I had accomplished since college. I was not writing, and I hadn’t kissed anyone since a tall Texan architect during the Great Blackout months earlier. Despite the undeniable romance of that blackened, steamy August night, our kissing had been lackluster — even limp. I wondered how people found boyfriends or meaningful jobs in New York City, which felt vast to me, and cold.I wanted to take steps to improve my life but, somehow, even doing the laundry felt impossible. Overwhelmed, I called my mother, who suggested that I make a list of everything I’d told myself to do that week and then try to accomplish it all in the next six months. I doubt that she could have anticipated the results, which I promptly wrote in my journal, in bed, in a spell of self-critical madness. I didn’t tell my mother about the list, and managed to forget about it myself, for years.
I remembered it again when I was 29. I was lolling in bed in that same Brooklyn apartment, dreamily composing my morning to-do list (roll over, drink water, check phone, get up…), which got me thinking about my habit of thinking in to-do lists in general. I wondered if I’d managed to do everything on that old to-do list in five years, let alone in six months. So I got out of bed and riffled through the jumble of old journals on my bookshelf, and found the entry almost immediately. Amused and chagrined, I typed it up for future reference.
This year, on its 10th anniversary, I revisited the list. And at 34, I find it longer and more demanding than ever: To Do, the list begins. 1. Get boyfriend; fall madly in love. 2. Have lots of sex. 3. Find satisfying, challenging, meaningful job — preferably writing. 4. Publish article in a newspaper or magazine. 5. Write a children’s book. 6. Write the Harrods story.
Ten years later, 1 and 2 remain a disappointment. And I never wrote a paragraph a day of 5, as planned, although if I had, it would be a trilogy by now. But I did manage 3, 4, and 6, which is about my first months out of college in 2001, working as an elf in London’s famous department store. In 2006, I wrote a funny story about it, but not as funny as David Sedaris’ elf memoir. So I wrote a more reflective version in grad school, in 2008, and published it last month, 12 Christmases later.
The list goes on: 7. Paint in oils. 8. Go to life-drawing class 2x per week. I took a few oil-painting classes over the years and went to a few life-drawing sessions, although not twice a week or even every year. As it turns out, time is limited in adult life, what with working, walking the dog, and trying to cook dinner.
Then the list veers into ambitions I’ve all but forgotten. 9. Take a beginning acting class. Or, given my very real dislike of running — 10. Run a half-marathon. — dismissed as just not for me: 11. Run 4x per week; at least 16 miles per week, preferably outside in the morning.
The list mentions some things I did actually accomplish: 12. Volunteer to work with children. 13. Travel — live abroad or in the mountains. 14. Write about above experience. And that I didn’t do: 15. Apply to lead Student Conservation Association trips and Experiment In International Living Trips. And that age did for me: 16. Go to dermatologist and correct chin pimple problem. And that, against all odds, I managed to do for myself: 17. Have dental X-rays sent to new dentist and check on insurance reimbursement.
Then the list really gets demanding: 18. Keep in touch with everyone in my life — including Bette, Adam, and everyone in London and Boston. 19. Learn French; become fluent in. 20. Learn Spanish; become fluent in. And embarrassing: 21. Get prescription for stuff to eliminate fungus on left foot. It itemizes completely approachable household tasks that, a decade later, I still haven’t approached: 22. Put photographs in album. 23. Make curtains for living room, frame all prints; water plants.
The list begins to repeat itself, like a demented life coach: 24. Run marathon. 25. Go on dates 26. Cook lovely meal 3x per week. It goes wild with self-reinvention, time and money be damned! 27. Buy new shoes, pants, shirts. 28. Make new friends — accomplish by: 29. Going to synagogue. 30. Joining a running group.
Again with the running.
Then the list reins it in, suggesting reasonably, 31. Do laundry. 32. Change cell phone plan & get new phone. 33. Stop biting nails. I still haven’t stopped biting my nails, perhaps due to anxiety caused by… oh, I don’t know…which apparently prompted the list to advise: 34. Find good therapist & do analysis. And then, just to be mean: 35. Lose 20 pounds. I actually came close to accomplishing this goal precisely once, due to a spell of anxiety in 2007. No running groups were involved.
The list grows mellower toward the end. Its vistas expand, opening into the farther future beyond its lunatic six-month regimen: 36. Teach in the San Luis Valley (in Colorado). 37. Do something brilliant — just brilliant. 38. Get married. 39. Have kids. 40. Live near Anna (my sister), parents, near old friends. 41. Buy country house together. 42. When old, old lady, live by the sea.
After reading the list, I want to reach back in time and give my former self a hug, although I imagine that she’d rather slap me.
How come you still haven’t figured it out? my former self wants to know.
At 34, I have not published a book or gotten married, which would have surprised me at 24. In my rare imaginings of my thirties, I pictured raising children in a Victorian house and writing novels, like the heroine of an unwritten sequel to a romantic comedy by Nora Ephron. I couldn’t know, then, how long building a writing career would take — how life never grows to fit a template. Instead, I tell my former self to consider all that we have accomplished: living in India! Staying in touch with (almost) everyone in London and Boston! The health care reimbursement Excel spreadsheet! But she’s not convinced.
Well, I also have criticisms. From the vantage of wildly unaffordable 2013 Brooklyn, my former self’s priorities seem skewed. To wit, number of resolutions concerning personal appearance: nine. Making money: zero. Why no money? At 24, I wanted nothing more than to share that bright, dusty apartment with my best friends and, if I really wanted to travel, my dad gave me frequent-flier miles. I was from a background so secure that I never gave my finances deep thought — never chose a job that offered a neat corporate equation, in which intelligence plus effort yields money. Instead, deeply fortunate to have the choice, I worked toward a “satisfying, challenging, meaningful job — preferably writing.” I now teach writing full time at a university and write on the side. This choice came at a price, though: I cannot afford to rent my own apartment in the city I love too much to leave. So, I sometimes wonder if I should regret the biggest item on my to-do list I achieved.
What does that say about setting big life goals in the first place? This question is pressing because very soon, I will turn 35, and I want to make the right choices this decade. Perhaps I should sit down right now and make another, better, bigger big to-do list, setting my core priorities and new professional goals. And then I can craft a plan for working toward each of these goals incrementally, every day. So that when I am 45, I will have no regrets and all of the laundry will be done.
But re-reading my old to-do list, I also see the problem with making such far-reaching resolutions. With thinking we can truly master ourselves, ordering our lives as neatly as a grocery-shopping list. Or believing we can tabulate success. The problem, I think, is not just that our ideas of success are often generic, misguided, and lifted from someone else’s Facebook page. The problem is that if we view our lives through the lens of achievement, we end up fixating on all we should do rather than all that we have. In retrospect, the biggest mistake I made at 24 was ever taking those long weekend mornings with my roommates for granted — ever ignoring how privileged I was, and how free.
So maybe there is only one real way to read my old to-do list: as a messy portrait of my former self, a girl who wanted to fall in love, be a writer, and stop biting her nails. I can only look back at her with compassion and extend that compassion forward, to the self who still does.
Read more from the Fresh Starts series.