How To Plan For The Worst Day Of Your Life
My life is ruled by order, but when my sister died, I realized there are some things you can never plan for.
When catching up with a friend or acquaintance I haven’t seen in a while, there’s one main question I want to ask, but I rarely ask it.
The question is: Can you describe an average day in your life right now?
On the one hand, it is far too banal. On the other hand, far too intimate.
I could give you the same absurd level of detail about every day of my life for the past decade.
On April 28, 2008, I woke up at 5 a.m. to write. I taught a class from 9:25 a.m. to 10:40 a.m. I held office hours from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. I photocopied the jury questionnaire. I found out I got rejected by NYFA. I emailed Rosanne. I met with Jason at 1 p.m. I met with Tiffany at 1:20 p.m. I taught a class from 1:40 p.m. to 2:55 p.m. I met with Alyssa at 2:55 p.m. I picked up my paycheck. I met with Amelia at 4:30 p.m. I intended but failed to pick up Adam’s suit. I read three stories. I added Bubble and Paradise Now to my Netflix queue. I revised a story. I mailed the jury duty forms. I intended but failed to read the revisions.
4/28/2008: any old day. But preserved, precisely, absurdly, in the paper amber of my planner.
I first started keeping a day planner when I was in elementary school. I remember returning home from school, flopping down on the carpeted floor of the basement, penciling a list of the homework I had to complete, and then doing it all as quickly as possible so that I could erase each item from my planner until the day was spotless again.
My older sister (born perfect, apparently healthy and normal) had long had a profound handicap due to the rare neurological disorder Rett syndrome.
By the age of 11, I had begun losing my hair (always remarkably thick, remarkably lustrous) to the autoimmune condition alopecia universalis.
I enjoyed (clung to) order.
Every night, I made a list and left it beside my bed so it would be the first thing I saw in the morning.
Item one on the list: WAKE UP.
My family teased me about it. But I was thrilled to have figured out a way to start the day a step ahead of the game, one task already completed before my eyes were fully open.
Ten years ago, as I approached my 25th birthday, I found that my longtime habit of writing and then erasing the tasks of each day no longer yielded the sense of relief it had in the past. Rather than feeling as though I was moving through each day to arrive at the end unencumbered, I now experienced the erasure as a loss, an intentional redaction of the only significant record of my life.
On the morning I turned 25, I stopped erasing. Instead, I started to cross each item off, the words still visible behind the line.
My fascination with the infographic “The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People” (based in large part on Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work) will come as no surprise.
The categories of activity included on this chart are:
Though I am desperate for a chart that includes the category CHILD CARE, a chart representing the daily schedules of writer-mothers (this one includes only two women and one mother), still I enjoy knowing that Milton exercised for three hours a day and that Murakami wakes at 4 a.m. to write.
But what I love most is the Flaubert quote included at the bottom of the chart: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
It has been nearly three decades since I read Arnold Lobel’s Adventures of Frog and Toad. Now, I return to this old favorite with my 3-year-old daughter. We discover a chapter called “A List,” in which Toad makes “a List of things to do today.”
The first item on his list? “Wake up.” I have no memory of having stolen this idea from Toad.
Go to Frog’s house
Take walk with Frog
Play games with Frog
Go to sleep
The problem arises when, on the walk with Frog, a gust of wind pulls the list out of Toad’s hand.
“Help!” cried Toad. “My list is blowing away. What will I do without my list?”
“Hurry!” said Frog. “We will run and catch it.”
“No!” shouted Toad. “I cannot do that.”
“Why not?” asked Frog.
“Because,” wailed Toad, “running after my list is not one of the things that I wrote on my list of things to do!”
My daughter laughs, and so do I.
But also I am thinking: Have I been limited by my devotion to my planner? How many times have I completed something not for the joy of the task but for the joy of crossing it out in the planner? Haven’t I, within two minutes of parting with a friend, opened my planner to cross out, with satisfaction, that person’s name?
My planner: my treasure, my trap.
I am not recommending life by planner. I am just confessing that I know no other way.
I wish there was some way to have accurate, up-to-the-minute data quantifying the most mundane facts of my life: Exactly how many calories have I consumed since I was born? How many hours have I slept? How many miles have I walked? How many orgasms have I had?
As though some critical information about my existence might lie in these statistics.
I am charmed by Fitbit and its fellow life-tracking gadgets, but I’m talking about something far more comprehensive. I think I’m talking about god.
Between January 4, 1966, and the time of his death in 2014, the artist On Kawara created a series of nearly 3,000 “date paintings,” which consisted of the day’s date painted in simple white letters on a solid background.
The first time I saw one of the date paintings in a museum, I was entranced.
In On Kawara’s obituaries, the typical tally of life (December 24, 1932–June 27, 2014) was replaced by the information that he had lived 29,771 days.
My husband says, “What did we do all those years before we had kids? We lived in Brooklyn for almost a decade before she was born and I have like two memories from that entire time period.”
I could tell him, of course, most everything we did. But that’s only because I have my cheat sheet.
Anyway, his point endures: we are awash in time.
On June 4, 2007, I worked on creating a new syllabus (read Lahiri and Singer). I intended but failed to complete a long boring series of tasks related to our upcoming wedding.
On June 4, 2008, I emailed Margaret, called Atlantis, wrote a 340-word story, prepared for day three of the summer class I was teaching, completed the paperwork for advanced fiction, cleaned the house, bought groceries, welcomed my mother who arrived at 2:30 p.m. from Colorado, went to the bank, took the portfolios to Brooklyn College, copied the handout, got chalk, taught from 6:10 p.m. to 7:55 p.m., had dinner with Mom, emailed friends re: Friday.
On June 4, 2009, I intended but failed to submit something for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize. Adam and I went to the dentist at 10 a.m. I worked at my administrative job from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. I emailed Phyllis. I submitted the grades. I contacted Deborah and Lisa. I met up with friends at 7:30 p.m. at DeKalb and South Portland.
On June 4, 2010, I was in San Francisco visiting my younger sister. I helped her organize her new apartment. Genevieve arrived at 10:08 a.m.
On June 4, 2011, I wrote Rachel a happy birthday email. We were in Albuquerque for my book tour for And Yet They Were Happy, staying with Audrey and Grant. I wrote thank-you emails to Garcia Street Books and Ron and Jay and Mona and TNBBC. We flew from ABQ to OAK on Southwest Flight 2351, departing at 1:30p.m. and arriving at 3 p.m. I tried to come up with a title for my middle-grade book. We got Indian food for dinner.
On June 4, 2012, I had a baby.
July 29th, the record shows, is often a day of leisure, frequently involving late-summer travel or the preparation for it.
On July 29, 2007, I emailed Hotel St. George. I made a plan to make a plan to finish planning our wedding. I intended but failed to call Jon. I intended but failed to replace the shower curtain. I bought a gift for Jeff and Claire. I tutored Finneas from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. I tutored Olivia from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Genevieve and Danny came for dinner.
On July 29, 2008, we launched: the Green River (Gates of Lodore), three nights out rafting the canyons of Colorado into Utah.
On July 29, 2009, we flew from LGA to DEN (9:36 a.m. to 12 p.m.). I intended but failed to read Shelli’s story. I sent many emails.
On July 29, 2010, we got in a cab at 4 a.m. We took United fFight 0405 from LGA to DIA (6 a.m. to 9:36 a.m.). I worked on the wedding toast. I watched Mom’s Rett syndrome speech. We bought Adam running shoes. I paid the mortgage. We went to Wyman’s at 2033 East 13th Ave. at 7 p.m. for Genevieve and Danny’s rehearsal dinner.
On July 29, 2011, I wrote. I packed. I saw Meema at noon. I paid the mortgage. I paid the maintenance. I went to the bank. I cleaned. I mailed the contract. I sorted the mail. I tried to find someone to get the mail and water the plants while we were out of town. I emailed the Bookettes. I sorted the photos. I remembered Hempel/Eisenberg/Harvey. We got on a ferry at East 35th St. at 4:45 p.m.
On July 29, 2012, my sister died.
There is the question of how to represent certain events in the planner.
June 4, 2012: I colored the square bright orange with a highlighter. I drew a decorative border, a sort of exuberant star, in black pen around the critical information: my daughter’s full name, the time of the birth, the weight and height, the name of the hospital. I wrote down a list of the day’s visitors: my parents, my younger sister, my brother-in-law and his girlfriend.
July 29, 2012: I sent the emails. I ordered the photos. I called Jardin. I cleaned the shower. Then, 1,800 miles away, my older sister died. KAT—GREAT SADNESS I wrote in huge letters. I colored the day with a blue highlighter.
How vulnerable I feel, revealing this to you.
What childishness: the pencil lines, the pen lines, the highlighters. A diligent school girl, studiously and misguidedly pressing to paper the most basic classroom tools, doing the wrong task for the wrong assignment at the wrong time in the wrong universe.
Whenever I think about what will happen to my Facebook page, my Twitter handle, my Gmail account when I die, I feel dizzied by the thought of the virtual residue that my generation will leave in its wake, the evidence and the mess. This digital record makes it seem harder to ever achieve closure; there will be, waiting in one’s inbox, the thousand-plus emails to which one intended to someday turn one’s attention.
My planners, I know, will lie on the shelf where I have placed them, containing exactly what they contain, the concrete evidence of my hours, the things I did and the things I didn’t do, tallied.
Concrete evidence made of paper?
From a distance, the paintings that hang in the Agnes Martin Gallery at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, give the impression of blankness. Large and pale, bearing only the lightest of lines, they appear so serene, so orderly. Agnes Martin is striving, it seems, for the divine: the impeccably erased day in the planner.
But get close and bear witness to the evidence of the hand, the fingers always shaking slightly from the movement of blood within, the failure of the pencil, the error of the human, the impossibility of drawing the perfect line.
“A world in which time is absolute is a world of consolation. For while the movements of people are unpredictable, the movement of time is predictable. While people can be doubted, time cannot be doubted. While people brood, time skips ahead without looking back. In the coffeehouses, in the government buildings, in boats on Lake Geneva, people look at their watches and take refuge in time. Each person knows that somewhere is recorded the moment she was born, the moment she took her first step, the moment of her first passion, the moment she said goodbye to her parents.” —Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams
On July 28, 2013, I was in San Francisco. I was supposed to read Kafka. I was supposed to stroll Valencia with Tamar and Noah. I was supposed to work on my syllabus for ENGL 7911.
Instead, I spent the day beside my younger sister, in labor with her first child. It was a home birth. At 11 p.m., the midwife said that my sister would have to get ferocious if she wanted the baby to be born on July 28. My sister wanted her daughter to have her own birthday, not shared with Kat’s death date of July 29.
My sister is ferocious. The baby was born just before midnight on July 28.
In the earliest hours of July 29, 2013, one year after Kat’s death, when my still-bloody niece lay like a shipwrecked sailor on my sister’s body, I sat in a rocking chair in an unlit room down the hall, nursing my own 13-month-old daughter and crying hard in the dark.
And in the planner? Yellow highlighter, black pen, an extravagant border surrounding my niece’s newly given name.
Helen Phillips is the author of four books, including the recently released short story collection Some Possible Solutions and the novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015.
To learn more about Some Possible Solutions, click here.