October 1, 2011 Off

TO DO: …

By in plans of action

The beginning of another month tingles with potential and the incredibility of time passed.

Five months ago today I moved from Atlanta to Chicago. Twelve months ago today I was planting swamp grass in Louisiana.

Seventeen months and one week ago I moved to Atlanta from Madison, the city where I grew up and lived for most of my twenties.

Our first night in Atlanta we slept on a pile of towels and bunched up sweatshirts on the floor. We owned only what we could fit in a Toyota Corolla. We’d quit our jobs as entertainment reporters (Great Recessions and Double Dips be damned) and whittled down our belongings. At first, we sifted. A neatly packed bag for Goodwill, a book passed on to a friend. In the 36 hours before the move, the purge grew manic. We dumped CD jewel cases on the curb, tossed the sentimental but goofy souvenirs that somehow survived every other move, and stopped by friends’ houses with twitching eyelids and sacks of food. Here, take this. Stick of butter, half-carton of milk, some carrot sticks, bag of flour. You can use this, right? Hate to see it go to waste.

In a new city with no bed and empty walls. I’d fantasized about that moment for years.

My obsession with new beginnings started young. It’s the planning that gets me high. I was making to-do lists as soon as I learned to spell. The early ones went like this: “Make bed. (Check.) Brush teeth. (Check.) Practice piano. (Check.).” They were so detailed, my mom joked I should add “Pee.”

In high school I began making diet plans for myself. Almost every night, I taped a new to-eat and to-do list on the pull-out extender above the top drawer of my desk. Hidden but easy to access in the morning. By the next afternoon, I’d be full of secret mac ‘n’ cheese and ripping up today’s list to make room for tomorrow’s.

By senior year, I was devising Plans Of Action (POA for short) with my friend Mandi. POAs listed everything we needed to do to make our lives less mundane and more awesome. We sat in her bedroom, photos of Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and baby Frances Bean taped to every inch of the wall, and self-consciously sucked on clove cigarettes while we contemplated how excellent our lives would be after we got out of high school — away from the cliques, the petty graffiti on bathroom walls, the parents who lived in grim standoff and the dull sheep we sat with at lunch who already knew they wanted to be engineers and were discussing the pros and cons of “early acceptance.” The POAs lit up a fantasy to keep the day-to-day more bearable.

I wonder how many thousands of times in my life I’ve written TO DO in all caps, underlined for emphasis. It’s like the first sip of morning coffee, the euphoria of possibility. It needs to be written with the right utensil — a well-juiced pen, ideally — and in neat penmanship. If I screw up, I’ll crumple the paper and start again.

Of course, I’ve never actually finished a to-do list. The irony of compulsive planning is that it falls apart almost immediately, save a few rare cases. Instead of setting me on a trail where I check off tasks like Mario collects gold coins, I change course and then take another hit to fix my addiction. I used to think the solution was to go cold turkey on the list-making. Now I’m more accepting. Lists are meditative. So what if not ALL the things get cleaned? They will. Maybe not in the order I envisioned, but they will.

So these are the things I think about on the first day of each month, especially here in the North as the cold weather blows in the next season. I’m looking through old journals tonight, and came across this entry from November 1, 2010.

“The sun shines at a hotter angle down here. It was in the ‘70s, warm enough for bare legs and sandals but not so hot that a parked car turns into a suffocating oven. In other words, perfect. This is what we were waiting for, this is why we moved down here. The Awl this morning posted a lament of November: “Unfortunately, It’s November.” Not here. Maybe in Madison. This is always when it started to chill and get ugly in Madison. Even earlier than this. I relied on that chill, the death of the leaves, crisping of the grass, icing of the air. It signaled that summer was over. The fooling around, the hot-season fun was over. Time to focus. Funny business done.

“Here, I don’t get that signal. The tilt of the planet keeps Georgia rolling on in a sunny cocoon. Sure, it’s gotten colder, fall is in the air. But it’s not as foreboding, as menacing as in Wisconsin. Seasons jerk you into remembering time. Six months have passed. Winter is almost here. Thanksgiving, Christmas. Time marches on.”

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