Do You Have A Life List?

Do you have a life list? Earl, of television’s My Name is Earl, has a list. So does Ellen DeGeneres and Beyonce, and apparently millions of others as well. According to an article in the NY Times this morning, life lists are becoming the tool busy people are using to give order to their lives and move toward goals they might not otherwise accomplish.

The website asks visitors to “Discover what’s important, make it happen, share your progress. Find your 43 things..” It offers to help you complete the task. Given the demands on our time, the stresses that most of us feel, and the tendency of a lot of U.S. citizens to be workaholics, making a list of the important things we’d like to do before we die is probably a good idea.

Making a list is a variation on an older method I’ve used, first as a skeptic because I’m not much into visualization exercises, but later with appreciation. The list not only brings focus, it raises to consciousness important thoughts, wishes and desires that get buried in the mix of our everyday activities.

I was out of a job, facing the prospect of no reliable income and needing to move quickly to set a new direction. I sought out a career counseling service that specialized in developing career plans and one step was to collect articles of interest. We were also required to interview people in fields that attracted us, the idea being that these efforts would identify subjects we had passion for, and it was good research for skills needed in the marketplace. It also made it possible to network with people. However, the most unpalatable task for me was the requirement to visualize an enjoyable project or activity we’d like to do in the next five years and write about it. But this became the most valuable exercise of all.

I think it was unpalatable because it seemed a bit “airy fairy.” I was without a steady job, I didn’t have time to dream. I needed practical, concrete steps to get myself employed. But, the visualizing turned out to be a practical, concrete foundation for action, much to my surprise. I visualized sitting in a room overlooking Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and writing. I also visualized producing a documentary on street children in Brazil. I had no clue about how to make these things happen, and truth to tell, didn’t even know where the image about writing In Addis came from. It was pure daydream. But I had heard about ancient stone churches in northern Ethiopia carved from rock deep in the ground, and I had filed that interest way down in my subconscious where it lay undisturbed for many years.

What emerged was my desire to produce documentaries with an interest in people in the developing world. Because I had been doing film, video and photography, plus writing, this wasn’t new. But it seemed highly unlikely to me at this low time in my life, when I needed to get on the stick and support a family, that producing documentaries in Ethiopia and Brazil would put food on the table. Never the less, I began to make contacts and met a few people who shared this interest. Over the course of the next several months, some of them pretty bleak and discouraging, these contacts led to others and I found supporters who were willing to help find funds for a documentary on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Later, I met with some mothers from Brazil visiting New York and heard their stories about street children being murdered by vigilantes. They wanted the story told, but had no money and no prospects. Neither did I.

So I filed that away and set about putting together the documentary on Ethiopia. The funding developed and we were in production for nearly two years. I found myself sitting in an apartment overlooking Addis writing a treatment, and later a script. The daydream became a reality. (Actually, because the government of Ethiopia was a cruel, tightly controlled Marxist machine, working in Ethiopia was a nightmare but that misses the point).

As this was wrapping up I received a call to talk with a church group interested in telling the story of seven street boys who were massacred in a “safe house” in a suburb of Sao Paulo. It was a horrible story. A nighwatchman hired to protect the kids was bribed into letting gunmen enter a social service center that gave the kids a safe room to sleep in and they were murdered in their sleep.

We worked out a research trip and I went to Brazil, stayed with the street workers and kids for two weeks and began to get a handle on how to approach a documentary on the tragedy of these children. Funding was arranged and within a few months I returned and produced the documentary.

I think the value of the list, or visualization, is to bring focus and specificity to inner yearnings that get submerged in the rush of daily living. If we draw aside and let these inner yearnings rise to the surface they become important and more attainable. I suspect they must be realistic. I had more contacts who shared my interests than I recognized in my depressed, panicked state, so my submerged documentary ideas were more attainable than I thought. Visualizing had made them more than mere figments of imagination. Research gave me necessary background. Networking made the contacts required. It’s an interesting rode to empowerment and fulfillment.

So, airy fairy or not, I suspect list making is a good thing. I’m stopping this essay now. I think I need to start making a list.

One Response to “Do You Have A Life List?”

  1. ken carter September 6, 2007 at 5:45 pm #

    this is really excellent; i am teaching a writer’s workshop at junaluska this fall, and this helpful, but moreso, it strikes a chord personally. thanks for writing about this practice.

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