It was December 29, 2016. A bright winter sun pierced the spaces between the blinds causing me to wake up a bit earlier than usual. I opened my eyes gently and did not move, unwilling to disturb the warmth and coziness of a perfectly placed down comforter and pillows. Slowly I eased myself up just high enough to greet the day. I took a breath, smiling to myself, in no hurry to move further, totally relaxed. Looking over at my night table and seeing the usual items in their place – lamp, water, book, glasses, phone and ToDo list notepad, I realized something was very different. At first, I couldn’t figure it out. This strange feeling. Not bad at all. In fact, lovely. I looked again and saw that there was nothing on my notepad. I had forgotten to write my list for the day the night before.
For most of my adult life I have kept calendars and lists. Multiple ones, actually. The one beside the bed reminded me as soon as I awakened of the things I had to do that day. The calendar on the bedroom wall kept track of dates and times for the month. And the large graph hanging next to the refrigerator was my purpose for being. Divided into four sections – day, week, month and year end. My success or failure rested on accomplishing the items listed in the order they were listed. I would cross out the tasks completed with a green marker that hung on a cord from the cardboard poster. Each time I crossed something out, I sighed with relief. My life was well organized. I was doing what I was supposed to do. Everything would be all right.
I never questioned this way of life. After all, I reasoned, life had to have a purpose. And mine was clearly defined. A mission statement of sorts. The longer, more detailed and difficult the tasks, the better. It meant I was becoming a more accomplished person, someone of value, someone I could be proud of. Having a purpose, finding my purpose, was my quest. I read about it, attended seminars, wrote and rewrote it. What was almost never a part of my plan was taking time to find pleasure in the completion of a task. It simply meant that it was time to set a new goal.
There were a few occasions when I deviated from this behavior. The first was shortly after my divorce. I decided to change jobs and move as well, not even considering the potential for derailing, which I did stupendously! It was a year before the calendars went back up on the walls. I thought of it as a “lost year,” when what it really was, in hindsight, was my first break from a structure so rigid it had kept me from knowing myself. I discovered a new Carole, and moved into a new life. But the old habits returned. And the new me found a new purpose and more challenging tasks. And more lists.
The second time was a business failure. I was devastated, financially and emotionally. My self-worth plummeted. I decided to “fix myself” by using the last of my savings to spend 10 months traveling in Europe, South America and the US. No lists, no calendars, and often, no watches. I loved the idea of being an explorer, a woman traveling alone to places her friends would not dare to go. I saw Machu Picchu, the gold museum in Bogota, the beaches in Rio. I spent 10 weeks in Italy and rented a Vespa. I drove to the top of Mt. Washington, and from the Blue Ridge Parkway to Smoky Mountains National Park. In all that time, I had only one unpleasant encounter. I met kind, fascinating people. The more different they were from me, the happier I was. Once again, I found a new Carole. It was, in truth, a magical time. And when it ended, and I resumed life as a working woman, I did so as an empowered woman. The lists were longer. The calendar barely had an empty day.
Two other times provided reasons to pause in my ongoing search for completion of purpose. Both involved moves. Not far. But a world away.
My father had Alzheimer’s and was living in Florida. At first, he managed with at home care. But as his condition deteriorated, he went to live in a step-up facility that could provide better care. I decided that I would leave my job, sell my home of 26 years, and relocate so that I could be closer to him. It was an emotional decision, totally devoid of practicality. To put all of this in place, I moved to a nearby apartment complex, hoping to make the tasks of finding new employment and a new place to live in Florida easier with less financial and maintenance responsibilities at home. I signed a one year lease, and set about rearranging my life. During that year, I was surprised to find that I was happy in my apartment. It had two bedrooms, a great location, nice neighbors and allowed pets. My life was simpler. My friends, most of whom had never lived in an apartment, thought I was crazy. After all, owning a home was normal and what you were supposed to do if you were successful. It did not matter that I lived alone, had no family, and traveled for work a great deal. Apartment life, they said, was weird. I said nothing, but was disappointed and hurt by their response. As months went by, my father’s condition worsened and he no longer knew who I was. It was heartbreaking, and trips to Florida left me exhausted in every way. I renewed my lease, living in limbo. And then my father died.
I remained in that apartment for 15 years. I began to work as a consultant, travelling internationally, and did very well. My lists and calendars now had to accommodate various time zones. My purpose was to succeed in a world where very few women did. I was focused and relentless. A new, improved Carole.
And then the economy crashed. Consulting jobs were fewer. Travel was more expensive. And I was older. In need of a change. Tired. Longing to be home. I decided to move again. I would remain in the same apartment complex, but downsize. I chose a one bedroom/den with working fireplace and a large balcony that overlooks a stream, trees and walking trail. Very private. I set up my bird feeders. And set myself up as an independent consultant, working largely from home. It suited me. My lists had fewer to-do items. My calendar was still full. But some of the days were classes I enrolled in at the local JCC. Concerts. Day trips to places I had always wanted to go. My task was to find balance. How to support myself, continue to do work I loved, but explore new areas in my life? It was difficult. I found I lacked the skills needed. How to make new friends now that work relationships were over? How to endure the loneliness now that every minute was no longer accounted for? Most of all, who was I, now that the challenges, goals, successes and failures of work no longer defined me? What was my purpose?
And then I retired. It wasn’t part of the plan. Neither was the illness that seemed to come out of nowhere, affect my mobility and energy level, my finances and identity. I still maintained the to do list and calendars faithfully. But now, they reflected doctors and physical therapy appointments. Meetings with a counselor to help me navigate my end of life planning and consider where I would live if I could no longer remain independent. Seminars about ageing. The dates of the funerals of beloved friends who all seemed to disappear from my life in an instant. There were still the fun things too, but it looked as if they were written in a lighter color on the paper; the hard, sad things so much darker.
Now 2016 was coming to an end. I would be 72 in April. The year had been painful in so many ways. I had tried my best to find a new Carole. To learn the lessons the year wanted to teach me. But I was lost… until 7:30 AM on December 29. The morning that, surprisingly, felt so good. The day with no list.
When I finally sat upright in bed, I found myself looking at the dresser that sits opposite it. Victorian, it has seen better days. I found it in a consignment shop 30 years ago. It had been painted white but retained its lovely features: glass knobs, intricate scroll work, and a beautiful framed mirror. Just right for me. Still is. The dresser has moved 4 times. It has been in the foyer without the mirror which hung elsewhere, served as a stand for the TV, stood in the guest room, even in the dining room for a time. Now it is back in my bedroom where it seems to truly belong. It has been repurposed over and over because it suits me. Because it is still useful. Because it says “home”.
Repurposing – such a wonderful idea. If the base is strong, it can go on for years. Like me.
I think I have been repurposing for most of my life. Almost every decade. Some of the “new Carole’s” worked well. They fit my needs and suited my environment. Some did not. Placed where I did not belong. The lists, calendars and chart helped me to move to new phases of my life, kept track of what needed to be done, articulated my purpose. Over and over again!
But on this day, there was no list. And I felt gloriously free! My purpose is to be me. To be happy. To know that I am enough. No need to prove it. Of course, there will still be a calendar. Responsibilities will be met. But lots of dates will be filled with birthdays, special events, things I love to do. And there will be days that are left empty on purpose. It’s exciting and scary to live my life without a charted course, each day planned with precision, no room for the unexpected. So, here’s to a life without a To-Do List!
Wonder if I will be repurposing again in another decade?
Carole Leskin is a retired Director of Global Human Resources. Embarking on a second career as a writer and photographer concentrating on her personal accounts of aging, her essays and poetry, frequently accompanied by her photos, are published in Jewish Sacred Aging, Jewish Women of Words, Starts At 60, Navigating Aging ( a Kaiser Health publication), Women’s Older Wisdom, Time Goes By and Next Avenue. Her poems, “Father Time” and “Carole’s Debate” were selected for inclusion in the 2019 anthologies of poetry, New Jersey Bards. Her photos have been featured in Mart R Porter Nature Forum.