List: set down, arrange, bill, catalogue, schedule, enter, note, place, file, tally, inventory, enumerate, index, slate, keep count of, run down, call the roll.
A list of words synonymous with “list” taken from Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, first published in 1852, nearly 40 million copies have been sold.
While this indispensable reference tool, this midnight companion of generations of students sweating term papers and intimate muse of poets crafting verse, from Dylan Thomas to Sylvia Plath, is as familiar a brand name as Coke or Kleenex (or very nearly so), few people know anything about its author, Peter Mark Roget, the 19th century multi-talented intellectual explorer — physician, physiology expert, mathematician, inventor, writer, editor, and chess whiz — and what motivated him to write this classic book.
Some years back, self-described language enthusiast Joshua Kendell published his fascinating, and a little creepy, biography of Roget, The Man Who Made Lists, chronicling both the story behind the creation of the Thesaurus — the Latin word for treasure or treasury — and, as one reviewer put it, the bizarre and obsessive character who came to rely upon words as companions and in doing so, made an unmistakable impact on our culture.
We are told that Roget was preoccupied with words ever since he was a schoolboy, completing the first draft of his thesaurus in 1805 when he was only 26 years old. Working as a doctor in Manchester, England, he cranked out a thick rough draft in less than a year. But it took him until his retirement at the age of 69 to prepare the book for publication. He worked nearly four years on it, continuing to rework his opus until his death at 90 in 1869, having lived to see some 28 editions.
For Roget though, this was not the only list he kept. There was his Lists of Beasts and Lists of Principle Events, and as the passing of friends and relations began early and mounted, his Dates of Death. These lists, these meticulously kept catalogues, this anal retentive, compulsive stream of words, was, according to his biographer, the primary means by which he preserved his own sanity.
Overwhelmed by the early death of his father and the mental instability of his mother, Roget buried himself in books to cope with his sadness and anger. As a boy surrounded by what was then bluntly called madness, he discovered that compiling lists, in his case lists of words, provided comfort. Immersion in the nuances of language both energized him and lowered his anxiety, perhaps literally saving his life.
This man who came to rely on lists of words as companions reminded me of a member of a congregation I served, whose wife and family told me when he died about the lists he kept. In fact, they showed me one of his notebooks filled with records of virtually everything he did, including what he spent and on what. A lifetime of keeping count and keeping track.
Which impressed me very much. And made me somewhat, or maybe even a lot, envious.
You see, I am for all intents and purposes incapable of making lists, practical ones anyway, let alone retaining them. In our family, even the most mundane grocery lists are a comedy of errors and omissions — if we make them at all, inevitably critically needed items are not included. If we remember to write down dish soap, we forget laundry soap. If we actually make a note to buy dog food, we forget the dog biscuits. In a good week, when the two adults in our household make a special effort at organization, both of us remember to put milk on our lists, so one of the low fat quarts wind up spoiling in the refrigerator. And so it goes.
I have managed to create a list of the states I have visited, all but Alaska, and a list of countries, having reached 29 just this past summer; spending quite a few dollars and one pretty dull day half a dozen years ago ferrying from Argentina to Uruguay, walking around a few hours in a dusty little port town to add to my country count in as painless a way a possible. But even this list is kept only in my head, and the chances of omitting one of the places I have visited is fairly high, if not inevitable.
This list-making deficit is not genetic, if my father and brothers’ lives are any evidence.
My father began keeping lists of birds he had seen, beginning as a boy in Boston, where the hours he spent in the public parks were an escape from the dreariness of the Great Depression, the small and getting smaller apartments his parents could afford, the arguments over money, the few pleasures. I imagine that this avocation, which really became his lifeline, provided both freedom and control for him, freedom to wander and a means to put create some order in a personally and globally chaotic time. Let alone simply the joy of cataloguing and through this more deeply appreciating the natural world.
Lynn Thompson, who wrote a wonderful memoir, Birding with Yeats, the name of her son, noted that there is a big difference between watching birds and becoming a birdwatcher.
If you are a serious birder, I have learned, you want to keep a list of the sightings when you bird watch. Your life lists, according to common practice, should be kept in a designated bird watching journal. A life list is a record of species you have seen over time, each entry noting the particular bird (not just a junco but a black-eyed junco), the date, the location, and any notes you want to add.
Depending on your personal preferences for how to organize your findings, you can choose to keep one central list or separate lists, as you see fit. For many bird watchers, apparently one life list is simply not enough, so they may be broken down into house lists — those birds sighted around your home — yearly lists, state lists, trip lists — journal for particular bird watching vacations or tours — and wish lists — a list of birds you haven’t seen but hope to, which you then cross off as sightings occur.
Heard-only lists. Since in the world of competitive bird list keeping, if you only hear a bird but don’t see it, you can’t officially count it.
And then there is the annual Christmas count, started in 1900 in England as an alternative to the traditional and very popular side hunt, which involved going out Christmas morning and shooting every wild bird and animal one came across. The alternative holiday adventure, invented by an ornithologist — a bird scientist — involves counting them, rather than killing them.
Now held in the weeks around Christmas rather than Christmas day proper, upwards of 1,000 of them, 50,000 bird watchers every year.
Thus in my family of origin, the days each December of a missing father and brothers, husband and sons. Cold or dried out dinners. Complaints about bird widowhood.
Even in light of the understanding that the information gathered in these counts has told us so much about our native and wintering birds. How house finches have spread. How mortally damaged water fowl species are seen less and less each year.
I knew about but had never seen my father’s birding life lists, allegedly up in the many hundreds of birds identified throughout his 89-year lifetime and all over the world. I knew he kept year lists, the competition was keen among birders of his stature, and things got pretty tense if he found out that one or another of my siblings’ list was getting close in any given 12-month period.
That is why it was so striking and moving to me that when a big manila envelope stuffed with papers my dad had kept arrived in the mail some months after his death, in addition to an astonishing number of the cards, letters, and personal photos I had sent him over the years were several of his bird trip lists — one from Kenya, one from Riding Mountain National Park, a checklist of the birds of Manitoba, carefully marked up. He had seen the Arctic Loon, a Whistling Swan, a Yellow-Shafted Flicker, a Bay-Breasted Warbler. On the bottom of the last page, there was a note that he had seen 113 species in two days. He must have been thrilled, both on the ego level and in the way it connected him to the non-human centered universe.
I don’t know where or whether his actual cumulative birding life list is, but if it has survived him and if it is ever found, it will assume biblical status, at least for me.
This notion of keeping lists as both a practical, psychological, and I would argue as a spiritual practice is perennially popular. Published in the mid-1990s, List Your Self: Listmaking as the Way to Self-Discovery was marketed as a way of unlocking the door to personal identity, giving us tools for being seen, a strategy for being heard, arguing that list-making is the road from unknowing to knowing, with no guru necessary, no therapist, no special diet, no need to suffer. All you needed was a pen or a pencil and time enough to fill in this inventory of personal secrets, fears, and desires. And there you are, big as life, in list form. Remember “Know Thyself,” the authors asked us.
Try List thyself.
Urging us to get past the obvious enumeration of stuff we need to get done: pick up resoled shoes, find a box of barbecued pigs ear for the dog, call mom, kill snails, and write the IRS, they invite us instead to try listing all the times we have experienced something remarkable in our lives. To list the qualities we love about being human. List what always makes us laugh. List the transitions in our lives that taught us the most. List the places we’ve visited that have altered our views of the world.
List the things we must do before we die.
The movie Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson chronicled the adventures of two men, who upon given medical death sentences, set out to check off activities from their bucket lists, that is, wishes they wanted to fulfill before they kicked the bucket — in my view, mostly obvious male-bonding things like sky-diving and Hollywood fantasies like flying to Europe for dinner.
This less-than-inspirational film has however spawned a lot of creative blogging activity, asking what a list like this might include generically, one blogger proposing that our lists of lifetime gotta dos necessarily include travel, fun, dining, and personal development, something you want to say you did before you died, and then also something that adds to the depth of your character and makes you a more interesting person.
Rabbi Schuley Boteach has described the coming of a New Year as humanity’s wake up call, a kind of a perennial time to make those ultimate bucket lists, lists of our greatest yearnings and highest callings. To, in his words, awaken humanity from its slumber and complacency, alerting us to the need for personal and collective renewal. To annually assess our lives, how they are spent and with what intentions.
He describes two kinds of renewal, horizontal and vertical. Horizontal renewal and the lists we might make of this involve the kind of pasttimes I have been speaking of — where we shop and what we shop for, where we vacation, what movies we have seen. Even what birds we have seen. Not in themselves bad things to do, wrong things to list, but only one kind and a limited kind of renewal. And this is not the basis upon which we judge our own human progress or are judged in the ultimate sense.
There is also, he tells us, vertical renewal, by which we reach deep into ourselves and unearth new and exciting dimensions of our personalities.
This is real renewal, he teaches us: outward toward connection with that which is most universal, most expansive, and inward toward the infinite depths of the human soul.
This is the list we are called to make at this time of renewal and growth, to keep the whole year long:
In what ways have we been spiritually nourished, moved inward, to plumb the depths, to find our true essence?
In what ways have we been connected with universal wisdom? In what ways have we worked to heal our interdependent communities and to protect this fragile interconnected planet?
Just as the coming of the Jewish New Year and indeed what we might call the Gregorian or common calendar, New Year calls us to resolutions (sometimes kept on lists), so does Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. As we light our candles, we may examine how its themes of courage and freedom show up in our lives.
In this time of Advent in Christianity, as the purple and pink and white candles are lit, we may look at and list how we are living out its themes of hope, preparation, joy, love, and redemption.
Even as we are sickened and disheartened by the other tragic and maddening lists we see being made all around us — how many dead by war and terrorism and gun violence:
Now is the time to ask our hardest questions, to make our holiest lists.
These are, after all, the lists we live by.