Tearing Up the Checklist

Writer Alix Kates Shulman discovers a liberating revelation late in life

by Alix Kates Shulman
woman reading illustration image
Photograph: Illustration: Joohee Yoon

In my youth, I wanted to see and read and know everything. I kept a notebook with plans and lists, which, even as I checked off the items, kept growing longer. Then one day I realized that since the human life span is limited and I could be in only one place, and read only one book, at a time, I would never be able to complete my checklist. That the ideal must give way to the real was a major liberating discovery of my later years.

Starting when I turned 50, I spent summers alone on an island off the coast of Maine in an isolated cabin without electricity, plumbing, phone or access to a road. With no bookstore available, I decided to browse the motley collection of old books I found in the cabin, and with the island’s only grocery store an hour’s walk away, I began foraging for greens and shellfish. Great was my surprise to find that these constraints, far from limiting my pleasures, expanded them. At low tide I collected periwinkles and moon shells, sea lettuce and lovage. At night I read enthralling novels by Rosamond Lehmann and Arnold Bennett that had never graced my lists.

On that island, time slowed to the rhythms of sun and tide—the opposite of my usual pace. When traveling, I’d always tried to cram in every possible experience, studying the guidebooks and pushing myself from morning to night to see everything. To relax on a beach meant missing something else. But now I know that no matter how thin I spread myself, I can no more see all the sights of Barcelona than I can live during the French Revolution. Then why not spend a whole afternoon at the church of the Sagrada Família or sip a café con leche along the Ramblas?

Back when achievements beckoned and the world seemed limitless, I dwelt in the future. Now, understanding the limits of what’s possible in a lifetime, I am free to concentrate on what is right in front of my nose: this book, this spot on earth, this very day. Realizing the vast infinity of what I must fail to experience during my brief life has freed me to see the folly of regret over what I might be missing. I now know that nothing is missing.

My friend Margaret, my soul mate from the day we met when I was 40 and she was 53 until her death 31 years later, taught me another version of this late-life lesson. During our many intense discussions of love, family, politics and truth, we sometimes fervently disagreed. We usually debated until we achieved harmony, but occasionally neither of us would budge. At those times my wise friend, aware that such fundamental questions can no more be resolved than the future can be known, would rescue us by clapping her hands and announcing with a laugh, “Since this conversation is endless, we might as well end it here.”

Now that I too am an octogenarian, with Margaret’s free spirit in mind, I try to do as I like. Not that I’ve abandoned my lifetime habits or commitments, but now I embrace them for their own sake—writing each day for the pleasure of expression rather than to enhance my career; caring for my terminally disabled spouse out of love, not hope. Since inheriting my daughter’s old Kindle, I find myself reading with fascination her downloads of science fiction and obscure poetry—confirming yet again the lesson that time has taught me: that fulfillment is not about lists and plans but about remaining open, moment by moment, to life’s startling serendipity.

Alix Kates Shulman’s latest books are the novel Ménage (her fifth) and the collection A Marriage Agreement and Other Essays.

Next: The Upside of Acting Your Age

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