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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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December 2010 Archives

First Things First

Even without the colored lights going up on houses all around my neighborhood, and the cheerful glisten of freshly fallen/plowed/shoveled snow, I'd know what season this is. I'd know because of the "to-do'' lists on my dining-room table: As the days shorten, my lists grow longer.

I am a chronic list-maker, anyway, and this post-Thanksgiving season always requires extra ones, until I am enmeshed in a list extravaganza:

First, there is the permanent holiday master list, which I wrote out a few years ago on a 3-x-5'' card under the heading, "How to Have a Good Christmas'' and stashed in my recipe box, a leftover from 8th grade home economics at Nokomis Jr. High School. (There's plenty of room in there, since I barely cook).

But a recipe card isn't very big, so I have to have other lists, most of them sticky little afterthoughts on a fringe of Post-It notes around the edges of a yellow legal pad. Or two. Or three.

I can see several of them right now.

There's a list of presents already bought and stockpiled (read: "squirreled away'' over the course of the year and possibly forgotten).

The list of presents still to buy.

The sequential list of steps for gift-wrapping (it starts with "find stockpiled presents").

The holiday card list (also broken down by task: buy stamps, write rough draft of annual letter, actually FINISH rough draft of annual letter, address envelopes, actually put cards and letter INTO the envelopes....)

I usually get about that far in my planning and then wander off, feeling overwhelmed. Even with lists, it's too much to keep track of. Clearly, it's time for a bit of triage.

What comes to my rescue -- as the tasks multiple and the lists lengthen -- is a lesson I learned from rehabbing an old house in historic Galena, Illinois.

It's a 20-year-old lesson now, but every year at this time I discover it anew, and it dovetails with something I first heard from my grandfather, when I was about four: "First things first,'' he used to say, and even then, I understood what he meant, though list-making was far in the future.

Galena is a post-card-pretty historic village about six hours' drive from my home in Minneapolis. I'd fallen in love with the town while on a newspaper assignment and eventually bought a ramshackle wooden farmhouse there, to fix up and live in full-time "someday.''

When you can get to your dream home only a couple of weekends a month, and then only for a few days at a time, the frustration of unfinished projects becomes a torment.

(Even with the help of friends and family, it took nearly 10 years to finish work on the house - long enough to make every "new'' improvement look old and for many of them to need re-doing. And full-time "someday'' still hasn't come.)

There was never enough time to do everything on a given weekend's list, and as each short visit drew to its close, I would hurry to cram in more work before I had to drive north again to get to the office on Monday morning.

The house eventually taught me that 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon -- with that six-hour drive home still ahead - was not the best time to start repainting the kitchen.

It was also not the best time to start cleaning out the dirt-floored garage (which, by the way, is like sweeping sand off a beach).

Nor to start pulling up the linoleum that somebody glued to the old pine floor in the upstairs hall.

Nor to start trimming the front shrubs (because that will lead to the back shrubs, and that will lead to the discovery that a bittersweet vine I didn't know was there is growing into the window air conditioner).

Not even to start planting 50 tulip bulbs. ("I just have to dig 10 holes, and then I'll be done." Except that it will take an hour and a half. Maybe more. I timed it.)

On one such Sunday afternoon, when a good friend had come along to do a kitchen project - putting in an electrical outlet for the microwave, I think - I cheerfully announced that I was "just going to start...'' and named yet another must-do item from my Galena list.

My friend put down the pliers, took me by the shoulders and said, very firmly, "No.''

There was no way I could finish it before we had to leave, he said, so I would feel bad about it all the way home, and it would continue to hang over my head till the next visit - just like last time, and the time before, and the time before that.

Instead, he insisted, "Pick something you can have success with right now.''

That sentence remains one of the most helpful pieces of advice I've ever gotten. Even better than "first things first,'' since it helps define what "first'' ought to be.

It trumps all my lists, whether they pertain to painting a room or wrapping gifts or packing for a trip. I pass it along now because this is the time of year when I most need to remember it.

And on that note, I am going to take my dogs for a long walk in the snow, make some cocoa when I come back inside, and cross this column off a list. That'll be success enough for now.