“When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”
─ African proverb
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”
─ Roy Batty, Blade Runner
In 2008, a number of significant life events converged that spurred me seriously to ask myself what it means to be alive. I had turned 45 that year, thereby entering my “mid-life” phase. A relapse of acute leukemia meant I had to endure stronger doses of chemotherapy, total body irradiation, and a bone marrow transplant. My 6 year old daughter had just started kindergarten and my 3 year old son started his 1st year of pre-school (we were living in Japan at the time).
Each round of chemo required that I spend six weeks in a hospital ward, allowing me a lot of time alone to ponder the “big” questions. Because religion has never played a large role in my life and I’ve called myself an atheist since high school, my thoughts mostly centered on the mundane and practical: are my health and life insurance plans in order?; are our finances effectively structured to support my surviving family?; is my living will up-to-date?; am I satisfied with where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, and what I’ve done?; will my kids remember me?
The last question was the hardest to answer and I realized that my only regret about dying then is that my kids would grow up not knowing much about their dad. As a student, I was quite active in civic and public affairs, but grew increasingly private as I got older, so few people knew me outside my circle of family, friends and co-workers. I had neither the talent nor the creativity to write “the great American novel”, so I knew that I was leaving little of my unique individuality to posterity. Was there anything I could say or do in a short time—while confined to my hospital bed—that would make any difference?
My family visited me every afternoon during my extended hospital stays. During such visits, my daughter often played her “What’s Your Favorite?” game, where she asks the rest of us questions like, “what’s your favorite color?”, “what’s your favorite movie?”, “what’s your favorite animal?”, etc., until we’re all sick of answering. It occurred to me that one way for my kids to know who I am (or who I was) is to write a list of all my favorite things in the world.
The project started simply, as merely a list of things I like. But as the list grew longer, it became more complicated. It was hard to pick just ONE favorite for each topic, so I started creating categories of things. My focus on this project grew in intensity, and it evolved into a record of more than just my favorite things–practically a memoir of my experiences, only in a list format. I even started doing on-line research to “fact check” names, addresses, dates, and other references. The research became quite involved, but the best thing about the project is that it was still fairly easy to write.
The project is now called “My Life Lists”. At 40+ pages, it’s still a work in progress—I continue to add to it and edit it occasionally. Here are a couple of examples:
- My favorite movie scenes
- “A Year of Living Dangerously”: Guy and Jill in an outdoor café get caught in a sudden downpour
- “Star Wars—A New Hope”: Luke gazes at a binary sunset on Tatooine
- “Fifth Element”: an alien opera diva sings an excerpt of the “mad scene” aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
- “Gallipoli”: Archie and Frank climb the pyramids of Giza
- My favorite culinary experiences
- Ryouhei Sushi (Tokyo): salt sherbet; frozen basashi (raw horse); grilled whale
- Honeymoon trip dinner at L’Auberge Provençale in White Post, Virginia (1997)
- “Canadian” Christmas dinner at Carmen Fournier’s house (Augsburg, 1989)
- Dinner with Ptarmi at an Amazon jungle lodge, by lantern light and with monkeys running around us (Peru, 2000)
Additional sample topics include:
- Continents and countries I visited (and cities)
- U.S. states (and cities) I visited
- Favorite music/soundtracks by genre
- Best Friends (sorted by location)
- Favorite sports/physical activities I do
- Cars owned/borrowed (from parents)
- Favorite language expressions/bon mots
I also included wish lists, like:
- Things I want to see happen in the world by 2050
- Life Lessons I want my kids to learn
I recommend compiling your own lists if you’re looking for a way to record a bit of your life experiences and personality traits. It requires less time and resources than scrapbooking or cataloguing a videography, and less commitment and effort than starting a full-fledged book or a diary (though I’ve kept a daily journal for the last 15 years).
What ideas have you had for preserving that library that is uniquely you?