The List

By David Michael Newstead.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, I kept a list of things I wanted to do when I came back to America. And as time wore on, that list became long and fairly elaborate. To entertain myself and to stay motivated, I would rack my brain, coming up with pages and pages of categorized life goals – big and small.

Recently, I came across this notebook and it was interesting for me to see what I had written five years earlier.

Of course, the most extensive sections were all about food, which is typical of a Peace Corps volunteer. In exhaustive detail, I must have thought about every meal I’d ever eaten, dreaming of things like steak or frozen yogurt.

Eat vegetables all the time was one goal.

Cheeseburgers for a week was another.

I would fondly remember snacking on French bread pizza as a kid. And you really have to wonder about the physical and emotional state of someone who writes Eat French fries for one week as an actual goal to strive towards. But evidently that’s what was on my mind at the time. You’ll be pleased to know a normal amount of French fries was sufficient once I got back.

Apart from food though, these lists covered a lot of territory. Schools. Books I wanted to read. Movies I was eager to watch. Music. Possible careers. Random internet searches. Places. Plans for the future.

Today, I’m living some version of that future I’d been looking forward to years ago. But I had forgotten about the list. And five years later, it seemed as if that notebook proved to be more than a long checklist of things to do. It was like a personal time capsule of my thoughts and feelings circa 2009 – me at my most optimistic about going home and the possibilities waiting for me there. But after returning to the United States, real life took over and that didn’t conform to any list. The notebook was misplaced or tucked away somewhere. And I got caught up with work and moving.

When I read over it again recently, the list was fascinating and sad at the same time. There were some goals I had actually achieved in one form or another and some things I hadn’t. I had grown out of a few of my ideas. Then, there were just some opportunities that were missed. That optimism about returning home had quickly hit some stark realizations once I’d gotten back. About the nature of adulthood. About working. And about how impossible it is to step in the same stream twice.

In fact, a great deal of my list was about the places and people I had left behind when I went to Togo, thinking that they’d all be there when I came back. But it wasn’t the same. Really, my memories about my hometown and about college belonged to a specific time and place that I appreciated, but couldn’t recapture completely no matter how much I tried. Friendships ebb and flow. People move. Family passes away. That one bar or restaurant you remember having such great times in closes down. My list was really nostalgia on full display, warts and all.

For me, flipping through it five years later rekindled a feeling that so much is possible in life and that there’s still so much to be done. But more than anything, it reminded me of the good times you can’t get back and how great it is to remember them.

Of course, the real irony is now I have a list of everything I miss from Togo.