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Drink This Smoothie

Katie Shepherd
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The exhibit A Life in Lists and Notes begins, appropriately enough, with lists: replicas of five-thousand-year-old clay tablets about bakery items, suggesting that humans have been marking down what’s on their minds for a while. Next are laundry lists, medical-procedure checklists, an encyclopedia, and a food rationing card from 1940s Paris: lists as records. Moving through the exhibition, it becomes clear that lists and notes do not share a single purpose, and their point, if there is one, lies in their potential. Housed in a secluded, aged barn in Glover, Vermont, these once-useful tools, now on display at the Museum of Everyday Life, can be arranged by their intent: 

Love inquiry: “Want to kiss?” is written in pen on a folded slip of paper. A brief romance was sparked by the question in 1985. The anonymous donor was offered the flirtation inside an orange rind peeled in a single, perfect spiral. The rind duplicated for the exhibit has been overtaken by mold. 

Directive: “Someone drink this smoothie!” makes its demand on a small square of paper. Clyde Watson, who submitted the note, along with several other housekeeping requests, is quoted on an accompanying placard: “Some [notes] I keep because they can be reused in the future—ever hopeful that with enough repetition, the desired effect will someday be achieved.” 

Urgent update: “CAT IS OUT” is marked in red on a door hanger either by someone or for someone who, I assume, forgets such details. Perhaps the cat’s location is a point of contention within a family, and the purpose of the door hanger is to avoid its loss. 

It is hard not to become invested in these small dramas, in particular the light bulb on which someone has scribbled “Burned out?” In note after note, list after list, they are expressions of various wants—to remember, to name, to organize, to communicate, to act.

Amid so many desires, it makes sense that, of all the museum’s calls for contributors over the years, its request for lists and notes received, by far, the most submissions. These calls, which go out each year on Valentine’s Day, reflect its larger aim: to catalog life through the contemplation of what is unglamorous but still consequential. (Previous calls have included dust, mirrors, pencils, scissors, and knots.) Typically, contributors send one or two items. For A Life in Lists and Notes, curator Clare Dolan riffled through hundreds of submissions, including entire personal collections kept over years.

My parents keep collections of their own—notepads and pens positioned around the house—though they don’t regard them as such, and would blanch at submitting them for public examination. Taped around his desk, my father’s notes are informational in nature: “WiFi Password”; “Cardiologist’s Phone Number”;  “Steve’s Address.” My mother, on the other hand, jots instructions to herself mostly on a pad that lives next to the stove: “Water Tomato Plants”; “Mail Wally’s Birthday Card.” My own to-dos are more like hers, plans of sorts. Instead of doing the thing right away, we remind ourselves to do the thing. 

Encounters with lists and notes found in other museums are often presented because they are historical, or are in some way exceptional. Museumgoers peruse what is now stored behind glass and held in reverence. At the Museum of Everyday Life, the opposite is true. The artifacts do not lead to any grand-scale outcomes. No one is fussing over what Annie was referring to when she wrote “because you NEED these.” Instead, these lists are the cumulative hum of small actions. We are confronted with the impossibility of noting everything and with the awareness of all that ends up getting missed. As such, “duplicate keys” on an errands list becomes less about the keys and more about time spent. 

The references to time continue. A sheet of blue paper is filled with a record of minutes swum in the summer of 2006. Placed on top is a small yellow sticky note listing additional minutes that passed. Elsewhere, “I LOVE YOU AND AM PROUD OF YOU” is written on a strip of paper—a reminder to seize opportunity before it’s gone. Then there’s a framed sonnet by Cathy Muller that ends, “I want to do it all. But can I? Nope.”

The list can also function as a kind of proof. Mary Ruefle kept a diary she called her “cryalog” while she was suicidal during her early days of menopause. Of her process, Ruefle explained, “‘C’ stands for the fact that I cried, the number of C’s represents the number of times I cried, and ‘NC’ indicates that I did not cry on that day.” Lists can also serve as the mode of narrative progression. In Susan Minot’s Why I Don’t Write and Other Stories, a writer catalogs the various reasons she cannot write. Hazel Jane Plante’s novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) moves through desire and grief from A to Z. Even a mention of lists in Teju Cole’s Blind Spot speaks to their ability to inform and propel: “Later on, I thought of the catalogue of ships in the Iliad.” 

One item in the exhibit stands out due to its incomplete arc. Embroidered on white fabric are the words “Come, dear.” There is supposed to be a next word. In its place, there is a hanging black thread. The note was intended to be an invitation from a daughter who wanted her mother to live with her. The corresponding placard is vague yet haunting: “The note was interrupted by an accident which changed the course of the future for all involved.”

Again and again, throughout the exhibition, I am moved by the ability of others to dig through their drawers and get to the post office. My everyday life has largely been a sight unseen over the course of the pandemic. I kept meaning to submit a list of my own to the museum—“Car Upkeep”; “Scene Development Needed for Next Draft”; “Possible Budget for Student Loan Repayment”; “Dog Stuff”—but like many things I mean to do, I never did. By the time winter arrived, listless became an unfortunate pun. 

Many of the artifacts in A Life in Lists and Notes could easily be trash, were it not for the fact that they have been held on to. Rather than clutter, what has been written down reflects what concerns us. Sometimes it is to remember to pick up eggs. Other times it is to remember how many eggs a recipe requires. Considering all there is to do, to say, to keep track of, lists and notes help us lighten the load. 

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