by Elizabeth Hemmerdinger | bio

Don’t tell me you haven’t been here, too. A virtual land, a foreboding forest of lists behind promises behind obligations, vanishing mirrors plastered over with sticky notes, purses spewing spitball quality missives, patterned with a cavalcade of check marks — with one thing always still to be done.

To-Do Land is the place I go to get away from going to the place I ought to go — deep inside myself. Straight on from Avoidance Alley to Guilt Gulch. And now, with the holidays and the imposed expectations that we’ll make everybody happy and everything right, the ordinary prospects of To-Do feels like a day at the beach. Yeah, well …

Last week we drove north to visit my sister-in-law and her husband (one of my husband’s dearest high school buddies), old friends in their new home, a harmonious house with a sensational view on the side of a mountain in Beacon, N.Y. They offered us, our daughter and son-in-law and their two little boys a wonderful New Orleans specialty — turducken — plus lasagna, salad and a variety of other goodies, including a Beacon specialty: pepper cookies.

We walked in the woods with their dogs; we left food in the field for deer and wild turkeys.

“So … you’re not afraid to be alone?” I asked on our walk.

“No,” said my sister-in-law, “nobody comes up here.”

“That’s it, that’s what I mean,” I said.

A city girl all my life, I see three trees together and think vast right-wing conspiracy.

I scan the hillside, the pond, the Newburgh bridge scanning the Hudson River. I make note that the platypus is back in my chest, beating his tail on my ribs.

“You’re all alone,” I said. “You’re not scared?”

“I’ve been alone most of my life,” she replied. They had married late in life, and work still takes him to New Orleans for long stretches of time.

“I’ve never been alone,” I told her. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Hmm,” she said wisely — and walked on a few steps.

I can’t remember ever having a conversation this intimate with my sister-in-law. Or anyone else, now that I think about it.

Later she said, in the nicest way: “We were talking, and we wanted to tell you we don’t need Christmas gifts. There is nothing anymore we need, and mostly we’re in the giving away mode. In fact, the greatest gift you could do for us is to make a donation to a New Orleans institution in our name. Now that would be really terrific. Something like the New Orleans Museum of Art or the New Orleans Police Foundation. Does that work for you guys?”

I’m an only child and lived at home until I went to college. I returned home to my parents’ apartment after college because I never imagined anything else — and because a job in a publishing company didn’t pay enough for anything more than prestige among my peers. I married at 24. I’m 62 now, and I’ve rarely been on my own for more than an occasional short trip to watch one of my plays in another city.

But I’ve spent countless hours in a timeless loop mired in the swamp of To-Do Land, organizing, energizing, filing, filling out lists, crossing things off lists. In this busy place, I don’t confront myself, don’t reflect on where I am or who I am. I just keep yanking my feet out of the mud, piling new tasks on The List faster than I can check off old ones.

I’ve known my sister-in-law for 40 years, since she was a girl. She’s found peace. Sunlight firing up pointillist autumn leaves blanketing ever so many examples of life hunkering down for another winter. Time. Comfort.

Listen, we’re all of us always searching. It doesn’t seem to matter where we look. The hustle bustle of doing serves to mask the calm of being.

Note to self: Change. That walk was a transcendental moment, and you ought not waste it. Slow down. Spend a few minutes every day in contemplation of good fortune, bounty and the grace of “giving away mode.”

Back here in my New York City apartment, I’ve several times taken a deep breath and stepped out of To-Do Land for a little walk in the woods. Where, one day, I might just get lost.

Join me? I hope you do. I’m still a little wary of the trees.

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  • Laura Sillerman December 4, 2007 at 6:11 am

    Pull down your sticky notes and paste this to your mirrors, everyone. It’s the Holy Grail for so many of us– the truth we seek that only Elizabeth could find with such warmth and humor.
    Laura S.