NOT unlike many of my contemporaries, I suffer from lethephobia. To be sure, the word may be unfamiliar, but if you're of the generation that remembers Franklin Delano Roosevelt and thought of him as the president, you know the symptoms quite well. Lethephobia is the fear of forgetting. Lethe was one of the rivers in Hades, near the entrance of the underworld, the other being Mnemosyne, the river of memory. Lethe was the river of oblivion, producing in those who drank of its waters a forgetfulness of the past. And so, lethephobia.
To be candid, the signs of it did not await my gray hair. They appeared very early in my life, and, without consultation, I came upon the only remedy yet developed. I took to making lists.
Lists have become as much a part of my life as brushing my teeth or washing my face. I could no more live without making lists than I could without putting on my pants in the morning. I keep lists in little books that I am constantly buying, at candy stores, supermarkets, stationery counters, rummage sales, and charity bazaars. In fact, I am addicted to little books, hard cover books, spiral books, flexible books, books with crosshatched pages, and books found on hotel room desks.
I keep lists on scraps of papers, calling cards, corners torn from magazine pages, old bills, store receipts, library cards, auto registration forms, deposit slips, prescriptions, cancelled checks, and even dollar bills.
These I stuff into every one of my pockets, in suits, shirts, bathrobes, jogging shorts, swimming trunks, coats, jackets, sweaters, mackinaws, and ponchos. Those in my shirts give my wife particular difficulty, and she berates me continually for the stains that appear when the ink runs on the otherwise spotless cotton.
I write lists at all times of the day and night - while I'm at my desk, of course, but also when I'm eating, shaving, reading, watching the tube, engaging in conversation, viewing a movie, walking, tossing and turning in my bed, criticizing the children, writing a letter, yawning, playing with my grandson, mowing the lawn, and taking out the garbage.
I even wrote lists while driving until I learned, the hard way, that it was difficult to watch the road when looking down at a scrap of paper. After that unfortunate incident, I bought one of those little tape recorders, which I keep on the seat next to me when I drive. I take it wherever I go, never knowing when I'll be called upon to drive a car. It would be just my luck to forget it on the day when I had the most creative thought of my life. I'd never get over that loss. Better to carry the microrecorder.
Periodically, I collect my lists from all my pockets and little books, smoothing them out, trying to read my writing, recalling all the wonderful things I've noted, jokes, the items I forgot to buy, list or no list, people I promised to call, letters I have yet to write, appointments I foolishly made, books and movies that have been recommended, phone numbers of people I no longer remember, and bills I must pay, now long overdue.
From these, I make a master list, culling those items that are still alive, that still seem important, that deserve more thought, that carry with them some governmental penalty, that involve family matters, or that might just bring in a little money.
This task I set aside for a time when I can spend at least an uninterrupted morning, for discarding any list item is painful and traumatic. Each one is precious to me, a landmark of experience, a memorable encounter, an interesting thought, or, at the very least, a tiny victory in my battle against the dread lethephobia.
On those few occasions when I cannot spare a moment to add an important matter to my current list (and these occasions do occur despite one's best intentions), I suffer terribly. The rest of that day is spent in painful concentration, in stressfully trying to relive the moment, in meticulously reconstructing the circumstances, in fretfully phoning to others who were present, and who, inevitably, cannot recall anything that took place that seemed noteworthy in the slightest.
I cannot conceive of living without making lists, for I have come to believe that lists have a quality of their own and say a great deal about the world view of those who make them. A list is the shorthand of one's life, a mini-journal that captures the present, saves the past, and enables one to distill meaning from the curious and random exigencies of life.
And now, I can no longer procrastinate. I must move on to other things. That is, if I can find the list I made this morning.
Irving Kamil is a free-lance writer and principal of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Intermediate School in Bayside, New York.