List Making as Life

By Elizabeth Stuelke

I’ve started making lists as I’ve left my job of three years, now that my husband is in his last year of training, and I am thinking of where to go next with my goals: career and otherwise. I’m making lists of ideas to write about, so I won’t forget the topics I want to discuss, for publication or just for myself. I’m making lists of things I want to do and things I want to see.

I’m making lists of places to move. Things we want in a place we move to. The type of place we’d like to live. A city, a university town, somewhere on the edge of an agricultural region, a wine valley, in the mountains, in a rain shadow, in a community where we will be invited to join in…as if our newness will vouch for our likeliness to be good and interesting people.

I look at these lists from different directions, using different “frames.” What do the kids want, need, or expect in their new life/town/future? What do my husband and I, having dreamed of this time for the past 15 years want out of our permanent home? I ask this as if there is still such a thing within our comprehension, after years of travel for pleasure, work, relationships, family, and boredom. The last of which has me the most spooked about the eventuality of that dream of settling down being fulfilled.

I ask myself, as some of you may as well: what happens when you get to the end of the longest road you’ve been on as an adult – training for a medical career? And you don’t get there alone, or even near the same as when you started. You aren’t alone. You’ve gathered kids (2), a husband, his debt (hundreds of thousands), added to yours (still only in the 5 figure range), you’ve got household items and many forgotten “treasures” (purchased at deep discounts so they’d fit into your medical school/resident/intern budgets, but still afford you the glimmer of normalcy), in hopes to one day have a room, or dare you dream, a house to showcase it all.

What if when you get there, you place all those lovely things you’ve schlepped from coast-to-coast (yes we’re contemplating that big of a move) in the hopes they’ll “match” – as they were all bought at such different times. It’s anyone’s guess if the hoped for adherence to basic taste will prevail. What if they don’t make a meaningful, coherent, or even sightly array of a life, but just a mishmash?

This all makes me think of lists again. I have been making lists of things to write about, because, you may have surmised, I’ve had lots of memorable things happening over these years, and even some tragedies, these most recently, but the brain cells, for want of a better phrase, are not as “up to the task” as they used to be. So lists I make. But I’m choosy.

I want to remember all those days when the kids were young, of course, but not the everyday, more the stages. These were similar to other kids’ stages, to be sure, but unremarkable in some ways as they may be, they still locate me in my memories anchored to a time and place. And the longer ago they are, the more they are marked with my tired refrain, as I recall it: “it’s only a stage.” (Spoiler alert) Except when it’s not.

The topics on my lists range from the mundane to the unfortunate or inevitably traumatic. One surprising and interesting topic on my lists: “when he decided to go back to medical school,” comes to mind as a place to begin.

This one tops the list of “early kid years” because it was at precisely noon on the 28th day of Morgan’s 1st month when he asked me to take a walk (we were at my parents’ for the Christmas holiday), and told me of his grand yearning – brought on by Morgan’s birth and helping his mother into assisted living (when Morgan was the ripe age of one week) – to return to medical school.

His aim was to fulfill a dream ended 15 years prior when he felt no real compulsion to finish medical school beyond that which he could name as a duty: to finish what he started or complete a dream his family may or may not have had for their son of the town doctor (His father passed away a few short years before).

Now, he told me, his list of reasons was much closer to the bone, as it were. He felt the tug of medicine as he was awash in the ebb and flow of life, as played out before our eyes with Morgan and his mother, and now felt it within the reach of his influence. He felt he had something to give. A mind, a sense of caring. If not for patient care directly – as this was not his thing, he was fairly sure – then in the pursuit of those unseen science and art interstices he had been dealing with for so long in his art, having finished his MFA after he left medical school all those years ago.

He felt as an artist, he told me, he could do only so much. As an artist he could research and delve into the mysteries, not to be too dramatic, of what is unseen and so important about being human (the connections between life/death, art/science, vision/the invisible, mind/body), but with medicine he could use his intellect to help solve of those questions.

And in his pursuit, though it would be hard (neither of us knew the extent to which that would prove true) and long (though at the beginning the length of the undertaking can never seem as arduous as it’s travel will prove), I supported him (even through the disbelief of my family and friends).

We talked often of how we were working together to make it happen, he made lists of things to do to get himself back into the world of medicine – now much changed and promising a two-plus-year ramp-up – before entry into his first choice: Cornell Medical College in Manhattan.

To say the list making paid off would be an understatement. The lists, plus the years of hard work, the sacrifices, the doubts, the belief in his non-traditional path and what it could lend to his training and eventual embodiment of a physician, all coalesced on that afternoon in our 300-square-foot studio apartment in Turtle Bay (34th and 1st Avenue), when he told me to give our two-and-a-half-year-old to him so I could read at the computer the email he wasn’t sure he could believe. He was accepted to the class of 2010 and the rest, as they say, is history, which may or not be related here or elsewhere, but I digress.

The lists I now contemplate, the house in the college town, possibly within walking distance to the downtown, which will have little shops, a college bookstore, a performance space or two, dramatic and cinematic theatres, a museum (or two), a space where possibly we could open our own business, someday, because as I say, the idea of boredom is looming over me as I make these lists and remember how we got here.

I now maneuver our choices to be just so – we want to make sure we choose wisely. But I ask myself: How will I settle down? How will I live when I get there? Will the list making be over? Will my search for the perfect future be finished?

I’m sure I will find lists to make, wherever we land. We’ll have to furnish the house, we’ll have to get to know the neighbors, find the park, the playground, the horse stables (Morgan has decided to become an equestrian – and I’m all for it), the community organizations – which I may or may not want to work with/at/for, etc. – I’m not sure I want to commit again to something other than my lists.

The lists have become a crutch of sorts. But as I think of the cathartic role they’ve played in all of this, I realize it’s not a bad crutch. In a way, the crutch is helping me heal, not from this somewhat humorously presented case, but from some of those memorable events that I am not talking about right now. Not yet. They are on my lists. I will get to them in time.

For now I heal. I write. I list. And, I thank my husband for understanding this period of list making (as he did my nesting in his artist studio when we were first together in Baltimore, before actual thoughts of marriage had solidified in either of our minds, and he could have changed his). As he did then, he seems to understand that my “making” is a part of how I think. I have to think to act. I am not a spur of the moment person, except after deep, prolonged, and often contradictory (just ask him!), thought.

List making is sometimes the best thing we can do. And at the end of training, in our last year as “PGY anythings,” my lists are keeping me afloat.

Elizabeth Stuelke

Elizabeth Stuelke has been living with her artist-turned-physician husband, now in his last year of training in Radiology, for 15 years. She has been writing for longer than that. They have two children: a girl age 11 and a boy age 8. They live now in Baltimore and Central PA (respectively, Elizabeth in Lewisburg with the kids). Elizabeth began her career in the arts, has worked in the corporate world, views her kids and family as her creative work for the past 11 years, and now finds herself somewhere that feels like a beginning. Contact her at [email protected], and check out her husband Satre’s most recent artwork at


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