The List of Lessons

list of lessonsShe drew a thick black line down the center of a sheet of unlined paper.  On the left she wrote the names of people she’s known.  Some no longer played an active role in her life, and some impact her life on a daily basis.  Some stand in the periphery.  Others are knocking at her front door, and some sleep in the rooms at the back of her house.

They all carry clipboards full of notes.

A lot of the names appear on her Christmas card list.  It might be the woman she’d had coffee with on a daily basis in college, but now she was hard-pressed to remember the woman’s adult children’s names.  It might be the guy she’d lived with in college who made it hard for her to look her grandfather in the eye because of the whole “living in sin” thing.


The left column listed names of individuals – all of whom left a print on her life.

On the right side of the black line she’d write the lesson she’d learned from having known that person.

Their clipboards held notes on those lessons.  Some clipboards only held a single sheet of paper.  Other clipboards held a ream of paper too large for the clip to contain.

In some cases, she really knew the person.  And, oh, those were some hefty lessons – the spilling reams of  scribbled notes.

Whether she’d known them during her freshman year while she learned to make sandwiches and pay for books, or she’d known them for seven years and they’d taken turns sending in the rent payment, each provided a lesson.


The Lessons

Jan:  The woman who stood beside her making and wrapping sandwiches.  They’d end a shift smelling like onions and cheesesteaks.  Once the doors were locked, they’d share a cigarette, talk about their least favorite customer, mention the stack of homework waiting for them, and look forward to their next shift together.  They’d worked together for six months before she’d realized that Jan was a lesbian.

Jan’s clipboard held a single sheet of paper with the word “Love” written with the thickest black Sharpie and a drop-shadow.  Underneath, in delicate cursive, written with a fine-tipped Sharpie, were the words, “in all ways”.


AndyHis clipboard held a piece of paper with penciled writing that said, “Take a chance!  What have you got to lose?”


Marian:  The  woman who took a chance on her because she’d heard she liked to cook.  Marian taught her that learning comes from making mistakes.  With flour dust in her curly black hair, dangling purple earrings and Birkenstocks, Marian taught her to not be afraid to try a new recipe, mess it up horribly, and try it again.  She also taught her a thing or two about art, dressing to please herself and no one else, and wine.


Mark:  Mark’s clip can’t contain all the lessons.  He’s standing a little closer in – not as far out on the periphery as she’d like.  He’s struggling to pick up the papers that fall off his clipboard.  He’s writing new lessons as fast as he can.  He has clipboards for her kids, as well.  He is surrounded by reams of new paper, yet to be taken out of their paper jackets.  He has a basket full of Bic pens.   He never uses pencil because he never makes a mistake.

He writes and he writes.

And he writes.


Jen:  Her clipboard is covered in mermaids, the names of the members of her favorite band, and her BFF’s name.  She doesn’t write lessons, on purpose.  She uses the paper to draw, cut and fold.  She creates jumping frogs, perforated lanterns for night lights and lists of lyrics.

From Jen she has learned acceptance and the freedom that comes from pursuing the things you love.  From Jen, she has learned that art provides escape from the difficult parts of life.  Art can go a long way in healing a hurting heart.


Will:  Will is standing there with a fishing pole, a golf club and a pair of skis.  He can’t remember where he put his clipboard.  “Does it matter?”  From Will, she learned to enthusiastically embrace all the goodness this life has to offer.   She has learned to greet each day with a smile and an optimism about what may be around the next corner.




She was surrounded by characters holding clipboards.  Her life was full of lessons.

Some clipboards were easy to read.  Other clipboards required wading through crumpled papers before she could see a glimpse of the lesson.  There were a couple clipboards she’d yet to decipher.

As she created the list of lessons with each name on the left, and the corresponding lesson/lessons on the right, she began to get a clearer picture.

She started to see her life less as a series of failures and more as a series of opportunities for learning.

She could see how each clipboard pointed her in a direction.


In the meantime, Jen quietly shows her how to see the beauty in the lessons, and Will excitedly shows her how to look forward to each new lesson.


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  1. Isn’t it amazing what kids teach us? If we’re open to them, they force us to see through an entirely different lens – or maybe a lens tucked away in some hidden corner that we had forgotten about.

    I’m reminded of a quote from a book I’m currently reading, And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini. One of his characters says: “…sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.” It seems like when we read the list you propose – Name and Lesson – we begin to see that purpose.

  2. Pat,

    That sounds like a good book.

    The List helps me make sense of what – at times – can seem so senseless.

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