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home : commentary : shesaid May 24, 2016

Saw a whale. Check.
"Sometimes, I find it's those times when I'm not even moving at all that I find myself living at my largest."-Tami Mohamed Brown

by Tami Mohamed Brown

Picture this: fjords. Uninterrupted ocean ahead, a clear sky with a single swath of white above. Out on the horizon a whale breached, an unmistakable break in the landscape as it leapt out of the water-large, powerful, amazing. We were living big, seeing things, going places, my daughter and I, the whale one of the many things we hoped to see when we traveled to Alaska.

The trip was planned for just the two of us for many reasons, among them: 1) we had friends to visit with whom we could stay, 2) I wanted her to feel that travel was wonderful and 3) I expected she would gain an appreciation for nature, for the open road. I also 4) hoped she might come to understand the flip side of being organized and allow serendipity to happen, the dual nature of what it means to understand a schedule but to embrace spontaneity when it presents itself.

We looked in wonder at the whale, where the whale had been.

With the whale's tail barely back in the water, a woman next to us quickly began to gather up her things as she said to her companion, "Well, we can take that one off our list. Saw a whale. Check."

Seriously. I like a list as much as the next person. And almost more than I love lists, I, too, love to check things off my lists. Sometimes, I'll write things down that I've already done or that I know are non-negotiables-things listed simply for the joy of marking them as complete, tended to, been there and done that:

• Make coffee

• Walk to bus

• Go to work


Just the contents of a typical list carrying me from day to day, unique only in its being typical.

But where was the awe in seeing the whale? Where was the appreciation? What happens if life is reduced to a series of things to be accomplished but not savored, not fully taken in, rushed, not enjoyed?

I'll admit, I don't think the women necessarily had a literal checklist. I don't know any of the backstory of the whale watchers who stood next to us, but I do know their reaction stayed with me when I wrote it down later. Saw a whale. Check.

Certainly, there are perfectly reasonable times to use practical lists-the receipt, a shopping list, the menu-each utilitarianly accomplishing its own feat, important and necessary in its own right, leaving nothing to the imagination.

There are items, thoughts, words chosen and put together to create meaning in poetry and prose, the list a form in and of itself-beautiful and compact, or long and strung with ideas, images.

Lists can be transformative: a way to see how things have changed and progressed, what has been accomplished, and what's left to do. List-making encourages mindfulness, for me. Lists help me process, allowing me to put words and plans on paper, encouraging me to dream big, take action, move forward.

But sometimes, I find it's those times when I'm not even moving at all that I find myself living at my largest. The times I allow myself to just be in the moment to do, to experience and to reflect. To slowly take things in and let them rest, quietly: Saw a whale.

Sometimes, no checklist is required.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family.

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