Things to Look Forward to: An Illustrated Celebration of Living with Presence in Uncertain Times, Disguised as a Love Letter to the Future


Laundry, love, and the miracle in the everyday.


Things to Look Forward to: An Illustrated Celebration of Living with Presence in Uncertain Times, Disguised as a Love Letter to the Future

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless meditation on living with presence. “Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s,” Seneca exhorted two millennia earlier as he offered the Stoic balance sheet for time spent, saved, and wasted, reminding us that “nothing is ours, except time.”

Time is all we have because time is what we are — which is why the undoing of time, of time’s promise of itself, is the undoing of our very selves.

In the dismorrowed undoing of 2020 — as Zadie Smith was calibrating the limitations of Stoic philosophy in a world suddenly time-warped by a global quarantine, suddenly sobered to the perennial uncertainty of the future — loss beyond the collective heartache besieged the miniature world of my sunny-spirited, largehearted friend and Caldecott-winning children’s book maker Sophie Blackall. She coped the way all artists cope, complained the way all makers complain: by making something of beauty and substance, something that begins as a quickening of self-salvation in one’s own heart and ripples out to touch, to salve, maybe even to save others — which might be both the broadest and the most precise definition of art.

One morning under the hot shower, Sophie began making a mental list of things to look forward to — a lovely gesture of taking tomorrow’s outstretched hand in that handshake of trust and resolve we call optimism.

№3: hot shower

As the list grew and she began drawing each item on it, she noticed how many were things that needn’t wait for some uncertain future — unfussy gladnesses readily available in the now, any now. A century after Hermann Hesse extolled “the little joys” as the most important habit for fully present living, Sophie’s list became not an emblem of expectancy but an invitation to presence — not a deferral of life but a celebration of it, of the myriad marvels that come alive as soon as we become just a little more attentive, a little more appreciative, a little more animated by our own elemental nature as “atoms with consciousness” and “matter with curiosity.”

№5: hugging a friend

Sophie began sharing the illustrated meditations on her Instagram (which is itself a rare island of unremitting delight and generosity amid the stream of hollow selfing we call social media) — each part record of personal gladness, part creative prompt. Delight begets delight — people began sending her their responses to these prompts: unbidden kindnesses done for neighbors, unexpected hobbies taken up, and oh so many sweet strange faces drawn on eggs.

A slipstream of tomorrows hence, her list became Things to Look Forward to: 52 Large and Small Joys for Today and Every Day (public library) — a felicitous catalogue partway between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom and poet Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, every page of it radiant with the warmth and wonder that make life worth living and mark everything Sophie makes.

№14: listening to a song you’ve heard before

You can relish a rainbow and a cup of tea, sunrise and a flock of birds, a cemetery walk and a friend’s newborn, the first blush of wildflowers in a patch of dirt and the looping rapture of an old favorite song. You can’t tidy up the White House, but you can tidy up that neglected messy corner of your home; you can’t mend a world, but you can mend the hole in the polka-dot pocket of your favorite coat. They are not the same thing, but they are part of the same thing, which is all there is — life living itself through us, moment by moment, one broken beautiful thing at a time.

№48: walking in cemeteries
№22: weddings
№10: first snow

Sophie wrote in the preface

I have always been a cheerful sort of person, able to find the silver lining in just about any cloud, but 2020 was a son-of-a-cumulonimbus. Of course there was the pandemic which threw everyone off their feet. Like many people, I attempted to stay hopeful. Like most people, however, I felt anxious and afraid and was filled with grief and uncertainty. Ed and I worried about our bills and how my parents were doing. We also missed our children, who lived far away. We decided to downsize and moved from the apartment that we had rented together for 10 years. This was the longest time either of us have ever lived in an apartment. We canceled our wedding, because we knew we couldn’t get married without our loved ones. In the fall Nick, my dear and queer father, was killed in an accident somewhere else. For a time, I couldn’t find any hope as the thunderclouds closed in. It was almost impossible to see beauty, wonder, and joy.

With an eye to the dangerous seductions of nostalgia — that longing not for a bygone time but for the bygone selves and certitudes that time contained — she adds:

I have often found myself romanticizing the Before Times, when we could travel the world and hug our friends and shake hands with strangers, but I have come to the conclusion that it’s better to look forward: to gather the things we’ve learned and use our patience and perseverance and courage and empathy to care for each other and to work toward a better future for all people. It is to look ahead to things such as long-term environmental and racial protection; equal rights, an inclusive society; and free healthcare and equitable education. We can look forward to every day things that make us smile, laugh, and feel happy and will give hope and comfort to others.

№27: collecting pebbles

Tucked between the quiet joys of painting on pebbles and rereading a favorite passage from a favorite book and enfolding a loved one in a simple hug is the unfailing consolation of the cosmic perspective and its simplest, most enchanting guise, which the visionary Margaret Fuller reverenced, a century and a half earlier amid a world torn by revolutions and economic collapse, as “that best fact, the Moon.”

№21: a full moon

Sophie wrote the following in the twenty-first entry, which is devoted to full Moon.

We all see the same moon no matter where in the world we may be. It’s the same moon earliest humans would have seen, waxing and waning, rising and setting. We would use a full moon depending on our location thousands of years back to determine the time. It will tell us when we should plant corn and when we need to dry the rice. Today, we marvel at how men managed to travel there using unlikely means and set foot on its surfaces. A full moon makes us feel tiny and young, making it our entry point to the rest of the universe. However, it reminds us to take advantage of this time we have here.

№44: doing your taxes
№8: applause
№31: moving the furniture around
№25: new glasses

It is the fact that every seemingly small thing in the book shimmers with an element of the miraculous. Every fragment of the individual opens up to the universal. Each playful glance at life becomes full of poignancy.

In the thirtieth entry, titled “Clean Laundry” and illustrated with a stack of neatly folded grey T-shirts, Sophie writes:

I tend to put off washing clothes until the last possible day, when I’m reduced to leggings with holes and the mustard top that inspires people to ask if I’m feeling OK, but clean laundry means a whole closet of possibilities. You can make me look like an Edwardian ghost, a French farmer in the nineteenth century or even a deckhand aboard a Nantucket whaler. But, these are just three of my options. There are so many other variations.

Although my clothes are worn out, unruly, difficult to put together, those of my partner have a uniform. He doesn’t wear a uniform with his name or embossed on it, nor does he have creased or pre-owned clothes. Ed is a playwright and a teacher, and he heeds the advice of Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

He buys six grey T-shirts, twelve pairs of socks, and multiple, well-chosen, ordinary shirts and trousers once a year. His neatly folded, clean piles of clothes make me feel so close and familiar on laundry day.

Pulsating through the book, through the list, through the life is the one thing that saves us all: love — the love of partners and of friends, of children and of flowers, of books and music and list-making and this whole improbable living world. The entire book can be described as a love letter to the life that is infinitely small and endless, made up of all the tiny, inexplicable loves that are a part of any life.

In entry №37, titled “Falling in Love,” Sophie writes:

My husband Nick and I were twenty-one when we met. We moved in together just before the end of the year. My husband and I were twenty-five when we got married, and my first child was born at twenty-six. But I didn’t fall in love, not properly, until I was thirty-six. And it wasn’t with my husband. It wasn’t that Nick and I didn’t love each other. We did. We were best friends. He could play “My Funny Valentine” on his teeth and make anything out of nothing: a 1930s-style playhouse, a shirt out of a vintage tablecloth, Halloween costumes that made the news. His temper was blinding, but he was also as funny and angry as me. So I laughed as hard as I wept. He thought he was gay at 5 percent when we first met. He was actually only 5 percent gay. We thought that we were content with just two children.

Young children’s days can be blurred with countless drop-offs or pickups, bath and bedtimes, Hot Wheels, and Shrinky Dinks. If you’re in love with your partner I can imagine finding moments to notice each other, managing, even through the blur, to see one another clearly. But if you’re not sure, then you can become kind of blurry yourself.

When I first met Ed, my man, it was a blurry moment, but I remember seeing him clearly. Everything was obvious to me: his lovely profile, his open ears, and his gentle eyes. He slung his shirt sleeves on his shoulders while he talked. His beautiful, precise handwriting. He was a master of reading. Even while walking along the streets, he would always be reading. The way he carried everything in a stack: book, extra book, notebook, pen, phone, as though he’d never heard of bags. He followed a recipe, and placed all ingredients into little bowls. The way his tongue stuck out when he chopped onions or dribbled a basketball or tied a child’d shoe. His ability to make all children laugh. He made me smile. He made me tremble with laughter.

He noticed me, and I was astonished. I was more visible to him than any other person.

And bit by bit, I realized that I’d previously had no idea, no idea on earth, what it was to be in love and to be loved in return. Those were heady days. They are still there, fourteen years later. It is possible to look forward every day to falling in love again with your love. If you haven’t found love yet, or found it and lost it, then it can find you, perhaps when you least expect it.

№37: falling in love

Complement Things to Look Forward to, to which neither screen nor synthesis do service, with Sophie’s splendid animation of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Dirge Without Music” — a sort of mirror-image counterpart to this elemental awareness that our time, finite and savage with creative force, is all we have — then revisit her illustrated celebration of our shared world.

Illustration courtesy Sophie Blackall


Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. Every dollar counts.


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