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Rethinking The Bucket List

Sandra Miller: There was a time when covering surface area of the earth was a goal, now I’m less interested in width than the depth that only comes from slowing down, breathing into the gaps, going deeper, deeper. (Amanda Sandlin/ Unsplash)
Sandra Miller: There was a time when covering surface area of the earth was a goal, now I’m less interested in width than the depth that only comes from slowing down, breathing into the gaps, going deeper, deeper. (Amanda Sandlin/ Unsplash)
This article is more than 5 years old.

For my 50th birthday a friend gave me a galvanized steel bucket that contained a world map, a pen, a journal and 50 bucks. "Get going on your bucket list," the card prompted.

Although I haven't yet made an actual list, that bucket and its contents have stared at me from the corner of my study for almost a year — a reminder that I have things to do, and places to go. But what? Where? At this crossover age when the weight of time tips from counting up to counting down, I feel compelled to be more thoughtful about adventures. Do I really want to pray at an ashram in India or sing “Free Fallin’” as I drift through the sky in the tenuous tether of a parachute harness?

Such contemplation wasn't always the case. I spent my 20s living with madcap abandon in Asia and Europe. I learned to scuba dive off the coast of Thailand and, at the prompting of a French lover, once bungee-jumped off an ancient stone bridge in Luxembourg. Escapades happened, not to the sound of a ticking clock, but to the restless beat of my heart that yearned for the world beyond the narrow borders I’d grown up inside.

At this crossover age when the weight of time tips from counting up to counting down, I feel compelled to be more thoughtful about adventures.

"You know I'm still jealous," my husband Mark will say when I tell a story from that decade of globetrotting. "While I was getting my Ph.D., you were kicking around Europe with French men."

"So we can have experiences now," I say. "Without the French men, of course"

"It's different," he tells me.

He's right. Having an adventure these days requires hours of combing through Trip Advisor reviews followed by flurries of emails to confirm reservations. We also painstakingly plan vacations to accommodate our teenagers’ needs plus our own desire for R and R. In the end, we take fewer risks, but still drop a bundle on trip insurance — and everything else.

A few months ago our family took a vacation to Puerto Rico where we spent days swimming in the blue green Caribbean, hiking the rain forest, and, most unforgettably one moonless night, kayaking through a pitch-black mangrove swamp to reach a bio-luminescent bay. When we swooshed our hands through the water, the sea creatures would glow with a silvery stream of light. I did it over and over, realization slowly dawning: This is what I want from life; I want to rub up against the world and feel lit from within.

There was a time when covering surface area of the earth was a goal, now I’m less interested in width than the depth that only comes from slowing down, breathing into the gaps, going deeper, deeper. That can mean meditating, reading poetry or having a good conversation with a dear friend.

With our wedding anniversary approaching, Mark looked at me the other day and asked, “Where shall we go?”

I didn’t know. Not because I don’t have an idea in my head of 100 romantic places to see with him before I die, but because places don’t mean what they once did. There was a time when I loved to flip through my passport and count the inky stamps. They felt like an achievement, adventures had in the throes of an angsty youth.

A bucket list implies that some experience, some place, some particular kind of food is going to make our life more complete. And it might, but only if it happens from a place of joy, of growth.

“Where shall we go?”

How about someplace that fills us with a sense of belonging to this big blue planet? Someplace where we’ll laugh and learn something new and come away wiser and more in love with life, and maybe each other?

Where shall we go?

"How about  we go out to our back deck every night for one week," I proposed. "We can watch the stars."

In the words of the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”

That’s it. A bucket list implies that some experience, some place, some particular kind of food is going to make our life more complete. And it might, but only if it happens from a place of joy, of growth. Fulfillment comes from something internal; the most transformative experiences don’t require us to go away, but rather to go inside.

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Sandra A. Miller Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Sandra A. Miller is the author of "Trove: A Woman's Search for Truth and Buried Treasure." Her articles and essays have appeared in more than 100 publications. 

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