In her recent article in the New Yorker, “Kicking the Bucket List,” Rebecca Mead says, “[T]he concept of the bucket list–places one wants to visit, experiences one wants to undergo, and accomplishments one wants to master before dying–has gained widespread cultural currency. . .” She criticizes the concept, claiming that “it partakes of a commodification of cultural experience, in which every expedition made, and every artwork encountered, is reduced to an item on a checklist to be got through. . .” She illustrates her point with an anecdote in which President Obama spent ten minutes wandering around Stonehenge and then said to reporters that he had “knocked it off the bucket list.”
I’ve got a bucket list, filled with things of longstanding, like speaking French fluently, owning (okay, renting) Paris real estate, becoming more patient. While I appreciate Ms. Mead’s point, and certainly would have spent more than ten minutes at Stonehenge, she may be missing the reason why people like me make and keep bucket lists. In general, as an inveterate list maker (grocery, daily work commitments, all manner of appointments, whom to invite to dinner when), I view lists as tiny but effective attempts to deal with anxiety. Once I put something on a list, I find it manageable, and more, very freeing since it has found a rightful place in my universe.
The bucket list has all of the attributes of any list, but is different: in scope, formation, and purpose. Its scope is broad (living in Europe) and also narrow (eat at the French Laundry, or make a conscious decision not to). It is a living organism, breathing new things in and expelling old things that have been accomplished. Everyday experiences like conversations with friends, articles I read online, books, travel, museums, result in my adding or subtracting. I know that eventually there will be things on my bucket list which I cannot, at this moment, imagine.
Which brings me to the main purpose of my bucket list. (Are you listening, Ms. Mead?) It goes beyond the obvious recognition of one’s mortality and the realization that time goes faster than one thought possible. It is that at 61, my bucket list is the only way I feel remotely effective in fighting loss. Mine is generally a life of abundance; still, I have lost both parents and too many cherished friends. Some unable-to-be-diagnosed ailment has snatched away part of the simple joy of walking. I have lost my breasts to cancer, and as a result, my sense of well-being to guardedness about my health. When I finally admitted to myself that my hair was thinning and it was not just the lighting in the bathroom, I thought, what? Losing this too?
My losses are not unique. Everyone has them, but they occur more frequently in older age. I know this to be true, and don’t dismiss it as some sort of depressive myopia. If there is one thing I fear most about old age, it is that I will drown in a sad sea of loss. I remember well the phone calls with elderly family members that always began with a list of their friends whose obituaries had just appeared in the local paper. My husband and I would ask ourselves, how does one deal not just with loss, but with the inevitability of it, the constant presence of it that intensifies with age?
Enter the bucket list as coping mechanism, one that fills life and dreams with positives to counteract the negatives. Many years ago, after my father’s death, I passed along a therapist’s piece of wisdom to my grief-stricken mother. Give up on feeling better about Dad’s death, I suggested, because you can’t. Maybe just try to provide some joy for yourself with whatever makes you happy. You will still be grief-stricken, but when you take inventory at the end of the day, it won’t always be so lopsided in favor of sadness. My bucket list is the symbol of my taking my own advice. Loss happens, and it hurts. Rather than trying to staunch its flow–an impossible task–I am trying to build up the other side of the ledger. I have the power of adding to keep balance with the subtracting, which is, unfortunately, not within my control. The bucket list keeps me going, keeps me yearning, brings me new and happy experiences. In doing so, it keeps me recognizing that whatever we may lose, gain is still possible. The bucket list embraces that optimism; the brass rings are not yet out of reach. The more I can grab, the better the chances that my own inventory will not be lopsided. Crafted equilibrium’s the plan, with hope for maybe just a little bit more.