My bucket list's got a hole in it. Things that once seemed vitally important to see or do before I die have dribbled away—some replaced by new must-dos, others simply discarded because my interests and circumstances changed.
I came to this realization after unearthing some of my old lists. It was enlightening to see which things on those lists I had ended up doing, which things I'd lost interest in along the way, which things just didn't happen and probably never will, and which ones still call to me.
My "101 Things I Want to Do Before I Die" list, dated October 20, 2002, includes item number 75: "Have a pet donkey (maybe)."
A few years earlier, I had become fascinated with donkeys during a long motorcycle trip down south, on which we saw scads of donkeys—miniature and full-sized—in fields and farmyards. I dreamed of having a donkey farm, then scaled that dream back to just one donkey (or two—I'd heard they need companions). By the time I made the 2002 list, though, the parenthetical "maybe" suggests I already harbored doubts about my commitment to caring for a large animal.
By the time I revised my list in March 2006, donkeys had disappeared, replaced by a number of items related to writing, publishing, and attending various writers' conferences.
One gotta-do item that did carry over onto the 2006 list was "Learn to play steel guitar," a burning desire since my grad school days in Kansas, when I worked off stress by dancing to western swing tunes and came to love the twang of pedal steel.
But that long-held aspiration had sloshed out of the bucket by 2009, when I again revised and pared down my list. By then, we had bought our Newaygo house and were making plans to move. While the idea of learning a new musical instrument still appealed to me, I wanted to devote more time to outdoor activities, travel, and getting to know our new neighbors and surroundings. I already had one time-consuming, indoor pursuit: writing. That felt like enough.
Then there's the category of things that just didn’t happen and probably never will. Ever since my youth, when I never missed an episode of "Then Came Bronson," starring Michael Parks as a disillusioned former journalist wandering the West on his Harley-Davidson Sportster, I'd dreamed of riding those same roads on my own motorcycle. I got the motorcycle (several, in fact, over the years), learned to ride, and made shorter trips on my own bike and longer ones on the back of Ray's, navigating so he could focus on the challenges of the road.
But my own westward odyssey never happened, and at some point it became clear to me that it never would. While it's true that ever since I turned fifty, my motto has been, "It's never too late," I've recently come to realize that for some things, it kinda is. The prime time for me to have made such a journey was ten or twenty years ago, when my riding skills, reflexes, and stamina were at their peak (and other drivers on the road were not as distracted as they are these days). I could still do it now, but I wouldn't enjoy it as much as I once would have.
I'm a little sad that it didn't happen, but when I remind myself of other experiences that did happen (including several meandering trips out West in vehicles other than motorcycles), the sadness dissipates.
That brings me to the mind-shift about bucket lists that happened not long after I drew up my last one in 2010. I realized that focusing on things still undone made me feel restless and disheartened at the prospect of time running out before I accomplished them all. So I sat down and made a list of all the things I had done over the years—both things that had been on my bucket list (writing a book, making collages, learning to kayak, hiking sections of the North Country Trail) and things that arose out of unexpected opportunities or spur-of-the-moment whims (joining in a 60-mile fundraising walk, taking a motorhome trip to Alaska, moving to Newaygo).
That list went on for pages, and as I looked it over, I could see that everything I'd listed there had brought me some kind of satisfaction, whether or not it had been on my official bucket list.
So I scrapped the bucket list and decided to take a different tack. I looked back at the various iterations of the list and tried to identify threads that ran through them. The result was a different kind of list that I titled "The Themes of My Dreams." Among the entries on that list were:
Now, instead of trying to tick off accomplishments, I just try to align activities with those overarching themes, and I feel far more content as a result.
I was surprised to find a similar approach advocated in—of all places--MotorHome magazine. In an article titled Trimming Your Bucket List in the magazine's September 2018 issue, author Mary Zalmanek ends with these suggestions (condensed and paraphrased here):
Finally, Zalmanek closes with this sage advice: "Today, do what will make you feel like you've lived a full and worthwhile life. That way your bucket will never seem empty."
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.