As a travel writer, I was recently invited on a tour of Africa, billed as checking off your bucket list, and we did some really cool things.
Went to Timbuktu — which means for the rest of my life I can casually say, “When I was in Timbuktu …” Went to Victoria Falls, where the waterfall is so powerful, so loud, that even a mile away, when an enraged monkey cornered me and I called out for help, not a single one of the nearby zebras so much as looked up. And we drove into the sand dunes of Namibia at night, where there were a billion stars, but they were Southern Hemisphere stars, so I didn’t recognize any of them. I didn’t recognize any of the shapes in the sky, and I had this weird moment thinking I could be on an entirely different planet, and one of those little blinking lights might be earth, might hold everything I love.
And in Ghana, our hotel was right on the beach, nothing between us and the ocean, and in the morning, as we loaded onto the plane, I found out not a single person on the tour, not a single one of these people living out their bucket-list travel dreams, had gone down to the water and stood in the Bight of Benin. But I guess that wasn’t written on their buckets.
Somehow, it’s all become about the bucket list. Books you must read, music you must hear, places you must go. Nobody just takes a vacation anymore, they knock the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the temples of Angkor off the list. They swim with sharks. They pet pandas. They run from bulls.
Clearly, if you don’t carpe that diem, it’s all a big strike out, because, just like naked teenagers in a horror movie, you are going to die.
But what if, instead of saying you had to do things before you died, you just said you wanted to do them while you were alive? Because they were fun. What if you just went out and played? What if you killed the bucket list?
A common expression of bucket-list chasers is “Live every day like it’s your last.” But when you do that, you’re trying to stop time, lock it in like a snow globe. I much prefer the idea of living every day like you’re alive. Then, you’re in the river of time; you’re a story instead of a list.
The first time I was told I had less than a year to live was more than 15 years ago. And since then, I’ve been told five more times. Once every three years or so, some medical professional tells me I’m doomed.
Yet I’m still here. And the point is not that, against all sense and nature, I’m as immortal as Keith Richards. The point is that I have gotten to consciously live the last year of my life six times. Most people do it once or not at all.
Now, here’s where you expect me to say something uplifting about dying, how it changed my life and made me appreciate the taste of peanut butter and the sound of my dog snoring, or whatever. I envy the people who can do that. But I can’t. Apparently I missed that bus. The truth is, dying really kind of sucks. It’s boring and painful and humiliating and takes up a massive amount of your day. Each morning you wake up and think, What part of me did I lose? How can I still be me?
And even worse, it means you have to see pain in the eyes of the people you love, the pain you can’t save them from, because it’s the pain of them wanting to save you.
Dying is absolutely nothing to base your life on.
Which is why I get so pissed off every time somebody asks me if I’ve done my bucket list yet.
No, I haven’t, and I’m not going to. If I’ve learned anything from all this, it’s that I don’t travel by what I want anymore, I travel by what I wonder. Instead of saying I want to see the Great Wall of China or an elephant morning in Kenya — instead of saying “here’s the thing I want for my list” — I just ask questions and then go someplace to see how that place answers. What does memory smell like? And the perfume fields of France had an answer. How do two people standing side by side see such different things? And I ended up in a haunted house in England, where I saw the ghosts and my companion didn’t.
And for years, I chased what should have been one of the easiest questions of all: What does the quietest place in the world sound like? With no reason for buying plane tickets but that question, I went to the Arctic to listen to the hard click of caribou hooves across the tundra. I went to the boonies of Mongolia, where ice breaking up on a lake sounded like a particularly delicate wind chime. I hiked to the bottom of Haleakala volcano on Maui, which is arguably the most acoustically quiet place on earth. The point being that it didn’t matter precisely where I went; I just went to see what was happening, to see what the place wanted to tell me. In the quiet, to listen.
And doesn’t that always work better than going to a place, list in hand, telling it exactly what you expect of it? A very dear friend and I planned this wonderful, romantic trip to Venice. In the most beautiful city on earth, we took gondola rides and listened to bands play waltzes late into the night and … it was okay. Just okay. We had a nice time, trying to avoid our expectations like dodge balls.
But then after our trip to Venice, my friend and I had a few days of vacation left, so we just asked the hotel concierge where to go. He made a phone call, handed us a map and a train schedule. Here. Which led us to the miraculous little hill town of Asolo, only an hour outside Venice, a world of cobblestone streets and buildings the color of peaches, and trees so full of singing birds there was hardly any room for leaves.
When we went into the local food shop, I asked the guy behind the counter if the jar of honey was from Asolo. Because I don’t speak Italian, I just said “Asolo?” and that got the point across. Enough so that he decided to sell us an Asolo picnic. With the utter joy of a man who loves his home, he grabbed us bread — Asolo — cheese — Asolo — fat olives — Asolo. When I pointed at a different cheese I wanted to try, he just shook his head —
And yes, of course, it was probably the best lunch of my life, and my friend and I found some of that magic that we had tried to force out of Venice. The day offered us this gift, a moment to hold hands and wonder at how big and full of possibilities the world is.
Your bucket list is only about you. What you want, what you demand of the world. Kill your bucket list, and you make room for much more. You make room to share, you turn your life into a bedtime story, so you can curl up with the people you love and whisper the night away.
I know from personal experience; that last moment, you don’t care that you saw the Eiffel Tower. You care that you were never too much of a coward to say I love you. You care that once you kissed a girl on a park bench, and that you still both carry the weight of that moment. You care that you said thank you more than you said please.
And that’s the thing — a bucket list is a please. Put everything in the bucket and … just let it go with a thank you.
Click here to view the author’s TEDxMaui talk.
Click here to view the Editor’s Letter “Accidental Pleasures.”