Bucking the Bucket List

Pat Hitchens inquires amongst her peers about the value of the Bucket...

In an online chat venue, I encountered a post to the effect that Every rational person should have a Bucket list.  But after chatting up the subject with a number of Realizers, I’d modify that to something like, Every rational person should have an opinion about a Bucket list.  The Internet opinionator probably equated making lists with doing stuff.  Even my husband Bob, who, to date, has steered clear of the whole bucket meme, admitted it’s a fair point. “Since the clock is ticking,” he said, a to-do list in-a-bucket wasn’t a bad idea – assuming one really wants to do the enumerated projects.

That’s only one take on the bucket.   Another Bob, also from Chicago, is out-of-his-mind busy in quasi-retirement. “Theoretically, selling my accounting business was the beginning of my retirement,” said Bob, having planned to drill down and seriously romance the clarinet, his long-time musical love.  Yet he also owned a financial planning company, and when that business “really picked up,” he put the poor jilted clarinet down.

Would it have mattered if master clarinet had sat atop a list of accomplishments awaiting intentional completion, instead of lolling around at the back of his mind?  Hard to say, but although Bob thinks a literal list may help others, he recoils at the idea for himself.  “I don’t need a bucket list,” he said.  “I already have enough to do, and -- I don’t need another list!” 

Cynthia, on Chicago’s North Shore, is no bucket-minder, either.  As far as her friends go, “I don’t know anyone who has a bucket list,” she said.  “Of course, maybe it’s comforting for some people to have a list to work off.”  While legendary for organizational prowess, however, Cynthia’s not one to plan for her own future.  “I just let it happen.”

What would be on her list if she made one?  “It wouldn’t be ‘experiences,’ like seeing Machu Picchu,” she said, “It would be more like one more big thing to do in my life,” adding that she had already done the “corporate, mother and volunteer” stints.   And about to turn 60, she added, “I feel I have the ability and energy for one more big show, and I’m more interested in figuring that out than jumping out of a plane!”

Bill, a New York psychotherapist and poet, went beyond Cynthia’s disparagement of those taking comfort from a rundown of what’s next in life.   “It’s an illusion!” he said.   “What list?!   We have no control over anything, really.   One day the heart’s going; one day it stops.  There are only so many beats.”

Well, yes, but until it stops, what’s wrong with a bit of illusory planning?

Karen self-describes as “living with a new heart” in Evanston, Illinois.  She also talked about the misconception of personal control, our human delusion that we determine the course of our lives.   But notwithstanding the lack of guarantees, she was not against making wish lists of to-do’s, as long as they are thoughtful.  On her bucket rundown, there is nothing flippant – even what is diversion is thoughtful -- making it possible “to live in a fun and meaningful way.”   Travel items, for instance, are there because they carry special significance that she wants to share with another.

She identified only two specific items, and each involved personal encounters: one with the family of her donor heart, and the other with journalist Rachel Maddow, whose intelligence she admires deeply --  “although I have no idea what I’d say.”   My guess is she would come up with something that would get Maddow thinking, or laughing – or both.

Among Karen’s Evanston neighbors is Linda, an author and documentary producer.  The inheritor of a vast archive of family memories and correspondence spanning several generations, in 2010 she launched her FamilyArcheologist blog, in which she documents the World War II era correspondence and lives of her immigrant family, [now available at LindaGartz.com.]  A project that might top the bucket list of many others, this is not even on her own.  It’s one of those tasks she feels belongs to her, and she doesn’t need the prodding of a list.  “It’s personal,” she explains, “something I already feel compelled to do.”

But for other tasks, she sees the bucket list as a helpful organizing strategy.  “It’s a priority-making device,” she says.  “- for challenging yourself to do those things you said you’d do someday,” adding, “It’s about making choices.  Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

Linda thinks the attraction of the bucket list for the Boomer generation comes down to fears of mortality.  “Everybody says ‘travel’ somewhere, looking for enlightenment.” Although after she trekked across Alaskan expanses last summer, her sister-in-law asked, “Did your life change just because you hiked a glacier?’”   While she argues for the transformative power of that kind of trip, she intends to expand horizons closer to home as well, with new volunteer work and maybe even a few “someday things -- like singing.”

“Someday” items would suit Yvette in New York just fine.  “I have found I do best when I fly by the seat of my pants,” she told me. 

I responded that, thanks to the bucket list conversation, my Italian immersion fantasy trip is evolving from pipe dream to concrete plan.  Planning per se is all right, said Yvette, acknowledging that she enhanced a trip to Paris thanks to advance work with Rosetta Stone.  But she still didn’t like the whole vibe.

“I don’t want to feel as though because something is on the damn list,” she said, “that I’ve got to do it – that I’ve gotto check everything off.”  And reminiscent of Bill, she added, “You can make all the lists you want, but your life can change over the course of six months. I’d rather go with the flow of what I’m feeling in any given year or month than have a list that I don’t complete 70% of.”

Yvette’s final thoughts on the subject:  “A bucket to me is filled with - dirt.  I usually don’t put beautiful, wonderful things in a bucket.”  But she threw in a couple of bones for the list-makers of our generation.  If one has to have a collection of to-dos, she asked, what about instead, “‘What’s in your box of chocolates?’ 

Hmm.   Maybe Forrest Gump is a sweeter inspiration than The Bucket list. 


Pat Hitchens has written about relationships, health & politics -- as well as personal essays -- for print, broadcast and online audiences in a career spanning television, education, business consulting and public relations.  Her blog about baby boomers and end-of-life issues is www.ProjectAshes.com