Do you have a bucket list? I have mixed feelings about them. I certainly wouldn’t want a list to rule what’s left of my life. Yet we all, I suspect, have unmet longings and desires that warrant acknowledgment. 

I’ve been thinking about mine because I checked one item off during my recent midwinter getaway with friends in Los Angeles. Or maybe two items. After watching the Rose Bowl Parade for years growing up (my first experience with color TV as it happens), I was curious about the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which provided (and may still provide) the backdrop for the passing floats. Turns out it’s a terrific art museum in its own right. We had one day of rain in L.A. and spent part of it there. Norton Simon was not a high-priority item on my list, but it quenched an old curiosity.

I checked off a much higher-priority item on the last day there when my host generously offered to drive to Long Beach to go whale watching. February is the middle of migration season, so it didn’t take long once we left the harbor to spot a gray whale, and another, surfacing and spouting, then diving and flicking their flukes as if to wave goodbye. The trip confirmed a reality that had always seemed a distant abstraction. Seeing something so immense dramatically changed the way I view the ocean — and therefore the entire planet, since oceans comprise much of it.

We learn about so much of the world through books and film, but we can’t help wanting to see some it for ourselves because some things are just too good not to see.

The other day I was paging through a few old notebooks to see if anything was worth saving and found a “Life-longing List” I put together about 10 years ago:

1. See the Earth from space (Admittedly ambitious. I don’t expect to check this one off, but you never know)

2. Hot air balloon ride (Check. My son and daughter-in-law gave this to me for my 60th birthday in Colorado. It was everything I’d hoped for)

3. Write another book (which will remain on my list no matter how many books I manage to write. Could be a collection of columns, could be a book of poetry)

4. Return to Rome (Check. This too remains on the list. You can’t visit Rome too often. Or if you can, I’d enjoy finding out)

5. Take an entire summer off (Maybe in a rented house on Lake Geneva or an apartment in Paris, but Oak Park would be just fine) 

6. Visit Victoria Falls in Africa (If I get that far, I’ll probably have to include the Great Pyramids)

7. Easter in Charleston, South Carolina (where, as Charles Kuralt once wrote, “Spring arrives in a showy rush.” After enduring too many white Easters around here, I’d love a full-blown, flowerful Earth resurrection experience)

8. Hiking in the Alps (Friends who live in Geneva, Switzerland would happily serve as guides)

9. See whales in the wild (Check)

10. Visit the Sydney Opera House in Australia (Its roof replicating an ocean-going ship’s sails, it symbolizes for me the romance of the Age of Exploration).

11. The Parthenon in Greece at sunset (Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean have always been effervescent in my imagination)

12. … So a Mediterranean cruise as well

13. Grandkids (Check)

14. Waltz with a woman I love in Navy Pier’s Grand Ballroom with a full moon rising over Lake Michigan (I’d settle for my apartment, in the dark, with the moon out my windows)

15.Witness a launch from the Kennedy Space Center (even if I’m not the one being launched)

16. Discover my roots in Ireland (This urge reinvigorated by a recent trip to Dublin)

17. Memorize and perform “Trouble” from Music Man (I’d settle for “Sadder But Wiser Girl For Me”)

18. Take painting classes (My last instruction was in college)

19. Attend the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario 

20. Take my son and grandsons to Glacier National Park in Montana (where I worked the summer of 1971 after my first year of college)

21. Drive to L.A. on what remains of Route 66 (I’ve stood at both ends — the Art Institute in Chicago and Santa Monica Pier in L.A.)

22. … And stop for White Sox spring training camp in Arizona on the way

23. Visit SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and view the night sky

24. Visit Taliesin and Taliesin West (can’t get enough of Frank Lloyd Wright’s visions)

25. Walk the Camino de Santiago (Or a respectable portion thereof)

26. A boat trip down the Mississippi River (re-enacting Huck Finn’s odyssey)

27. Write a column that goes viral (what a hoot that would be)

Time is running short, but I don’t feel any pressure. Some of these are quite do-able if I really want them enough. Some are long-shot dreams. I don’t have the same burning desire to travel like I had when I was younger. These qualify more as pilgrimage than tourism anyway, inspired by the imaginings of youth.

Do you have a bucket list? We are not what we desire, but it does provide a window into who we are. The discussion has long raged over whether it’s wise to try to fulfill all our longings, whether that would merely set us up for disappointment. Maybe they are best left to the imagination, tantalizing but unreachable. 

Life, after all, should be more than a theme park for our desires. 

Then again, our longings are a sign of vitality. Having unfinished business can be a potent stimulus. Maybe our longings make life last longer.

Either way, our lives should never be judged by what we’ve seen or attended or accomplished. A bucket list merely serves as a reminder of past desires and dangles future opportunities that we might still seize when they present themselves. 

Like standing on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, the wind pelting my face, waiting for the largest mammals on Earth to surface and take a breath, then dive back into the mysterious depths from whence they came.

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