bucket list

thrifted handwoven basket (2013 Mother's Day gift)

Life can be a river one drifts without a raft, dodging and hitting sunken rocks and overhung branches, spinning in whirlpools without an oar—or else a craft one steers on that river, seated high enough above water level to avoid at least some of the rapids ahead. Or life can be spent watching other people sail past on a hot day in August, whooping from their inner tubes while the observer sits dry on the bank, plucking grass stems and scrawling her initials in the dust. Or else life is riding that inner tube, whooping over rapids and getting soaked. Or maybe life is all of that at once. In any case, my life feels as if it has been passing me by for years, a train or bus or plane I missed—vroom, vroom—me left holding my bags at the station, standing in the rain out of breath, a violin player busking in the corner with sad strings.

I found myself staring up at a plane this week, wishing I were on it. That's a bad sign or maybe a good one. I don't know. I used to do that all the time, wishing I were up in the air, heading anywhere else. It means I'm restless again, dissatisfied. Things need to change. At least I know now I'm the only one who can change them—no shining knights, no princes, no fairy godmothers, not even a green cricket. But how?

My first impulse is usually to sign up for a teaching gig someplace exotic, somewhere I've never been, like Vietnam or Tunisia. (Run away, run far away.) But I've tried that, and it doesn't work—though it does shock the system, the personal status quo, and for some, like Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), may hook a bestselling book deal. I came close to running away again a few years ago, but having a cat worked as an anchor this time, the thought of keeping her in quarantine for months—to her, innocent years in prison—holding me like a blue balloon tied to the ground.

I'm in the wrong profession. Never a passion, teaching was only supposed to be temporary. I can't commit.

The oft-quoted line from Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day," which I first encountered in Strayed's Wild, has been whispering in my ear all month: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life." God, the pressure! Tick, tock. Halfway over. Too dull. Too ordinary. Too unfulfilled. Be dead soon.

Whole blogs, books, and movies exist whose sole focus is bucket listing, like "10,000 things to do before you die." Here's my own current bucket wish list. Some goals are obviously easier to achieve than others, and some are less about the process than the result:
  • Earn my living as a full-time writer
  • Publish well received short stories, essays, memoir, and novels
  • Land an interim day job (something interesting, decently paid, and to which I could walk to work)
  • Learn to draw
  • Become fluent in French
  • Study Spanish
  • Take piano lessons
  • Join a local choir
  • Reside briefly in Paris
  • Live in New York City
  • Visit the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito, California
  • Travel to London, Spain, Greece, North Africa, Argentina, Vietnam, Cuba, and more of Italy (especially Rome) 
  • Get fit (not just thin)
  • Own my own house/apartment/condo/flat outright
  • Host and attend regular dinner parties with a close circle of mutual friends
  • Bump into a soul mate
  • Watch fireflies

Though I can't stand the half-grown-male tone of Cracked.com, I recently read David Wong's popular post, "6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person" (linked from this article), and he's right: We are only what we do. It doesn't matter if I think beautiful thoughts, dream big, and have lovely intentions. Nobody cares. Without action, I'll be sitting on the bank of the river forever, invisible and overgrown by moss.

Putting "writer" as the profession on my tax return is what I want most in life—outside of the generic but vital goal of "being happy," which for me is largely, circularly based on my becoming a professional writer, which also means valuable yet intangible things like following my dreams, trusting my gut, finding courage, and facing fears. Writing and reading, those conjoined twins, have always been my passions. If writing is not what I'm meant to do (whatever that means when one lacks the concept of a universal overseer), it's what I'm built for, hardwired for in personality, training, and ability. It's what I've always wanted and been most afraid of—my very own dragon.

And, oh, the fears. A former childhood friend asked me when we were in our mid-thirties, "If you were going to be a writer, wouldn't you be one already?" (Rawr.) She was also an aspiring, unpublished writer, so perhaps she was talking to herself. But then there are models of renowned authors like Penelope Fitzgerald who started their careers much later than this, so there is still hope. Plus, a seven-year-old student, future artist, gave me one of those head-tilted, object-assessing looks the other day with her big green eyes and asked if I were "a teenager" because my "skin is pink" and I'm "thin" and "don't have gray hair or wrinkles." Of course, seven-year-olds think even teenagers are old, and she was probably just buttering me up for a sweeter birthday present next week, but it's true I'm at least half young, if no longer a young adult. There should still be time.
As for most anything else, the first step in writing is just showing up. Most writers speak of writing as a craft, a practice that must be honed daily, like shoe repair or carpentry. Just show up.

Seventy-five years ago, Virginia Woolf argued persuasively that a woman writer in particular needs "money and a room of her own," psychological and physical space to herself separate from the demands of men, children, family, and society. Like many, I've never had both kinds of space at the same time. One can have money or time but rarely both, unless the person is wealthy or kept by a spouse, trust fund, inheritance, or insurance settlement. But for now, a room of my owncheck.

That leaves money. Most contemporary writers either need financially supportive spouses (which usually doesn't work for reasons of power dynamics and the simple economics of the modern two-income requirement for a bare middle-class lifestyle) or day jobs—fitting the writing in on the side, meaning at 4 a.m., while on the bus, at lunch, or just before bed. I inadvertently tried the first route, the spouse, and so am trying the second route (again), the full-time day job with its independent accounting. However, my current day jobs (one boss, two locations) and all the commuting take up most of the day, all but about an hour after dinner before bed on weeknights (though I haven't yet tried writing at 4 a.m., while on the bus or train, or when eating a sandwich).

These are old daydreams requiring action. I figure I should be more intentional, more businesslike, about this life-change process, something like Dave Bruno's 100 Thing Challenge or Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project, a life plan in chart form, regimented and accountable, which is why I'm talking about it, rather than keeping it, as in the past, a secret. It's scary, sharing dreams with strangers, opening secrets to the light. But I want the dreams themselves to take form and flight, instead of, the rest of my life, staring up at the sky at airplanes.

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