I paid little attention when the phrase “bucket list” drifted into everyone’s vocabulary, thanks to a 2007 movie of that name starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.
But as the years pass, things change — children leave home, businesses falter, new aches erupt as a reminder we can’t keep going at the same pace forever. I eventually recognized that everyone — yes, even me — comes into this world with an expiration date.
My first, albeit unconscious, acknowledgment of mortality was the day I spotted a copy of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die on the discount table outside a used bookshop. Why not? It was only two bucks. This 2003 bestseller, which sparked the bucket list phenomenon, profoundly deflated me. I mean, so many places to see and so little time — and not much money to make it happen.
"While bucket lists are useful, even more valuable would be an inventory of familiar things all around that nourish happiness. The prizes I notice too seldom in the landslide of daily life." — Jay Walljasper
But I shelled out full price for 1,000 Places to See Before You Die in the USA and Canada, hoping to settle for more realistic yearnings, but once again I felt daunted. If only I could negotiate an extra 75 years of life — and win the lottery jackpot a few times.
Dreams or Discontent?
I understand why writing down your deepest wishes can be valuable — to inspire and motivate us to do what we really want with our fleetingly finite lives. But viewed another way, bucket lists reinforce a major source of unhappiness in modern society: our pervasive sense of scarcity, the belief that what we really want — need actually — is far out of reach and is something quite apart from what we’re doing right now.
America's civic religion — preached in popular culture for 200 years — promises we can have anything we want in life if we are willing to devise a plan and then work as hard as humanly possible to make it a reality. Evidence all around us proves this is not true.
Yet the myth persists because humans are ingrained optimists and, frankly, it’s almost impossible not to fantasize about what you want most out of life — especially if, like me, you are approaching the age at which one of your parents died. That’s why I didn’t chuck the idea of a bucket list, but decided to create two versions:
- The “Aim-For-The-Stars” Bucket List features the experiences I hanker for if time and money were no factor: Cycling along the Danube River from Vienna to Budapest. Navigating the winding lanes of historic Cartagena, Colombia; Fez, Morocco; and Penang, Malaysia. Taking a dip in Bali’s hot springs. And on and on and on. . . .
- The “Pragmatic Bucket List” includes exploring places sacred to Native Americans, starting with Lake of the Woods in my own state. Riding Amtrak through the Rocky Mountains. Hiking the topographically unique Loess Hills in Iowa. Eating scones at high tea in the Panola Valley Gardens just outside St. Paul. And on and on and on. . . .
Compiling these lists — which justified a lifetime spent reading travel magazines — was a lot of fun, and whooped me up to find ways of scrounging enough cash and vacation time to make at least some of them happen. Yet it felt like I was funneling all my energy into a narrow slice of life that even under the most favorable projections would account for only a small portion of the years I have left. Was I sacrificing everyday delights simply to check more boxes on an endless itinerary of exploration? Do all the weeks and months when I am not on the road amount to nothing?
"I mused often about pleasures right under my nose that merit more attention. I’ve come to call these my 'Luvet List' (love-it), which I am convinced offers a better return on investment than any bucket list."
I had no easy answers to those questions. Being out in the world is fundamental to who I am. More than most people, I love hearing friends’ accounts of recent vacations and jot mental notes of places I might want to check out. Travel for me is like eating caramel corn — the more I get, the more I crave. But a person can’t endlessly gallop the globe — unless you’ve got a trust fund or work for an airline.
Even then, is that how I want to live? What about family? Friends? A place in the world where I belong, not just somewhere I’m passing through?
The answer is obvious, of course. But answering a question is not the same as accepting it.
One morning last winter, I took a walk through my neighborhood as snow piled up in the yards. I felt a surge of energy as plump flakes tumbled down like a Christmas Eve scene in an old movie. In fact, at that moment there was nowhere else I would rather have been. This place — where not so long before I had reveled at the fiery colors of maple trees and the brilliantly pink crabapple blossoms against a bright sky — was the center of the universe.
Creating a ‘Luvet List’
Over the next few months, I mused often about pleasures right under my nose that merit more attention. I’ve come to call these my “Luvet List” (love-it), which I am convinced offers a better return on investment than any bucket list.
This index of my favorite things is bound tightly to my particular enthusiasms. Everyone’s Luvet List is unique. Here’s mine:
1. Dancing Into the Day: Even before checking headlines on the phone, I get energized with some free-form gyrations, which might at various turns be described as shaking, shimmying, swiveling, stretching, strutting, stomping, prancing, twirling and sashaying. Doing it outdoors in early morning light is even more invigorating.
2. Singing in the Shower: A habit I picked up from my father, who belted out hits from Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, Hank Williams and Big Joe Turner upon getting home from work. I favor Motown and Bob Seger songs.
"The secret of a gratifying social life extends beyond friends and family to a wider circle of acquaintances you may never invite over for dinner but who nonetheless enrich your life through impromptu conversations on the sidewalk, at the grocery store or anywhere else."
3. Hearing Children Play: I’m in the vanguard of a growing army of Americans working out of their spare bedrooms, and it can get really lonely. That’s why I keep the windows open as much as possible to let in sounds of neighbor kids racing their scooters, re-enacting World Cup matches and making joyful noise for no apparent reason.
4. Experiencing the Elements: Wind rustling my hair. Sun warming my skin. Grass beneath bare feet. The crack of thunder. Plunging into a lake. The pelt of rain on my face. Dew soaking my shoes. Seeing my breath on a frosty day. Uncomfortable or not, these things vividly remind us we are alive.
5. Swinging: If no one’s looking, and sometimes even if they are, I love to launch myself skyward on a playground swing set. It’s as close to human-powered flight as you can get. Trampolines come a close second.
6. Making Not-So-Small Talk: The secret of a gratifying social life extends beyond friends and family to a wider circle of acquaintances you may never invite over for dinner but who nonetheless enrich your life through impromptu conversations on the sidewalk, at the grocery store or anywhere else. My wife, Julie, and I have found that sitting out at the patio table we lugged from our back yard into the front yard really boosts neighborly connections.
7. Splurging a Bit: Seventy-dollar sunglasses. A decent bottle of champagne. Red Wing boots. A 40 percent tip at a cheap restaurant. Gourmet mustard. Art books. An occasional blues concert. Shelled pistachios. Artisan soap. Renting a convertible for Julie’s birthday — red, if possible.
8. Stepping Out in Public: What delivers the most outright joy for me is joining the passing parade of fellow humans wherever they gather: street corners, coffee shops, libraries, bars, record stores, farmers’ markets, beaches, ballgames, art galleries, churches and ice cream stands. I don’t even need to talk to anyone — just being out among people, noticing how they are dressed and what they are doing, makes me feel one with the world.
9. Going to the Dogs: Watching dogs is almost as fascinating as watching people. I love their exuberance as they sniff, bark, tug, frolic, chase, fetch and smile their way through life.
10. Peeing Outdoors: Most guys I know admit this is one of life’s unheralded enjoyments. (For women, I understand, not so much.) When my son was young we spent a week every summer in the woods on Lake Superior, where I shared this manly wisdom. Stopping for a restaurant meal on the way back home, our normally soft-spoken 4-year-old proclaimed to the entire room: “You’re right, Dad, the best thing about vacation is peeing outside!”
"As it turns out, my Luvet List became more important than I could ever have imagined. I was scribbling down ideas about the riches of life within easy reach when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My love-it selections have offered me consolation and comfort in these tough times."
11. Marking Minor Holidays: We can learn something about getting the most out of life from medieval peasants, who celebrated as many as 60 holidays a year. That prodded Julie and me to claim a few extra celebrations of our own — including solstices, equinoxes, Candlemas, May Day, Bastille Day, Day of the Dead and the feast of Santa Lucia. Our festivities can be as simple as playing New Orleans music on Mardi Gras or carting boxes of unneeded clothes to the St. Vincent de Paul store on Martinmas, yet they inject a little specialness into otherwise ordinary weeks.
12. Smelling Russian Olive Trees: I used to think I was the only person in the world knocked over by the intoxicating, sweet-peppery scent of these blossoms. But an internet search divulges a tiny band of believers who share my ecstatic reaction: “Wonderful.” “Amazing.” “Sooooooo good.” “The best-smelling flower in the world.”
13. Wandering Aimlessly: Almost equal to the glee that arises whenever I set foot in a new place is the tingle I feel wheeling my bike out of the garage with no clear idea of where I’m headed. Letting instincts chart my course results sometimes in a grand adventure and other times merely an interesting jaunt — but I rarely regret not plotting a route in advance.
14. Messing Around with Mindfulness: Despite a mind mired in a perpetual state of motion, I have been playing with the practice of centering prayer — a form of meditation drawing upon Western spiritual traditions that was developed by three priests at a Trappist abbey in Massachusetts. My own version is to take a walk somewhere away from traffic, where I try to tune out all the mental chatter in my head, creating more room to experience sights, sounds and smells. I’m pretty bad at it — thoughts always keep intruding — but even a few seconds of feeling connected to everything around me is uplifting.
15. Aggregating Appetizers: My wife is a sensational cook, so to hold up my end in the kitchen I take charge of laying out snacks before supper — a curated rotation of nuts, olives, cheese, veggies, sausage, dips, pickles or potato chips, with the option of a glass of wine or beer. The whole point is to mark the end of the day with a ritual for unwinding and reconnecting.
16. Trainspotting: I can think of few things more pleasurable than watching a train come into view.
17. Reading Out Loud: Sitting in front of the fireplace or riding in the car or at lunch, Julie and I like to read aloud poems, children’s books, choice passages from novels or news about the latest political bombshells.
18. Lighting Candles: During many work trips to the Netherlands — a nation afflicted with more than its fair share of gray skies, chilly temperatures and long winter nights — my spirits were cheered by the presence of candles almost everywhere. Now we light them throughout Minnesota’s darkest months.
19. Wasting Time: Dawdling, lingering, sauntering, browsing, slacking and goofing off are hallmarks of a happy life. As Kurt Vonnegut declared, “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
20. Taking an Evening Stroll. In Italy, they call it passeggiata. In Latin America, paseo. In Greece, volta. Even cold-climate Swedes indulge in a kvällpromenad. Walking after dinner is not only great for digestion and sleep, it throws open opportunities to see usual surroundings in a new light — at golden hour, sunset, dusk or under the stars.
As it turns out, my Luvet List became more important than I could ever have imagined. I was scribbling down ideas about the riches of life within easy reach when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. My love-it selections have offered me consolation and comfort in these tough times.
As I write this months later, I have not once ventured beyond the environs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, but can report — surprisingly — that I am doing OK. Sure, I am grieving the sudden disappearance of travel from my calendar, notably a canceled speaking engagement at Trinity College, Dublin — but not as desperately as I feared back in March.
What’s harder is not hanging out with friends at the pub around the corner or the bakery down the street. And like everyone, I feel a stinging sadness for those suffering from COVID or the accompanying economic nosedive — as well as for George Floyd, whose murder sparked an inevitable torrent of rage which destroyed wide swaths of my city. I live in a neighborhood next door to where he died at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and have spent time at the murder scene, which was transformed by neighbors into an unofficial pedestrian plaza and sacred place of healing. It’s a powerful communal experience to share this spot with people of all races and ages.
In light of all this, my Luvet List could look pretty trivial. But I don’t see it that way. A new commitment to understanding what sustains me day to day has strengthened my resilience in coping with this year’s onslaught of tragedies. And it has engaged me deeper in what’s going on in my own backyard, giving me more vigor to help younger people build a better city and better world in the years I have left.
Jay Walljasper passed away at home on December 22, 2020. He was 65 years old.
Posting on a condolence website, R.T. Rybak, mayor of Minneapolis from 2002 to 2014, wrote: “Jay has always been the person who put voice to how I see cities. I’ve read scores of books and articles on cities, heard by now most of the very best urban minds and met a lot of them ... but the single person who speaks for me is Jay. In fact, much of what I said that mattered as mayor was deeply influenced by Jay."
Article adapted and republished by AARP with permission from Notre Dame Magazine and the family of Jay Walljasper.