bucket list

photo copy 6On Tuesday afternoons this past year I’ve been a traveling yoga teacher, lugging a bag full of straps and foam blocks and lavender eye pillows to a small elementary school in a nearby town.

My students, a dedicated handful of regulars, are all in their sixties, including the school principal and her now retired husband, who once taught English to my son Jack. We work gently together, accommodating a tricky hip (mine), chronic back pain, osteoporosis, balance issues, and the inevitable assortment of aches and injuries that are simply part of the territory now that we are no longer young.

Last fall, on the first afternoon I arrived at the school to teach, I was surprised by a few sudden tears the minute I walked through the front door. It hit me – suddenly, although certainly not for the first time — just how far down the road I’ve traveled from all that transpires each day in this tidy, welcoming brick building.

Everything I saw brought back a memory: The box of lost-and- found baseball caps and tangled sweatshirts, the collection of canned goods for the food pantry accumulating in the foyer, the children’s bright artwork on the walls, the sight of a lone L.L. Bean backpack forgotten in a corner, the distinctive smell of kids and chalk dust and used books and half-eaten lunches.

The question rose up hot and fierce as a reprimand in my chest: “Had I loved my life enough?”

The honest answer? Probably not. Back when my own two boys were small, what I now know to be evanescent felt as if it would go on forever. I made a hundred sandwiches, a thousand, with no end in sight. How many mornings did I urge my kids to hurry, warn them that they’d be late for school, lose my patience as they whined or dawdled or resisted some obvious necessity – hair combing, boots on the right feet, raincoats?

Much as I tried to pay attention, tried to remind myself nothing lasts forever, and certainly not first grade or third or fifth or childhood itself, I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the speed with which the years would fly by while I was in the thick of it all myself, mired in the details of doctors appointments and homework assignments and t-ball practice.

Perhaps it is ever so. Perhaps it’s only the lived experience of seasons passing that can teach us the truth of impermanence, as endings pile up willy-nilly.

Perhaps it is only by enduring a progression of lasts that an ordinary now is transformed into an achingly precious present moment.

Perhaps it is only in pausing every now and then to gaze behind to where we’ve been, that we can turn face forward again with hearts full of gratitude for the ground beneath our feet.

With the school year over, my Tuesday afternoon classes have concluded as well. Over time, I did get more comfortable walking down the hall, nostalgia for the past giving way to a kind of cultivated ease in the present.

Still, I would always stop to look at the bulletin boards, to enjoy the children’s artistic creations, to read the their names, to remember just how it felt to visit my own sons’ school all those years ago and see their latest efforts displayed in the hall.

As the last school day drew nigh, the children made summer “bucket lists,” sharing their hopes and dreams for the months ahead. There were lots of pictures of sunscreen tacked to the board, along with aspirations for summer vacation: play with my cousin, go to the beach, ride my bike, go camping.

I thought about making a summer bucket list myself. What would be on it? Read a book a week. Meditate every morning. Take a walk every day. Be more disciplined about writing my blog posts.

I got just about this far before I realized: my summer bucket list sounded suspiciously like a to-do list.

Last week, my husband Steve turned 65. A big one any way you look at it. Medicare. Senior citizen discounts. Fifteen years shy of eighty. Only thirty-five less than a hundred.

As it happened, I was away from home attending a book festival on his actual birthday. We’d both been busy all week, running in opposite directions, he with a board meeting to attend, me with a talk to deliver, no room on our calendars for a party or a dinner out, both our sons away.

I wracked my brain for an appropriate gift and came up empty. There is nothing he needs. Nothing he really wants that he doesn’t have already. Nothing except, of course, more time. The one gift money cannot buy.

And then it dawned on me – time was a gift I could give. No receipt needed, no return possible.

photoSteve played hooky from work and I planned a day for the two of us.

“Trust me,” I said. And he did.

We got up early, had breakfast with friends, then headed north to Vermont and our date with a rented double kayak. After a few hours of paddling down the Connecticut River and lunch at the Harpoon brewery, we made our way through an underground tunnel to enter an outdoor sculpture garden called, appropriately enough, The Path of Life.

photo copy 4Metaphors abounded – from the hemlock maze, signifying the adventures of childhood, all the way to the circle of dead oaks and charred carvings that evoke death, and finally the quiet grove of delicate white birches suggestive of rebirth and life’s renewal.

It was a weekday afternoon and we had all fourteen acres of this inspired, idiosyncratic garden to ourselves. It felt as if time had indeed slowed down a bit. There was space to talk, plenty of time to wander.

“I still can’t wrap my head around sixty-five,” Steve said as we approached a towering jazz combo exuberantly constructed of old wood and metal scraps.

“Sixty-five is old. But inside, I still feel the same. How can that be? I’m not even sure how I’m supposed to act at this age.”

photo copy 3We looked up at the faded, venerable musicians playing their silent song for the ages, perfectly embodying the spirit of creativity.

Maybe there is no “supposed to,” they seemed to say. Maybe the work of growing older is about finding your own song and singing it fearlessly, joyously; singing even when it seems no one is listening. And maybe aging doesn’t have to be about submitting grudgingly to loss, but rather about accepting and choosing life just as it is — and beating out a wild, heartfelt tune that acknowledges all of it, all the joys and pains and conflicts that are part of the human trip.

Knowing where our journey would wind up, we took our time. Why rush down the path of life, when one can choose to sit for a while under the tree of knowledge, survey the view from the top of the hill of success, meditate with a full heart upon one’s ancestors and absent loved ones from within the circle that represents family?

photo copy 5As the end approached, we moved even more slowly, lingering, wanting to make it last, determined to drink fully of every experience along the way. (Another revelation: as it is in the garden, so it is in life.) We made an offering to the Buddha, walked the labyrinth, lay flat out on the grass and closed our eyes and imagined our own final rest.

photo copyBack in the car at dusk, driving south toward a dinner of Thai food and listening to Willie Nelson sing my current favorite song, “Just Breathe,” we were both quiet.

I found myself brushing back tears, as does seem to happen more and more often these days. But these tears weren’t for the past, not at all. They were for the exquisite beauty of the moment, for our own shared, expansive, richly layered present.

And it suddenly occurred to me that I do have a summer bucket list after all. It’s not a to-do list. Nor does it include a fancy vacation or any grand ambitions or even the stack of books by the bed that I really do long to read.

What I want most this summer is simply to spend time with the ones I love. To have more days just like this one. Enough presence of mind to pay attention. And enough presence of heart to make gratitude my song, acceptance my refrain.

Yes, I understand that every life must end, uh-huh

As we sit alone, I know someday we must go, uh-huh

Oh I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love

Some folks just have one, yeah, others, they’ve got none

                                   Stay with me…

                                   Let’s just breathe…

Do you have a bucket list — either for the summer or for your life?  What’s on it?  I’d love to know! 

how a (grudging) critic made my day

Although I’ve received quite a number of lovely letters from male readers, I suppose I do think of myself primarily as a women’s writer.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised that my book would meet with some resistance from the no-nonsense New York journalist Jesse Kornbluth. Aka The HeadButler, Jesse is the author of a highly opinionated, persuasive, and incredibly popular blog about all things literate, trending, cultish, or practical — from music and movies and books to gifts and gadgets to food and wine.  The HeadButler is nothing if not tough; he admits, right up front, that he was prepared to loathe my book, that he prefers a dose of denial to contemplation, that the very word “journey” drives him nuts.

And yet.  He chose to read Magical Journey. He read all the way to the end, despite the title, despite the subject, despite everything he was prepared not to like.

And this morning he published this amazing review, which made me bristle for all of about two seconds, and then made me laugh out loud, and then made me want to give him a huge hug and take him out for dinner.  How could I not share it with you?

Click here to read my one and only published review by a guy!

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. This is wonderful Katrina! I read the review, and was thrilled and amused at Kornbluth’s review of “Magical Journey!” What a lovely gift you gave Steve for his 65th birthday! Truly the best gifts we can give and receive are the gifts of presence and connection to our dear family, and friends! I believe one day we will be reading about your dinner with Jesse Kornbluth, for it seems he too seeks out the same thing we all are craving these days, awareness of and contentment with our lives! My bucket list for this summer is to create one new positive good habit for myself…a week? I went for a walk this morning for a couple of miles. I have been far to sedentary these days! I also plan to recommit to my yoga practice, and to start journaling regularly!

  2. It probably shouldn’t surprise me, but it still gives me goosebumps, that Just Breathe (albeit the Eddie Vedder version) is my favorite song. Yes, yes, and YES. xoxox

  3. I love that song also….and I love the Pearl Jam version.
    I am so please with this review…..I love that he never reads this sort of thing, and that he was sobbing. Good for you! Love!

  4. Love this post, Katrina. Just the other day ago I was telling a friend that, when Abra was born nearly 4 years ago, the span of time to her entering school seemed interminable. The only way I could get through some days was to think of myself as in the process of earning a PhD in Early Motherhood (I figured that would be about a six year course of study, including a dissertation). Although she’s still got two years to go, a lot of her friends will enter kindergarten in a year, and I am beginning to feel the end of this first chapter quite palpably all of a sudden, and it’s met with so much mixed emotion.

    My 83-year-old father-in-law also lived with us for the first part of the summer, and I sense his frustration and being legally blind and hard of hearing, but FEELING so young inside, the inner and outer worlds not matching up.

    I made a summer bucket list with Abra a few months ago, and we’re doing pretty well: eat ice cream cones every Tuesday afternoon, catch butterflies, make a fruit pie, go swimming. Still up: our first camping trip and banana splits for dinner.

    That garden looks absolutely marvelous; I’d love to go there someday. And, I so enjoyed reading that candid (and yes, funny) review.

  5. you so often take my breath away. and put words — poetry, really — to what rustles around in my heart. “am i loving my life enough?” words to put to every single day. to slow the sifting sands as they flow through the cracks between our fingers…..
    thank you…..

  6. These are the discoveries we get to make and the moments we get to have if we live long enough and love enough. Thank you for sharing yours and also the song. Love Willie. Love the song and love Eddie Vedder’s version which I just shared with people I love. As for bucket lists? I’m living the most important item on it right now: living with a man I love and doing what I love: writing. Blessings abound.

  7. Linda Rosenfeld says:

    Today is my 30th birthday. I turned 61. Time certainly seems to fly by faster these days. My daughter, husband and son planned a great surprise for me. Even though everything did not go exactly as planned, I was determined to not to get upset about it. The weather was wonderful, the company delightful, and the food was mouth-watering. We went to a beautiful new restaurant called Paris. It was like visiting the real thing. And then my daughter made a magnificent cake. My son came in by train to surprise me. It was the perfect day. How many of those rare days can you count? And to spend it with the people you love the most… what could be better? My bucket list is full. My cup runneth over. I wish everyone could know the joy of a day like this.

  8. I have a list of jams and other things I want to can and I have writing and work goals, but what I want for the summer is to have it feel like summer: lots of time outside, lazy evenings when nobody gets to bed on time because it’s just too nice to go in, lots of cooling off in any type of water (swimming hole, pool, ocean, or hose), looking at all the weeds in the garden and deciding I need to sit with my ice coffee for a bit, saying yes to s’mores (again) and camping out, letting the kids turn “I’m bored” into some kind of project or game of their own.

  9. What you are able to capture, always, with your writing, is magnificent. You capture the magic in our every day. You remind us that that magic is always there, and remind us, gently, to see it, and then to believe in it.

    I feel like your ability to capture the essence of life, is just extraordinary. Every single time I read your words, they remind me to connect to the gratitude and love that is always inside of me.

    I’m so grateful for you and that you share your beautiful insight.

  10. I have only heard Eddie Vedder sing just breathe so I will be on itunes soon.

    Katrina, this is one of my favorite paragraphs ever:

    Maybe there is no “supposed to,” they seemed to say. Maybe the work of growing older is about finding your own song and singing it fearlessly, joyously; singing even when it seems no one is listening. And maybe aging doesn’t have to be about submitting grudgingly to loss, but rather about accepting and choosing life just as it is — and beating out a wild, heartfelt tune that acknowledges all of it, all the joys and pains and conflicts that are part of the human trip.

    Thank you. I needed to be reminded that this is what summer IS and our job is just to love it. I am so glad you had this beautiful day (what a wonderful birthday present) together. xoxo

  11. Katrina, I woke up to your beautiful post today, thank you. Your words go directly to my heart, surrender, forgive and rejoice in what is before you.
    I am so appreciative of your extraordinary example as a person and as a writer, you touch so many with your authenticity, I am deeply grateful.
    All peace, Sarah

  12. Jesse Kornbluth wrote a wonderful review of your book… I loved his really positive response. (Are men trying to make sense of it all, be present and have gratitude in everyday life too?) He noted you have a following of like minded women and he had checked out your blog. I wonder if he will check it out again to see our comments about what he had to say. If you come back to the blog, Jesse, tell us how you ended up reading Magical Journey… I am curious how this book ended up in your hands and in your column. You seem like a really nice guy after all!

  13. I found this blog from a friend’s post on Facebook. I feel like I found a new friend. I just ordered your book Magical Journey and I can’t wait to start reading it. It’s funny how things in life find us. Just yesterday I was rereading an old notebook and stumbled across a bucket list. I was excited to cross one item off…but something didn’t sit right with me. I feel like your blog post answered that question. Thank you!! From a new faithful reader!! :)

  14. Chareen says:

    Once again, Ms. Kenison, you astound and touch my heart. Thank you for sharing what’s in yours. I don’t feel so all alone. Congratulations on your first thumbs up from a “guy.” We all knew they’d succumb sooner or later….thankfully it was sooner than we all expected. Keep living and dreaming and writing for the rest of us to enjoy…..please and thank you!

  15. Mark Kindall says:

    Good morning, Ms. Kenison — I read the review with great interest. As you know, I think you err in believing yourself to be a “women’s writer,” since I firmly believe that the thoughts, feelings, and struggles you explore with such a profound touch in your writing are common to men as well, and Mr. Kornbluth’s review reinforces my opinion. But I expect your work may speak more to people — men and women — who have reached a stage in their lives when they can stand apart from the doing, and at least consider the “be-ing.” For some people that comes sooner; for others, it comes later. Or maybe it’s not so much a “stage” of life as it is a moment. The sort of moment that hits us with force enough to take our breath — a birth, a death, a graduation — and we have a sudden, aching awareness of the passing of time.

    We’ve got one of those moments coming up: a trip to Burlington, Vermont at the end of the summer, to drop our one and only off at college. We are following the path you describe in your last book — trying to re-create our lives. And in the meantime, just a few more precious “presents” where we are the makers of the home, the guardians of the nest. Not hard to figure out a bucket list for this summer!

  16. Jackie Roberts says:

    Absolutely perfect! EVERY word, every nuance hit my head and, more importantly, my heart. At 66 and hubbie 76, I hear you loud and clear…choosing to enjoy each vital, blessed moment in the present…right where we are. Thank you!

  17. The other day, while we were eating soft-serve ice cream and realizing it was almost July, Mani said she felt like June went by in a blink. I reminded her that she had said the same thing about March, April, and May. We talked about how time really does seem to go faster as we get older. And at the same time, maybe we start paying attention differently, which has a way of slowing things down. Such a paradox. Such a beautiful post.

  18. It’s a great gift of older age that we learn what is really important. Paying attention – to the world, to our space, to the people we most love – that is what counts and what lengthens our moments into precious memories.

    Your writing is always a stunning reminder to live life and enjoy it.

    (Happy birthday to your husband :)

  19. Beautiful! I’ve fulfilled some of my “bucket list” which was to go to the lake in a small community with very limited internet access and be, just BE with my kids and husband. It was wonderful and very rejuvenating. Happy Birthday to your husband.

  20. Christine LaRocque says:

    Do you know how much I look up to you? I may not be able to stop by this as often as I would like, but when I have a moment to sit and read and contemplate the wisdom you share I always feel so much more rich and full for it. I appreciate you and these moments you share because you always remind me what is important and how to honour that. Thank you! xo

  21. Simply beautiful, Katrina! I have much in common with you (yoga, meditation, beloved pets–past and present, loving husband, son, writer, etc.) but in addition, each of your columns, books, sentiments are too so relatable to me. I loved this review and video–was so touched by this. Beyond that, your honesty in admitting things you may not have realized earlier in life, the momentum most of us get caught up in just with wanting to do our best as a mother, worker, wife, etc. and realizing the one gift, the one thing we didn’t give ourselves is more time (for our loved ones, including us). Your trip and time with your husband was absolutely perfect…The Path of Life….how extraordinarily appropriate. Thank you for sharing and for reminding all of us to simply take “time” to live our journey. Time…just breathe…

  22. Wow! The review actually made me cry. Awesome!
    I love the idea you had for a gift for your husband. I may have to do a similar thing…

  23. I just remembered I’d seen this post come through via email when I was on vacation and it was on my to-do list (ha!) to read it! I was reminded when a friend of mine just saw my FB post about plans to go to Mt. Vernon (George Washington’s home) and wrote a comment something to the effect of darn, she’d forgotten that excursion was on her summer bucket list. I momentarily felt bad, reflecting that Mt. Vernon wasn’t even on *our* bucket list and I’d used up time for it! There are only 13 more camp-free weekday days and 14 camp-free weekday afternoons before school starts! But when I told my son (8) last night that we’d be going to a music program this morning, and he actually knew where it was and asked if we could go to nearby Mt. Vernon after it was over, I am glad I was able to say, “Sure!”

    I think that between too-grand expectations, too-low mama energy, we will probably leave many of the items in our summer bucket untouched. But I had put into my mental bucket several placeholders for “hang out with no plans,” and those have been honored! :-)

    I know from reading your work and talking with you that I’m probably not going to look back on my kids’ childhoods and wish things had gone faster. But, still, I also have to say that having my second child (age 4) no longer needing to be carried or strollered, and seeing that she can really drop down into enjoying activities and social experiences … that maturity really makes things more enjoyable. I like that she and her brother can do many of the same things now. I don’t want to wish her to grow up too quickly, but there’s part of me that feels so relieved that she’s more independent. I’m better able to enjoy doing things with her. I alsolook forward to occasionally being able to leave the house in a couple of years without having to spend an hour or more looking around for some kind of childcare coverage! Or spending *any* time with her dad when it’s not over the din of child chatter or doing dishes! Your day sounds lovely! But far out of reach. I know we can do better with the reality we have now and owe it to ourselves and our kids to try. Thanks for the many reminders!

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