Bailing on the Bucket List

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Every year in late summer, the fall color sighting guides come out in my local paper. Each year I save these articles, fully intending that this will be the year I go on an expedition to see the glorious changing of leaves in a nature preserve near my home. Better yet, I’ll take that fall color trip to New England that has been on my bucket list for the last 30 years.

I’d never heard of the term “bucket list” until a movie of the same name came out. It was a comedy about a couple of older gentlemen who meet in the hospital and decide there’s no time like the present to do all those things they’d wanted to do over the years. Soon people were talking about their own bucket lists and announcing that they’d checked one off after a certain trip or experience.

Most of us have ideas of things we’d like to do and places we’d like to visit someday. The problem is the generalized nature of that “someday.” We never get around to these dream activities. For me, fall color treks, bird watching, maple syrup tapping exhibitions, museum visits, and the glass pumpkin event at a local arboretum sit forlornly on my bucket list, waiting to be accomplished.

One of the reasons I’ve had for never getting around to these activities is time, or the lack thereof. As my children grew, I had the best of intentions to make time for these ambitions, but I always seemed to be busy with the kids. Invariably, the weekend of an event I’d always wanted to attend coincided with an important athletic event or recital for one of my kids. Even taking piano lessons had to wait until I could find an hour of time within my day free from childcare responsibilities.

Another thing that has happened as I’ve gotten older is that I no longer have the energy or physical stamina to accomplish some of the items on my bucket list. For instance, I’ve always thought it would be fun to take an extended biking trip in Europe. I used to think a Windjammer Barefoot sailing cruise sounded like an exciting idea. But who am I kidding? I’m lucky if I get myself to take an hour-long walk around the neighborhood these days. Some bucket list items are for the young, or at least the young at heart.

I also can’t handle crowds anymore. My favorite thing to do when I was young was to go to the free festivals on the lakefront in Chicago: Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest, Printers Row Litfest. I always intended to take my kids downtown for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Michigan Ave. and the Fourth of July fireworks on Navy Pier. But the thought of traffic, parking hassles, and especially the hordes of people at these events discouraged me from my best intentions.

Some of my bucket list items have simply faded in importance over time. I’m no longer enamored of the idea of spending a week at a boozy all-inclusive resort in Jamaica or the Bahamas. (Plus, I’m married and don’t look good in a bikini anymore.) I’m not really interested in getting a Masters degree, becoming a gourmet cook, or opening a cafe/bookstore at this stage of my life.

As I’ve aged, I’ve realized that if something is really important to me, I’ll find a way to fit it into my life. A good example of this is an annual event in Chicago called the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, which features local authors as well as some renowned nationally-known writers such as Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and the late great Toni Morrison. The event is a fundraiser for the Chicago Public Library system, and friends of ours, knowing my love of literature, invite us to attend it every year. No matter what else is going on in my life, I make a point to be available that evening for the dinner. I’ve even attended without my husband when he was unable to make it.

Another example is taking my children downtown to see the light show at Buckingham Fountain. Buckingham Fountain is a majestic creation that sits overlooking mighty Lake Michigan. In the summer, the fountain is turned on, and there are nightly light shows with music that enhance the majesty of the beaux arts sculpture. Visiting Buckingham Fountain is a fond memory from my childhood, and I was determined that my children experience its magic.

Whatever the items on our bucket list, it’s okay if we don’t accomplish all of them. Respecting our ever-evolving priorities and making the effort to do what is truly important to us can be a fulfilling way to live a life.

 

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Summer Cold

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It started earlier this week when my husband had a runny nose and nonstop sneezing. Sure that it was his allergies, he was disappointed in the failure of Claritin D to stop the onslaught. Then that evening, I started to feel it: the telltale tickle in the back of my throat that signaled an oncoming cold. Allergies indeed.

Having a summer cold is a strange phenomenon. While everyone is out and about on a beautiful sunny day, I am stuck on the couch with a box of tissues. Colds make sense in the depth of winter when the sun hasn’t been seen for days and the air is frigid. Then it seems appealing to have a cup of hot tea with honey or a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup. But since it’s sunny and warm these days, I’ve been using cold food and beverages – mostly water, but also the occasional bowl of ice cream – to assuage my sore throat.

I had all kinds of plans for cooking my son’s favorite dishes before he returns to college in a week. But since I look and sound like a plague victim, it seems unsafe to be handling food. And I had also planned to watch my daughter play soccer on this lovely morning, rare for August in Chicago, when the temps are moderate and the humidity low. But the weight I felt on my chest this morning when I woke up told me it would be best to get some extra rest.

Summer colds are a drag – unexpected, unpleasant, and inconvenient. In the scheme of things, I guess, my little cold is no big deal. With all my downtime, I’ve been reading a novel about a virus that turns people into vampires, creatures that the futuristic characters in the book call “virals.” In comparison, my bout of sneezing and sniffles seems like a summer breeze.

 

Play It Again, Sam

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My family likes to tease me about my penchant for watching certain television series over and over. How many times, they want to know, do I need to see thirtysomething or Gilmore Girls before I’ve had enough? The answer, of course, is: I’ll never tire of these or many other books, movies, and TV shows.

Repetition is a standard feature of life, starting in childhood. Mom and Dad might not enjoy reading Goodnight, Moon every night into infinity, but their sons and daughters can’t get enough of it. When my own kids were young, they wore out the VHS tapes of their favorite animated movies. They insisted on reading the same books time and again even though we had a gigantic library of selections.

Children’s fixation on repetition is actually important for their development. Repetition helps them learn. It not only helps them practice new skills, but it actually strengthens connections in the brain. Remember having to memorize poems or Shakespearean soliloquies? It may have seemed dull and pointless at the time. We saw no future in which we would suddenly launch into, “Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .” But our teachers knew something we didn’t. Rote learning is good for our brains.

Beyond practicality, rereading favorite books or rewatching favorite movies and shows is comforting. It connects us with certain feelings and thoughts from times past. I can’t read a Curious George book without picturing myself in the children’s section of my childhood library, unable to read just yet but still eagerly poring over the pictures of George and his friend, the man with the yellow hat. Watching season 7 of Gilmore Girls reminds me of the summer before my oldest daughter went off to college, and I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.

“Play it again, Sam” is actually a slight misquote from the classic movie Casablanca. In the film, Ilsa asks the piano player at Rick’s, “Play it, Sam.” And at the end of the film, Rick simply tells Sam, “Play it.” By sheer repetition, though, the line stands for an iconic moment in an iconic movie.

So have no fear of playing it again, reader. Whatever it is, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy it just as much as, if not more than, the first time around.

Last First Day

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This morning my daughter rose before dawn to catch the sunrise over the football field at her high school. It’s her last first day of school – and ours. Senior Sunrise is one of the many traditions we will experience to mark this important milestone in my child’s life. Soon she will be starting a new chapter in college. And my husband and I will face a new future together as empty nesters.

For nearly 29 years, my identity has been wrapped up primarily in my role as a mother. From the moment my oldest child took her first breath, I have been holding mine. It’s scary, this parenthood stuff. Late night fevers, scrapes on the playground, friendship drama, homework crises, fears about what our teens are up to on the weekends. “No rest for the weary,” my husband would often quip as we sat up waiting for one of our children, the ticking clock reminding us that in time, all this shall pass.

But there has been infinitely more pleasure than pain in shepherding our four kids through childhood. Those first smiles, warm hugs, late nights cuddling an infant have given way to fun excursions, adult conversations and joy in their achievements. As my daughter leaves for her last first day of school, she is tall, confident, and strong. Like my other children, she has been given a foundation from which to grow and mature.

In less than an hour, my daughter will join her fellow members of the Class of 2020 as they head into their first period classes. It will be a year full of “lasts” for us, but I’m not sad – just looking forward to the vistas opening up before her and all of us as we head into our futures.

 

Keep the Old

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Throughout our lives, we meet new people and forge new friendships – from childhood besties to our college posse to the circle of parents surrounding our own children. Someone once told me that our friendships naturally change as our lives change. But with any luck, there are those friends with whom we forge a bond that lasts a lifetime.

Last weekend, my husband and I got together with a group of his old pals from college. We converged at a lake in Michigan, the state in which these bosom buddies had met a few decades before. Of course, the group included spouses, some from the same college and others met later along life’s path.

From the moment the first arrivals gathered over pizza and beer, we enjoyed an easy rapport, a sense of picking right up where we had left off that I have experienced with some of my dearest friends. There is something comforting about hanging out with people who knew you when. No pretense is possible when you and your friends go way back to your more youthful and foolish days. Some of the fun, in fact, is in reminiscing about those crazy times and those “near death” experiences or humiliations you suffered in your callow youth.

The weather was hot and the sun plentiful in Michigan. We had lots of good food and drink, plenty of laughter, and the gift of time – time to catch up on each other’s lives, time to bask in each other’s presence. Since our salad days, we have married, divorced, become parents and grandparents, experienced health problems and the deaths of those we dearly love. All of that has become part and parcel of who we are, etched on our faces and in our hearts. Keeping in touch through the vicissitudes of life has only strengthened those bonds.

When my kids were little, they loved a video titled Wee Sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In it, the characters sing a song reflecting the need to hold onto our earliest friendships. The lyrics go: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

As we head into our golden years, let’s cherish those golden friendships and keep them close to our hearts.

 

Gotcha

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3628e74410cef8316a75ca354bc5f3e4.jpgThe July day was sweltering in a small city in China the day we adopted our daughter. But the large hotel conference room was chilly as my husband and I entered it to the sounds of babies crying. The rest of our adoption group were there with babies in arms as a small woman with tears in her eyes approached us and handed us a little girl, almost one year old. The baby began to wail as she realized her caretaker from the orphanage was handing her over to total strangers. I was crying too and trying to say “I love you” in Mandarin. My husband was videotaping the whole affair, but he forgot to take the lens cap off the camera. So all we have to commemorate the moment is the audio of lots of crying.

Adoptive parents refer to this day as their child’s “Gotcha” day. Many have parties not only to celebrate their child’s birth, but also that fateful day when their precious child came into their lives. My daughter’s Gotcha day was this week, and it always brings me back to memories of China in the heat of the summer.

For days our new daughter appeared shell-shocked as she adjusted to two new people who looked, sounded, and even smelled different. I carried her in a Snugli through parks, museums, temples, and other sights as our guide showed us the land in which she was born. All the babies in the group were about to turn one, so the guide arranged a little birthday celebration at our hotel. The candle on the cake was shaped like a lotus flower, and it opened slowly when it was lit.

One morning as I fed our baby congee, the traditional breakfast of most Chinese, she looked up at me and gave me the most heartwarming smile. I knew we had crossed a threshold. As we packed our suitcases to leave for home, she started to become animated and engaged, giving us an impish smile as she removed articles of clothing I’d just packed.

The flight back to the U.S. was rough. It was an overnight to L.A. and was widely known as “the baby flight” because it usually held a number of families returning home after adopting their children. Our daughter was inconsolable. She had gotten sick and was on antibiotics, but I’m sure her ears or sinuses must have been hurting. I was dazed and sleep-deprived when we finally landed and went through immigration, thus making our new daughter a U.S. citizen. My husband claims that I scared a celebrity by leering at her while we waited for our luggage at baggage claim.

Once home, we awaited the return of our older children, who had been staying with my husband’s family. Their noisy arrival threw our baby off for a while, but she soon adjusted to three doting older siblings and an extended family who all loved her instantly.

Today our daughter is a thriving teenager, and it seems a distant memory thinking about the forlorn little girl we pledged to care for and never abandon during our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. When people adopt a child, particularly from overseas, well-wishers often comment on how lucky the child is. But we were the lucky ones – blessed with our beautiful, infuriating, fabulous daughter, who we couldn’t have loved any more if I had given birth to her.

Daughter, I’m so glad we “gotcha”!

 

A Life Well Lived

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IMG_1148Yesterday my beloved aunt Mary was laid to rest after 94 years of a life well lived. The chapel where her funeral was held was filled to capacity with family members, friends, and Aunt Mary’s many caregivers who had come to know her during her last 10 years spent in a nursing home.

Aunt Mary was always a favorite of mine because I was her godchild and namesake. Her presence was always a benign and pleasant one. She seemed to take raising a large family in her stride, and I don’t ever remember seeing her sullen or angry. Aunt Mary was intelligent. Even after a stroke had left her with partial paralysis, she became known for playing Scrabble regularly at the nursing home. She loved music, my cousin once told me, especially opera. And when I visited her, Aunt Mary could regale me with all the doings of her massive extended family. Above all, Aunt Mary was kind. She gave time in service to the church and community. But at the end of the day, what she lived for was to care for her family.

I had mixed emotions as I watched Aunt Mary’s many children, grandchildren, and great-children say goodbye. Whether escorting her casket into and out of the chapel, reading aloud from Scripture, or processing up the aisle to place individual white roses in an arrangement on the altar, her loved ones were clearly shaken and grieving. Even her son-in-law, who in Mary’s last years was a big presence in her life, could barely read  the comforting words of our faith without choking up.

It was so very clear to me that Aunt Mary was beloved. And I wondered, will people mourn my loss some day with such heartfelt love? Will my children and my children’s children miss me so deeply?

A few days ago, I received a text from an old friend. She had seen an obituary for my aunt in the newspaper and had found it jarring since Aunt Mary and I had the same first and last name before I got married. Thinking about my possible death had caused my friend to reach out and affirm her affection for me, and we agreed to see each other soon.

What does it mean to lead a life well lived? In a word, love. Love is what Aunt Mary showered on everyone she met. Love is what helped her endure hardship and loss, including the untimely death of a son. And love is what went with her yesterday and what will live on in the hearts of all those who were privileged to be part of her life.

In the final words of the priest at the funeral, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Matt. 25:21)