We are all dying, one moment at a time, from the minute we are born. Yet this is not how we tend to view life. In western society we count the years as they go by, adding one each year to the tally that makes up our age. We treat death as a technical problem to be solved, rather than a part of the cycle of life. I have heard, however, that there are cultures that look not at the number of years we’ve racked up so much as those we expect to have left. This presents a starkly different attitude toward approaching one’s remaining years, in terms of how much time remains to do all that we feel we must do in our limited lifetimes.
Very few of us are blessed with the knowledge of exactly how much time we have left. I say blessed, because I have found that time limits tend to force us to focus, to be realistic about what we can achieve, and to just get on with it. I am a horrible procrastinator, and I have a sneaking suspicion procrastination is just one of those things most of us fall victim to at some point, and in some way. Dare I say I expect it may be one of those things that can simply be attributed to “human nature”? But when we have time limits we tend to prioritise better, and those things that really are important come to the fore, and our attention is sharpened.
I suspect our attitudes toward our planetary predicament might differ somewhat as well if we were aware of how much time we had left to address it. If we knew when a species were likely to become extinct would we do all in our power to stop it? Would we start the decades-long process of nuclear decommissioning if we knew when the next Fukushima were likely to strike? If it weren’t merely speculative that we have around 30 years left in the fossil energy budget before we absolutely must stop burning, for example, might we plan for the future better? If we knew for sure that we only had another 10 years of oil to go wouldn’t we start preparing ourselves for a markedly different future? Some of us are already doing that, but for most it’s such an intangible possibility at a hazy yet distant future point that dealing with it is not on the radar for now. There are many changes ahead for which we are unprepared.
It seems to me that we waste so much of our lives. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t regretted the time they spent on the hamster wheel and wished for more of it in lieu of time spent with loved ones and on projects of value. I had the enormous privilege of being present for the death of a friend in July last year. I say privilege, because to see someone’s life out is as much an honour as to see it in, a special moment of transition. And when it comes to death, if you’ve been chosen to share the moment, that is special indeed.
My friend who succumbed to the spread of inoperable cancer after a five-year battle lived life more fully than most I have known. Although her life was traumatic in many ways – more so than most – she embraced it with a kind of joy and vitality, even in her final months, that I have learned a great deal from. She had a bucket list, of course, and the only thing wrong with that was that she didn’t start it sooner. So she didn’t get a chance to complete all of the things on the list before she became too sick to be able to. Some of the most amazing women I’ve ever had the joy to be in the company of, including one of my closest friends on this whole precious planet, were the ones who had the great pleasure and privilege of ticking off bucket list items along with her. The sharing in such moments creates memories that are immovable in the hierarchy of life experience. One of the last things we did together, just two weeks before she died, was hold a goodbye party. Well, it was actually a birthday party – her birthday party, one month early. But I thought of it as her goodbye party, and I couldn’t shake that. So many friends turned out to celebrate her life, we dressed up as clowns, we sang, we danced, we played silly games, and we got sloshed. And when it was time to go home most of us bid her goodbye as though we knew it was the last time we would do so. There were moments that still bring a lump to my throat when I think back to them, watching friends part.
When she passed I regretted spending too much time working and not enough time supporting friends. I arrived at the hospice minutes after she breathed her last breath, cursing myself for getting caught up in the day and not going earlier. It was hard to change pace and take down all of her things and clear out her room. It seemed too abrupt. I couldn’t help but notice most of the patients were alone, without visitors, in undecorated rooms. It was a huge contrast, paring back the music, collecting up the flowers and stuffed animals, even clearing out the fridge – erasing the room of all traces of a life that seemed to still linger. I came home to a snarky email from a colleague and realised it wasn’t important. I sent a reply saying just that. I was angry with myself for going on with business as usual while the irreversible had been running away with what little time was left. That’s how I have long felt about our planetary predicament. I needed to get off the carousel and pay attention to what matters.
I had a bucket list written up before I’d ever experienced the death of any loved one. I still have it, but it’s changing. I have been checking items off as and when I complete them, but I look at the list with fresh eyes now I consider the fluid nature of time limits. I don’t know how much time I have left. I don’t know if I want to know. If I found out tomorrow that I only had a year I would be petrified of the grandiosity of the task before me: how to live that year the best I could, and to leave the world a better place than it is right now. A tall order for just one year. But then I can’t guarantee that I have more, so why approach it as though I do? So I took another look at my list and thought about which items would still be on it if I had only one year left. And then I looked at my life and asked myself what I would do tomorrow if I had only one year left. Would I do tomorrow what I have done today if I had only one year left?
The answer is no. I would not do tomorrow what I have done today if I had only one year left. I would do some of those things again. It is New Year, so I haven’t been working. I have spent much of the day writing; I have baked bread; I have played with Derek, my beautiful feline furbaby; I have tended my garden; I have eaten a home-made vegan brownie; and I saw in 2014 with a kiss. All of these things have been lovely. But I have not shown my partner enough love; I have not been out for a walk – just because the sun didn’t shine enough; I have not read that book that’s staring me down, crying out “you know you want to…!”; and I have not made a dent in the book I’m trying to write – I’m in self-doubt mode. And if I knew I only had one year to live I probably wouldn’t have bothered getting caught up in a bizarre Facebook conversation about Nelson Mandela conspiracy theories (I’m not a troofer, by the way…), or making sure I have a full to-do list for the week ahead. And I sure as hell wouldn’t have felt apologetic about wanting to spend the day in my pyjamas (I did get dressed).
There is also the issue of our planetary predicament. I desperately want to leave the world better than I found it. That is the one thing I’ve always known I wanted to do, no matter how much my other goals have shifted. So I need to take a good, hard look at what I can contribute, what I want to contribute, and where my energy is best applied. I cannot leave the world in its current state. Although I do not know how much time I have left, or the prognosis for the long-term health of our environment, I do know that our civilization is in hospice, and that there is some form of palliative care I can provide to the civilization whose final days I am honoured to witness. And I don’t want to pull down all traces of its having been here.
So, I’m staring at my bucket list again, that list of 101 life goals, and thinking which items should go on my 1-year-to-live Bucket List. Scratch that. I’m blank-slating this. No cheats. Working from the bottom up here. So here goes, without Overthinking it, my Bucket List penned (well, typed) as I go, in no particular order….
Da Bucket List:
- Read all the books I’ve always wanted to read – prioritizing the best ones first (I feel another list coming on already)
- Write a novel (well, finish it – I’m only about 20,000 words in…)
- Write a non-fiction book (this one’s still at the planning stage…)
- Mend my relationship with my family (will take some truth and reconciliation)
- Become an Australian citizen (I became eligible on the 26th, after eight an a half years here – still waiting for some paperwork to be done with so that I can apply and be done with it… a hassly process as DIAC require police checks from other countries I’ve lived in and I have to declare that I’m not a terrorist all over again and that I’ve never participated in the production of weapons of mass destruction (done that three times already), and I have to pass a test all about cricket (I think))
- Volunteer at a refugee camp
- Get Derek a little sister
- Go completely waste-free
- Grow all my own veggies in my own garden (right now I just have tomatoes, capsicums, eggplant, zucchinis, chillies, lettuce, mizuna, peas, 3 types of beans, lotsa herbs – oh, and a strawberry patch, a lime tree, an orange tree and a papaya tree – we make good use of our “1 metre perimeter”… that we’re gradually expanding…)
- Hike the Kokoda trail (I wanted to do that since I was little ‘cos my parents did it when we lived in PNG)
- Revisit my “hometown”, where I grew up (has to be in Summer)
- Take my partner around all my favourite parts of Australia – the Kimberley, Kakadu, Katherine, the Atherton Tablelands, the Gemfields, even Bowen goddammit – I have memories there!
- Complete a “road trip” without a vehicle
- Get rid of the car and acquire a bicycle
- Get that foot tattoo I’ve been wanting for years – bamboo, not machine (will upload design at some point)
- Write something that moves me as much as Lord Byron’s By The Deep Sea:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more…
(that’s just my favourite bit)
- Liberate a vivisection lab
- Liberate a factory farm
- Set up a retirement home for ex-factory farm animals
- Set up a retirement home for ex-vivisection animals
- Set up a cat sanctuary so moggies can see out the end of their days in peace (shame we can’t keep them forever )
- Plant enough trees to offset my own lifetime carbon footprint
- Get the police to switch sides at a protest
- Make a documentary
- Make a movie (can I get Oliver Stone to produce it?)
- Get 10,000 people to pledge to Powerdown (link to campaign details to be added)
- Volunteer with a disaster relief team after a natural disaster
- Help my community to build its climate disaster response procedures and infrastructure – we’ll need it
- Provide meaningful work for a team of disabled/lesser-abled people – prove that it can be done
- Launch the mother of all nuclear decommissioning and disarmament campaigns – to win
- Visit a prisoner on death row – perhaps help them to write their memoir (I’d more than likely get involved in trying to get clemency…)
- Ensure the Galilee Basin does not get mined
- Get my community to freeshare the majority of our needs (we’re starting, slowly, gently)
Most of these things probably wouldn’t make it onto other people’s lists – we all have our own things we want to achieve, based on our own unique passions, skills and motivations. You may not find my list inspiring at all, but that’s ok – you have your own, whether you’ve thought about it or not. But I feel better – if little vulnerable and awkward – having stated what I want. I can’t promise to always want the same things, but at any given moment I can choose to live purposefully.
I’m fully aware not all of those things can be achieved in a year – most of them can’t, but some of them can, and others can at least be started. And few of them can be done by me alone. I am future-oriented, and over-ambitious; but shoot for the stars, as they say. I promise not to burn myself out again; I have learnt something from the past year. I just don’t believe in not trying. And I do intend to live somewhat beyond the next 365 days. But more to the point, I don’t think we can live as though only the next year matters, no matter how close to the end we are, even if it is our last – either as an individual or collectively, as a civilization. I think we still need to think of a future beyond ourselves, and prepare for it. We need to think of a future beyond our civilization, and begin preparing for that too.
Like Seb Terry, I want to make it to 100 things (and perhaps more), so this will be an ongoing list and I’ll post updates from time to time when I feel they’re worth sharing.
I know I’m going to be too shy to do many of these things over the coming year – it’s hard to put yourself on the line, stick your neck our, and commit to a bunch of other metaphors – but I also hope that at least putting them down like this firms up my commitment to making stuff happen. I have found so far that although there is no alchemical reaction, writing things down does kickstart the motor.
I ended 2013 by winding down and wrapping up, preparing to get stuck into this list as of the New Year. That is my resolution, and it’s out in the open now, so I expect to be held to it.
I’ll let you know how it all goes and how much of it I get done
What’s on your bucket list?