A friend of mine from college recently got laid off from a collapsed silicon valley startup. (I suppose that’s the opposite of the so-called unicorns?) Instead of moping around, he was apparently savvy enough to have saved some dough and is now traveling all over the world knocking off item after item of many people’s “bucket lists.” He’s been to the waterfalls of South America and the deserts of Namibia. His last post was from base camp on Mt. Everest. I’m incredibly jealous—he’s doing many things that I wish I could be doing.
But I can’t do those things for many reasons. I have three kids, so that would make it quite a bit more difficult, for one. More realistically (and honestly), however, I just have too much debt to even think about doing something like that. But focusing on the things I can’t do is a fast track to unhappiness and splurging after feeling deprived. Instead, I’m working on ways to find happiness and abundance everywhere while living frugally. That means expressing gratitude each and everyday for the many, many good experiences and people in my life.
So I was thrilled today when I saw Maggie’s post over at Northern Expenditure. In it, Maggie talks about creating a list of all the experiences we’ve had that we can look back on and fill our bucket. This is basically the polar opposite of creating an arbitrary list with an arbitrary deadline of random stuff we have a vague (or perhaps more serious) notion of wanting to do at some point. As Maggie hints at, even completing items on these arbitrary lists is often not particularly satisfying because they come from some perceived external pressure to do X before Y date because . . . someone said once it was a good thing to do.
Expressing and documenting these memories of long-term gratitude is such a great idea for so many reasons. First, it keeps you focused on what you really care about and appreciate in your life, instead of all the mistakes you’re trying to correct—like paying off a ton of debt. It also gives you a quick place to go when you are starting to feel overwhelmed and want to recharge by remembering something incredibly positive. And it encourages the neural pathways in your brain to strengthen around these happy thoughts, thus literally making it easier for you be happy in the present. That’s a triple win already, and I don’t think that begins to exhaust the benefits of this exercise.
Maggie challenged fellow bloggers to write their own fill-the-bucket lists based on experiences without a huge expense component. After a full day with the kids, I’m happy to oblige. Here are some of my long-term favorite experiences.
Teaching My Youngest Daughter How to Swim
Last summer, my youngest daughter really wanted to learn how to swim. She loves the water. She had just turned three, loved frozen yogurt sticks, wearing princess dresses, and—as we learned—swimming marathons. We couldn’t find a limit for her when she was ready to get out on her own. She would stay in as long as we let her, regularly outlasting the other kids.
It’s one thing to be in the pool with a nervous three year old who loves being in the water, and a totally different one to be in the pool with a three year old who can swim and do her own thing. We are lucky enough to have a house with a pool, so I committed to swimming with her as many days as I could during Phoenix’s exceptionally long summer with the goal of getting her as close to swimming independently as possible by the end.
She progressed really rapidly, and went from not wanting to let go of me (day 0.2) to swimming from to one side of the pool to the other, the short way across. By the end of the summer she was swimming the full length of the pool, unassisted. We laughed like crazy as she explored silliness underwater, like blowing LOTS of bubbles. We were scared together when she pushed herself past her own limits and made it—barely. Mostly, though, we were together—everyday, working through challenge after challenge. It was incredible. Cost: $15 for goggles.
A Snow Day on Mt. Lemmon
We don’t get a whole lot of snow here in the desert. We do, however, have mountains that get snow every year! When we lived in Tucson, it could be difficult to get the timing right for when to head up to the mountain on a weekend.
One year we got incredibly lucky. We couldn’t see a whole lot of snow on the mountain, but I decided to try to take the kids up there anyway. To everyone’s great delight, there was a ton of snow left and very few people up there to compete with! The kids had an absolute blast going sledding for the first time, making snowmen, and having impromptu snowball fights. (Over and over again.) We played for hours. Somewhere in there I managed to grab a couple photos of pure glee.
Snow crunched beneath our feet. The crisp winter air pricked at our cheeks. Our borrowed winter clothing kept us warm. The sunlight’s shimmer created sparkling reflections. When it was over, we took off our winter clothes, jumped into our warm car, and headed back down the mountain into our snow-free desert valley. Cost: about $20, for snacks and gas.
Kayaking the Lower Colorado River
My best friend loves to go do “adventure-y stuff,” as he puts it. I do too. So when he invited me to go on a kayaking trip for the first time, I jumped at the opportunity even though it also meant being responsible for getting a group of 7th graders down the river with us. We went down the Lower Colorado River. We sang songs on the river. We camped on a beach under a clear sky and watched a rare lunar eclipse that turned the moon an eery red. Out there by ourselves on the river, it seemed like that eclipse lasted too long. You could see why people would develop ominous superstitions around these events, absent some astronomical explanation.
We stopped at sandbars in the middle of the river, set up a portable table, and cut fresh pineapple. We learned to work as a team. We circled back when people tipped over. We fought off an unbelievably aggressive swarm of mosquitoes. We went on morning hikes on the side of the river. We woke with aches from sleeping on the ground, but always went to bed with full hearts. Since that first trip, I’ve done a few more with my friend. Each one seems to be better than the last. And when my friend and I share a cold gin and tonic around a campfire, we delight in recounting pieces of these memories. Cost: about $50 chipped in for gas. (My friend brought all the supplies and food—what a guy!)
The Sierra Nevadas
As it happens, my friend also owns a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains right next to a lake. Going there has become one of the highlights of our year for the past four years. There’s no internet service at the cabin. The phone barely works. For someone like me who is always tethered to email in some way, a place like this is a huge relief. It’s just you and your family and friends, and an abundance of time to spend with each other and that rejuvenating mountain air.
Beautiful hiking trails abound and the famous redwood trees are not far away. You can even hike up a trail that starts at the cabin’s back door and walk to several redwood trees on an old logging road.
Then of course the lake itself beckons. It’s small enough to swim across. Or you can kayak it—no motor boats allowed. The lake was originally settled during a great logging campaign in the region, and at some point someone rolled part of a redwood tree’s trunk into the lake. We thought it had only been there for a few years at most, because how long could a piece of wood really just sit in water? Well, it turns out that same log has been floating in Hume Lake for probably a hundred years. We talked to a seventy year old on the beach one day who said that the log had been in the water since she was a little girl, and that even then it had been in the lake as long as anyone could remember.
One night I kayaked into the middle of the lake. A meteor shower was going on. The sky was so completely clear that those meteors looked almost like fireworks. I’d never seen anything like it before, or since.
Mrs. Mortimer and I have enjoyed many walks around the lake in the morning and evening. We also sit by the lake and watch the kids play, or enjoy a drink on the porch together as the sun sets. It’s a magical, peaceful oasis. Cost: fuel to get there and food to eat.
What’s on your fill-the-bucket list?
Reflecting on these experiences, they are all closely tied to my family and friends. None of my professional triumphs even come close to matching the satisfaction I get from reflecting on these moments. So what about you? What have you already done that fills your bucket? Please share in the comments, or write your own post!