Before I Kick the Bucket

by May Mansour | 6/30/16 6:34pm

My grandfather has read the same book every day for 43 years.

My first memory is waking up in my mother’s bed, nestled between her and my eldest aunt. To my left, Mama drapes her arm around my torso, her long fingernails tickling my exposed belly. To my right, Amto Zeinab, half-asleep, strokes my back to the rhythm of the Al-Fatiha.

I nuzzle my way out of my mother’s embrace, sweat seeping through the little red jumpsuit I’d refused to take off the night before. I make my way out into the garden, my stubby arms flailing in the damp air, swatting away desperately at morning mosquitos.

At the opposite edge of the garden is jiddo, my grandfather. He’s just come back from village prayer, his prayer rug still rolled tight and held snug in the crook of his arm.

Jiddo makes his way to the plastic chair on the concrete ledge.

“Now he’ll take off his straw hat and wipe his brow,” I whisper to myself. I know his movements down to the head scratch — I’ve watched this scene play out every day since I was born.

His thick-framed glasses in hand, jiddo reaches into his knapsack and pulls out the family Quran. He kisses the cover and touches it to his forehead.

A picture of my late grandmother serves as his bookmark. Jiddo lightly strokes the crinkled photograph with his thumb, then turns to the page he’d left off the night before: Chapter 55, Ar-Rahman, Verse 76.

I have always pitied my grandfather. He has never traveled beyond the walls of his village. He has never owned a pair of sneakers.

After visiting him during my senior year of high school, I vowed never to live a life so monotonous and mundane.

I would not read just one book, but as many books as could fill the New York Public Library.

I would not think or live inside a box. I would collapse the box. I would tape the box to more boxes. I would makeshift an airplane from said boxes and fly myself to the Western land of culture and bon goût.

And so I drafted a bucket list — a list of places I want to visit, experiences I want to have, goals I want to achieve before I kick the proverbial “bucket.”

“This is my memento mori,” I thought. “Some hang 15th-century vanitas of skulls and hourglasses. I make a ‘Things To Do Before I Die’ list on iWish.”

What started off as a short checklist in my phone (“Save up for a trip to Ireland,” “Start a travel blog,” “Realize you don’t travel nearly enough to write a travel blog”) soon became a 227-item catalog of my wildest (and most trivial) desires.

My bucket list included paragliding in the Swiss Alps, snowmobiling glaciers in Iceland, corrupting a nephew or two and falling madly in love with a steamy French chocolatier, only to leave him in pursuit of a fast-paced career in international journalism. (Your bucket list is only as interesting as the rom-coms you watch.)

There was no desire too ludicrous — no idea too far-fetched — to be made an item on the bucket list.

Josie Nordrum ’17, who drafted a detailed bucket list of her own for sophomore summer, said that compiling a bucket list is an exercise in imagination.

“The excitement of a bucket list is actually making the bucket list. I enjoy coming up with the ideas, sitting around and thinking of a million crazy things that I want to do while I am still young and reckless. That’s the fun of bucket lists — letting your imagination wander,” she said.

As Nordrum suggested, bucket lists are often made in the spirit of devil-may-care adventurousness. They require a certain surrender of inhibition, an abandonment of personally and socially constraining rules.

“The purpose of a bucket list is to broaden your comfort zone and to get you to try new things — things that you wouldn’t consider trying otherwise,” she explained.

And while most buckets lists are highly individualized — suited to the desires and ambitions of their author — there can be immense pressure from others to fill the bucket list.

Elena Horton ’18 commented that pressure to complete a sophomore summer bucket list in particular comes from upperclassmen and alumni looking to safeguard Dartmouth tradition.

“There’s a lot of pressure to finish my bucket list, to make sophomore summer live up to everything everyone has said about it. It’s so anti-Dartmouth to not love sophomore summer,” she said.

The very notion of a bucket list — along with the internal and external pressure to “fill one’s bucket” — often encourages cultural commodification.

As Rebecca Mead suggested in her 2014 essay “Kicking the Bucket List” for “The New Yorker,” bucket lists reduce cultural experiences to items on a checklist that can be crossed off. They promote a kind of hyper consumerism — the pursuit of novelty for novelty’s sake, the relentless consumption of new places, experiences and cultural objects.

I saw the Mona Lisa. Now what?

Lela Gannon ’18 warned against privileging the satisfaction of crossing off items on a bucket list over personal engagement with the items themselves.

“If you’re just mindlessly doing things to check off a box, and not actually considering whether or not you want to do them, or whether or not you’ll get something out of it, then I certainly don’t think your [bucket list] will be fulfilling,” Gannon said.

In other words: I saw the Mona Lisa. But what did I learn from it? Did I engage with the artwork cognitively, emotionally or spiritually? Have I attained a greater cultural understanding of others or myself?

My grandfather has never traveled beyond the walls of his village. He has never owned a pair of sneakers.

But he has engaged and re-engaged with a cultural work every day for 43 years.

He has dedicated himself to a life of open and critical thinking, one of tireless introspection and intellectual and spiritual growth.

I may never read as many books as can fill the New York Public Library. I may never paraglide in the Swiss Alps.

But if I can be half the person that my grandfather is, I will be more than ready to “kick the bucket” when my time comes.