I used to have a big bucket. So big in fact, I never bothered making lists. I just did anything I wanted.
I scuba-dived, trekked across rainforests and jungles, climbed Mayan temples, honeymooned in paradise, sailed yachts, piloted airplanes, wore gold watches, built financial empires, cavorted with prostitutes, powdered my nose with blow, briefly retired at age 36… that kind of big.
Fate smashed my bucket two decades ago.
I now have neither bucket nor pot to piss in, but I’m happier than ever… how’s that possible?
Because my bucket, you see, was riddled with holes, that no list — no matter how long or exotic— could plug. It took me years to figure out I was scratching the wrong itch. My thirst for adventure was masking a yearning to reconnect with my wild side. The bling and blow were desperate cries for attention and acceptance. Wealth, for respect and validation. Prostitutes, for intimacy.
They were, and are, the misty hidden yearnings manipulated by the sly persuaders of unruly capitalism to keep us in a perpetual state of unsatisfied desire… always scratching the wrong itch, always pouring more stuff into our buckets.
Where affluence is the rule, the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic vices. What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The health of the economy has thus come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. New vices are prophylactics against the loss of desire. — Alan Watts
The loss mourned by Watts is Eros, which, at root, means the passionate and intense desire considered by ancient Greek philosophers as the prime mover, the motivating principle in all things human and non-human. There is no suggestion that this desire is specifically sexual. Eros is an impulse or energy that links us to the whole web of life. Thus, in the original vision that gave birth to the word, erotic potency was not confined to sexual power but included the moving force that propels life from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.
Wasting my potential climbing ladders leaning against wrong walls, running the rat-race wearing ill-fitting masks, concealing my mute despair with glitz and glamor, and seeking safe harbor in the arms of lust, my life-well ran dry of erotic energy. I burned out without ever having been on fire.
Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller
Adrift for twenty years in the wasteland strewn with the ruins of my life, I finally got it. Unless I made peace with who I was, I would never be content no matter what I had. I needed to shift from a state of having, to a state of being.
My bucket had been filled to the brim with useless stuff, and I’m now certain that it wasn’t fate that smashed it but I the one who gave it the heave in unconscious revolt against the paradoxical emptiness of my life to finally wake up from a forty-year lie.
Once stripped of all the falsehood, I also thought that what would remain would be my authentic core — dreamer, poet, lover… a metaphysical gypsy encircled by a placid sea of inner truth. But even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of personhood, as cautioned Maria Popova. “They are but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self.”
We change, and must. Only a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living. What we desire today will change over time… just like a river, as said poet David Whyte, with a particular abiding character, but showing radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.
For many years after the crash, I dreamt of pulling my stakes and moving to Greece. The idea had long beguiled me. Ever since reading British author Lawrence Durrell describe its landscape as pure nude chastity, and its light like coming off the heart of some Buddhist blue stone or flower. Or perhaps it was when I came across his alluring account of the women of the Mediterranean whom he said burn inwardly like altar candles and are the landscape wishes of the earth whose overpowering sensuality drive great poets to slash their veins.
Had I the money at the time, I probably would have checked the item off my bucket list and be now married to a Greek peasant girl wondering why the hell she wasn’t burning inwardly like an altar candle and, instead, nagging me for not having milked the goats. Luckily, I didn’t. Instead, I had to examine the fantasy to find the true nature of the itch. I discovered I was simply yearning to recover my erotic power.
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a white man disillusioned. — Jack Kerouac
I’ve since understood that Eros is not to be found on Greek isles nor in the arms of young girls. Neither can the ecstasy Kerouac pined for be found by assuming a different persona. The real voyage of discovery, said Marcel Proust, consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, echoed Henry Miller. “If there are flaws in your paradise, open more windows!”
Which brings to mind the summer day I took my young daughters to the beach.
I had no money to pay for camps or trips abroad and had just traded my new, luxury SUV for a drab-brown Altima sedan to lower the monthly payments. To lend magic to an otherwise boring Wednesday, I had to open the windows of our imaginations.
“Let’s pretend,” I said, as we walked out of the house, “let’s imagine we lived in a small, whitewashed stone house perched on a craggy hill in the island of Corfu… chalk-white, with electric blue window shutters and the Ionian sea only minutes away. “Pretend we’d usually trundle down the rutted road in a red wagon pulled by goats, but today — in our only compromise with the trappings of the affluent life we’ve left behind — we will have to take the Altima.”
With nothing more than our bathing suits under our clothes, a pair of borrowed boogie boards, and a yellow, cracked surfboard I had fished-out of a dumpster just days before, we headed out.
We didn’t need to see flocks of sheep grazing under olive groves or drive past the nude chastity of rocky hills dotted with asphodel flowers as we made our way down the winding asphalt of Highway 1. Didn’t matter. Instead, we feasted our eyes on towering emerald thickets of Eucalyptus to our left, and wind-and-fog swept hills to our right. To heighten my girls’ thirst for the ocean’s chill embrace (which I suspected would be no warmer than 65 degrees) and to recreate the imagined summer temperature in Corfu, I closed the windows and turned on the heat. Within seconds, sweat drops bloomed on our skin, making the shimmering steel blue surface of the Pacific Ocean, by then in view, even more alluring.
As soon as parked, doors flew open. The glistening sweat on our foreheads and forearms was blown dry by the chill air as we made our heat-maddened dash to the waves. And then the plunge! All care and fret washed off our backs by the welcoming ablution of the Pacific!
Like trays of delicate pastries, the swells carried our boards aloft, out and back to shore, as we raced one another. My yellow cast-off board with its cracked paint and chipped nose always the winner.
“Let’s go!” I yelled, as we completed the final wake run and hurried up the soft sand chased by spindrift, all ashiver and dripping wet. “Pretend our caique has drifted away. We’re stranded and must overnight here. Help me find driftwood to start a fire. It’ll get very cold soon. Let’s move!” I commanded, ignoring the Pringles and Power Bars nestled inside my backpack.“Go look for crabs, mussels, and octopi in the tide pools. Quick! We’re having grilled seafood for dinner!”
A half hour later, crestfallen and empty-handed but for a few pieces of driftwood and a fistfull of seashells, my daughters came back. By luck, a group of jolly Latinos had invited me to sit by their bonfire and partake of their food and steaming pot of Mexican hot chocolate.
Sitting in circle by the roaring flames, the wind gathered strength and blew my eldest’s sun-and-honey laced hair in a straight horizontal. My youngest shielded herself from the smoke that seemed bewitched by her Byzantine eyes. Very few words were exchanged or necessary as we fixed our gaze on the darkening horizon and basked in the comforting embrace of fellowship linked to the whole web of life. Pelicans took advantage of the last flush of golden light for one final dive-bomb into the ocean. A sea lion arched its silvery back and vanished. Tiny crabs scurried into their holes. The first star glittered in the western sky.
As we drove back home — hair and skin satin soft and salty — I recalled these words from the poet Rumi: “And you, if you have no feet to leave your country, go into yourself, become a ruby mine, open to the gifts of the sun.”
That magical summer day, we traveled to Greece without having to postpone our wish for that hoped-for day that often never arrives. No feet, no bucket, no list… simply open to the gifts of the present.
That day, I learned to squeeze delight from the fruits of the here-and-now and vowed to never again use the phrase ‘just as soon as…’ I experienced the truth of Miller’s assertion that it is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, and realized that the key is in understanding what makes us tick which is discovered by removing ourselves from the distractions and needling noise of the modern world to listen to the true longings of our hearts.
Now, far removed, I know that no Caribbean cruise, no matter how luxurious, can make anyone escape a meaningless job or humdrum existence.
That no gold watch can make up for the lost time we should invest on what truly matters.
That lust is no road to intimacy nor rugged adventure the way back to our wildness.
That neither wealth nor power can ever recharge our erotic potency.
That true joy is found in being, not in having.
Which is why I’m not surprised to learn that the country with the most buckets is one of the world’s unhappiest.
We don’t need buckets or lists. All we need is to open more windows.