I’ve made a lot of bucket lists in my time. There’s always a lot of travel on the list. When I first saw Maggie at Northern Expidenture was starting a movement with “fill-the-bucket” lists – a list of what you’ve ALREADY done – I thought, “Interesting. But, ugh. What have I ever done?”
It is AMAZING how quickly we forget. I’ve done some stuff. Today, I’ll tell you about some of it.
Writing this post took some real effort. I kept adding and subtracting experiences from the list. I wanted to be sure that everything on the list was something that I, in some way, did for myself. I’ve had some pretty tremendous experiences fall into my lap (like my one-time boss giving me tickets to the Grammy Awards because he knew I had a friend coming to visit.) But, that wasn’t something that took real effort on my part.
It was also hard to write this without feeling like I was bragging. There’s something about offering the good stories from your life that feels less authentic than offering the struggles. I don’t like that feeling. It’s the same as self-deprecating humor. It exists to make other people comfortable, and it whittles away at your own self esteem because, as Freud said, “There are no jokes.”
ANYWAY, this exercise is one terrific way to face that particular issue. Celebrate your accomplishments and experiences. Do not diminish them to make other people more comfortable. The best people celebrate your experiences with you.
Oh, also, I feel like I should warn you: you may learn more about me than you ever wanted to know.
Got on the plane.
As my college graduation loomed on the horizon, I got more and more uptight about what I was going to do after. An opportunity to go to Europe to work at a resort came up, and although that particular job fell through, my friend and I were convinced that we needed to go anyway. I’d never been on a plane before, or west of the Mississippi River, or anywhere near a foreign country, but I felt like it was a “do or die” moment. If I didn’t do it, I’d regret it forever. No one in my family or in my family’s immediate circle had ever done anything like go to Europe before. I didn’t have money saved. My parents repeatedly told me I couldn’t do it, although it wasn’t often said like that. They very rarely EVER told me that I couldn’t do (or have or make) something. They were just scared for me. As I was lugging my backpack up to airport security, my dad followed behind me saying, “I don’t know how you’re doing this.” Truth be told, I didn’t either. I had money from a cash advance on my first credit card. I had an unlimited Eurail pass. I had my extroverted college friend, who’d been to Europe after high school, pushing me along. I got on the plane. My friend stayed in Greece, and I backpacked through Europe, making friends along the way. I made it home safely. And, I was never told by anyone in my family that I couldn’t do something ever again.
Rode Horses in Monument Valley
I came back from Europe with a great big bite from the travel bug. I managed to mess around with full-time work for about a year, and then I started to break out in hives from stress and general unhappiness. My then-roommate decided to move out of state, and I had no real reason to stick around town, so I concocted a plan to move out west and live with a friend I’d made in Europe. The road trip out west was my first experience on that side of the Mississippi River. I didn’t stay long, though. My friend who endured the road trip with me was already on his way elsewhere, so my younger brother flew out to drive back with me. We drove up through Arizona and stopped at the Grand Canyon. We rode horses in Monument Valley. We drove into Dodge City, Kansas, just so we could drive out of it quickly and then out of the state of Kansas altogether – all so we could say, “We got the hell out of Dodge, and then we weren’t in Kansas anymore.” It was that kind of trip. The Monument Valley moment has always stuck with me, though, because I was fifteen when Young Guns II came out in theaters. I was at just the right age to be completely taken by Jon Bon Jovi’s soundtrack for the film. I listened to “Blaze of Glory” on repeat. In the video for the song, he’s in Moab, Utah, on top of a butte, and the landscape mesmerized me. I got to experience that landscape with my little brother, and we got to build a bond independent of our family unit.
Asked for Deborah Van Valkenburg’s autograph.
If you were to ask me, “What’s your favorite movie?” I would most likely answer, “Streets of Fire.” It’s a 1986 rock and roll fable starring Diane Lane and Michael Pare, as well as a slew of other noteworthy actors. It is not an art film or a blockbuster. But, it was a film that my father thought looked interesting one evening when he was browsing the shelves at the video store – way back when I was in sixth grade. He rented the VHS and brought it home and we watched it together. We must have bought it on VHS or something, because then I watched it a few more times. I wasn’t yet in junior high, and I went on to have dreams about this movie for years. In the film, Diane Lane plays a rockstar who gets kidnapped, from the stage, by a motorcycle gang. The cops are no help. An audience member from the concert asks her brother, played by Michael Pare, to come home because she needs him, but really, it’s because he and Diane Lane’s character used to be together, and he’s vigilante enough to go rescue Lane from the gang. Deborah Van Valkenburg plays the audience member/sister.
When I lived in Los Angeles, I spent a few months working part-time at a bookstore in Beverly Hills. One Friday evening, she came in and I happened to be alone at the cash wrap when she was ready to check out. I pulled some register tape and said, “I never do this, but would you mind signing an autograph?” She was shocked, and asked, “May I ask where you know me from?” I said, “Streets of Fire,” and she smiled. She signed the autograph and said to me, “What a wonderful start to the weekend.” Then she said I was lovely! That movie may have been an important part of my childhood, but it became even more significant in my adult life because I could have been shy. I could have been too afraid to ask. But I asked. And I made someone’s night. And they made mine.
Met my idol.
When I was sixteen years old, I spent a lot of time at the library, just browsing the shelves. One day, I found Postcards from the Edge in the fiction section. I recognized the author, Carrie Fisher, because I was a Star Wars fan. I took it home and read it. I read it again, at least once a year, sometimes more, the next ten years. I found it when I needed it, and it has always felt like home – in the way that a book can feel like home. For some reason, I related to this woman who wrote about fame, friendship, and failure with humor and, dare I say, grace. At the time, I lived in a very small town, where everyone knew your every move. When I messed up, it was literally “talk of the town.” Carrie Fisher made that sort of thing seem funny, and I adored her for it.
Right around the time I moved to Los Angeles, she published another novel. She did a free reading and book signing at the Beverly Hills Public Library, and I showed up. I listened to her speak, and I took my book up after to get signed. She asked my name, and I told her. She said, “Nice to meet you, Mandy,” as she whisked that pen across the page. I just shook my head quietly and gave her a toothless smile, then grabbed my book and got out of there. The second I got to the hallway, I burst into tears. I walked back to my car and sat there for a long, long time. I thought about how far I was from my tiny small town, from Appalachia, from giving a damn about who said what about me. I’d come a long way to get that autograph. A long, long way.
Moved to a farmhouse with an old college friend.
I wasn’t living in Los Angeles for long before an old friend from college called. She’d been thinking of me and reached out to my mother, who told her I was in California. She was about to visit her mother’s friend in California, and we arranged for her to visit. After she left, we embarked upon a twice daily, two year, epic email exchange. When my life in LA started to lose its luster, she said, “Why don’t you come live at the farmhouse for a while?” I did. It brought me back to my home region. I lived in the house for a year. During that time, I started teaching again, I wrote for the local paper, and I trained a puppy. I also picked up roadkill the farm dog dragged into the yard and hauled trash to the dump in my tiny Honda Civic. I turned 30 in that farmhouse. One day, I’ll write a memoir of that year.
Adopted my dogs.
As I was preparing to move from California to the farmhouse, I told all my friends and co-workers that I’d have a dog before I had a job. I lined up work before I moved it, but the teaching gig didn’t start until late August. I moved in July. I was back in Appalachia for a week when my friend and I took a drive past the local pound. There was a puppy in the drop box. It was late on a Saturday evening, and I took him home. He was seven pounds and wormy, but he was mine. He was all ears when we met, but he grew into them. He also grew forty pounds. He’s a frisbee dog and he likes to wade into shallow water to collect rocks. His little brother stands along the edge of the water and barks when the big guy finds something.
The little guy came along a year after the big one. I wasn’t looking for another dog. I didn’t even think about having two. But, I ran into by big guy’s trainer, and she was attending the grand opening of a no-kill shelter not far from where we were. I went with her, and someone was trying to drop off the little guy. The shelter wasn’t accepting drop offs that day, so I took him with me. I told everyone it was just a trial, and I may take him back to the shelter in a few days. Then, I took him outside to play frisbee with me and the big guy, and he was so excited, and so doubtless in his place in the household, that one night in, I couldn’t imagine life without him. These guys are the reason I want to buy a house. I don’t want any landlord telling me the size and number of pets I’m allowed to have. The three of us are a unit, and it’s one of the best things about my life.
Kayaked on My River.
In one amazing birthday weekend, I went to see The Gaslight Anthem, interviewed the man who created Michael Jackson’s wardrobe, and drove to visit my friend in the farmhouse. We were having coffee in the kitchen when she casually said to her husband, “Will you drive the kayaks down to the bank? Amanda and I are going to head down the river.” I would not have suggested this. I love to canoe, but I wouldn’t say I’m seasoned. I wore my life vest like a good girl, and we stayed close to the bank. It was beautiful and exhilarating, and I got to experience the river in a way I never had before. Her husband picked us up down the river, and on our way back to the farmhouse, my friend gave me a little nudge and said, “I was scared, too.” I wouldn’t have known it, and I think about that experience when I think about the ways our friends push us to grow.
Entered a “Wes Anderson Appreciation Night” costume contest – and won!
I would not have done this without my cousin, who is pictured here dressed as Sam from Moonlight Kingdom. After losing touch for years, we ran into one another randomly walking through the neighborhood – and it was a surprise to both of us that we lived in the same city, let alone the same three mile radius. Now, we spend a lot of time together, and she has enriched my life tremendously. Early in our renewed relationship, a local bar hosted a “Wes Anderson Appreciation Night,” complete with artist renderings of various characters, film screenings, and a costume contest. I dressed as my favorite Wes Anderson character, which was a big hit at the event.
Went digging for diamonds with my parents at the Crater of Diamonds.
My family has always liked rocks. When I was a kid, we had a tumbler. We collected rocks. Sometimes, we painted them. We also had a metal detector. For a while, my dad was really into gold panning. We like to go to yard sales and thrift stores and look for treasure. We like the hunt. We like the find. So, when I first heard of the Crater of Diamonds, I thought, “This is it. If I’m ever going to wear a diamond on my finger, this is how I’m going to get it.” TEN YEARS passed from the first time I brought it up to the day we finally made it. My mother, father and I drove 18 hours to dig in the dirt in the August Arkansas heat. We didn’t find a diamond, but we did have a blast. We talked to a lot of other amateur gem hunters while we walked around the park. I heard my dad tell one guy, “This trip was a real bucket list item.” It really was. It was one of those trips that charges you up, so when you get home, you carry the excitement from it into your everyday life for weeks after. I was sorry my brother didn’t get to go, but he had to stay behind and run his business.
Paid off $48k of student loan debt in 14 months.
I didn’t know it when I was traipsing around Europe, but I was lugging $22,000 of student loan debt around with me. When I went to grad school, I received a full tuition waiver AND a monthly stipend, yet I still took out the max available in loans. Not smart. I had two degrees and $48,000 of debt by the time I was thirty. I let it crush my spirit for a long time. It took ten years for me to take action, but when I did, I did it in style. I started a blog. I took on extra work. I got serious. I committed. And, I triumphed. I feel lighter now – financially, emotionally, spiritually. Those 14 months of paying off debt was one of those trips that charges you up, so when it’s over, you carry the excitement from it into your everyday life for…a long time after.
That’s a pretty full bucket. For that, and for Maggie’s “Fill the Bucket List” challenge, I am grateful. Every now and then, it’s a good exercise to take stock of what you HAVE done, so all of your focus isn’t on what you haven’t achieved or where you haven’t been. You’ve done some things. Share them.
Want to make your own “Fill the Bucket List?” Be sure to let Maggie at Northern Expenditure know!