I have been thinking (and reading) about a different kind of bucket list. Merriam Webster defines bucket list as “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.” The books I am reading – The Bright Book of Life by Harold Bloom and Horizon by Barry Lopez – are about the things or places or books that the authors wanted to revisit before they died. Both authors died within a year of writing their books. Bloom wants to reread the books he has loved one more time; he says he is desperately lonely in his old age (having outlived so many friends) and goes “back to reread novels to find old friends still living and to make new ones.” Barry Lopez, one of the great travelers of our time, is interested in going back to some of his favorite places (in mind if not always in body) to determine whether his journeys taught him anything: “Having seen so many parts of the world, what have I learned about human menace, human triumph, and human failings and fallibilities?” Bloom and Lopez both invite us to come on their final journeys and to plan one of our own – back through experience, physical or textual.
A few years ago, Bloom published an anthology and commentary on late poems by various poets: Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems. Bloom looks for comfort, for answers, in these late poems, but says in the end: “Confronting illness, pain, and dying, we learn quickly that eloquence is not enough. Neither are even the most authentic poems of consolation. Still, the beauty and wisdom of these poems reverberate into the coming silence.” However, he expects more from the novels that he reviews in his last book. Its title (The Bright Book of Life) comes from an essay by D.H. Lawrence:
The novel is the one bright book of the life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make a whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do…. To be alive, to be man alive, to be the whole man alive: that is the point. At its best, the novel, and novel supremely, can help you. It can help you not to be a dead man in life.
One of Lopez’s abiding concerns is the state of the world we live in and the degree to which it has deteriorated in his lifetime. He is a genuine and literate environmentalist, and not unaware that his own physical deterioration is natural, but that of the places and indigenous peoples he loves on the earth is not. He can accept his mortality; he has trouble accepting what we have done to our home.
Going back is not easy. That place we loved when we were twenty may now be overdeveloped and all serenity replaced by noise and concrete. The book that meant so much to us, that changed our lives, when we were adolescents may somehow now feel… juvenile. And yet it is a brave venture and one that might assist us in making some sense of the path of our lives. Barry Lopez puts it very well:
There is no originality in this, of course. We, all of us, look back over our lives, trying to make sense of what happened, to see what enduring threads might be there. My further desire in planning this book was to create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives. At a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future.
I have long been intrigued by the idea of limiting myself to rereading in my old age. I have often thought old age would be a good time to revisit my favorite movies and television shows. Maybe, if my memory is bad enough, I will laugh just as hard at reruns of The Office as I did the first time. If my memory is good, maybe I will remember the laughter of the first time, and that will be a joy in itself.
I even visualized this as a kind of spiritual practice in my story “Nothing New,” where one of the characters strikes anything new from her life in order to relish the old. But that was probably going too far. Yet, when I read Bloom and Lopez, I find myself making lists of books, music, drama, and places I want to revisit (at least) one more time. Most of these intentions will never be realized; however, just creating the list is a useful exercise. Try it. And think about ignoring the best seller list in favor of something you already know is wonderful.