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Essay: Bucket List in Retrospect

Updated: May 14, 2023

(Editor's Note — Jessica Madeline Pasko is a California-based writer and self-proclaimed bon vivant.)

“No, actually, I remember when I was a teenager thinking there was no point in going on, but then I realized that life is just an endless series of embarrassments and I’d hate to miss out on all that.” – Film director Errol Morris in Mark Singer’s New Yorker profile, “Predilections” *

My grandmother died this year, after a short bout with uterine cancer. Because of the

pandemic, I hadn’t seen her in 16 months before she died. As soon as I got my vaccine, I booked a flight back to upstate New York to say goodbye but missed her by less than 24 hours. Another cruelty of COVID-19. But in all this sadness, there’s been an unexpected gift: A deep dive into my own history — a sort of time capsule of my life.

When I’d moved across the country 11 years ago, I’d left several boxes of photo albums, books, and journals in my grandparents’ attic, which I retrieved when she died. Reading through the thoughts, hopes and dreams of my teenaged and early-20s self — as a woman now approaching 40 — has been an absolute trip. Some of it is sad and painful to read. Other parts are maddening, and still others are downright hilarious and cringeworthy.

How I wish I hadn’t wasted so much emotional energy on insecurity and romantic relationships past their prime. And yet, I don’t think I’d take most of it back, with the exception of a few youthful indiscretions. While digging through these annals of my life, I also found a ‘bucket list’ I made at the wise old age of 22. I was fresh out of college, working my first journalism job in a low-level position for a prestigious news organization. Cue the imposter syndrome.

Much of the list feels almost precious now, but there are other parts of it that make me wonder: Were I to meet my past self in a time-travel scenario, would I be disappointed? In more than 15 years since making that list, I’ve accomplished less than half of it. The bucket list from when I was 22 (*annotated)

  1. Go to Poland (Done)

  2. Get another tattoo (Done, a few times)

  3. Get my master’s degree (Done)

  4. Move to the west coast (Done)

  5. Work at a magazine (Does freelancing count?)

  6. Teach college classes

  7. Get a cool car (RIP Mini Cooper)

  8. Go to Iceland

  9. Go to Prague

  10. Go to South America

  11. Go to Asia

  12. Go to Ireland

  13. Go to Italy (Done)

  14. Write a book

  15. Perform at an open mic

  16. Do karaoke without being drunk (A karaoke machine was my best pandemic purchase)

  17. Learn how to swing dance for real

  18. Ride a Vespa

  19. Be a cool auntie (Not biologically, but to my friends’ kids, definitely)

  20. Be an old lady with long hair

  21. Have a red painted kitchen

  22. Live near an ocean (Done)

  23. Go to France again (Done)

  24. Make a documentary

  25. Start a zine again

  26. Learn to ballroom dance

  27. Join a gym (Done)

  28. See the Galapagos Islands

  29. Get a PhD

  30. See my siblings graduate college (Two down, one to go)

  31. Trace my family tree (My dad took care of this)

At the time I made this list, I dreamed of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, largely a product of reading too much drugged-out Beat literature in college. But that’s one goal I accomplished, and I’ve now lived for a decade just south of San Francisco and two blocks from the ocean.

There are also a few things on the list I’ve given up on by now — a master’s degree is the extent of my academic career at this point, despite taking the LSATs and numerous stops and starts at applying to law school. And I suspect a doctorate is not in the cards anymore as I shell out a ton each month for my very expensive student loans.

But what of the other things? I’ve been going back through the list lately and evaluating.

I’m not sure I care anymore about knowing how to dance formally; I’ve reached a point where I’m mostly OK with my own freestyle moves. The need to create is still strong. Although I was devastated to leave full-time journalism, a silver lining has been the opportunity to write more creatively again.

I’ve gotten several tattoos by now, traveled to Poland, Italy (twice) and back to France, though not Paris. I had a cool car for awhile, too, until my periwinkle convertible Mini Cooper’s clutch blew out and I traded it in for a very practical Honda Fit. I’ll give myself a bonus point on this one though because my partner drives a 1962 Chevy Corvair convertible in which I regularly ride shotgun. (Yes, this is the car that inspired Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed.” I insisted we add seat belts at the very least.)

I’ve yet to visit anywhere in Asia or South America, and I still dream of Reykjavik and the Irish countryside. I will write a book someday, even if I have to self-publish it. Meanwhile, the scene of Audrey Hepburn riding a Vespa in “Roman Holiday” will always be a favorite, but I wouldn’t trust myself to navigate those narrow cobblestone streets. I’m kind of a klutz.

It’s notable to me that my list contains no mention of things like marriage or having children, two “standard” life milestones that I’ve yet to achieve and may not ever, though the first seems more likely these days. The anti-marriage stance of my youth has lessened considerably with age.

It's occurred to me too in looking back on this list today that it feels less like a bucket list and more like a list of life goals. Everything there is pretty tame. For instance, I make no mention of wanting to jump out of airplanes or go diving with sharks. It’s also worth noting that I’ve done plenty of things that weren’t on the list, as well.

That time and place so many years ago, when I sat down at age 22 to carefully craft my bucket list, now seems like a different lifetime altogether. I’d like to think if I met that young version of myself today, she’d think that I was cool. But, more than that, I hope she’d appreciate that I finally got comfortable with myself.

Or maybe she’d just be pissed that I still haven’t mastered the Lindy Hop.


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