Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A small-pail list


By JOELLEN COLLINS

This past week on my flight from San Francisco, looking at the Sierra Nevada, I realized I no longer need a bucket list. As a child in San Francisco in my knotty pine-ceilinged bedroom, I was an avid reader; my folks would leave a few animal crackers and a couple of beautifully illustrated books on my nightstand for me to enjoy while they caught an extra hour of sleep. One heavy book, propped against my knees, displayed painted illustrations of children and their lives around the world. Mommy told me that if I could burrow through the earth, I would wind up on the other side of the world in China, my favorite section. My resultant life of travel and exploration was hatched at that time.

I did eventually get to China in 1986. Just recovering from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, the country was exploring the possibilities for wiggle room and a return to many of the creative venues stifled during the Red Guard years. While different from my childhood imaginings, China did not disappoint. Mommy would have loved to see it all. I embarked, right after high school, on a trip to Ecuador to build school playgrounds in villages high in the Andes. From my prop-plane window (this was 1956 and travel beyond Hawaii or Europe was mainly for the wealthy few), I witnessed Mount Chimborazo and sensed a life of similar travel. I have been fortunate enough to spend a summer at the age of 20 speaking along with other college students from UCLA to thousands of Indian students, and went alone, after my worst young, sad love experience, as a young Santa Monica High teacher to Greece and Spain. Later I received a Fulbright Fellowship and my husband and I, pre-children, were scheduled to go to Cypress for a year; my predecessor there was murdered and the program was cancelled in May 1967. Instead, I took my year's leave to get my master's degree at UCLA while teaching three courses at Santa Monica College, and then, most blessedly, produced my first daughter just six weeks after I took my orals and finished that academic year. (Had I had the concept of a bucket list then, I could have checked off having healthy children.)

My life since then has never been dull, and I have certainly taken many items out of my bucket. Travel adventures continued. There were times in Europe, for example in Sweden, when my daughter was an exchange student there. I made a home exchange with my girls to Highgate, a short tube ride from the city of London, for almost three months one summer when they were little. We also drove to the northernmost tip of Scotland, staying in B and B's and seeing B&B-branded sheep grazing the surrounding hillsides, and then across the channel into France, where we got lost near Zeebrugge because a dock workers strike had closed the Calais ferry ports. We drove in circles all night, finally arriving in Paris at 4 a.m., where transvestite hookers on the Champs Elysees finally steered us to our apartment.

I could chronicle many more memories from other places, like joining the Peace Corps in Thailand, when my daughters were in college, living on the border of Tuscany and Umbria by myself in a converted farmhouse, from which I ventured often to the surrounding hill towns and to Siena, one of my favorite places on earth, tasting the food and culture and friendliness of Italian life. I even experienced the wrath of hostile police in Perugia, where a state policeman surrounded by piles of yellowed documents yelled "stupida" when I hadn't filled out a form to extend my visa. He had given me the previous week a housing permit instead.

Recently I experienced a surprising late-life romance (now over) with a Brit, and we spent many times together hiking in Switzerland and Bavaria and Alsace, luxuriating in London's culture. Lately I even realized another childhood wish, going to Africa twice, to Kilimanjaro with the Make a Difference Now program. I loved the orphanage kids and even the tough travel.

I have made many mistakes on my travels and in my life, but I even those became fodder for storytelling and, more importantly, for my own growth. My bucket list now consists of small things like having a caption below a New Yorker cartoon. Laughing and loving friends and family occupy most of the other space in my small pail. That's fine with me.




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