So I’ve got this list. Some people call it a life list or a bucket list. Mine has mostly been stuff I must learn, as in: Spanish, guitar*, Israeli street fighting, skateboarding, riding a motorcycle, swimming, etc. I was so in love with this list. I pictured the woman who knew all the stuff on this list, who could slice you to bits with her bare fists and then play you a Joni Mitchell song.
I am done coveting this list.
Last weekend I went to Kampong Cham. It’s a town that is not really on any tourist’s to-do list, a town that I’d never given any thought to. J-P suggested it, and it was his birthday, and so I said fine. We took a dusty 3-hour bus ride through the rolling countryside, snacked on Pringles and cashews, and I braced myself for a chilled-out stretch of dull nothingness.
Kampong Cham is actually a tiny little wonderland. First, there are ponies. Magic mini horses with tassles high on their heads, that look like the sweetest little ponies every girl ever wanted in her backyard on Christmas. Second, there are houses on tall, tall stilts, houses so high that if you fell off your front porch you would die — or maybe, because you are in a lovely place, sprout paper wings. They are made of ramshackle weathered planks but with exquisite magenta lace curtains blowing in the breeze over the Mekong. Third, you can rent a motorbike and rumble around this countryside, down rutted paths, on an island where everyone you pass says HELLO. To get there you and your motorbike must take a ferry full of other villagers and their motorbikes, and their cows. Fourth, there is a temple called Wat Nokor. It is very old. It is the oldest thing I have ever seen, from the 11th century. I have been to Angkor Wat, but that was full of enough tourists that it never felt real. This felt real. Quiet, ancient stone worn round into new shapes, rolled socks stacked in a forgotten drawer.
And then within these walls, a new temple. A bright and colorful temple with fluttering flags and gleaming gold and, there, on the floor, monks napping on mats inside. They were napping! We found monks napping in a new ancient temple!
There is the line from Italian writer Carlo Levi: “The future has an ancient heart.”
But it is also true that the past enshrines a new soul. And maybe – just maybe – it’s not on your list. You won’t know what it is. You won’t know if it’s Chile on a Harley or Kampong Cham on a moto. You won’t know if it’s swim lessons at the gym or learning to swim by jumping off a boat in the Gulf of Thailand. Shelve Spanish. Swear in Quebecois. Keep it simple. Sit cross-legged on a straw mat with a mug of Nescafe. Call your parents. Search for ice at every roadside stand — mime “cold” to people who’ve never seen winter. Ride a ferry next to a cow. Try not to worry when it begins to pee.
The purpose of a real bucket list is to capture things you want to do before you die (which, most people assume, is a while away). Mine was never a real bucket list at all. The list felt urgent. If only I could start checking things off, I’d be so much tougher and more worthy. (Of what? Who knows.) Here is what I failed to remember: you can’t know what will shape you, make you, save you, break you. Your heart cannot be cauterized on command. And in fact, it’s braver to see that you are imperfect, and be okay with it, and go forward anyway. Tiptoe past the ancient walls. Roar down the unmarked path through the endless field. See what you find. Write it down. In a list.
*Ok, I still want to learn to play guitar.