Do a set of fifteen regular pushups. Take my parents to visit family in Puerto Rico. Complete a century bicycle ride. Raise at least $5000 for cancer research. Work with turtles. Every year, I celebrate my birthday by writing a list. It started as a simple dare. Find something to do outside of your job, I told myself in that third year of teaching when my work hours stretched from 6 am until 10 pm, or you will end up celebrating your sixtieth birthday wondering where your life went. But when I sat down to consider what hobby I might take up, so much interested me that I had no idea where to start. I wanted to try it all, and so I invented a system that would let me, at the very least, try most of it. My first list was written in the days leading up to my 25th birthday. Scrawled across the pages of a journal, I listed the 25 things I wanted to do before I turned 26.
Back then, it was mostly a practical venture. I started to run, paid off student loans, saved money, increased my retirement savings. Each year, the list grew a little more daring, balancing the trivial with the important, the safe with the stretches. I learned to paint with watercolors, went kayaking, sang karaoke even though I have no business singing (it was in Brazil and so my hope was that the language barrier covered up my lack of melody. Just to be clear, it didn’t.). I took other risks like submitting my poetry and non-fiction essays to literary magazines and performing in The Vagina Monologues. Each checkmark on the list made me feel more alive.
Indeed, I was living more fully—with both practical challenges and extraordinary experiences informing my growth. Learning to swim made me safer. Learning CPR helped me to keep others safe. Scale a 5.7c peak in rock climbing? Made me reach deep inside for the reservoirs of strength and endurance. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I channeled my need to do even more than serve as his chemo companion by joining Team in Training and raising close to $10,000 for cancer research. At a recent wedding, an old roommate who knew me before the list forced me to compete in duathlons, complete century rides, and count out military pushups remarked that we couldn’t do anything too athletic in photos because I was the only athletic bridesmaid. I beamed especially bright in the next photo, knowing that my birthday list was the sole reason that I could now relish in my adult-onset athleticism. But it is not just my athleticism that has changed. I have helped my family, traveled and experienced other cultures, made new friends, engaged in my community, developed artistic skills, invested in issues that are dear to me, become better read.
But, to be honest, some of my exploits have been at odds with my skills or personality. I can’t really throw a pot, something that should come as no surprise as I have always had more power than finesse. Ask me to try and score a goal in soccer with just a wind up of my kicking leg and an unleashing of fury and I can do it. Ask me to try a technical shot, and I can’t hit it. Mash out a 110 miles on bike? Not a problem. Manage a handstand in yoga? Not a chance. Paddle down a body of water? Got it. Nail a kayak roll? I come up choking from all the water I have swallowed. Parasailing reminded me how scared I was of heights, but I stayed up there the whole time, singing quietly to myself. Competing in a duathlon against some of the area’s finest athletes (when I signed up, I noticed that it said Finest in the title of the event, but I thought they meant well-organized and not really competitive) forced me to get in touch with the reality that I was doing the event to impress myself and not anyone else. And while it would seem that these were failed experiments, I think it is impossible to fail at anything on the list. I have never completed all the tasks on any year’s list, my interior monologue telling me I should have begun the list in my teens so I could have had a chance at a clean sweep. But the fact that the list exists on paper, in a deliberate notebook, lures me to want to check things off, look it over, and make plans.
I know that I live better and more dramatically because the list exists. At the end of each ‘birth’year, I evaluate the past list. I recall each experience and think about its significance to me. I consider who I have been and who I am becoming, and I decide whether an unmet goal should go on the next year’s list or if its lure is no longer calling me. The list is not just a ritual. It is a formula for how I can make life happen in the midst of deadlines and duties. Regardless of what I come up with for the lists, each year is cloaked in adventure, compassion, self-improvement and satisfaction. It is a gift to myself, a celebration of life, a list that keeps me living out loud.