November 4, 2016

WHITE KNUCKLES | Bucket Lists and the Ancient World

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Photo Courtesy of the Odyssey

We all have the painful awareness that, during our lifetime, we will not have time to read every book worth reading, to visit every place that fascinates us, to learn what we’ve always dreamed of doing, to play musical instruments and knit scarves. In response to this anxiety, we make lists; bucket lists. Things to do, things you must see, 100 movies to watch at least once. They help us keep track of the meaningful time, of the time that does not dissolve between library hours and scheduled meetings and meals and sleep, the time that crystallizes in scrapbooks and gleaming pictures, in timeless anecdotes and stories repeated over and over.

Cornell has its own bucket list, 161 things to do. Bucket lists become compelling and urgent when we feel that time is running out: when a deadline becomes concrete and an elusive number becomes the next year, where the pictures of when we started no longer represent who we are. As a senior, I climbed up to the clock tower just last week, drawing a thick check mark – the first – on my bucket list. Right after having come down the flights of stairs, I got my picture taken for 161 Faces of Cornell – checkmark number two. It was a Monday, and I felt that things were in place; mainly because I was. That is when I started to think about what bucket lists really mean.

Bucket lists are an indicator of familiarity. The first weeks of college, buildings all look the same and names overlap, lateness accumulates and faces don’t mean anything.

Even coming from a comfortable European life, from the familiar safety of a small city on the beach, from a household full of love and book, even when poverty and destruction isn’t left behind, coming to America is a novel experience. And coming to an American university like Cornell is even a bigger deal – for while the American dream, if it ever existed, no longer does, and while the intellectual class is an expert in skepticism and disillusion, American universities remain places that have a lot to do with dreams. Despite the huge debts students must pay off, despite the decline of liberal art education, and despite the way in which education is made to function like a business. And call me naïve or idealistic or even superficial, but in the narrow hallway at the Classics Department at Cornell I got a glimpse of the dream, and it might not have been the American one, maybe it’s an ancient one or maybe it’s not geographically defined and crosses time and spaces, but I did find it.

It existed while writing a paper comparing a modern English poet and an obscure Latin scholar. It was in taking classes about torture, imprisonment and drama, in discovering in antiquity bodies like those of today, in confusing names of women and cities and seeing that it was true what French feminist Luce Irigaray said, that men are time and women are space. It was finding mentors and trying to get into a PhD program. It was last weekend in the auditorium in Klarman, where the Classics from basement became ceiling and sky, and we spoke of  boy versus girl, of slavery, of art, of pluperfects and misogyny, of American politics and sculptures.

During the opening speech, professor Pelliccia recalled something that a philosophy professor had said to him, that a liberal arts education free one from boredom. That yes, looking at the past provides insights on the present, that we are still them and they are like us; but, most importantly, it comes down to a life without boredom. Bucket lists have a lot to do with boredom, I think: they pinpoint a specific path across myriads of possibilities, so that one doesn’t get lost. When everything around us looks the same, that is when we get lost; bucket lists are blazing neon signs that light up the shortcuts and the panoramic view. However, bucket lists are  polished itineraries: they carefully delineate the trip prepared by a travel agency, without glitches and missed trains. That is why, in a fight against boredom, literature can better capture the spirit of bucket lists: although they provide less obvious benchmarks, they spontaneously lead to the well-hidden marvels that tourists never get to see.

Our life is too short to read every book, too fast to travel two thousand years back; but starting the journey is always worthwhile.