Bye-Bye Bucket List — Hello Throughline!


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It’s summer in Minnesota. That means it’s time for my annual attempt to convince my kids — who are 7, 4, and almost 1 — that the impossible is true: No, the sun won’t set for two more hours, but yes, you really have to head toward bed. These long summer days are a massive contrast to the winter ones here at the 45th parallel when we walk home from school at sunset. But even with all the daylight this season, there aren’t enough hours to handle the enormous pent-up demand of those hibernating months.

How do you decide what gets priority? Many families turn to a bucket list, compiling a definitive chronicle of every single thing they hope to do before school starts again in the fall. This makes a certain kind of sense. After all, if you name it, you can do it. Those manifestation vibes were definitely part of the draw for me. But I’ve discovered a hitch. You can’t actually do it. At least not all of it. Time is finite, even summertime. That is the hole in the summer-bucket-list logic.

***

I felt stuck. But then I recalled an item from my family’s summer bucket list: Blowing bubbles. Everyone who spends time with little kids knows that blowing bubbles is code for popping bubbles. And when it comes to popping bubbles, there are generally two kinds of kids. One kind simply must pop every single bubble. This kid ends up in frustrated tears as, inevitably, that one perfect bubble sways away in the sun, just out of reach. Then there’s the kid who knows it’s about the fun of the attempt and thinks the whole thing is just hysterical.

When I made my bucket list for this summer, after that sweet list-making satisfaction evaporated, I felt like that first type of bubble-popper: Overwhelmed and out of touch with the point behind it all. But I wanted to feel like the second kind: Delighted by what was possible and keyed into what really matters. I needed help to get there.

I decided to try something different. I closed my shared Google Doc, grabbed a sticky note, and penned my summer throughlines. In the same vein as picking a life direction instead of a particular path or a word of the year rather than a resolution, throughlines articulate the big ideas you want to guide your day-to-day decisions.

I thought about my kids, my husband, and myself as we truly are right now. I took Oliver Burkeman’s advice in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals and borrowed the framework of diminishment and enlargement from James Hollis. I wondered what big ideas would feel expansive for us as a unit this season. On the Post-it Note, I wrote our summer throughlines: kindness, community, reading, and cooking.

When you name your throughlines like this, you facilitate a healthy amount of tunnel vision. Tunnel vision gets a bad rap, but in a world designed to maximize distraction, living a life that’s authentic to your values requires a certain amount of it. As Burkeman writes, “Once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.” Summer throughlines are the tow ropes that pull you across the lake of your summer. They keep you from getting tangled in what doesn’t matter and help you stay on top of what does — as long as you hold on tight.

***

Our summer throughlines have been surprisingly versatile so far. They’ve assisted with reorganizing our foyer — easy access to playground gear is a must because that’s a great place to practice kindness and get to know people in our community. Plus, when we had free time on a Tuesday morning, it helped me see that library story time just made sense since it supports our reading and community throughlines. Our summer throughlines remind me of those sand sifters you bring to the beach; with a little effort, they’re a great tool for sorting out what you treasure from what you don’t.

Most importantly, our summer throughlines have put me in touch with my inner buoyant bubble-popper. The fact that time at the playground and library both can support the same throughline (community) makes it easy to understand that the particulars aren’t the point. They’re just behavioral expressions of what we care about at this moment. The activities themselves don’t matter much, but the values behind them do. As long as what we do is congruent with what’s important to our family, it’s reasonable to be flexible with which items from our bucket list we tick off or whether we tick any off at all. After all, there’s more than one way to pop a bubble.

A version of this article was also published on Medium

New Writing From Me

During the first half of 2022, Baby A and I have been hard at work reviewing products so other busy families can go straight to the best. For our review of baby spoons for USA Today’s Reviewed, click to read The Best Baby Spoons of 2022.


Books I Think You’ll Like

The Hurting Kind: Poems by Ada Limón

I found so many nuggets of connection in The Hurting Kind: Poems by Ada Limón. Just one example, appropriate for the upcoming holiday: “Not it [fireworks] is a sound that undoes me, too much violence to the sky./In this way, I have become more dog. More senses, shake, and nerve.”

Philosopher Scott Hershovitz honors the brilliance of kids in his book Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids.

Kids are clever. Way more clever than they typically get credit for. Philosopher Scott Hershovitz honors the brilliance of kids in his book Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids. In it, he engages his two sons in big philosophical questions and connects their answers to what more formally-trained philosophers think. It’s an earnest, accessible explorations of issues like race and responsibility, authority, and truth, and I think you’ll like it.

 The Mind and the Moon: My Brother's Story, the Science of our Brains, and the Search for our Psyches

In grad school for psychology, it shocked me to learn that 40-60% of people do not respond to antidepressants. What?! Conventional wisdom says take meds, get better. But with mental health, that’s just not the case, despite memes like “It’s ok if your serotonin is store bought.” Yet the phantom panacea of psychiatric medication looms large in our culture. I loved how Daniel Bergner explores this issue, with priority given to both top scientist and people with first-hand experience, in his book The Mind and the Moon: My Brother’s Story, the Science of our Brains, and the Search for our Psyches.

Emily P.G. Erickson's bookshop.
Check out my Bookshop for more excellent reads.

Housekeeping Notes

I’m playing with the post format this month. When I retain ownership of a piece, like I do for stories on Medium, I’m going to start including the text directly in the newsletter. I’m hoping you’ll like it — less clicks for you! But I’m only guessing here. Leave a comment to let me know whether it works for you.


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Published by Emily P.G. Erickson

Emily P.G. Erickson is a freelance writer who specializes in service journalism about psychology and parenting. She has written for major digital publications, including Health, The New York Times, Reviewed, Romper, WIRED, and more. Emily is a professional member of the American Society for Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a member of the Association for Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). Formerly a mental health researcher, Emily also holds a master's degree in psychology. You can find the latest from Emily at www.emilypgerickson.com.

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