Before I die I want to ____________.
Chances are, you’ve never heard of Candy Chang.
She lives in New Orleans, in an area many would consider a rough part of town.
A few years ago, Chang unexpectedly lost someone who was very dear to her. The jolt of that unforeseen tragedy made her bereavement even more disheartening. Sudden loss does that — tranquility instantly dashed, replaced by bewilderment, and even anger.
Following her loss, the void of despair lingered, and even widened. But then, something strange happened. Death procreated the birth of new perspectives.
“Death was always on my mind,” Chang writes. “It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.”
They did. Indeed, lots of people felt the same way. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Even millions.
Chang would make this marvelous discovery entirely on her own, accidentally, setting forth a perpetual motion of proverbial tumbling dominoes all over the world spawning from a wacky idea that first began on a run-down city block in central New Orleans. It all started with an overtly simple idea and the willingness of someone both a little courageous and a little crazy to pose a simple, yet provocative thought.
Before I die I want to ……
There was an abandoned house on a street corner in Candy Chang’s neighborhood. It’s the kind of house there are way too many of, not just in New Orleans, but everywhere. Houses once filled with life, which sheltered families, which contained births and birthdays and marriages and holidays and parties and memories of people who disappeared long ago, no one remembering their names nor knowing where they went, now blurred memories stonewalled by rotting plywood.
These are windowless windows where no one sees in or out other than ghostly memories of what’s within the imagination. This was no longer a house of life. It was a house of death. A dead house. Seemingly without function or purpose.
And yet, it was so perfect.
On that untidy street corner others routinely passed by without ever giving a thought, Chang refused to see a dead house. She saw a giant canvass. She saw a wishing well of hope.
Chang gathered up a few dollars. She went out to the store and bought some new plywood and some fresh paint. Then, with the help of some friends, she began having an impact that was immediate as it was unmistakable.
She took that plywood and nailed it to the side of that abandoned house. Next, that wood was slathered in black chalkboard paint. Then, a simple sentence was stenciled in white onto the black walls, easy for passersby to see and approach, a beacon that would attract initial curiosity and beget an awakening. Finally, Chang left out buckets of chalk for complete strangers to come by and scribe whatever they wished to communicate with those who would come later.
The house quickly became a billboard of beliefs, an advertisement for aspiration, and a place of poetry.
They wrote. They wrote. They wrote. And they wrote some more. Eventually, every empty line on that old house had been filled in. That didn’t matter. Those who came to that abandoned place which was now filled with so much life took the chalk and wrote off in the margins, in between the lines, and even on walls that hadn’t been designed for expression. It had became impossible to harnass the human heart.
“People’s hopes and dreams made me laugh out loud and they made me tear up,” Chang writes. “They consoled me during my toughest times. I understood my neighbors in new and enlightening ways, and discovered the strength of my wall; it reminded me that I’m not alone as I try to make sense of my life.”
Walls are usually sad things. Walls divide us. Walls keep people out. Walls are the outer skin on a torso of lonliness.
Yet Chang’s “Before I die” wall didn’t divide. It united. It even inspired. And pretty soon, the idea was born to build another wall in different place. Brooklyn followed (see photo above). Then walls sprang up in dozens of cities beyond. To date, 200 walls have been created on six different continents, in more than 40 countries, in 16 languages.
And that’s when we learned the most remarkable thing of all.
Wherever a new wall was built, the answers written by human hands of all colors in chalk in the lines and on the margins were similar. Often the same. Yes, there were some bizarre answers. Funny answers. Painful answers to reflect upon. But the overwhelming majority on every continent and in every language shared common passions and shared aspirations. Out there in places we don’t know and can’t pronounce, among countless people we’ve never met and will never know, they too want what we all want — love, happiness, adventure, peace, fulfllment.
Chang tells her story in her beautiful new book, titled Before I Die.
Yet, this book isn’t about death, at all. It has nothing to do with mortality.
Rather, it’s a book about living and in a sense — immortality. Meaning the things we do today which live on long after we’re gone will indeed linger and perhaps even have an impact, should be make the right choices now and adandon pre-packaged banality in favor of self-discovery.
Before I Die is about what she did, what she learned, what we learn, and what we can all do. It’s a book riddled with emotion for subjects and readers alike, best digested in small doses, and sprinkled with plenty of reflection in between.
What began with an untimely death and an abandoned house in a run-down neighborhood a penstroke away from demolition became a monument to the human spirit.
That house became a home again.
What’s your answer? If this page is a new wall, what would you write upon it? What would you share with the world?
Before I die I want to _____________________.