September 25, 2012

Before I die I want to…

I have absolutely fallen for Candy Chang.

She is an extraordinary artist with a heart so big it reaches out to city folks all over the world in the most touching and creative ways.

She recently gave a talk on TED about a project she developed in New Orleans, Before I Die. If you’ve got six and a half minutes of your day to spare, I highly recommend it.

I won’t try to paraphrase or summarize too much—suffice it to say that the project was borne out of Chang’s desire to address two very big and interlinking themes: our relationship to death, and what that means about how we spend our time leading up to it.

Before I die I want to eat all the candy.

Before I die I want to create a legacy.

Before I die I want to understand why I’m here.

In her beloved New Orleans neighborhood, there (barely) stood an abandoned building rotting away like so many in that magical town still do. Overcome by the death of someone she describes as a mother to her, and faced with her own unsatisfactory feelings about death, she converted one side of that building into a chalkboard with the unfinished sentence, “Before I die I want to ________________,” written over and over again across it. She left behind great big pieces of chalk and waited. Within a day the board had filled up completely. Before long, people from all over the world were asking her to help them create similar exhibitions in their own towns.

Before I die I want to be at peace with me.

Before I die I want to change a life.

Before I die I want to be OK with not understanding.

These are no bucket lists. Each participant is ostensibly given one chance. What is that thing? The one thing you’ve just got to do before you die? Presumably these things change as we grow older.

… I want to abandon all insecurities.

… I want to swim without holding my nose.

… I want to own my own house.

Some of the things people wrote seem fantastic some days and thoroughly within reach on others.

change the world with love and compassion.

Some of it was the stuff of fantasy only decades ago, and entirely real today.

name a star.

Some of it is reality for some and fantasy for others.

find Atlantis.

Still more is very practical and reasonable, indeed.

adopt a child.

What struck me most about this project, apart from its simple beauty and the capacity of people to become part of the art around them in the most breathtaking ways, was how it addressed death.

Yesterday a woman asked me if I intended to pursue French naturalization. I told her I wasn’t sure, that I was considering it.

“Not me,” she replied. “They don’t let you retire here until you’re 67!”

I told her that didn’t affect me so much, because I was really trying to find a career I wanted to do until I died—that I didn’t plan to retire in the traditional sense of it.

“Oh, you’re young. [am I?]  Young people say that all the time. [do they?]  I’m 50!”

A couple of minutes later, seemingly from nowhere, she said, “You know you’re going to die? We’re all going to die.”

Thanks for the reminder, lady.

Benjamin Franklin is attributed with the following wise words: “Many people die at twenty-five and aren’t buried until they are seventy-five.”

How true…and how sad.

Death shouldn’t intimidate; it should inspire! Rather than wondering what exists on the other side, we should revel as much as we can (and this author knows that capacity is particular to any individual and their circumstances) while we’re here on this one! Death should remind us that life is fleeting, precious, fragile.

At the very least, even if the wish never comes to fruition, we should endeavor to feel precisely the way this person did when they wrote:

Before I die I want to appreciate.



Editor: Brianna Bemel


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