I Want to Live
“We are encouraged by media and advertising to fear each other and regard public life as a danger and a nuisance, to live in secured spaces, communicate by electronic means, and acquire our information from media rather than from each other….In contemporary terms, privatization is largely an economic term, for the consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers—railways, water rights, education—to the private sector and the vagaries of the marketplace. But this economic privatization is impossible without the privatization of desire and imagination….”—Rebecca Solnit
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of abandoned houses were left to rot and die. In a classic case of making lemons into lemonade, local artist Candy Chang painted an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood with chalkboard paint and stenciled it repeatedly with a grid of the sentence, “Before I die I want to___________.”
“Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public,” Chang writes in her book Before I Die (St. Martin’s Griffin, $24.99). “It was an experiment and I didn’t know what to expect. By the next day, the wall was bursting with handwritten responses and it kept growing.” The responses were diverse:
Build a school
Love recklessly again
Name a star
Write a novel
Abandon all insecurities
See New Orleans thrive
Have a student come back and tell me it mattered.
All of these now-complete Before I Die phrases speak to deep needs and yearnings that just need an invitation to come out and play.
Behind every completed sentence is a story. Eric told Candy Chang: “I lost my house and much of my community in Hurricane Katrina, and a month prior I lost a brother to suicide. I became numb. I happened to discover the Before I Die wall by accident one day and it changed my life. Seeing so many emotions left by complete strangers on such an ‘un-beautiful’ house in New Orleans reassured me that beauty is everywhere. Now I continue to move on, looking for beauty in the world and helping others to see that there is a reason to live despite the obstacles that life throws at us.”
Katrina pushed much of First World New Orleans to the brink of Third World status, a world in which countless people live on a dollar or two a day. As time passes and hope fades, each day is a replay of the previous day’s struggle to consume enough calories to survive. Essential to surviving that reality in order to change it is hope and the mechanisms to express it.
After the success of the first wall, Candy Chang and some of her friends created a toolkit and website to help spread such a mechanism to the four corners of the earth. There are now Before I Die walls in over 500 cities in 70 countries on six continents. In a total of sixteen languages. In Milwaukee, a wall was installed by a Marquette University student organization after they found the original Before I Die wall online and drove all the way to New Orleans to see it. In Chung-Li, Taiwan, 25,000 people wrote on a wall in just five months. In Montreal, responses in eight languages appeared in a single day.
Broadly speaking, there are three categories of statements on the Before I Die walls. The first are the most individual and personal.
Lisbon: Repair my broken heart
Melbourne: Surf seven days a week
Asuncion, Paraguay: Not be forgotten
Minneapolis: Drive an ice cream truck
Johannesburg: Master the trumpet
Santiago, Chile: Be a stripper and a nun at the same time
DC: I want to see, hear, taste and feel every corner of the world
These responses range from the deeply personal to the downright whimsical (“Be a stripper and a nun at the same time” is pretty whimsical). There is a second category where the thought is still the distinct province of an individual yet the dream might not come true without major shifts in the social arrangement.
Chicago: Receive my citizenship
Almaty, Kazakhstan: Organize 1000 exhibitions
Brooklyn: Pay my student loans
Pohang City, South Korea: Hang out with North Korean children
Black Rock City, Nevada: Support myself with my art
The strongest threads in the fabric of Before I Die are explicit calls for change. They come fast and furious from here, there, and everywhere.
See a year without war
Raise awareness of our shared humanity
Help the poor
Be the minister of education
See a just society
See a peaceful Mexico
Have a socialist government
Individual desires cannot be separated from more universal ones, if only because the universal is made up of countless individuals. Someone in Milwaukee who writes “see my mom cancer-free” finds their echo in the line on a New Zealand wall: “Discover the cure for cancer.”
Before I Die walls might seem like mere random lists but their meaning is actually quite profound. They stand in loud and vibrant opposition to the privatization of public space that plagues New Orleans and all other cities. The shift from public life to private profit has led to the triumph of the vulgar obscenity known as the billboard. It belongs to some faceless corporation and, when on occasion people take a little spray paint to express themselves on one, they are arrested.
Billboards are on an invasive mission to conquer so much public space that we cannot avoid them. They try to sell us stuff we don’t need, probably don’t want, and likely can’t afford. Billboards are part of the advertising overload that fills the spaces we try to share. From the sides of taxis to the videos we are forced to watch while filling up our cars to the logos which adorn our clothing. Corporate America defines public space not in terms of nurturing the public, but in terms of spurring ever more consumption. The spaces where we can still gather together are branded by corporations (sports), defined and distorted by corporations (colleges), or held in precarious limbo by the need to please corporate charities or corporate-driven grant-givers (grassroots organizations). The space eaters insist that we don’t need a relationship to each other, we only need a relationship to the retail industrial complex.
In contrast, Before I Die walls are interactive public message boards that publicize dreams that come from within. They call out to us to overcome our fear and division, assuring us that our lives have meaning. These walls and chalk give us a vehicle to express our needs.
Jennifer writes: “I’m a first year teacher at a low income high school in Vancouver, Washington where students face an enormous amount of poverty and hardship. I’ve seen struggles that I never anticipated encountering in my life…After my class watched Candy’s TED talk about the Before I Die project, we began reflecting on the video and the class completely exploded. They started talking about things they would like to do before they die…[They got a sheet of paper] and the class attacked it…and started writing hopes and dreams I’d never heard them express.”
The Before I Die walls stand as testament to our need to express ourselves and to have that expression touch others. We need to share. We need to feel a part of something. “Need is a profound and wonderful thing,” Brooke Heagerty writes. “It is the foundation of human existence. We need each other to survive, to live, to be human. Study after study shows the debilitating effects of children who are brought up without others, without touch, without the social and human interaction they need. Their hearts beat, but they only exist. They don't live. Humans need humans to do that.”
Much of what’s on the walls could be described as a bucket list. Idle talk. Bar chatter. But all of it flies in the face of the way we are conditioned to live as mere cogs in the machine. Day after day, one foot in front of the other. Dreams? They go to the back of the line.
There is a history to this. In America it goes back to antebellum days, when slaves were told by the master’s ministers not to concern themselves with life on this earth, but with a paradise on the other side. Those who weren’t chattel slaves were conditioned to be content with their own market-driven or wage-based slavery. Don’t ask for more, something better’s coming. Just don’t ask when, because it won’t be before you die.
IWW organizer Joe Hill attacked this notion and one of its primary promoters, the Salvation Army, in his World War I era song “The Preacher and the Slave”:
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
The call to sacrifice without tangible payoff is a message still burned into our brains today. The church remains a prime culprit in running this misdirection play. Yet the church itself is mainly concerned with its fate in this life, obsessed with retaining tax-exempt status and keeping the government’s faith-based funding flowing into its coffers.
Meanwhile, Before I Die walls mock such hypocrisy as they spread onto the sides of libraries, into hair salons, and go mobile on trucks. Isabel de la Vega Hernandez installed a wall on the side of her family’s house in Xalapa, Mexico. Prominent among the offerings, in a country where teachers have been locked in epic battles with the government for many years, was “Build a public school.” Hernandez urged her neighbors “to make a quote that people remember, just like John Lennon did.”
In some cities, people take Before I Die as an invitation to remix the concept into new flavors, albeit from the same recipe:
[Lebanon] Lebanon would be better if I___________________
[Brazil] Porto Alegre needs more______________________
[Nairobi] Happiness Is________________________
[Faridabad India] I Want To Be_________________
[Brazil] Salvador deserves____________________
The Before I Die wall is another example of the international rose that is growing among the noxious weeds of nationalism. The walls are in the same spirit as 100,000 Poets and Musicians for Change, which held over 1,000 events in 110 countries last fall and is sponsoring an international conference of artists in Italy in June. Both efforts have leapt easily over another wall—the limited U.S./Western Europe template for previous international efforts to unify the planet. This worldwide synergy doesn’t just look good and sound good, it is essential for fundamental transformation.
Walls are meant to keep us out or keep us in. Ironically, the Before I Die walls free us up to imagine a world without walls. So pick up some chalk and talk that talk (http://beforeidie.cc/site/).
“They say the first thing you need to do to make your big desires come true in life is to write them down.”--Jenny Carden of Cordoba, Argentina