Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Before I die, I want to ...

By Candy Chang, Special to CNN
updated 2:52 PM EST, Sun December 23, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candy Chang is an artist focused on how we use public spaces
  • She created a "Before I die, I want to ... " project on New Orleans building
  • Chang: People responded with a wide array of thoughts
  • Similar projects started in 25 nations, she says

Editor's note: Candy Chang, a TED Fellow, is an artist, designer, and urban planner who explores making cities more comfortable and contemplative places. See more at candychang.com TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- On a quiet August day I lost someone I loved very much. Her name was Joan and she was a mother to me for 15 years. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were still so many things she wanted to do: Learn to play the piano, live in Paris, see the Pacific Ocean.

I spent a long time full of grief, and then I felt gratitude for the time we had together. I thought about death a lot, which brought clarity to my life, the people I want to be with, 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 you.

Candy Chang
Candy Chang

I wondered if other people felt the same way. Over the past few years I've tried ways to share more with my neighbors in public space, using simple tools like stickers, stencils, and chalk. This time I wanted to know what was important to the people around me and I wanted a daily reminder to restore perspective.

So with help from old and new friends, I transformed the side of an abandoned house in my neighborhood in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard and stenciled it with a grid of the fill-in-the-blank 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 space.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It was all an experiment and I didn't know what to expect. By the next day the wall was entirely filled out and it kept growing: Before I die I want to ... sing for millions, see my daughter graduate, eat all the candy and sushi in the world, straddle the International Date Line, be someone's cavalry, live off the grid, build a school, hold her one more time, abandon all insecurities, be completely myself ...

TED.com: Artfully visualizing our humanity

People's responses made me laugh out loud, tear up, and they consoled me during my own tough times. This neglected space became a constructive one where we understood our neighbors in new and enlightening ways. It also showed us we are not alone in our hopes, fears and struggles as we try to lead fulfilling lives.

Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.  Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.
Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.

After receiving requests from passionate people around the world, my Civic Center colleagues and I created a toolkit and project site to help people make a wall with their community. You can also download all files for free to remix or create your own stencils.

Now over 75 Before I Die walls have been created in over 10 languages and in over 25 countries, including Kazakhstan, Argentina, China, Denmark, and South Africa. Each wall is unique and reflects the people of that community, and each wall is a tribute to living an examined life. And by using a few simple tools like chalkboard paint and chalk, this project shows you don't need a big budget to make a big impact.

TED.com: Architecture that senses and responds

Death is something we're often discouraged to talk about or even think about: Don't go there. It's too sad. You don't need to think about it until you're older. However, regularly contemplating death—as Stoicism and other philosophies encourage—is a powerful and healthy tool to put daily stresses in their place, re-appreciate the present, and remember what matters most to you.

Thinking about death clarifies your life. In our age of increasing distractions, it's important to find ways to step back, pause, and reflect on our experiences so we make the most of our brief and tender lives. It's not our experiences that define us but what we make of our experiences that defines us as we grow and change.

TED.com: Three warp-speed architecture tales

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. Our streets, parks, plazas, and subways are for everyone, yet take a quick look at the messages on display and it seems like we only care about sexy beers and fruity shampoos. How can our public spaces nourish our well-being and better reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals?

Every passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, wonder, and wisdom, and there is great power in knowing you are not alone. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Candy Chang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT