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 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 6:41 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
updated 11:49 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
updated 12:59 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
updated 1:49 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
updated 9:26 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
updated 7:33 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
updated 2:14 PM EDT, Sun July 6, 2014
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT