This article originally published May 5, 2015
Before I die, I want to_____________.
What would you scrawl in that space if given the opportunity and a stick of chalk? Something about someone? Places you want to visit? Faces you yearn to climb?
This question wasn’t my idea. The artist Candy Chang thought it up and described her experience in a much-loved TED Talk a few years ago. A blank exterior wall of an abandoned building in post-Katrina New Orleans became her canvas when she painted it chalkboard black and stenciled over and over, “Before I die, I want to_____________.”
She provided chalk with hopes that passersby would fill in the blanks, and soon the spaces were rich with wishes as people shared their dreams in this public space—an act I tried myself and found amazingly cathartic. There is something very liberating about writing a personal yen for all to see. I also found I took a first step toward solidifying a dream or two, such as “write that bloody novel you’ve got bouncing around in your head!”
I loved the idea, so I set out to bring Candy’s concept to Bishop, California—to see what climbers had to say—in the form of three chalkboards, for three days, in three different locations around town. Surely our lot would have a particularly firm grasp of mortality, given our passion for the vertical, and fill the blank with profound thoughts.
Personally, when I force myself to think about my life and things I’d still like to accomplish, I tend to think I’ve got all the time in the world, and will remain agile and vigorous way into my future—I’ll just climb El Cap next year. There’s a disconnect between how I want to live my life and how I’m living it. Yeah, I’m dreaming big … as I binge-watch Netflix. Surely I’m not the only procrastinating climber who imagines that someday, I’ll do something great.
Before I die, I want to . It’s such a simple statement, unless, of course, you fill the blank with something like “master the viola,” or “climb the Dawn Wall free.” Yet if you take it to heart, really think about it—and not fill the blank with a quip about who you want to bone—it’s quite profound. You could die tomorrow. What’s in your bucket?
These are what they wrote. Before I die, I want to:
Be kinder, be Joe Kinder, Live!!!, climb Heavenly Path, destroy ISIS, change the world, kick a$$, surf Mavs, Succeed, Live #yolo, Surf Docs, climb on every continent, deep water solo in Spain, never stop traveling, send Evilution, love big and send big, finish my sandwich, get a puppy, CrossFit, go to all the continents, tell Zach he’s soft, see a volcano, swim with whale sharks, go to Font with my crew, go to Nationals, become a climber, keep on breathing, love, fish, Sleep with Marty, Live, see the world at peace, climb a big wall, live life, keep on climbing, see God, send Hero Roof, travel to a foreign country, bike to Wyoming, visit every Disneyland in the world (it is a small world, after all), see a jaguar, see my family, abolish religion, build a cabin in the woods, fish at Tierra del Fuego, touch Puccio’s shoulders, enjoy my life, fly a wingsuit, be free, see my kids grow up, send the Mandala, drive across the US in an RV, climb El Cap, climb in Bishop with my boys, send Son of Claudius Rufus, ask Chairis to marry me, save a whale, understand each other, Live, be a teacher, put a dent in the universe, go to the moon, hike the Roper Route with my daughter, play wiffleball with my kids, live in Italy, be the best I can be, climb V-13, accept my finality, see N’Dama again, drink ten thousand shots, create art, climb V-3 in Bishop, run an ultra-marathon, climb El Cap with Lynn Hill, climb Midnight Lightning, live in a van, climb harder than you, live—really live, push my limits, go to jail for something I believe in, feel ready to die, send Powder Keg, send a V-12, run the JMT, bake a really awesome pie, learn quantum mechanics, be fearless, know myself. Before I die I want to-fu.
Reading these makes me smile. Dreamers, realists, wise guys, humorists, deep thinkers; we are all kinds. It’s a little hard not to measure the items, to judge them, to check off the ones I’ve done. But that would be missing the point. These are not mine to tick or critique—I’ve got my own fish to fry.
What people wrote had value—with no right or wrong, and no one’s answer any better than anybody else’s. The ideas are all the same—personal dreams made public. Perhaps the only sorrow in all this death talk would be to really mean what you wrote, and then not see it to fruition.
Before I die, I want to. Think about it, fill in the blank, share it, and then—make it happen.
Jerry Oser, an attendee of the first Rock and Ice John Long Writing Symposium, lives, writes and climbs in Bishop, California.