COLORADO SPRINGS. Catherine Hammond hopes that people will focus on the important aspects of their lives before they die, so she and some friends have been putting up chalkboard signs around Colorado Springs inviting people to write on the boards about what they would like to do before they die. The boards have been up around town for a month, and Hammond is surprised and pleased by the results of the signs. They’ve served as conversation starters for downtown business people and as a moment of solidarity in a homeless person’s life.
“One of my passions is to help create a community that’s a great place for all of us to live and to age,” said Hammond, who became an estate planning attorney because her mother had early-onset Alzheimer’s. She first heard about the “Before I die” project when she came across the TED talk given by artist Candy Chang. Chang began the participatory public art project in her neighborhood in New Orleans in 2009 when she painted an abandoned house with chalkboard paint and stenciled the words, “Before I die I want to . . .” all over it. Not much later the house was covered with the chalked responses of her neighbors containing their hopes and dreams. The project has been repeated in over 3,000 places and presently, Colorado Springs.
“When I heard about this project,” said Hammond, “I thought it sounded like an amazing thing, because we’re all looking for meaning in life and meaning in our days.” She continued that life is not always easy, and having a meaning to come back to is helpful to get through the roller coaster that life can be sometimes.
“I spend my days helping plan so that things can be as easy as possible for their families when they become disabled or die, but I also work with families when somebody has had a crisis — it might be a stroke, it might be an accident or a heart attack and they passed away and I see how quickly life can be taken from us, and that just reinforces my desire to help remind people of what’s important to them while they are here.”
Hammond said she was surprised by the dynamic that occurred when people had the opportunity to write publicly about their hopes, dreams, fears and pain. “People get so much out of just reading what other people have said,” reflected Hammond, “and it helps remind them. Every time I read what other people have written, it reminds me what is important to me and draws me closer to other people.”
“The first morning we put these up (Sept. 25, 2017), I was excited to see what was happening with them. I wanted to see people interacting with them, and so my fiance and I — he’s the one who built these — went over to Plaza of the Rockies and sat on the sofa across the lobby from the boards,” she said.
That same morning, the board that was placed in The Perk, a coffee shop in downtown Colorado Springs, started a lot of conversations.
“The manager was sitting right in front of the boards with his back to the board,” said Hammond. “No one knew who he was, and he listened to people talking as they came in,” she said.
Some people started writing on the board immediately, and the business people who were in line for coffee didn’t write on it but were looking over at the board and asking each other, “Hey, what do you want to do before you die?”
Not all of the messages that people leave on the boards are positive or uplifting, Hammond said. Sometimes people express a desire to get revenge on those who have hurt them, for example. But even in those cases, Hammond said that she thinks giving people an opportunity to write down their feelings has value.
“We’re so busy being divided these days,” she said. “I think about all of the shootings. What if someone had sat with people and listened to their pain, didn’t tell them to shut up, didn’t tell them how wrong they were. What if we were actually able to be present with each other, for the good stuff and the bad stuff? My hope is that this is a tiny little place for us to witness with each other.”
The boards will remain up for at least 3-4 months in the current locations, Plaza of the Rockies, The Perk Downtown and Salsa Brave at Dublin and Powers. After that, they will be moved other places.
“People don’t know how much time they have,” observed Hammond. “In an ideal world, the chalkboard would help people realize what’s most important to them, so they can create time for it today. In the time that we have the chalkboard can help us remember what’s most important so we can focus our lives on that while we’re here.”