Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations, the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.”

There is also consolation in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind. “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times can lead us to otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of the divine, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often rare glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens provides one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to listen to these echoes from the ancients who knew how to listen to the sky.

Share Your Story

An informal survey of dreams fulfilled

May 3, 2017


Six years after the first Before I Die wall appeared in New Orleans, there are now over two thousands walls in seventy-six countries and thirty-eight languages. During this time, we’ve had the honor to read through aspirations of all kinds, from writing a book to repairing a relationship to giving back to a community. Or running a race, running for office, or simply finding some kind of peace. And we began to wonder: how often are these dreams fulfilled? If you’ve completed something you once wrote on a Before I Die wall, we would love to hear about it. Fill out the form below, and we’ll begin sharing these stories in the weeks to come.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Dying Together

Notes on Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Sometimes I stand over the recycling bin with a fistful of junk mail—catalogues, credit card offers, shrieking discount specials—and I wonder if this is a dark joke. Will depositing my paper, plastic, or glass into this particular bin save us from ourselves? What is the end game of vicious capitalism, energy wars, relentless distraction, and a tattered social fabric in the face of an overheating planet? Sometimes it seems as if we are determined to march off a cliff. “Global warming is not the latest version of a hoary fable of annihilation,” writes Roy Scranton in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. “It is not hysteria. It is a fact. And we have likely already passed the point where we could have done anything about it.”

It is a brutal little book. Drawing upon Socrates’s belief that “the philosopher makes dying his profession” and Montaigne’s proposition that “to philosophize is to learn to die,” Scranton suggests we are living in a uniquely philosophical moment, for now we must learn to die “not as individuals, but as a civilization.” After outlining the painful climate data that measures just how far we’ve wandered beyond the point of return, he analyzes the intractable wars, calcified wealth, and defanged channels of protest that make salvation nearly impossible. The calvary is not coming. The guardians have left the gate. Yet we might find a tiny light at the end of the tunnel if we turn to cultural memory and philosophy not only as a means of consolation, but a way to reconnect with ourselves, one another, and our understanding of what it means to be human.

As we struggle, awash in social vibrations of fear and aggression, to face the catastrophic self-destruction of global civilization…we must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection. We must keep up our communion with the dead, for they are us, as we are the dead of future generations.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is a timely introduction to—or reminder of—ideas plumbed more thoroughly in places such as Ricard Sennett’s Fall of Public Man, Adam Curtis’s Century of the Self, and the writing of Bertrand Russell: the loss of collective faith in public institutions has led to an increased focus on the self, the instant, and the quick payoff—and we must begin the hard work of reversing this trend, which starts with examining our relationship with death, even extinction. “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death,” wrote Spinoza in 1664. “And his wisdom is a meditation not on death, but on life.” Contemplating beauty, cultivating compassion, and learning to listen to the music of the spheres may not reverse the rising seas, but it can offer dignity and grace—and increase our chances of not only survival but sanity in the strange new world to come.

Tossing my junk mail into the recycling bin is a peculiar gesture of faith in the future, even if my faith is sometimes shaky. But I do it. Stepping outside, I’m reminded of a sublime sentence from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “The moon is a stone and the sky is full of deadly hardware, but oh God, how beautiful anyway.”

April 17, 2017


Chinese shadow puppets at the Museu da Marioneta, Lisbon

After the death of his beloved, Emperor Wu’s grief consumed him and he no longer wanted to rule. He could not bear to leave his bed, let alone tend to the nation’s affairs. As the country teetered on the brink of chaos, he offered a reward to anyone who would bring his lover back to him. Upon hearing this, a wise man carefully cut out a silhouette of the departed woman and displayed it behind a white cloth for the emperor, who smiled for the first time in years. The sight of his beloved restored his desire to live and prosperity returned to his people. This two thousand-year-old myth from the Han dynasty not only describes the origin of shadow puppets, it is a reminder that art can mitigate grief and even deny death.

What Are Your Final Wishes?

A discussion about death helps a mother fulfill her daughter's last wishes

February 23, 2017


Preparing for death is one of the most important things we can do, not only for ourselves but for the loved ones we leave behind. When Elaine Walton’s 17-year-old daughter discussed her desire to be an organ donor, she never expected it to become a reality so soon. Her daughter died unexpectedly, but her wishes helped save the lives of others. “She saved the life of another 17-year-old boy, a 52-year-old man, and two other people can see because of her corneas. It was such an important healing thing for me to do, to know that she lives on,” Elaine told The Citizens’ Voice. I was very touched to find out the Before I Die project inspired Elaine to organize a two-day art event to facilitate discussion around death. “I just wanted to encourage other people to open their hearts and their minds to what happens when they die, what happens to the people around them, and encourage people to have a plan with their loved ones about their final wishes.” Read more about her story here and learn about her event, Day of the Dead: A Celebration of Life and Cultures.

An Installation Created From Tragedy

“In his fatal moment I didn't realize I was inferring to his angels.”

February 22, 2017


After a young man in his community died before his eyes, Noël Gaskin created a wall in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He was there for his last moments. Here’s his story:

On May 1st, a young man known in our Prospect Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood as a nice kid was gunned down on the block where we grew up, outside of a barbershop he frequented on Washington Avenue and St John’s Place. He was shot in the head and torso at 763 Washington Avenue, near St. John’s Place, about 9:51 p.m. He was taken to Methodist Hospital and pronounced dead.

I was in the barbershop on that night of the shooting. The barber gave me a shave while the young man swept and took the day’s trash out. Moments later, three gun shots rang out from behind the door. Frozen in my seat, I sat and turned slowly, recognizing the young man gunned down, lying across the threshold of the door he just crossed over. I managed to get up, to kneel at his head before his last moments. I said, “Take it easy, brother . . . don’t struggle . . . they will be here soon, just don’t struggle.” I didn’t know this young man personally, and in his fatal moment I didn’t realize I was inferring to his angels.

I grew up in Prospect Heights, before this neighborhood was dubbed its present name. I have been equal to challenges and learned how to live here, as well as prospered from obstacles I have overcome. I needed to engage members of my community to think about what they want in this life, what they were up to, and what was important to each of them, and to all of us.  Using the build-your-own-wall guide provided by Candy Chang, I was inspired to remix it and construct my own stencil titled Before I Die I Will.

Keeper of the Asheville Wall Dies

Earl Lee Gray, better known as Happy, touched the lives of many in his community

October 30, 2016


In 2014 I was happy to hear that the Before I Die wall in Asheville, North Carolina had an unofficial guardian. Earl Lee Gray, better known as Happy, was a disabled veteran who sat in a chair on Biltmore Avenue every day taking care of the local Before I Die wall. “I come out here every day and make sure kids don’t write nasty stuff up there. And believe me, they do,” he told the Citizen-Times. For the next two years he continued to be the keeper of the wall and made many friends along the way. Today, the wall has become a home for his memorial with flowers, photographs, notes from people he touched, and information on how people can donate to his funeral.

Some things people wrote on the donation page: “Asheville has lost a true hero. Downtown will never be the same.” “Happy was the first person who made us feel welcome when we moved to Asheville. He made every person he greeted feel special.” “Always passed Happy on my way to/from work. He would always try to say something if I was having a rough day to make me smile. Even if I didn’t give him a dime.” “Earl was a beautiful and positive man despite his challenges. We will miss his high five and good vibe.” “We will miss your presence and reminder of what’s important in life.” Much love to Happy and his family. Read more at the Citizen-Times.

Honesty from Anonymity

If you could share your struggles, hopes, or confusions anonymously, what would you say?

June 16, 2016


Our personal anxieties extend into our public life and many of the conflicts in our communities come from a lack of trust and understanding. It’s easy to be an angry neighbor when you don’t know the other person. Over time I’ve seen how the personal anonymous prompt on Before I Die installations can offer a gentle first step towards honesty and vulnerability in public, which can lead to trust and understanding. These are essential elements for a more compassionate society.

When Bailey Meyers created a Before I Die installation in Guilford, Connecticut, as part of a project to earn his Eagle Scout award, he was only fifteen years old but spoke with the thoughtfulness of a weathered man. “I think when people anonymously put things on the boards, then they’re more honest about it. So they can really express how they feel inside because there’s no one judging them, because there are no names connected to these things,” he told the Shore Line Times. “A lot of times we’re just constantly hurtling through life, going for the next job promotion, going to get out of school, going to pay for your kid’s college, all the things that you sort of have to do. You’re just working towards all these short term goals and you’re not really looking at the big picture of what you really want to do. So this will help people get back on track.” More here and here.