‘Before I Die’ wall invites your input

Nina Thompson looks over the board she created along Langdon Street in Montpelier as visitor Deirdre O´Connor, of Brooklyn, New York, writes that she would like to visit Japan before she dies. Thompson, a former hospice volunteer, said nothing is gained by ignoring that we die and everything is gained by acknowledging it. SANDY MACYS PHOTO

MONTPELIER — What do you want to do before you die?

For many, it can be an intriguing question or perhaps a challenge to do something decisive in life.

Whatever you decide, you have a chance to share your choice publicly on a blackboard wall on Langdon Street in Montpelier.

Standing in front of the blackboard on Monday during the city’s Independence Day celebration, Emma Sippel, of Wisconsin, said she was struggling to think of something special to write.

“It’s hard because there are so many things I want to do, and I want to fill up all those spaces (on the board),” said Sippel, who is working as a summer intern at National Life Insurance Company.

She finally settled on: “I want to hold a koala (bear).”

Her boyfriend, Jonathan Nathalang, who was visiting from Indiana, had an easy and clear choice.

“I want to bring someone to Jesus,” he wrote.

The authors of many other entries already on the wall said they wanted to: “Climb Kilimanjaro,” “Go to Jamaica,” “See Langdon Street a pedestrian street,” “See the world,” “Make a difference,” “Ride an elephant,” “Learn to fly.”

The blackboard wall is part of a project started in 2009 by New Orleans native Candy Chang after the death of a friend. As a way to help others gain perspective about the prospect of death, she covered the side of an abandoned building with chalkboard paint and provided the prompt: “Before I die I want to …”

After posting a few photos of it online, it spread, with more than 450 similar walls in over 30 languages being established in dozens of countries worldwide.

In Montpelier, Ward Joyce, a steward of the Langdon Street Alive open space project, said he was approached by resident Nina Thompson, who wanted to create her own Before I Die wall.

“ It’s an international form of community engagement that was donated to us by a local organization,” Joyce said.

Joyce initially considered placing it at the “pocket park” he built on Main Street, but then decided under a giant artwork on Langdon Street was the perfect space for it.

“I thought this space was better, where I also wanted to put another piece of art on Langdon Street,” Joyce added.

Thompson said the Before I Die project was also an extension of “The Wake Up to Dying Project” she has run for the past five years that will end soon.

“It has helped increase awareness of death and dying and encourage people to think about how they live and die,” Thompson said. “We had a very successful run but we’re closing down now.”

Thompson, who has worked in hospice care and as a counselor and mentor to people struggling with issues around dying and death, said her website allowed people to record their stories and find ways to memorialize people they cared about.

“We wanted to create this way for people to explore what death and dying means in a way that resonated with them,” said Thompson. “We tried to offer as many points of entry as possible: the audio experience, workshops, pamphlets with information about hospice, burial, caregiving and Act 39 (the Vermont law allowing someone the right to choose to die).”

Thompson said her organization also had the Before I Die chalkboard wall, which has traveled around the state and to Boston.

“It was a very easy entry point for people to think about their bucket list,” said Thompson. “Then once they were in our courtyard, if you will, they could see all these other offerings we had.”

Thompson said people then gravitated to other services her organization offered to provide support, comfort and closure.

“The great thing about this question is that it reminds them that life is finite,” Thompson said. “I hope that they use that insight to set priorities in their life, to really consider what their values are, and to set goals.”

And to remember that life is limited.

“If we can just remind people that you don’t get to live forever, you don’t have each other forever, there may not be that tomorrow to do that forgiving, so do it today. We don’t do that because we think our time is endless,” Thompson said.

For more information about The Wake Up to Dying project, call Thompson at 802-793-9111 or visit www.wakeuptodyingproject.org.

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

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