Life Reflections in Chalk Ponder Some Big Questions

How do we answer when asked what defines us?
Illustration by Pete Ryan


I’m tormented by a chalkboard.

But not just any chalkboard; it’s the one at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills—a venerable house of worship, with a vaulted ceiling and beautiful stained-glass windows. Outside, there’s a promenade with a greeters table, a memorial garden, and—my fixation—a chalkboard.

It has a special feature: There’s a prompting message, repeated 12 times in two columns. “Before I die, I want to_____.” You have 12 chances to say what you’d like to do, before that Great Dirt Nap begins.

But there’s no chalk.

It seems like no big deal. Others shrug and move on, going “Huh” and leaving their thoughts unspecified. But to me, that blank board is like an itch unscratched, taunting us with possibilities. Why provide space but no writing tools? Why ask the question with no means to answer it?

Finally, I can bear it no longer. One Sunday, I go to Office Depot and buy a box of chalk for $1.29, and that’s my entire purchase. I go back to St. George’s and deposit the chalk in the little holder under the chalkboard. I wonder if I can be accused of malicious chalk providing, or perhaps defacing a public surface with self-revelatory insights.

But what to write? Sadly, my first ideas aren’t as lofty as one might hope:

Before I die, I want to sneeze, belch, and fart at the same time.

Before I die, I want to be named People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, beating out Brad Pitt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who come in second and third.

Neither of these seems church-appropriate, so they’re nixed. Instead, I try something more thoughtful: Before I die, I want to stop worrying about when I will. Because no matter how convinced you are of a lemon-scented afterlife up there in the cirrocumulus, we’re all dreading that final send-off, aren’t we? That fear is what I believe drives people to church in the first place, one of the biggest issues we all grapple with. It belongs on that chalkboard.

Of course, that leaves 11 spaces unfilled, and I’m curious to see what the other congregants chime in with. (Full disclosure: I’m not an Episcopalian. My church’s space is being renovated, and St. George’s has graciously allowed us to share its facility in the meantime.) All the passersby are churchgoers, so the question arises: How do our beliefs affect our bucket lists? What do the faithful want to do here on Earth before graduating to whatever comes next?

I hope to find out after everyone has had a crack at it, and I’m not disappointed. The next Sunday, when I check out the board, I find lots of ambitions laid bare.

Before I die, I want to make a difference/be a good person/learn to live/see my son become a doctor. Others want to own a corgi, skydive, or visit Russia. It’s a rare privilege, seeing these wishes revealed in a public forum.

Two entries are memorable: Before I die, I want to be forgiven and Before I die, I want to eat an entire pie in one sitting. Someone else has written in the margin near these, what looks to be either “by” or “with,” followed by “Jesus.” But you can’t tell which entry it applies to. All we know is that someone either wants to be forgiven by Jesus or to eat a whole pie with him.

So I’m thinking, I’ve got to write about this, and it dawns on me—with thick-headed abruptness—that that’s mine in a nutshell, the same as every writer: Before I die, I want to tell stories about what I’ve seen and heard and experienced—a legacy of idiosyncratic prose laced with carefully chosen adverbs (“judiciously,” perhaps) for others to enjoy. If you see me hunched over a laptop, two-finger typing with reckless abandon, I’m fulfilling my dream.

It’s fun and fascinating seeing all this played out on a church chalkboard, but it can’t last forever. Over the next few weeks, little doodles start appearing on the board—soccer balls, smiley faces, even one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I realize that kids can use chalk, too. While it’s totally wholesome by graffiti standards, it doesn’t exactly set a tone of reverence and decorum.

Apparently, we’ve crossed some sort of appropriate-for-church threshold, because one Sunday we show up to find the board wiped clean, the chalk confiscated, the doodles gone to doodle heaven. I consider replacing the chalk, but I decide I’ve already bothered God enough. From this point on, future yearnings must go unexpressed.

So what have we learned from this adventure?

Well, first is that these wishes are not whimsical (except, perhaps, for the pie). They involve family, travel, adventure, and forgiveness, all basic themes, like a Rorschach test for what you care about most. Not just what you wish for, but who you are as a person, what you value, what defines you.

Ask yourself what you’d be doing right now if you had only a few days to live with no time to waste on banalities. Once you realize the Reaper’s waiting with a one-way ticket, those waning hours take on a whole new urgency. Forget caution, prudence, and social correctness; heave all of that aside and see what emerges. If you were at that chalkboard right now, holding chalk in your hand, what would you write?

And would you actually do it?

I suggest you do. Now. Today. Go out while you’ve still got a pulse and buy a corgi, go to Russia, skydive, belch, sneeze, and/or fart—however the spirit moves you.

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