"Before I die..." proclaimed the title above the boards. Down by the Regents Canal, six big blackboards stood, attracting a crowd of wanderers, tourists, cyclists and runners, all gawking at the chalked responses. There were no instructions, no "First, take a piece of chalk...", but it was obvious what was expected of passersby: In a blank space, complete the phrase "Before I die I want to...". Share your innermost dreams and deepest desires with everyone who walks along the towpath.
We stood for a while reading the responses. Many people wanted to travel, to see or live in particular countries or cities. Some wanted to learn new languages or skills, to become champion tango dancers and figure skaters. Some hoped for good things for the world - "Before I die I want to...live in a world where everyone has enough food". Some hoped for good things for people they knew, people who were struggling, people in need of love or recognition - "Before I die I want to...get my Mum's work in the Tate". Some writers wanted things for themselves, to be happy, to be in love, "to be fucking rich", to just be. The commonest desire of all, written across each board in a dozen different hands, was to have children.
Some words were messages to other people, some made sense to the individual writer alone. Some expressed general hopes, dreams shared by multiple people. Others were specific and deeply personal. Some words were sad, whilst others made one smile. Some dreams seemed achievable, whilst others appeared to be written more in hope than anticipation. Some were wild imagined desires, frivolous and fun. Others hoped that simple needs would be met.
Amongst those who had paused to read was a runner in blue, hovering in front of the boards. She was Lycra-clad, with a blonde pony-tail, bouncing slightly in her running trainers as she moved across the trampled grass, examining each personal hope. Finally she reached for the chalk herself. Squatting down she chose a blank spot at the bottom of the first board. As she wrote her body blocked her dream from the crowd of onlookers. She straightened up and stood back to review her words. I read them over her shoulder. "Before I die I want to...be a hero to my kids". Finished with a smiley chalk face. She turned back around and caught my eye, and I smiled at her smile that I hoped conveyed how oddly moved I had been to watch her share such a personal secret, on that board, in front of all the people who were there at that moment, and all those who would come later, before the next rainfall washed all the dreams away. She smiled back at me, took one last look at the boards, and recommenced her Sunday morning run.