A few years ago, artist Candy Chang lost a good friend. The experience left her thinking a lot about death, what in her life was of value, what she wanted to do while she had time, and with whom she should spend those hours. While she knew she wanted to define these objectives, Chang says that she “struggled to maintain perspective.” She wondered if others felt similarly adrift.
Chang noticed that there was an old, abandoned home in her New Orleans neighborhood, a perfect canvas for expression. She, along with a group of friends, painted one side of the home in chalkboard paint and created a “Before I die ___________________ ” stencil:
Chang had no idea what to expect. But she and her friends attached little baskets of chalk to the sides and stepped away to wait and see:
To Chang’s great delight and surprise, the very next day, “ the wall was bursting with handwritten responses and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… sing for millions, hold her one more time, eat a salad with an alien, see my daughter graduate, abandon all insecurities, plant a tree, straddle the International Date Line, be completely myself…”.
(George Eastman‘s (co-founder of Eastman-Kodak) suicide note. Eastman shot himself in the heart after suffering from chronic spinal pain which left him partially disabled.)
When someone makes the decision to take their own life, often the first thing many people want to know is whether they left a suicide note. Some people, like Eastman, leave just a few words the living are left to ponder; others leave long, detailed letters of regret, pain, and loss. Whatever the method, there is no denying that the final, written words of anyone who has made this decision are compelling.
Taking a class on the composition of suicide notes though…well, that’s definitely new. But philosophy professor Simon Critchley of New York’s the New School believes there is much to be learned, artistically and rhetorically, from suicide notes. He recently hosted a course called the “Suicide Note Writing Workshop.” One of several classes offered in month-long series of programs called “The School of Death,” Critchley came up with the idea after hearing about a program called “The School of Life” in London. Critchley (my kind of guy) called it “ “a particularly nauseating philosophy of self-help.”
Critchley realizes it is a dark subject and also a “way of mocking creative-writing workshops.” But, in the workshop’s defense, the professor explained to The New York Times, “We’re not mocking suicide. We’re doing this as a way to understand it. And why not be a little insensitive? People are terrified in talking about death.”
Fifteen students signed up for the workshop which looks closely at suicide ethics from antiquity to present-day. Suicide notes themselves, Critchley says, are a relatively recent innovation. “In antiquity, there was no need to leave a note,” he said. “It would have been obvious why you killed yourself.”
Notes examined include those left by Adolph Hitler,Virgina Woolf, Kurt Cobain. After analyzing a variety of suicide notes, from both the infamous and “ordinary” people, the class was asked to write their own last words. They were given just fifteen minutes to do so and the goodbyes had to be contained to a 4″ x 6″ index card. One woman wrote this for her children: “When you inevitably discover those things I kept secret, let these not diminish the reality nor the magnitude of my love for you.”
It is an interesting way to think about communication, especially since these last words, when not a classroom exercise, come from people who largely failed at communicating.
When I worked in a bookstore in my early twenties (my mother said it was the equivalent of putting an alcoholic behind a bar), this book was one we stocked. I worked in the tiny store inside an elite hotel alone and Nurnberg’s book was one I frequently thumbed through in between waiting on doctor’s wives looking for the latest bodice-ripper (true story).
No matter how well-educated one is, there are always a few words that, for some reason, just don’t stick.
You are not alone. According to the website Grammar.net, the following are the fifteen most frequently looked up words (at least on their site):