One side-effect of the George W. Bush presidency was that the walls of bathroom stalls in backpacker hangouts in cities such as Bangkok and San Jose were overflowing with handwritten opinions and jokes. The political graffiti his eight years in office produced was immense. The one-liners and paragraphs were seldom insightful, but never did I tire of reading what anonymous folks, while using the toilet, had to say about my President.
Other times — though almost never in a bathroom stall — I have stumbled across more provocative messages such as the one seen here. Written on top of the seawall in Singapore’s Esplanade Park, in the shadow of the city’s financial district, I wondered who wrote it and why. Unlike political graffiti, its motive and meaning were a mystery.
Odds are, I suppose, that someone young did the writing. But it reminded me of something old, namely the idea of commitment, of the knowledge that there would be an end, of the work involved in shaping one’s life with that fact in mind. I’d later remember this splotch of graffiti while reading Wendell Berry’s book Hannah Coulter. In it Hannah, narrating from the twilight of her life, says, “Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes them clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this brief and timeless life.” Later, reflecting on her husband’s passing, she goes on to say:
I was changed by Nathan’s death, because I had to be. Our life together here was over. It was my life alone that had to go on. The strand had slackened. I had begun the half-a-life you have when you have a whole life that you can only remember. I began this practice of sitting sometimes long hours into the nights, telling over his story, this life, that even when it was only mine was wholly Nathan’s and mine because for the term of this world we were wholly each other’s. We were each other’s chance to live in the room of love where we could be known well enough to be spared. We were each other’s gift.
Graffiti is often ugly, and in Singapore the government can come down hard on those who do it. Just ask the two Germans sentenced in 2015 to prison and caning for vandalizing a train car. They had fled the country to Malaysia shortly after putting down their cans of spray paint but were captured and extradited back to Singapore. Or ask any number of other individuals who have found themselves on the wrong side of the 1966 Vandalism Act.
Had this line “till death” been scrawled in Berlin or Brussels, I doubt I would have noticed it. It would have been lost in the crowd. But in Singapore, with its strict laws that have kept graffiti to a minimum, it stood out. And so I stopped to take a picture, and to remember this thing called death, which even when just a word on a wall can give one pause, and be a lens through which we more clearly see.