Jessica Stearns writes on the “Courage Wall” while her dog Basra gives it a sniff. Stearns wrote “I wish I had the courage to: Go for it!” (Photo by Patricia Sullivan for the Washington Post)

It’s a simple set of giant blackboards, stretching 20 feet along the wooden fence on a busy neighborhood street. A bucket of chalk hangs on each side, and a sentence in block letters beckons:

I WISH I HAD THE COURAGE TO…

Nancy Belmont unveiled the “Courage Wall”  in the Alexandria, Va. neighborhood of Del Ray on Thursday, inspired by something she read online and interested to see how people would respond.

The board filled up in four hours, with people writing in the margins and at the bottom to squeeze their wishes in.

I wish I had the courage to:

Not worry about money.

— Eat mayo.

— Try out for the Princeton crew team.

— Let go! (written in perfect pink letters, with a heart at the bottom of the exclamation point.)

Belmont, 44, suddenly had a dilemma. Unless she erased some of the statements, no one else could post. “It’s hard to erase people’s dreams,” she said. Not to mention their fears.

— Bike over a volcano.

— Ask out the cute girl at the Dairy Godmother.

— Go into a shelter.

She hung a damp rag on the fence post, but no one took the hint. So she snapped a photo of the board to preserve what had been written there, and wiped it clean on Saturday morning, in time for the hordes headed to the local farmer’s market.

New wishes filled it up again. She erased a second time Sunday night. Again, by Monday, it was full.

— Quit my job.

— Tell my secrets.

— Love myself.

— Ask for Date #2.

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Belmont, who lives and works just a couple blocks away from the wall, stops by often to watch people congregate in front of it — reading, talking and mustering up the courage to express themselves in chalk.

She has posted about the wall on the Web site of her strategy and communications company, and has created a Facebook page and Instagram account for it under the hashtag #WeLiveBig.

“What I see in this is it’s all of us,” Belmont said. “I think we’ve all felt many of these things.”

She says she got the idea for the Courage Wall from a 2012 TED Talk by New Orleans artist Candy Change, called “Before I Die,” in which Chang asked her neighbors what they hoped to do before their lives ran out.

Belmont, a mother of three, was in transition, having just bought out her ex-husband’s share of their branding, marketing and communication business. She is remaking the company into one that does community-building and leadership coaching, among other things.

As she thought about the Courage Wall, she says, she found herself “creating all these very good business reasons” why she couldn’t — or shouldn’t — launch it, at least not right now.

But then she found herself remembering a time when she was studying joyfulness. It is an anecdote she tells on her company’s Web site.

She wanted to do something to publicly encourage joy, she writes. But a little voice in her head “started to tell me that people would think I was strange and that what I was doing was stupid and a waste of time.”

“I turned around and put the chalk away. Moments later, I realized that my fear of looking silly had robbed me from something I really wanted to do. I got the chalk, drew a big ‘Be Joyful!’ sign on the sidewalk, and engaged a number of people who told me I made them joyful right then and there.”

With that story in mind, Belmont decided to forge ahead, spending about $1,000 for the set of oversize chalkboard panels, chalk and stencils. She hired her ex-husband to attach the panels to the fence of a vacant lot that is owned by friends, who are allowing her to use for the next month.

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The wall “both breaks my heart and fills my heart,” Belmont said. “There’s pain inside somebody who wants the courage to ‘stop being a bully.’ But there’s also joy and energy.”

People have told her that what they wrote on the wall has allowed them to broach difficult topics with a spouse or parent. An Alexandria police officer vowed to be a great policeman. A middle-schooler said she wanted to “feel beautiful in my body.”

One young girl wrote that she wanted the courage to sing a solo in front of people, Belmont said. And after she chalked that in, she sang for passersby on the busy street.

“I like the ones that say ‘be authentically me,’” said Cindy DuBose, a local resident who was walking by on Friday afternoon.

Her wish? “I’d probably just copy what someone else wrote.”

Belmont says she will archive the photos of each set of messages on her Web site, and is mulling how to launch an educational program around the themes of courage and fear.

“To be able to experience other people’s fears and feel their courage helps me,” she said. “What I find when I’m coaching is that people don’t even realize it’s fear holding them back.”

 

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