A Suggestion Box For The Universe

Oct 4, 2020
Originally published on October 4, 2020 11:10 am

This spring, in Montreal, a box appeared on a fence beside a popular walking path and freight rail tracks that run through my neighborhood. It was painted white with black lettering reading: "Box for wishes/suggestions for the universe. All topics accepted."

Later on, a notepad and pen on a string got added, then replaced. Curious, I left a note on the cardboard backing the last time the paper ran out. The next day, I got a text from François: he'll be at the box, late, to collect the latest suggestions.

When François turns up, he says he lives close by so he sees the box during the day, but waits to attend to it until after dark or early in the morning to avoid being seen.

That way, he says, "it stays anonymous, kind of a mystery. So, people don't address a person, they really address the box."

François, 38, has lived in Montreal for two decades and created other art installations. He asked NPR not to use his last name because the fence is private property.

Back in April, he says, during a near-total pandemic-related shutdown, "people had things they needed to express. And I wanted to offer them a different way to express them than on social media or the press [...] where they wouldn't be read right away and commented on by everybody."

He takes a small electric drill out of his bag, which he uses to open the lid to collect the papers inside. He says he has received about 300 notes in all.

"The main topics have always been love," says François, then, "work, studies or financial worries. After that, in third place, is health or the current situation around the pandemic,"

"Dear universe," reads one note that he unfolds. "Me again. I hope to find my dream job, that reflects my values, before October."

"That Jason learns by heart his addition subtraction, multiplication and division," reads another.

One person wishes to find an apartment in the neighborhood with cool roommates. Someone else wishes for the world to take adolescent depression and suicide more seriously. From a five-year-old: "No more pollution. No more COVID-19." Someone wishes for friends.

François says the notes give him a sense of Montreal's mood, the "pulse of the city," as he puts it.

"I think right now, wishes and suggestions are more are deeper than it used to be in June, for example," he says.

François doesn't have plans for the notes. He says he thinks the box is most useful for people to express them.

"I think that the first step in realizing our wishes is to be able to name them. So just the fact that someone can reflect and define something clearly enough to write it down on a piece of paper, that's maybe the first step towards something more concrete," he says.

He plans to keep collecting the letters as long as the box lasts. If it disappears one day, maybe that's what the universe had in mind.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

This spring, during a near-total pandemic shutdown, reporter Emma Jacobs noticed a box go up in her Montreal neighborhood. It was a suggestion box but not for a local business or community board.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: The box appeared back in April attached to a fence between train tracks and a walking path, painted white with black lettering that said box for wishes/suggestions for the universe, all topics accepted. Curious, a couple of weeks ago, I left a note attached to the side. The next day, I got a text from Francois, who said he'd be at the box late to collect the latest suggestions.

FRANCOIS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: When Francois turns up, he says he lives close by, so he sees the box every day but collects new notes after dark or early in the morning to avoid being seen.

FRANCOIS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: He asked us not to use his last name because the fence is private property, but he also wants the box to stay a bit of a mystery, so people don't write to a person - they address the box.

FRANCOIS: Whether it is a wish or just a suggestion for the universe for something to happen. (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: Back in April, he says he felt people had things they needed to express and he wanted to offer a way to express them that wasn't on social media or even regular media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC DRILL RUNNING)

JACOBS: Francois uses a small electric drill to open the lid and scoops the papers inside into an envelope. Since installing the box, he's received about 300 notes.

FRANCOIS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: He says the main subjects that people write about are love or financial worries. There are wishes about health and the pandemic. Some are general, let people understand each other better kinds of messages. Some are specific and personal.

FRANCOIS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: "Dear universe, me again. I hope to find my dream job that reflects my values before October."

FRANCOIS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: "Jason learns by heart his addition, subtraction, multiplication and division."

One person wishes to find an apartment in the neighborhood with cool roommates. Someone else wishes for the world to take adolescent depression and suicide more seriously. From a 5-year-old, no more pollution, no more COVID-19. Someone wishes for friends.

FRANCOIS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: Francois says the notes give him a sense of Montreal's mood.

FRANCOIS: The pulse of the city.

JACOBS: But the number of messages changes with the weather or when new public health rules get announced.

FRANCOIS: I think right now, wishes and suggestions are more - are deeper than they used to be in June, for example.

JACOBS: Francois doesn't have plans for the notes, but he thinks the box is mostly useful for people to express them.

FRANCOIS: (Non-English language spoken).

JACOBS: "I think that the first step in realizing our wishes," he says, "is to be able to name them. So just the fact that someone can reflect and define something clearly enough to write it down on a piece of paper - that's maybe the first step towards something more concrete."

He says he'll keep collecting the letters as long as the box lasts. If it disappears one day, maybe that's what the universe had in mind. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.