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← How many lives can you live?

Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay was stunned to find she couldn't be a princess, ballerina and astronaut all in one lifetime. In this talk, she delivers two powerful poems that show us how we can live other lives.

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Showing Revision 19 created 08/29/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. (Singing) I see the moon.
    The moon sees me.
  2. The moon sees somebody that I don't see.
  3. God bless the moon, and God bless me.
  4. And God bless the somebody
    that I don't see.
  5. If I get to heaven, before you do,
  6. I'll make a hole and pull you through.
  7. And I'll write your name on every star,
  8. and that way the world
  9. won't seem so far.
  10. The astronaut will not be at work today.

  11. He has called in sick.
  12. He has turned off his cell phone,
    his laptop, his pager, his alarm clock.
  13. There is a fat yellow cat
    asleep on his couch,
  14. raindrops against the window
  15. and not even the hint
    of coffee in the kitchen air.
  16. Everybody is in a tizzy.
  17. The engineers on the 15th floor have
    stopped working on their particle machine.
  18. The anti-gravity room is leaking,
  19. and even the freckled kid with glasses,
  20. whose only job is to take
    out the trash, is nervous,
  21. fumbles the bag, spills
    a banana peel and a paper cup.
  22. Nobody notices.
  23. They are too busy recalculating
    what this all mean for lost time.
  24. How many galaxies
    are we losing per second?
  25. How long before next rocket
    can be launched?
  26. Somewhere an electron
    flies off its energy cloud.
  27. A black hole has erupted.
  28. A mother finishes setting
    the table for dinner.
  29. A Law & Order marathon is starting.
  30. The astronaut is asleep.
  31. He has forgotten to turn off his watch,
  32. which ticks, like a metal
    pulse against his wrist.
  33. He does not hear it.
  34. He dreams of coral reefs and plankton.
  35. His fingers find
    the pillowcase's sailing masts.
  36. He turns on his side,
    opens his eyes at once.
  37. He thinks that scuba divers must have
    the most wonderful job in the world.
  38. So much water to glide through!
  39. (Applause)

  40. Thank you.

  41. When I was little, I could
    not understand the concept

  42. that you could only live one life.
  43. I don't mean this metaphorically.
  44. I mean, I literally thought
    that I was going to get to do
  45. everything there was to do
  46. and be everything there was to be.
  47. It was only a matter of time.
  48. And there was no limitation
    based on age or gender
  49. or race or even appropriate time period.
  50. I was sure that I was going
    to actually experience
  51. what it felt like to be a leader
    of the civil rights movement
  52. or a ten-year old boy living
    on a farm during the dust bowl
  53. or an emperor of the Tang
    dynasty in China.
  54. My mom says that when people asked me
  55. what I wanted to be when I grew up,
    my typical response was:
  56. princess-ballerina-astronaut.
  57. And what she doesn't understand
    is that I wasn't trying to invent
  58. some combined super profession.
  59. I was listing things I thought
    I was gonna get to be:
  60. a princess and a ballerina
    and an astronaut.
  61. and I'm pretty sure the list
    probably went on from there.
  62. I usually just got cut off.
  63. It was never a question
    of if I was gonna get to do something
  64. so much of a question of when.
  65. And I was sure that if I was going
    to do everything,

  66. that it probably meant I had
    to move pretty quickly,
  67. because there was a lot
    of stuff I needed to do.
  68. So my life was constantly
    in a state of rushing.
  69. I was always scared
    that I was falling behind.
  70. And since I grew up
    in New York City, as far as I could tell,
  71. rushing was pretty normal.
  72. But, as I grew up, I had
    this sinking realization,
  73. that I wasn't gonna get to live
    any more than one life.
  74. I only knew what it felt like
    to be a teenage girl
  75. in New York City,
  76. not a teenage boy in New Zealand,
  77. not a prom queen in Kansas.
  78. I only got to see through my lens.
  79. And it was around this time
    that I became obsessed with stories,
  80. because it was through stories
    that I was able to see
  81. through someone else's lens,
    however briefly or imperfectly.
  82. And I started craving hearing
    other people's experiences
  83. because I was so jealous
    that there were entire lives
  84. that I was never gonna get to live,
  85. and I wanted to hear
    about everything that I was missing.
  86. And by transitive property,
  87. I realized that some people
    were never gonna get to experience
  88. what it felt like to be a teenage girl
    in New York city.
  89. Which meant that they weren't gonna know
  90. what the subway ride
    after your first kiss feels like,
  91. or how quiet it gets when its snows.
  92. And I wanted them to know,
    I wanted to tell them.
  93. And this became the focus of my obsession.

  94. I busied myself telling stories
    and sharing stories and collecting them.
  95. And it's not until recently
  96. that I realized that
    I can't always rush poetry.
  97. In April for National Poetry Month,
    there's this challenge
  98. that many poets in the poetry
    community participate in,
  99. and its called the 30/30 Challenge.
  100. The idea is you write a new poem
  101. every single day
    for the entire month of April.
  102. And last year, I tried it
    for the first time
  103. and was thrilled by the efficiency
    at which I was able to produce poetry.
  104. But at the end of the month, I looked
    back at these 30 poems I had written
  105. and discovered that they were
    all trying to tell the same story,
  106. it had just taken me 30 tries to figure
    out the way that it wanted to be told.
  107. And I realized that this is probably true
    of other stories on an even larger scale.
  108. I have stories that I have
    tried to tell for years,
  109. rewriting and rewriting and constantly
    searching for the right words.
  110. There's a French poet and essayist
    by the name of Paul Valéry

  111. who said a poem is never
    finished, it is only abandoned.
  112. And this terrifies me
  113. because it implies that I could keep
    re-editing and rewriting forever
  114. and its up to me to decide
    when a poem is finished
  115. and when I can walk away from it.
  116. And this goes directly against
    my very obsessive nature
  117. to try to find the right answer
    and the perfect words and the right form.
  118. And I use poetry in my life,
  119. as a way to help me navigate
    and work through things.
  120. But just because I end the poem,
    doesn't mean that I've solved
  121. what it was I was puzzling through.
  122. I like to revisit old poetry
  123. because it shows me exactly
    where I was at that moment
  124. and what it was I was trying to navigate
  125. and the words that I chose to help me.
  126. Now, I have a story

  127. that I've been stumbling
    over for years and years
  128. and I'm not sure if I've found
    the perfect form,
  129. or whether this is just one attempt
  130. and I will try to rewrite it later
    in search of a better way to tell it.
  131. But I do know that later, when I look back
  132. I will be able to know that
    this is where I was at this moment
  133. and this is what I was trying to navigate,
  134. with these words, here,
    in this room, with you.
  135. So --

  136. Smile.
  137. It didn't always work this way.

  138. There's a time you had
    to get your hands dirty.
  139. When you were in the dark,
    for most of it, fumbling was a given.
  140. If you needed more
    contrast, more saturation,
  141. darker darks and brighter brights,
  142. they called it extended development.
  143. It meant you spent longer inhaling
    chemicals, longer up to your wrist.
  144. It wasn't always easy.
  145. Grandpa Stewart was a Navy photographer.
  146. Young, red-faced
    with his sleeves rolled up,
  147. fists of fingers like fat rolls of coins,
  148. he looked like Popeye
    the sailor man come to life.
  149. Crooked smile, tuft of chest hair,
  150. he showed up to World War II,
    with a smirk and a hobby.
  151. When they asked him if he knew
    much about photography,
  152. he lied, learned to read
    Europe like a map,
  153. upside down, from the height
    of a fighter plane,
  154. camera snapping, eyelids flapping
  155. the darkest darks and brightest brights.
  156. He learned war like he could
    read his way home.
  157. When other men returned,
    they would put their weapons out to rest,

  158. but he brought the lenses
    and the cameras home with him.
  159. Opened a shop, turned it
    into a family affair.
  160. My father was born into this
    world of black and white.
  161. His basketball hands learned
    the tiny clicks and slides
  162. of lens into frame, film into camera,
  163. chemical into plastic bin.
  164. His father knew the equipment
    but not the art.
  165. He knew the darks but not the brights.
  166. My father learned the magic,
    spent his time following light.
  167. Once he traveled across the country
    to follow a forest fire,
  168. hunted it with his camera for a week.
  169. "Follow the light," he said.
  170. "Follow the light."
  171. There are parts of me
    I only recognize from photographs.

  172. The loft on Wooster Street
    with the creaky hallways,
  173. the twelve-foot ceilings,
    white walls and cold floors.
  174. This was my mother's home,
    before she was mother.
  175. Before she was wife, she was artist.
  176. And the only two rooms in the house,
  177. with walls that reached
    all the way up to the ceiling,
  178. and doors that opened and closed,
  179. were the bathroom and the darkroom.
  180. The darkroom she built herself,
  181. with custom-made stainless steel sinks,
    an 8x10 bed enlarger
  182. that moved up and down
    by a giant hand crank,
  183. a bank of color-balanced lights,
  184. a white glass wall for viewing prints,
  185. a drying rack that moved
    in and out from the wall.
  186. My mother built herself a darkroom.
  187. Made it her home.
  188. Fell in love with a man
    with basketball hands,
  189. with the way he looked at light.
  190. They got married. Had a baby.

  191. Moved to a house near a park.
  192. But they kept the loft on Wooster Street
  193. for birthday parties and treasure hunts.
  194. The baby tipped the grayscale,
  195. filled her parents' photo albums
    with red balloons and yellow icing.
  196. The baby grew into a girl
    without freckles,
  197. with a crooked smile,
  198. who didn’t understand why her friends
    did not have darkrooms in their houses,
  199. who never saw her parents kiss,
  200. who never saw them hold hands.
  201. But one day, another baby showed up.

  202. This one with perfect straight
    hair and bubble gum cheeks.
  203. They named him sweet potato.
  204. When he laughed, he laughed so loudly
  205. he scared the pigeons on the fire escape
  206. And the four of them lived
    in that house near the park.
  207. The girl with no freckles,
    the sweet potato boy,
  208. the basketball father and darkroom mother
  209. and they lit their candles
    and said their prayers,
  210. and the corners of the photographs curled.
  211. One day, some towers fell.

  212. And the house near the park
    became a house under ash, so they escaped
  213. in backpacks, on bicycles to darkrooms
  214. But the loft of Wooster Street
    was built for an artist,
  215. not a family of pigeons,
  216. and walls that do not reach the ceiling
    do not hold in the yelling
  217. and the man with basketball hands
    put his weapons out to rest.
  218. He could not fight this war,
    and no maps pointed home.
  219. His hands no longer fit his camera,
  220. no longer fit his wife's,
  221. no longer fit his body.
  222. The sweet potato boy mashed
    his fists into his mouth
  223. until he had nothing more to say.
  224. So, the girl without freckles
    went treasure hunting on her own.

  225. And on Wooster Street, in a building
    with the creaky hallways
  226. and the loft with the 12-foot ceilings
  227. and the darkroom with too many sinks
  228. under the color-balanced lights,
    she found a note,
  229. tacked to the wall with a thumb-tack,
    left over from a time before towers,
  230. from the time before babies.
  231. And the note said: "A guy sure loves
    the girl who works in the darkroom."
  232. It was a year before my father
    picked up a camera again.
  233. His first time out, he followed
    the Christmas lights,
  234. dotting their way through
    New York City's trees,
  235. tiny dots of light, blinking out at him
    from out of the darkest darks.
  236. A year later he traveled
    across the country to follow a forest fire

  237. stayed for a week hunting
    it with his camera,
  238. it was ravaging the West Coast
  239. eating 18-wheeler trucks in its stride.
  240. On the other side of the country,
  241. I went to class and wrote a poem
    in the margins of my notebook.
  242. We have both learned the art of capture.
  243. Maybe we are learning
    the art of embracing.
  244. Maybe we are learning
    the art of letting go.
  245. (Applause)