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Sarah Kay – How Many Lives


I see the moon the moon sees me
the moon sees somebody
that I don’t  see.
God bless the moon
and God bless me
and God bless the somebody
that I don’t see.

If I get to heaven before you do,
I’ll make a hole to pull you through.
I’ll write your name, on every star
And that way the world won’t seem so far.

The astronaut will not be at work today. He has called in sick. He has turned off his cell phone, his laptop, his pager, his alarm clock. There is a fat yellow cat asleep on his couch. Raindrops against the window, and not even the hint of coffee in the kitchen air.

Everybody is in a tizzy: The engineers on the fifteenth floor have stopped working on their particle machine, the anti-gravity room is leaking and even the freckled kid with glasses whose only job is to take out the trash is nervous, fumbles the bag, spills the banana peel and a paper cup, nobody notices. They are too busy recalculating what this will mean for lost time.  How many galaxies are we are losing per second, how long before the next rocket can be launched. Somewhere an electron flies off its energy cloud. A black hole has erupted, a mother finishes setting the table for dinner, a Law and Order marathon is starting, the astronaut is asleep.  He’s forgotten to turn off his watch which ticks like a metal pulse against his wrist, he does not hear it. He dreams of coral reefs and plankton. His fingers find the pillow cases sailing masts he turns on his side opens his eyes once, he thinks that scuba divers must have the most wonderful job in the world: So much water to glide through.

Thank you…

When I was little I could not understand the concept that you could only live one life. I don’t mean this metaphorically I mean I literary thought that I was going to get to do everything there was to do and be everything there was to be, it was only a matter of time. And there was no limitation based on age or gender or race, or even appropriate time period, I was sure that I was going to actually experience what it felt like to be a leader of the civil rights movement,  or  a ten year old boy living on farm during the dust ball,  or an emperor of the Tang dynasty in China. My mum says that when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my typical response  was “princess-ballerina-astronaut”.  What she doesn’t understand is that I wasn’t trying to invent some combined super-profession, I was listing things I thought I was going to get to be: a princess and a ballerina and an astronaut, and I am pretty sure the list probably went on from there, I usually just got cut off. It was never a question of if I was going to get to do something so much as a question of when. And I was sure that if I was going to do everything it probably meant I had to move pretty quickly cause there was a lot of stuff I needed to do.  So my life was constantly in a state of rushing, I was always scared that I was falling behind and since I grew up in New York City as far as I could tell, rushing was pretty normal. But as I grew up I had the sinking realization that I wasn’t going to get to live any more than one life. I only knew what it felt like to be a teenage girl in New York City, not a teenage boy in New Zealand, not a prom queen in Kansas, I only got to see through my lens. And it was around this time that I became obsessed with stories, because it was through stories that I was able to see through someone else’s lens however briefly or imperfectly. And I started craving hearing other people’s experiences because I was so jealous that there were entire lives that I was never going to get to live and I wanted to hear about everything that I was missing and by transitive property I realized that some people would never gonna get to experience what it felt like to be a teenage girl in New York City. Which meant that they weren’t gonna know what the subway ride after your first kiss feels like, or how quiet it gets when it snows. And I wanted them to know, I wanted to tell them and this became the focus of my obsession. I busied myself telling stories and sharing stories and collecting them and it’s not until recently that I realized that I can’t always rush poetry. In April for national poetry month there is this challenge that many poets in the poetry community participate in and it’s called the thirty-thirty challenge and the idea is you write a new poem every single day for the entire month of April. And last year I tried it for the first time and I was thrilled by the efficiency at which I was able to produce poetry. But at the end of the month I looked back at these thirty poems that I had written and discovered that they were all trying to tell the same story, it has just taken me thirty tries to figure out the way that it wanted to be told.  And I realized that this is probably true of other stories in an even larger scale. I have stories that I have tried to tell for years, re-writing and re-writing constantly searching for the right word. There’s a French poet and essayist by the name of Paul Valery who said that a poem is never finished it is only abandoned, and this terrified me because it implies that I could keep re-editing and re-writing for ever and it is up to me to decide when a poem is finished and when I can walk away from it. And this goes directly against my very obsessive nature to try to find the right answer and the perfect word and the right form. And I use poetry in my life as a way to help me navigate and work through things, but just because I end the poem doesn’t mean that I solved what it was I was puzzling through. I like to re-visit old poetry  because it shows me exactly where I was at that moment and what it was I was trying to navigate and the words that I chose to help me.

Now, I have a story that I’ve been stumbling over for years and years and I am not sure if I’ve found the perfect form or whether this is just one attempt and I will try to re-write it later in search of a better way to tell it, but I do know that later when I look back , I will be able to know that this is where I was at this moment and this is what I was trying to navigate with these words here, in this room, with you, so, smile. (takes out iphone, takes a picture of audience)

It didn’t always work this way, there was a time you had to get your hands dirty. When you were in the dark, for most of it fumbling was a given. If you needed more contrast, more saturation darker-darks and brighter-brights they called it “extended development”, it meant you spent longer inhaling chemicals , longer up to your wrists, it wasn’t always easy.  Grandpa Stewart  was a navy photographer, young, red-faced with the sleeves rolled up, fists of fingers like fat rolls of coins he looked like Popeye the sailorman come to life. Crooked smile, tuft of chest hair, he showed to up to world war two with a smirk and a hobby. When they asked him if he knew much about photography, he lied.  Learned to read Europe like a map, upside down from the height of a fighter plane. Camera snapping, eyelids flapping, the darkest-darks and brightest-brights, he learned war like he could read his way home. When other men returned they put their weapons out to rust, but he brought the lenses and the cameras home with him. Opened the shop, turned it into a family affair. My father was born into this world of black and white. His basketball hands learned the tiny clicks and slides of lens into frame, film into camera, chemical into plastic bin.  His father knew the equipment, but not the art. He knew the darks but not the brights, my father learned the magic. Spent his time following light. Once he travelled across the country to follow a forest fire, hunted it with his camera for a week. Follow the light he said, follow the light. There are parts of me I only recognize in photographs. The loft in Wooster street with creaky hallways, the twelve foot ceiling, white walls and cold floors, this was my mother’s home. Before she was mother, before she was wife, she was artist. And the only two rooms in the house with the walls that reached all the way up to the ceiling and doors that opened and closed, were the bathroom and the darkroom. The darkroom she built herself  with custom made stainless steel sinks, an eight by ten bed enlarger that moved up and down by a giant hand crank, a bank of coloured bounce lights, a white glass wall for viewing prints, a drying rack that moved in and out from the wall. My mother built herself a darkroom. Made it her home. Fell in love with a man with basketball hands with the way he looked at light.  They got married had a baby, moved to a house near a park but they kept the loft in Wooster street for birthday parties and treasure hunts.

The baby tipped the grey scale. Filled their her parents photo albums with red balloons and yellow icing . The baby grew into a girl without freckles, with a crooked smile that didn’t understand why her friends did not have darkrooms in their houses, who never saw her parents kiss, who never saw then hold hands. But one day another baby showed up, this one with perfect straight hair and bubble-gum cheeks they named him sweet-potato and when he laughed he laughed so loudly he scared the pigeons on the fire escape. And the four of them lived in that house near the park, the girl with no freckles the sweet-potato boy the basketball father and darkroom mother, and they lit their candles and said their prayers, and the corners of the photographs curled.

One day some towers fell. And the house near the park became the house under ash so they escaped in backpacks on bicycles to darkroom, but the loft on Wooster street was built for an artist not a family of pigeons; and walls that do not reach the ceiling, do not hold in the yelling. And the man with basketball hands, put his weapons out to rust. He could not fight this war and no maps pointed home. His hands no longer fit his camera, no longer fit his wife’s, no longer fit his body. The sweet-potato boy mashed his fists into his mouth until he had nothing more to say, so the girl without freckles went treasure hunting on her own. And on Wooster street, in the building with the creaky hallways and the loft with the twelve foot ceiling and the darkroom with too many sinks, under the coloured balanced light she saw a note tacked to the wall with a thumb tack, leftover from a time before towers, from a time before babies; and the note said:

“ A guy sure loves a girl who works in the darkroom”

It was a year before my father picked up a camera again.  His first time out he followed the Christmas lights dotting their way through New York City’s trees, tiny dots of light blinking out at him from out of the darkest darks. A year later he travelled across the country to follow a forest fire. Stayed for a week hunting it with his camera, it was ravaging the west coast, eating eighteen-wheeler trucks in its stride.  On the other side of the country I went to class and wrote a poem in the margins of my notebook. We had both learned the art of capture. Maybe we are learning the art if embracing, maybe we are learning the art of letting go.

  1. KaterinaKaterina03-29-2013

    Your performance on TED was beyond brilliant, powerful, and inspiring! I am very moved by the depth of your poetry, the fierce authenticity of your message, and the passion you have for the spoken word! My deepest gratitude for sharing your most beautiful poems with all of us! You are a true inspiration!

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