Full transcript of poet Sarah Kay’s TEDx Talk: How Many Lives Can You Live? at TEDxEast Conference.
Sarah Kay – Poet
(Singing) 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 that somebody that I don’t see.
If I get to heaven, before you do,
I’ll make a hole and pull you through.
And 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, rain drops against the window, and not even the hint of coffee in the kitchen air.
Everybody is in a tizzy. The engineers on the 15th 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 a banana peel and a paper cup.
Nobody notices. They are too busy recalculating what this all mean for lost time. How many galaxies are we losing per second.
How long before 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 & Order marathon is starting.
The astronaut is asleep.
He has 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 pillowcase’s sailing masts.
He turns on his side. Opens his eyes at once.
He thinks that scuba divers must have the most wonderful job in the world.
So much water to glide through!
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 literally thought that I was going to get to do everything that 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 a farm during the dust bowl, or an emperor of the Tang dynasty in China.
My mom says that when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my typical response was princess-ballerina-astronaut. And 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’m 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 of a question of when. And I was sure that if I was going to do everything, that it probably meant I had to move pretty quickly, because 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 this 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 were never going to get to experience what it felt like to be a teenage girl in New York city. Which meant that they weren’t going to 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.