“For my Wife, Navid” was commissioned by Kelly Stoetzel and Chris Anderson, curators of TED, and performed live on 18 February 2016 at the TED Conference in Vancouver. Photo by Monte Marcum.
Do I look real to you?
I hope so.
I have no way of knowing if you’re seeing me, but I’m just going to look ahead and trust that you’re there. I’ve drawn a semicircle in the sand in front of me, so I don’t go past it and look like I’m floating in mid-air.
Right now, I’m standing in the open air, on a beach, under a palm tree; in the exact spot where your stage used to be. I have twelve minutes with you. I set a limit. My wife Navid once said that infinite possibility is a creator’s worst enemy. For example, when she made this dress, I’d asked her to design something a priest would have worn in 23rd century Cairo. But the only fabric we had was a beautiful duvet cover another resident left behind, and we needed it in three days; but she did it, and it’s perfect. She said: “Proof of concept. Creation needs constraint.”
So with these twelve minutes, I’m going to tell you about my greatest discovery.
For my whole life, my obsession has been eternal life, as I know it is so many of yours. You might be happy to know that your research will pay off. I am three hundred and eighteen years old. The average human lifespan now is four hundred and thirty-two years. My work has been to extend the human lifespan indefinitely.
I’ve always thought that someday, we’d reach a point where we’ll be content. But the opposite keeps happening! The longer we live, the longer we want to live; the less we want to die. Who can blame us? The universe is so big. There won’t ever not be more to see. Just yesterday I was reading about how you can take out a sailboat on Europa, and go from island to island all over the planet, and some of the islands have villages where you can stay and visit overnight, and sleep under the shadow of Jupiter; but there’s another where just one songwriter lives and plays mandolin for the ocean; and on others, there’s no one at all, and never has been, so you go just for the pleasure of touching your foot to sand that no foot has ever touched before.
You could spend four hundred years doing just that.
Right now the moon is rising in the northeast. I can see the cities on it with my naked eye—they’re connected like nerve clusters—Mariapolis on the south pole, Ramachandran on the equator, New Tehran in the Sea of Tranquility. That’s where Navid and I met. We were both artists downtown. The day we met, we were walking past each other in Azadi Square and we bumped shoulders and I turned to apologize and, without saying hello or introducing herself at all, she said, “Why do you think we didn’t just pass through each other?”
First I thought, “Who the hell are you,” and second, the question annoyed me because the answer’s so simple. I said, “We didn’t pass through each other because elementary particles have mass and because the space between the elementary particles is filled with binding energy that also has the properties of mass and we’ve known that for eight hundred years.”
But she must have been in one of those moods where she likes to mess with strangers, or maybe she was just flirting with me, because she said, “Yeah, I thought you’d say that. Think deeper.” And then she touched her belt—this belt I’m wearing now—and said, “Our universe is built so that elementary particles have mass. Without that, we’d have passed through each other at the speed of light and never even known.”
And that’s how our romance began.
Navid and I never ran out of things to talk about. Never. It was incredible. It’s like we were climbing up into a mountain range together, and kept arriving at new vistas, and these perfect constellations of words came out of us to describe them, and we’d forget them as soon as we’d made them and throw them over our shoulder and go on, up, to the next thing. Or—one time Navid said our talk felt like we were always making bread, adding more water, more flour, folding it in, and turning it over; even though we never got around to baking it.
If my obsession was eternal life, Navid’s obsession was touch. She had a genius for it. All her work revolved around it. My body was like a canvas for her, and she would draw her fingertip down over my face so slowly that I couldn’t feel it moving at all—she was obsessed with the exact moment when I stopped being able to tell the difference between her body and mine. Or she would just lie across me and grind her shoulder down into mine and say, “Pilar. Why does this feel so good.” And I’d say, “I don’t know.” And she had a lot of facetious answers to her own facetious question, but the one I remember today is, “Because the universe chose its constraints, and we are its art.”
It’s always funny what you think the future is going to be like, versus what it turns out to be.
In your time, scientists thought humans could freeze themselves and wake up in the future. And they did. But then they died.
In your time, scientists thought that humans could replace organs, to extend life for hundreds of years. And they did. But then they died anyway.
In your time, Earth is the only place people live.
In my time, Earth is the place people come to die.
So when Navid started to show the signs, our friends assumed I would do what everyone does—send her to Earth, so that no one would have to look at her or think about her or her failure to keep living; and we could keep living our beautiful lives. More than anything, they didn’t want to be around her actual physical body. They kept saying it was “declining” …but she herself was fascinated by it, the changes it was going through, following the rules of its nature, day by day, independent of her will.
I did send Navid to Earth. But I came with her. Right before we left, a friend of ours said to me, “I just think it’s arrogant, like the rules don’t apply to you, like you think your love is that special.”
But I did.
So, even here on Earth, I kept working on extending life. It didn’t occur to me that there could be any other response. I went back to the thing Navid said to me that first day in Azadi Square—that, without that basic constraint, a universe that granted mass to matter, we would not exist. But this is another rule: all mass is subject to entropy. And there’s no way to be in this universe without mass. I know. I tried everything. I tried creating a photon box where the Higgs field was altered. I tried recording all subatomic movements in a body and playing them back on a closed loop. Nothing worked.
But my final innovation was to create a coiled dimension whose boundaries were a body, in which time moved infinitely slower, even though its projection would appear to move in normal time. That body would then appear in our universe as a hologram—here, but not here.
When I realized I’d done it, I ran to her room, so happy, to tell her I’d done it; moving through space almost normally to all eyes, even to my own, and went to lie down next to her, and forgot, and fell right through her.
I’d found the answer to eternal life, at the expense of the one thing Navid loved most: to touch and be touched.
She threw me out.
I still got to watch, though.
Humans live four hundred years, now, and death still comes. When it does, the dying still pick at their bedsheets, and still break out in blue and violet blooms on the insides of their arms; their breaths get farther and farther apart, like they’re falling asleep.
I’ve always thought that what gives a life meaning is adventure, and death is just a problem we haven’t discovered the solution to yet.
But maybe a life has meaning only because it ends. Maybe that’s the paradox: constraints don’t constrain. They allow perfect freedom.
There was a thunderstorm here this morning, and there’s another forecast for tonight, but for now, the sky is clear. I can’t feel the wind, but I just asked one of the caretakers who passed by what it felt like, and she told me it felt warm, like melted butter. An answer worthy of my wife.
I have to find my way back to the flesh.
For now, I take up no space but the space you give me.