How It Might Have Been Different

“Pursuit of Happiness”

The future was already lost. The only hope was to retrieve their past, reposition it, and hope for the best. They would eventually be known as “Timecrypters”. They knew this, but preferred to call themselves “Travelers”.

The scenario in which they found themselves was occurring in what the carbon-based alpha species of this rather pretty blue-green planet referred to as the year 2015 CE. Travelers tried to make note of these time-posts, as otherwise they were inclined to forget where or when they had been coming from as well as where or when they were going. It was easy to get caught up in scenarios, these convoluted meanderings of present circumstances laden with residues of past occurrences and hints at future possibilities. As noted, these hints had recently faded away into absence.

It should perhaps be confessed that the narrator of this story is also a Traveler, but since Travelers have no native linguistic equivalent of first person pronouns, it is easier for them to relate this story as a third-person tale. Verb tenses are also problematic, but they will have done their best.

The expertise of Travelers – Timecrypters, as you say – lies in their ability to navigate the currents of the time-space continuum by accessing small breaches between eras and universes. And when they say “small” they mean really minutely tiny. So tiny, that they can’t actually move through the breaches themselves, sending instead nano-robots equipped with photonic projectors and holistic transmitters, by means of which they can manifest whatever forms seem spatio-temporally appropriate and then projecting their consciousness into that form. Because they are not just communicating with these forms but rather BECOMING the form, they sometimes forget, as it were, which when they’re in and become more involved than perhaps they should have been in specific scenarios. It is always being a risk of this particular mode of travel.

The prime movers in the scenario related here appeared to be energy and moisture and the changing distribution of these across the blue-green planet’s surface. Ah yes, mundane, mundane. Exactly. The most fundamental facts so often appear mundane to those who exist by means of them. Have you ever tried to explain water to a fish? Don’t bother. They don’t get it. Likewise the alpha species of this blue-green planet, a terrestrial species, didn’t get their own reliance on the time-currents that distributed energy and moisture for their sustenance.

There were more proximate factors in the scenario, namely Mario Verguenza – the wealthiest specimen on the planet in terms of the things the alpha species valued most – and Gandida Raksha, who exemplified their highest ideals of personal beauty and sexual desirability.

The lifeways of the planet at this juncture in the scenario were facilitated by means of energy that was having been mined from below the surface, where is storing over many eons. Of course it all comes first from their star – a rather unremarkable mid-sized star – and was having been being transformed into physical form by an exceptionally efficient and truly admirable process they called photosynthesis (which the alpha species didn’t invent). The photosynthesizers carried much of this fixed energy to their graves, where it was having been stored and was now extracting for use.

Rather than ingesting this stored energy for direct benefit, the creatures of this planet were taken to burning it in various inefficient and wasteful contraptions to produce a wide range of goods that, as far as Travelers could see, had no benefit. They also consumed a lot of it in scurrying as rapidly as possible from one place to another. As a byproduct of these activities, the efficacious balance of energy and moisture transfer essential to their basic life processes was being severely – no, terminally – disrupted.

They didn’t really care about this, even in the fleeting moments when they almost understood. Among those most notable for not caring were Mario Verguenza and Gandida Raksha. They reveled in the reckless accumulation of useless goods and scurried from place to place more than most.

The Travelers were having produced a particularly endearing photonic small canine, which Gandida has quickly adopted and carried with her everywhere. They also produced a specimen of an unobtrusive variety of small brown bird, free to fly about and observe more broadly.

It became obvious to the Travelers that Mario was bent on extracting and incinerating every last ounce of stored energy from the planet. They felt the quivering disruptions in the continuum. They sensed the disappearance of the future.

During the late nights when Mario and Gandida were engaged in non-reproductive sexual activity and early mornings when they slept, the lapdog and the little brown bird convened to compare notes.

“It is palpable,” the little bird said. “These people have consumed their future.”

“Shouldn’t there have been some doing to help?” asked the dog.

“It’s so hard not to get involved,” the bird replied, with a sad, down-drifting twitter.

“If Travelers could have gone back to where this scenario began, to see if it might be tweaked? Just a little bit, understand…” The dog rested its head languidly on a paw and twitched an ear.

And suddenly they were inside a building where huge metal objects with four wheels were assembled. The term “Model T” comes to mind. The Travelers were taken the form of cockroaches skittering about in the corners of the factory, and as they look at the heavy boots of the workmen, they felt the vulnerability of this particular form choice.

“Is this where it started?” one of the cockroaches said.

“Unlikely,” said the other.

The scene shifts again, and they were in a beautifully appointed sitting room. There are chairs of carved mahogany, upholstered in intricate tapestries. Heavy brocade curtains hang at the windows and brass ornaments gleam in the light of a blazing fireplace. A corpulent gentleman sits on one of the chairs, smoking a cigar, while a gentlewoman in rustling silk sipped tea or coffee from a delicate porcelain cup held in a hand sparkling with jeweled golden rings. The Travelers occupy the forms of mice hiding behind the wainscoting.

“Can you feel it?” said one mouse, its whiskers quivering with excitement.

“Yes, it manifested strongly here,” the other replied. “This is where the future begins to disappear. But what is it that was happening?”

They both sit very still for a couple of minutes, training ears and whiskers this way and that to get a better read on the time currents flowing through this scenario.

“It’s the desire, isn’t it?” said one.

The other twitched its nose in agreement. “Even so,” it said at last. “The desire for objects, things, experiences of faraway places. Maybe the desire to feel exalted? Outside this space there is readable a similar desire to have what is in this room. And of course, there can never be enough for that.”

“Is there anything that can have been done about it? You know, to prevent what transpires from here and consumed the future?”

“Maybe it’s just the way they are,” the second mouse suggested. “Maybe they were destined to be a species with no future.”

“You know that’s not the way things work,” the first mouse scolds. “There’s no such thing as destiny. You’re absorbing their way of thinking. Get hold of yourself.”

The second mouse scratched its head with its back foot. “Sorry.”

The first mouse closed its eyes thoughtfully. “What if these ones have never acquired these things? What if they have to rely more on things from their own place? You know, their own resources?”

The second mouse perked up its ears. “Maybe if their temporality had been shifted somehow. Grabbing a piece of the past and repositioning it in such a way as to give them a chance to have emerged in a different way.”

The scene changes once more and they are on a ship at sea. They are no longer mice, but instead rather large and nasty rats, gnawing vigorously at some thick ropes. The ship lurches side to side, backward and forward in a dreadful tempest. The wind howls and waves smack loudly against the timber hull. The ropes the rats have gnawed through give way. A mast cracks and then crashes onto the deck, smashing a hole where water enters. The two rats climb onto a piece of floating debris as the ship disintegrates. And because they are really Travelers and not rats at all, they can read the names inscribed on the disintegrating hull of this ship and two others equally doomed – Niña, Pinta, Santa Maria. Sailors flailing about in the storm-tossed waters, desperately clinging to anything still afloat.

As dawn breaks, broken bits of wood, a few empty barrels, and a couple of corpses bob aimlessly in the calm waters.

On the time horizon, the future glimmers.

(This was originally posted in October of 2015 but I thought it was worth repeating in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day – aka “Columbus Day.” It is a “Tale of the Timecrypters”, a species of time-travelers invented by author Seth Abbot, a character in my recently published novel, NOT KNOWING. It has been lightly edited from the 2015 version.) 

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Pettifoggery

“Pettifoggery” is the word that floated into my consciousness as I perused the morning’s news about the whistleblower, especially a story about a phone call between the occupant of the oval office and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

HIM: “Hey, can we do something about this whistleblower complaint, can we work something out?”

HER : “Yes, you can tell your people to obey the law.”

In his world, everything is—always has been—negotiable, and he keeps a coterie of loyal lawyers close at hand to facilitate negotiations.

So many in our business and lawyering communities live—have always lived—in a world where everything is negotiable. Spinnable. Obeying “the law” is not a concept they understand as most citizens do. For them, “the law” is a set of pliable parameters that they fiddle with to the benefit of their clients and personal bottom line. Businesspersons congratulate themselves for finding clever ways of circumventing tax laws and government regulations of all kinds. Lawyers (okay, “not all lawyers”; got it) care little for determinations of actual culpability or liability. Blame is their game. If you can’t prove your client innocent, just sow doubts about the reliability of witnesses who say he’s guilty. Spin it and spin it and spin it again until we’re all so dizzy we just want to get off the ride.

Pettifoggery. My 1941 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus includes the word under four separate entries: sophistry, deception, litigious, dishonourable.

Sadly, we live in a world where pettifoggers rule. Unless we can bring them back into the clarity of arcane concepts such as “obey the law.”

 

Let’s Get Together

Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

As I walked through Boudhanath, Kathmandu, one evening in September of 2013, under a light rain, I was enveloped in the crowd. Everyone was headed in the same direction, toward the Great Stupa. I was reminded of Barcelona, where I had been the week before. But here, instead of heading to the plaza to sip wine and share food with family and friends, we were headed to a sacred place to walk in brisk clockwise circles murmuring prayers.. or chatting with family and friends. I love both customs and the way they bring people together in a shared space at the same time.

 

All the Angles


My camera and I love to go exploring. My camera is my license to walk slowly and stop often, to turn around and look behind me, to randomly change direction. It is my passport to wander and to lose myself in form, color, light and shadow. Sometimes my camera and I go through all kinds of contortions to find just the right angle.
I suppose I could do all these things without my camera, but when I hide behind the lens, maybe people don’t find my actions quite so odd.

(Originally posted on Facebook, September 15, 2013 from Pal Ngagyur Shedrup Dojoling in Nepal.)

The Burning

Forest fires play a huge role in my latest work-in-progress (in the hands of beta readers now!) and in writing it I’ve done a fair amount of research into such fires. But I don’t think I envisioned anything quite so globally apocalyptic as what is occurring right now in the Amazon.

It is established fact that fires are part of life on planet earth. Fires are useful in the cyclical health of all kinds of ecosystems. Just yesterday I went for a walk at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, where they recently did a controlled burn over a large swathe of their property and posted signs promising a bounty of spring wildflowers.

The fires currently devastating the Amazon are not part of this natural cycle. They’re not even part of the centuries-old practices of indigenous people who clear small patches of rainforest with fire every dry season, a practice that kills off “weeds” and insect pests and leaves a layer of nutrient-rich ash. The indigenous people have always done small, controlled burns and, after planting the field for a couple of years and harvesting what’s left for a few more, they always let the space return to its natural rainforest state. They’ve been doing this forever, so when you hear that “farmers” are to blame for many of the blazes being set in Amazonia and Rondonia, the indigenous farmers are NOT the farmers we’re talking about. Instead, we’re talking about farmers and ranchers whose intent is to permanently clear land for larger-scale crops and grazing. We’re talking about thousands of acres being permanently removed from the Amazon rain forest.

There’s also the political firestorm surrounding all this. For years Brazil has tended to get huffy when lectured on the (scientifically well established) importance of the Amazon rainforest to the overall environmental health of our planet. The wealthy nations achieved their status in large part through devastating environments with impunity, they said. And now you’re going to tell “developing” countries we can’t follow suit? The general attitude was one of “fuck off.” But there were those within Brazil and the other nations within this vast forest who understood the importance of the Amazon and they formed political action groups and linked up with activists worldwide to engage in what was, until recently, a modestly effective conservation strategy.

Enter Jair Bolsonaro. Echoing the politics of the United States of America, Brazil now has a nationalist president who puts jingoistic Brazil-first profit above all else and has clearly indicated his support for “developing” the vast resources of the Amazon. So the Amazon burns. Animals of all kinds (including rare and endangered species) are roasted within the devastation. Native peoples who have protected their rainforest home for millennia are driven out. And scientists hastily recalculate the carbon balance of our atmosphere and recalibrate hopes of surviving climate collapse.

This blog post has no conclusions. I go back to my manuscript, to my story in which time is marked as much by “before the Great Fires” and “after the Great Fires” as anything else. And I watch the burning.

(NOTE on the image: This is a painting on paper that was sadly damaged beyond repair. The burning of a work of art is not the same as the burning of a work of nature…or is it?)

 

What Not To Read When the World is Falling Apart

Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading recently. First of all, over the past week, I’ve been reading a lot of news about the horrors in El Paso and Dayton. As well as the continuing horrors in Washington, D.C., and most of the rest of the world.

Just before El Paso and Dayton, I had finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a beautifully written dystopia filled with all the horrors that people of color already face in many of our cities every day. It ends on a hopeful note, but on the way takes the reader through a lot of violence and terror and despair.

Last weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, Austin’s convention for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy. One panel was about what has recently been dubbed #hopepunk fiction. Panelists asked whether readers were becoming weary of a steady diet of dystopia. I’m pretty sure our answer was “Yes. Now what?”

At the convention, I bought two books from an up-and-coming Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse, and found myself with plenty of time on my hands to read them this week after I fell victim to the latest virus traveling through the social circles my grandkids travel in.

Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are skillfully crafted stories with larger-than-life characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the gods and heroes of the Diné (Navajo) nation manifest in some stunningly impressive ways. Great stories. Very violent. Every character morally gray (which is fine). Many of them a very dark gray. And of course, since Roanhorse is writing a trilogy, book two ends with some sense of resolution followed by one of those “OH MY GOD, NO!!” moments that are the mark of the great writer who knows how to get you to buy her third book.

So there I am–sick, depressed, steeped in the eerily parallel violence of dystopian fiction and breaking news. What to do? I thought I needed a break, a different book that would pull me out of my funk. Maybe something contemporary. So I went to my bookshelf and found a nice hardback I’d picked up sometime back and carried it upstairs with me last night for a good restorative bedtime read. I was only a few pages into the book when I remembered what it was about. This was Elizabeth Crook’s Monday, Monday, which begins with the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas. Her description is slow-motion and elegant as a dagger. I broke down in tears as I laid the book aside.

I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I woke a bit late and scurried around in order to make my breakfast date with my son and his family. If anything could pull me out of my funk, the grandkids could.

Tacos and donuts and grandbabies. I was definitely feeling better. Well enough to share with my daughter-in-law what I’ve been going through. She confessed that she’d just finished re-reading Pollyanna. Maybe I’d like to borrow it? Tempting, but…no.

You see, I don’t want to just hide from the violence and hatred. I don’t want to cover it over with prettily-painted, trompe-l’oiel wallpaper and pretend it’s not there. I just want to see something in our world, something in us, that can reassure me that we’re more than this, better than this.

Show me some hope.

Driving home I remembered something from my college days that I had worked into the second book of my Recall Chronicles. Malia, the main character in Shadow of the Hare, is alone in a little hotel in India, struggling to cope in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I read for a while, [she says] struggling through a short story in French that Simone had shared with me. It was about a little blind girl whose parents, with collusion from the village priest, had conjured a beautiful and perfect world for her, never let­ting her encounter anything ugly or sad. She was so angry when she discovered what they’d done, what the world was really like. “Je ne veux pas etre heureuse,” she cried. “Je veux savoir!” I liked the story. I don’t want to be happy—I want to know. I made a cup of tea and read it again.”

That story has stayed with me all these years and it has kept me asking questions, never content to rest in my privilege or comfort, always wanting… to know.

Here’s what I know now: I want both. Yes, I want to know. But I also want to be happy. I DO want to be happy, dammit. And I want you to be happy, too.

My job as a writer, especially as a writer of speculative fiction, is not to write #grimdark, violence-filled dystopian and apocalyptic stories devoid of hope; nor is my job to write pretty #noblebright fiction in which saviors magically come to our rescue. No, my job is to face the reality of #grimdark and somehow dig out of it… some shred of hope. Some deeply human determination to hope in spite of everything.

They say we have to write the stories we want to read. Okay, then. If all goes well, my book will be out early next year.

(A version of this essay was read earlier today at Austin Writers’ Roulette, hosted by Teresa Y. Roberson at Malvern Books.)

“This Changes Everything?” (Updated.)

NOTE: This was originally published in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June of 2016. Today I added a dozen more shootings. How many will it take? 

Aug. 1, 1966: A man with a gun shot and killed 16 people from a university tower at the University of Texas in Austin.

Maybe we should change some things.

July 18, 1984: A man with a gun killed 21 adults and children at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California.

Surely, there are things that should change.

Aug. 20, 1986: A man with a gun killed 14 postal workers in Edmund, Oklahoma.

This should change things.

Oct. 16, 1991: A man with a gun crashed his pickup through the wall of Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and then shot and killed 23 people.

Would this change things?

April 16, 2007: A young man with a gun at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, killed 32 people.

Certainly this will change everything.

Nov. 5, 2009:  A man with a gun killed 13 people and injured 30 others at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas.

Things have to change.

July 20, 2012: A man with a gun killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

This has to change everything.

Dec. 14, 2012: A man with a gun killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now. Now this will change everything.

Sept. 16, 2013: A man with a gun killed 12 people and injured three others at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C.

Will things ever change?

June 18, 2015: A man with a gun killed nine people at a weekly Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

This is it. This is the one that will change everything.

July 16, 2015:  A man with a gun opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing five.

Nothing has changed.

Oct. 1, 2015: A man with a gun killed an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon.

Nothing has changed.

Nov. 27, 2015: A man with a gun attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing a police officer and two civilians.

Nothing has changed.

Dec. 2, 2015: A married couple with guns opened fire at a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party, killing 14 people.

Nothing has changed.

June 12, 2016: A man with a gun killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

ADDENDA (August 5, 2019)

October 1, 2017: One man with a lot of guns opened fire on an outdoor music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from the 32nd floor of a hotel-casino, killing 58 people and wounding more than 500.

This one. So many dead! We talk about bump stocks.

November 5, 2017: A man with a gun shot up a congregation at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing more than two dozen.

At a church? We talk about mental health.

February 14, 2018: A young man with a gun shot and killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Finally, change is coming. Such powerful student leaders will push for change!

May 18, 2018: A young man with a gun killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

Another school, nothing has changed.

June 28, 2018: A man with a gun killed five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

Targeting journalists now.

October 27, 2018: A man with a gun killed 11  worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during Shabbat morning services.

Targeting Jews? What can we do? What can we do?

November 7, 2018: A man with a gun killed 12 people at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California.

Again. And nothing has changed.

February 15, 2019: A man with a gun killed five co-workers at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois.

Nothing changes.

May 31, 2019: A man with a gun opened fire in a building that houses Virginia Beach government offices, killing 12 people.

Nothing changes.

July 28, 2019: A young man with a gun kills three people at an outdoor festival in Gilroy, California.

Now? We talk about children.

August 3, 2019: A man with a gun killed 20 people at a shopping center in El Paso, Texas.

We talk about domestic terrorism.

August 4, 2019: A man with a gun killed nine people in 30 seconds at a popular nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio.

Can we talk about the guns now? Will anything ever change?

Full Moon

 

My arrival in Bali was blessed by the full moon of June and today (7/16)  is July’s full moon. In my new novel, Not Knowing, my main character has a tendency toward deep dreaming (or else insomnia) on full moon nights. Here’s one of my favorite dream sequences. It occurs toward the end of the book but isn’t a spoiler! You’ll have to read the story to understand its significance. For now, just enjoy its beauty!

I’m standing on the banks of a lagoon or a large lake. I think it’s the Trinity River estuary, but the vegetation feels more like Belize. There are mangroves all along the far shore. A warm breeze ruffles my hair and it carries the ver­dant scent of the jungle. I look across the water and it is only in seeing the reflection of the full moon that I real­ize it’s night. There are stars, too, a sky full of stars, inor­dinately bright for a full moon night. I walk toward the water’s edge. Off to my right I see the unmistakable form and pattern of a jaguar. His head is lifted, and he seems to be staring up at the stars. Then he crouches to lap lan­guidly at the water with his huge tongue, drinking in the reflected stars. … He pricks up his ears and turns in my direction. I smile as he watches me, his green eyes half closed, the tip end of his great tail twitching rhythmically. He turns away, disinterested. Then he sits, and, like a kitten, cleans the water droplets from his whisk­ers. A massive yawn exposes a mouthful of sharp teeth. He stands, stretches, and begins walking into, no, onto the water. It isn’t a lagoon or a lake but a vast mirrored surface. The jaguar walks foot to foot with his reflection and neither image is clearer than the other. He walks toward the moon, or rather to where the moon would be if this were actually a reflective surface, which it isn’t. It’s a conjoining of worlds. Suddenly I don’t know which way is up and which way down. The two worlds connect seamlessly. The cat climbs/descends onto a tree branch and sits there gazing at me, inviting me to wander out onto this membrane between two worlds. ‘Xibalba,’ I whisper to myself as I walk toward the moon. The surface is solid and yet it shimmers with every step I take… 

Come learn more about Meg’s life (and dream life) at my book launch on Saturday at Malvern Books!

 

First Pre-Publication Review!

I arrived home after three wonderful weeks in Bali to find this pre-publication review of my upcoming novel! Thank you, Claire Villarreal!

Not Knowing weaves past and present, dream and waking life together for a ride you won’t want to end–and once you finish it, you might still be finding yourself absorbed in the characters and their growth. Meg Fitzellen, anthropologist and rationalist, confronts a recent trauma during an archeological dig in Belize only to uncover deeper and darker secrets from her more distant past. Uncanny dreams, occasional flashbacks, and some old-fashioned fortune telling compel her at last to face the emotional fallout of events she’s long buried in a hidden drawer of her mind. Once all the secrets are out, Meg finds liberation not just from emotional baggage but also from an overly materialistic worldview that kept her from living in the magic of reality.

Donna Birdwell has a talent for evocative prose, lush settings, and dark secrets her characters must face as they grow into themselves, as well as moments of soaring ecstasy. Grab some coffee, put aside a weekend, and treat yourself to this expedition into a magical vision of reality.

Pre-order the Kindle version of Not Knowing now, or get the paperback at my official launch event at Malvern Books on July 20!

Nostalgia

I’ve reached that moment of awkward disequilibrium that often occurs in my travels when it’s almost time to return home. It’s an ambiguous sort of nostalgia, where missing home is offset by awareness of how much I’m going to miss the place where I am now when I’m not here anymore.

I love Bali. I love the weather and the landscape and daily life in the banjar of Kutuh Kaja. I love the deep cultural persistence, the aliveness of ancient temples that are replenished daily with artfully composed fresh offerings. I love the strong sense of place among people for whom kaja (toward Mt. Agung) and kelod (away from Mt. Agung) are as important as east/west or north/south. I love that Mt. Agung is an active volcano. I love the artistry, the taksu, that has not (yet) been obliterated by the influx of treasure-seeking tourists. I love the dignified bearing and “bright faces,” the ready laughter, of young and old alike.

I’ll miss you, Bali.

But I also miss my family. I’ll get to see my daughter and son-in-law for a couple of days on my way home. I miss them a lot. I’ll soon get to hug my precious grandchildren again – I’ve missed them and their parents (my son and daughter-in-law). I’ll soon retrieve my little bird from her “summer camp”; I’ve missed her, too. I’ve missed my familiar spaces and places and habits.

They say, “Wherever you go, there you are!” But it’s also true that wherever you go, you’re not in any of those other places you hold in your heart. Nostalgia can happen anywhere once you’ve fallen in love with more than one place.

Maybe I’ll just go with Ram Dass: “Be. Here. Now.”