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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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.)

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!

Happy Independence Day!

In honor of the Fourth of July, here’s a brief passage from my upcoming novel, NOT KNOWING, in which Meg’s archaeology students celebrate the holiday on site at Kawilkan, in the middle of the Belizean jungle.

Saturday would be the Fourth of July.  The students had purchased some fireworks in Santa Cruzita and now they were begging to set them off.

“We have to celebrate Independence Day,” Ashley said, following up with a vivid description (with gestures and sound effects) of fireworks displays in her hometown and some even more spectacular displays she’d witnessed in Beaumont on the banks of the Neches River while lis­tening to patriotic music played by the Symphony of Southeast Texas. Of course I’d finally agreed, warning the students to be extra careful.

“You can never be sure of the quality of fireworks,” I said. “I don’t want you to blow anything up. Especially not yourselves.”

Sarah had bought several packages of frozen wieners at the supermarket in Belmopan, as well as a yellow plas­tic container of mustard and some chutney that she claimed would be just like sweet pickle relish. Elodia and Seth had collaborated on making buns. And since it was a Saturday night, I’d okayed the beer as well, although I insisted that those who were setting off the fireworks must abstain until after everything had exploded.

Pacál said he’d had some experience with Mexican fire­works and volunteered to assist Brad in orchestrating the show. He read the name on each item and explained what they could expect from it. “Provided it really is what it says and provided it works at all.” He was obviously enjoying his role as cultural ombudsman. They cleared an area and agreed on which direction they would try to aim the fireworks.

They started off with a bundle of firecrackers. The spec­tators complained that they were pretty pathetic, not making nearly enough noise. I felt otherwise. I didn’t want to admit how much I hated fireworks. I remem­bered that one New Year’s Eve when Rick had gone with me to Charco Seco to meet my parents and how ashamed and angry he’d been at the way he freaked out during the fire­works display. None of the fireworks at the Kawilkan Fourth of July celebration were particularly loud or spec­tacular and a few were outright duds. But all in all they provided enough entertainment to satisfy our crowd. I was glad when the noise stopped.

The release date for NOT KNOWING is July 20, but you can preorder the ebook now on Amazon. Or join me at Malvern Books at 7 p.m. on the 20th and get a paperback. I’ll sign it for you!

Beaches

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a beach person. As a child, I got severely sunburned more than once on beach outings, so I learned early on that sun is not necessarily my friend. There’s a lot of sun at the beach.

I also react badly to wind; it exhausts me very quickly. There’s often a lot of wind at the beach.

Sand? It’s fun while you’re there, but it has a bad habit of lingering in shoes and clothing, where it is considerably less fun.

My main character, Meg, in NOT KNOWING has an aversion to large bodies of water. The water, in fact, is perhaps the only thing I love about beaches. But do I swim in it? No. Like Meg, I wade and dabble and admire it from the shore.

The beach here at Labuan Sait and Padang Padang, Uluwatu, Bali, is a beautiful beach, with majestic rock formations and soft white sand caressed by turquoise waves. Indonesians and foreigners mingle pleasantly, sipping chilled coconut water straight from the coconut or maybe a couple of Bintangs (Balinese beer). There’s also skewered chicken and corn on the cob, grilled right on the beach.

But that was yesterday, at low tide.

This morning the tide has come in, the beach has shrunk by half,  and the surfers are taking over. I have nothing against surfers, mind you. I know some really nice folks who surf and I get that it could be a really amazing experience, riding the crest of a wave and feeling the power of the ocean beneath your feet, trusting your strength and skill to keep you from being swallowed up. So it’s not the surfers I mind, it’s the culture that tends to spring up in their wake- the generic shops and cafes. Even worse is the luxury beach culture, with its insistence on all the modern conveniences of home, sprinkled lightly with a curated collection of enticing local flavors. But then you already know I’m not much of a tourist.

And yet…here I am, on the beach at Padang Padang. In Bali. I intend to enjoy my day to the fullest. Pass me the sunscreen!

 

Writers & Anthropologists

“Writers are even worse than anthropologists when it comes to taking notes on human behavior,” Meg thinks, as she watches Seth surreptitiously photographing people and making notes on his phone as they travel on an overcrowded bus from Belmopan to Belize City.

I am both a writer and an anthropologist, and creating characters I’d like to know in real life is one of the great pleasures of writing. I love my characters in my new book, NOT KNOWING. Yes, even the difficult ones.

Meg Fitzellen is a troubled but dedicated archaeologist, firmly committed to science but pursued by things she can’t explain. Magic? Surely not! Her husband, Seth, is a science fiction writer, wrestling with questions of time as his own fictional characters, the Timecrypters, shuttle from past to future and back again. Meg’s best friend Indra is a mycologist whose dissertation research focused on the psilocybin mushroom. And then there’s Pacál, the troublesome undergraduate who is the son of famous archaeologists and who may know more about Meg’s past than she would like to believe. There are also two parrots that really ought to be included in the cast of characters…

You can meet all of these and a few more when NOT KNOWING is released on July 20. Pre-order the Kindle version now, or come get a copy of the paperback at my release party at Malvern Books!

Time & Magic

“Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once and space exists so that everything doesn’t happen in the same place.” — Albert Einstein (allegedly…)

 

This quote showed up in my Facebook “memories” today. It was fortuitous, since I had already typed in the title of this post…

 

Bali (the space I currently occupy) invites reflections on time. In Bali, you see, there are three calendars running simultaneously – our standard Gregorian calendar is one; the 210-day calendar called Pawukon is another; and the third is the Saka lunar calendar.

The Pawukon is not so much a “year” as a cycle, “since no record is kept of successive ‘years,’ nor are they numbered or named. They just pass by.” The Pawukon is organized into ten different systems of weeks, from a one-day week to a ten-day week. Most important are the three-day, five-day, and seven-day weeks. All these different “weekdays” have names and the conjunctions of these myriad cycles is important in differentiating auspicious days from inauspicious ones for all kinds of activities.

In my new book (coming July 20), “time” is an important subtext to the story. Meg is an archaeologist, obsessed with the past. Her husband Seth is a science fiction author, writing about time travel and the future. So, yes, the subject of time comes up in their world. Here’s a brief example, in which they’re discussing an impasse in Seth’s WIP. Meg speaks:

“Are you sure they’re not inter­fering with the timeline?” (Would I mind so much if they were?)

“Well, there’s another aspect of the story I’m still work­ing on.” Seth scratched the back of his neck and frowned. “Maybe time isn’t a line…” 

You may now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!

(Quotes about Balinese time are from Fred Eiseman, Jr., BALI: SEKALA & NISKALA.)

Flow

I woke up this morning thinking about flow, about how awareness of flow, synchronization with flow, has been so important to life on our planet. Flow is profoundly present in cultures like the Balinese – the flow of water, the flow of light-energy (east/west), the flow of winds, the lunar flow of tides. We are water beings, light beings, wind beings. How have we in the modern West become so immured to flow?

So many sacred places around the world have to do with water (sacred springs, streams, rivers), or with the energy of celestial movement, with high places and low, with crossroads and confluence. The Balinese are deeply sensitive to their orientation within the flows in their world. Everything is kaja (toward Mount Agung – the active volcano that is the highest point on the island) or kelod (away from Agung) and concurrently kangin (east) or kauh (west). I want to know how it would feel to be like that, to be satisfied that I know where I am without Siri or Google Maps. To know which way is up, how the water and earth and heavens move (and me in it) and for that to be enough. Instead I often feel like a fish trapped in an overcrowded and stagnant pond, waiting to be fed.

Like Meg in my novel, I am sometimes troubled by what people call “magic.” This isn’t magic. It’s just flow. It’s real. It’s possible. It’s everywhere.

 

 

One Small Step…

I’ve chosen July 20 for the release of my new novel, NOT KNOWING, very deliberately: It’s the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  Meg Fitzellen (my main character) knew that the moon landing was a significant event in the life of her father; she just had no idea how significant it truly was.

I watched the landing on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of a student hostel in Austria in 1969, while I was on a study-abroad trip. Not coincidentally, so did Meg’s father!

If you haven’t seen the CNN documentary yet, by all means tune in this Sunday, June 23!