Love & Lunacy on the Nile: Girl Power!

I love this Nile River life of feluccas, temples, and interconnecting villages and canals.

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I love running along the Nile and through the villages. My Egyptian name is Sama. It means “sky.” Children run along with me, yelling, “Sama! Sama!” It’s a lovely sound and puts a big smile on my face. I look to the blue above me. At night, wispy clouds have covered the sky and the big yellow moon has seemed more mysterious than ever as it slides in and out of the shadows. I love the skies of Luxor.

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But I can’t just live here. I have to contribute and be a part of the community! So, I brought a boxing bag and set it up on my terrace.

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Now I teach boxing to young people. I have a twelve year old girl who is amazing. It’s her parents’ wish for her to be well educated and go to college. Her father is very proud that she is learning boxing. She gets it better than any of my male students–she can remember combinations and she naturally breaths right. I also have an eighteen year old young man who is on the Luxor villages soccer team. He wants to get in the best shape he can because he wants to apply to be a police officer. Main thing, give me strong abs, he says!

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My boxing student, Iya, and her little brother.

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My boxing student, Osama. 

I feel like I’m doing my little bit to bring power to young girls here and show boys that girls are equal. Life still goes on in these villages as it has for hundreds of years. But change is coming, and I contribute to the most positive aspects of that change.

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Love & Lunacy on the Nile: Jellabiya Time

A Visit to the Tailor

When I was in Egypt at age ten, that would be in 1967, my siblings and I found the clothes men wore to be very funny. They looked like pajamas to us, long striped cotton garments,. Women were covered from head to toe, all in black.

In the villages of Luxor, most people still wear traditional jellabiyas and I don’t find them funny anymore. I love them! They are the most practical apparel a person can wear here. I am plagued by mosquitoes and the jellabiya covers my entire body. I can sit comfortable with my feet up on the sofa, like most people do here. Air flows freely through the light material, keeping a person, if not cool, at least cooler than one would be in tight-fitting clothing.

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I had a jellabiya made by the ladies of the village, who are experts in making them for women. Then, I decided to try the tailor who makes them for the men. I wanted to see if there was a difference in quality and style. I love the light and shadows, the colors, sights and sounds of these streets.

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The gentleman was a little freaked out by my request but he rose to the occasion. I am excited to see what my two jellabiyas will look like.

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I still find the women in their black clothing a little sinister, I must admit. At night they appear to be as dark spirits gliding silently along the ground. This place is filled with magic and graceful beauty.

 

Love on the Nile

 

 

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Two nights ago I got married. It happened on this felucca on the Nile with the moon overhead and the lights of Luxor Temple shimmering on the water. It was the most romantic and also the most fun night of my life.

In a moment of reflection, I looked across to Farouk’s Winter Palace, remembering how as a ten year old child my family stayed there, pulling a mattress onto the balcony to escape the heat. I remember asking my dad why only Christians went to heaven while everyone else went to hell. I had met so many people of other faiths and cultures who were truly good people and didn’t deserve such a fate. My dad assured me they did (and let me say I love my dad and respect that he always stood for what he believed). However, it was then I started to question the dangerous myopic view of the zealots–of any religion. So it was especially meaningful to be on that boat thinking how fate had brought me back to this place.

I traveled for three years, from Turkey to Bolivia to Morocco to Costa Rica and beyond, not sure where to lay my head. I  have found my home. Many people might think this is a crazy decision but hey, I’m a crazy person. Life is an adventure, and I’m living it to the fullest, one moment at a time.

 

Luxor Life

Today early morning, I run through the village my regular route to the Nile. People cry, “Very good, sport!” with a thumb’s up. A boy on a donkey runs beside me for a bit. Past the awakening shops to a place in the shade where sweet Turkish coffee awaits me, along with a breakfast of eggs and mashed peanuts with butter, made fresh in the village, bread, cilantro and flafel. The boiled eggs come from one man and are taken to the man who sells peanuts from a small cart, where he mixes the eggs with the crushed peanuts. This man has been selling peanuts from the cart since forever. This is life.

Luxor East & West

 

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Sailing on the Nile at sunset

 

The sights, sounds and colors of this intimate city of Luxor, built on the east bank of the Nile. Why go over there, except to the supermarket to buy the things you need, or maybe to see some museums, okay, of course, you should see the museums, the people on the west bank say. These people have been born beneath the golden mountain where rests the kings and queens of ancient Egypt. I am living on the west bank for two months amongst interconnecting villages built on canals, interspersed with wheat fields and banana groves. I awaken to the cacophony of birds, braying donkeys and children’s laughter, call of the muezzin–and loudspeakers of people selling wares who drive by all day, various farm machines, motorcycles–everyone rides a motorcycle…but mostly birds.

 

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View from the terrace of Irie BnB, where I’m staying

I’m sorry to say I can’t recommend where I stayed, at Irie BnB, Al Bairat, West Bank. It’s a beautiful building and great location, however the woman who managed the place was a nightmare and most unprofessional. I paid two months in advance and when her behavior became so erratic and aggressive, I had no alternative but to leave. She promised to refund me for my second month but never did. I have nothing against smoking pot, however this woman smokes it constantly, even had many pot plants growing in full view on the terrace, a public space where tourists are invited to sit. This made me very uncomfortable, considering it’s illegal to grow pot in Egypt. The washing machine is on the terrace and guests are invited to use it–except when she decided I shouldn’t use it anymore. She threw my laundry on the ground and when I asked where I should hang them to dry, she responded that I should find a rope and string them up in my room. When I asked if this was how she treated all her paying guests, she laughed, used some foul language I won’t repeat and told me if I didn’t get out of the apartment immediately, she would throw my clothes out on the street. Needless to say, I left, and to this day she has not reimbursed me for my money. I’ve never had an experience like this anywhere in the world in my travels. It verged on scary and could be termed most bizarre.. She started out nice, although somewhat brusque, but it seemed once she got the money, she just didn’t care anymore how she acted. Her behavior was unethical. to say the least. I didn’t report her because I happened to fall in love in love with her brother-in-law, the man who owns the building that she and her husband manage and we got married. (He husband is very nice and seems to find himself in an awkward position). Perhaps that was her problem, she didn’t want me marrying her brother-in-law. At any rate, it’s impossible to know what goes through someone’s mind when they are so bitter and angry and I can only imagine it has more to do with her own problems within herself than anything else. Case in point, the next person who came to stay lasted about three days before she packed up her bags and left. I don’t think anyone has stayed there since.

So my advice would be stay somewhere else! There are many, many wonderful places to stay on the West Bank. After my initial fiasco, I stayed for ten days on the sandal, Amira Sudan, the most romantic of sail boats. It is where my husband and I got married. I am now moving to Luxor permanently, it has captured my heart–in more ways than one!

 

Egypt at Last

Wednesday I return to Egypt for two months to continue work on my childhood memoir INTO THE WORLD and to start on Throne of Desire, fifth book in the Night Angels Chronicles series. This is a photo of my parents in Egypt, June 1967, shortly before the 6 Day War. How well I remember this! I loved Egypt, although never since have I experienced as chaotic a city as Cairo. Back then, the streets were filled with military carrying guns and the voice of Nassar blared from street corners calling for the annihilation of Israel and America. And there we were, an American family of six, conspicuously driving around in a bright red VW van with a “USA” sticker on the back, facing the realization that we were in an increasingly dangerous situation. This was something we found ourselves in a lot, since my parents were fearless travelers. And I’m glad they were. Driving on the lonely road to Luxor we felt a sense of relief to be out in wide-open spaces. But we also felt like we were the last tourists left in this place on the brink of war. Once we reached Luxor and I found myself entering the world of the Ancients, I was forever taken with this magical land of harsh and powerful beauty. Sailing on the Nile in a felucca and listening to tales told by a Nubian sailor, well, is there anything more enchanting for a ten year old? The impression it left on me is beyond words. So excited to return at last. Besides my writing, I hope to find a boxing/martial arts gym and I hope to do My World Project with a group of children. Let’s see what happens.

Land of Talismans: Dante’s Story

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While I await the arrival of my grandson, I write Land of Talismans, #4 in the Night Angels Chronicles. These books have been inspired by my travels all over the world. This excerpt tells us more about the rebel Dante, a Yazidi by human birth. He takes Sera to Potosi in Bolivia to show her how he became a rebel.

I found we had landed on a high mountain plateau. It felt like early morning. I had lost track of time, of days. I was living outside of normal constraints, moving where I wished, on whims. On instincts, perhaps.

Wind moaned, dust swirled. This was a desolate yet beautiful place. Below us lay a red-roofed city, stretching far across a valley. At its center rose glorious colonial Spanish churches and administrative buildings. From there, the city spread and the further it went, the more tumbled-down and neglected it became. It was as if the creators of the central beauty had used the outskirts to casually toss their trash in heaps, which had then been gathered by the poor into makeshift homesteads.

Dante seated himself on a nearby rock and I did the same.

“Welcome to Potosi, Bolivia,” he said.

“Why here?” I said. I had expected him to take me to where he had been raised, in the northern mountains of Iraq somewhere.

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The devil of the mountain 

“Because this is the first place I came on my own, after I left the one who turned me. This is where I first practiced the ways of the rebels. It is a place of such contrasting beauty and suffering. It is a place where the piety of the church and the worship of the devil coexist, almost in harmony. What I saw here decided my path. This city was once the largest and richest in the world.”

Gold Altar in Santo Domingo Church

He gestured toward the mountains behind us. “Silver mines. The Spanish got their hands on the mines. Millions of people have died, children, feeding the greed of the Spaniards. The streets down there were once paved in silver. Eventually, it ran out, but then, there were other minerals to be dug out of the earth. Humans have insatiable appetites, as do vampires.”

He stopped for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then, he began to speak, telling me his story.

“”I am relatively young, compared to your denizen friends. I was born a human in the year 1798, in the mountainous region of northwestern Iraq.  I was–I am–a Yazidi. Perhaps the most misunderstood and persecuted people in the world. Muslims and Christians hate us as devil worshipers. Most recently, the Islamic State has swallowed up our territory, forcing us to flee, convert, or be killed. Ours is the oldest religion in the world. We believe in one god, but we also believe in an angel Tawusi Melek, who defied god and served as an intermediary between man and the divine. The way we describe or refer to Tawusi Melek, Muslims somehow have decided we are talking about the Quranic description of Shaytan–the devil–even though Tawusi Melek is a force for good in our religion.”

“So, this angel is interpreted also by Christians as the devil–Lucifer?” I said.

Dante nodded. “It’s all stupid talk, you understand. All these words that divide us. Different interpretations. Lucifer is the father of us all. But where, I wonder, is our mother? Perhaps she is the ultimate god above us all?”

“That’s something I never thought of before,” I said.

“And perhaps Lucifer is just another soul like the rest of us, seeking redemption.”

I nodded. “I wonder about these things. I’ve asked Strejan, but he has few answers.”

“Strejan is a wise and learned denizen. I know you question whether you can trust the Night Angels. I believe you can trust them as much as you can trust anyone who truly does their best to live a good life under impossible circumstances. But whatever happens in the end, Sera, even if they betray you, it doesn’t mean they are any less good than you or I. Remember, they have the same trust issues about you that you have about them.”

I had never thought of it quite like this before. “It’d be nice if there was an obvious way to tell what was good and what was evil.”

“Those who look for absolutes, who claim to have found them, are the most dangerous of all.”

“It was Blanca who turned me.” He said this so suddenly, so unexpectedly, it took me a moment to even realize he had changed the subject.

Some of the heaviness fell away from Dante and he grinned. “Yeah, that little firecracker. My people have faced genocide many times over. There are only some 800,000 of us left. It was like this when I was growing up.  Fear. Persecution. Hatred. When I was twenty, I made a pilgrimage with my mother and father and my betrothed to the sacred city of Lalish, as all Yazidi should do. There, on the night we arrived, I left my family at an inn and went to meet some of the men of our group. But I never got to the meeting place. In a narrow street I came upon some bandits who were attacking a group of pilgrims. I went to help them but someone pushed me aside so forcefully I was flung hard against a wall. I must have passed out for a brief moment because when I came to, I saw this hooded figure with a sword, cutting down the bandits. The figure was so small, so insignificant in stature, and yet it radiated power, like a young, vibrant star, pulsing in the cold, dead universe surrounding it. When the battle was finished and the bandits lay dead or mortally wounded, the figure turned, without even a word to the stunned pilgrims, and walked away, right past me, as if I, too, did not exist.

“I never gave a thought to my next action. I simply stood up to follow. I kept my distance, but of course I didn’t fool the warrior who disappeared around a corner and when I went to turn the corner, jumped out and grabbed me by the throat, pinning me against the wall.

“I saw with shock that it was a woman holding me with such strength that I was powerless to fight against her. Yet her features were delicate, she had such a small pointed chin that looked somehow so vulnerable. Her lips were parted and much to my amazement I saw two sharp fangs. Her eyes were black, the white surrounding them tinged with blood. From the core of her being rage and torment radiated outward like a living thing. In that moment of facing her for the first time, I felt that if she killed me, I would gladly go into eternity. To have my life taken by such a one would surely send me to a higher plane in my next existence.

“But she did not kill me. She let go and I dropped to the ground. Understand that I was a strong young man, filled with the arrogance that goes with it, yet I had been humbled to the point of obeisance. I could not comprehend what had happened to me. She walked away, still without a word. I got up and went after her.

She turned and growled like an animal–the first sound I’d heard from her lips. But she didn’t attack me again. She walked away. And again I followed her. She ignored me, pretended I wasn’t there, but I was beginning to hope that perhaps she was testing me, and that perhaps she wasn’t as adverse to me being there as she tried to appear.

I smiled. “You were already beginning to know her. That sounds just like Blanca.”

Dante smiled back. “Yes, always hiding her true feelings. I followed her out of the city to her camp, hidden between some rocks with a narrow opening. I stayed my distance, at the entrance, but I wouldn’t leave. She continued to ignore me. This went on for days, maybe weeks. I don’t remember. I followed her. She ignored me.

“What about your family, your betrothed?” I asked.

Dante shook his head. “I never went back to them. Never gave them another thought. I don’t know what they must have thought of my disappearance. It didn’t matter. This thing that had happened to me, this encounter, how could I not pursue it? One moment in time had completely altered my perspective, my reasoning, my very reason for living. All that mattered was following this otherworldly creature, wherever it led me.

“And then on night, as I lay in a kind of stupor, exhausted almost to the point of death for I hadn’t eaten in I don’t know how long, I looked up to find her standing over me. I thought it must be an hallucination. Above her dark head the stars shone like jewels. I could not see her face, only the glint of her fangs when she opened her mouth.

“She had not spoken to me, not once, but now, for the fist time since I had followed after her, she did.

“You know Blanca’s voice, her mocking tone. It was like that then, but with an underlying sweetness. ‘I think I have grown used to you. I think I must keep you.'”

Dante stopped speaking, overcome by the intimacy of what he was telling me. When he spoke again, it was almost imperceptible.

“In the moment of hearing her voice, I lost all of myself into her. To say I fell in love. What does that mean? I fell into infinity.”

“She turned you,” I offered.

“Yes. You know how it is, there is no adequate description. Except for all of us, depending on our circumstances, our need, our connection to the one who turns us, the experience is unique.”

He looked at me gravely. “Yours is the most unique of us all. To be turned by the five Night Angels. To have drunk of all their blood. To have survived.” His gaze held deep respect. “Oh how you must worry Lucifer with the potential of your power!”

His words frightened me. “Stop. It terrifies me when people insinuate such things. Just continue with your story. Please.”

He nodded. “After that, we were inseparable for perhaps one year. The battle against vampires raged. Vampires were being captured and imprisoned in crypts all over the world by denizens families. The Night Angels had not yet given themselves that name, but they were a family and I was supposed to be one of them.”

“What happened?” I asked.

Dante gathered a handful of small stones and we both watched as he let them fall slowly through his fingers back to the ground.

“I was a Yazidi, remember. I could not believe that Lucifer was evil–or anyone else for that matter. For me it was more complex. We had our arguments. In the end, Blanca and I parted ways, as I did with all denizens. But Blanca and I never lost our love for one another. And although most denizens despise and disapprove of rebels, it is different with the Night Angels, as you have seen for yourself.

“But now things are more serious. Because we have chosen different paths and because of the tensions within the denizen world, the factions, the growing distrust, the possibility of the queen escaping. Well, we find ourselves increasingly at odds with one another. Denizens have never fought against one another. Not until that night above the Gore research Institute, when we tried to free Ruben. Rebels and denizens have maintained an uneasy truce, a mutual respect. But now, sides will have to be chosen. Darker days will bring tougher choices. Denizens are impeded by their traditions, their need to assuage their guilt. Oh, it is their traditions that have given them purpose as well. It is a fine balance.”

“This path you chose that is different from denizens’, what is it?” I said.

Dante got up. “It’s why I brought you here.”

 

 

How I Packed Up and Took Off to See the World

Check out the link to my essay on how I freed myself of extra baggage and took off traveling two years ago to find inspiration for my writing. Thank you Amy Oestreicher!

“It doesn’t matter if I am in a café in Phoenix, wrapped in blankets on a freezing night in the Sahara Desert, or writing with a view of Arenal volcano, four fans on full blast to keep the sweat from landing on my computer. I could be in a penthouse suite overlooking the Bosporus, or on a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, or maybe a train across India (a goal of mine). Each space has an atmosphere that speaks to my spirit and sparks my imagination. Each view, whether dark or light, colorful or noisy, joins together to become an added layer in my life.

The shrinking of my possessions has meant the growing of my freedom. The giving up of a static living space has opened a door to the universe. I am not bound by one location, one thought or one experience. My feet move in any direction I point them, light and free. ”

Love My Detour!

INTO THE WORLD_LI

INTO THE WORLD

My World Project                    New Millennium Writings

When I was awarded the New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Award for Reflections from Istanbul, an excerpt from my childhood memoir INTO THE WORLD, I was asked to write an introduction, something about my motivation and approach to writing. I recently received the print edition of the anthology and I re-read the introduction, which I hadn’t seen since I sent it off a year ago. With the insidious rise of fear and hatred across America and the prospect of a third World War looming, the introduction and this manuscript are especially vital now. So, here is the introduction:

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It is appropriate that I received news of this award as I was on my way to Marrakech. Writing INTO THE WORLD has been a lesson in endurance, working on it when I can, because it is something I am compelled to write. And I can say that this magical part of the world, Morocco and Egypt in particular, were perhaps the biggest influences in my life from those childhood traveling adventures. So for many years, I kept that dream alive, that determination to come to Morocco and to finish the book. I am blessed to have that dream become a reality, with the added bonus of being able to work with children while I am here.

I am a traveler and I travel where and when I can, through words and pictures and through mountains and valleys and cities and villages. This is a gift that I have been given and I am grateful, although it can be a burden to be so driven, and I do not take the responsibility lightly. When I write, I do it with my whole heart and mind. It is my way of knowing that I exist and that what I do on the planet matters. My hope for INTO THE WORLD, and everything I write, is that it will fight against irrational hysteria and turn people’s consciousness away from fear towards unity.

INTO THE WORLD

We are all strangers in a strange land, even inside our own skin. We can never truly know ourselves or even those who are closest to us, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, each in our own ways. And so life is essentially a lesson in the acceptance of loneliness, whether we live surrounded by loved ones or on an isolated mountaintop. Understanding that we are all in this same predicament is, ironically, what gives us compassion towards one another and brings us closer together.

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A Beautiful Journey and Remembering Casey Cohen

I have never, quite honestly, cared much about money or possessions or having a permanent home. My books, however, have been with me for over thirty years, a few more than fifty.

These Eskrima sticks have been with me close to twenty years. Other sticks have come and gone. But these I have wrapped and re-wrapped. They are ordinary, sturdy Japanese bamboo, but they have served me well, having clashed in many battles, enduring with me and helping me stand firm.

Over the years, I have found myself whittling down my earthly possessions, although I have never been one to collect many things. I am more apt to get rid of stuff, I don’t like clutter. Traveling light suits me best.

My books, though, are irreplaceable. There is not price tag that can be put on them. For two years I kept them in storage while I traveled. Taking them out again and placing them on the bookshelf was a spiritual journey in itself. Touching each one again, leafing through the pages, transported me to so many places.  Rushdie, Vonnegut, Musashi, Wilkie Collins, Asimov, Jack Vance, Du Maurier, these are some of my favorites.

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Some of my favorite books going all the way back to my childhood Bible, for which I have many mixed emotions.  

In my room, I have a small gathering of select books. When I travel I take one or two with me. I never go anywhere without Casey Cohen’s journal which he gave me when he died, filled with his favorite sayings, written by his closest friends. Sister Janet Harris contributed to the journal and he made sure to show me what she had written. She is the one who introduced me to Casey, considered by many to be the foremost authority at that time on the death penalty phase. I used to joke when I walked through Central Juvenile Hall with Janet, the Catholic nun, on one side of me and Casey, the Jewish atheist, on the other, that I was perfectly balanced. That balanced was gone when Casey died. He was her moral compass. This is something I have written about in Letters from Purgatory.

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From Casey’s journal, Sister Janet Harris’s contribution

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What Casey chose to put on the inside cover of his journal. It tells everything about who he was and why I loved him.

One of my favorite scenes in a movie is from Only Lovers Left Alive when she leaves Tangiers and all she takes on her journey is a small case with a careful selection of books.  I know exactly that feeling of choosing, it is so important.

Although I am most often a cynic and a pessimist, I believe there is a spiritual realm that we only glimpse rarely and through a haze. We cannot see the big picture. It seems the more we try, by gathering what we think is “information”  and “knowledge,” the more lost, confused and fearful we become.

So, I take it back to simplicity, something I learned in my marital arts training. Repeating basic moves, like reciting a prayer, brings peace, assurance and humility. I have found glimpses of infinity can be found through focusing on well-worn objects that have stood the test of time, and have been infused with energies; through powerful words (although there is danger in the power of words); and through intense physical effort, which can bring with it a complete calming of the mind.

I recently wrote a post for The Fix, where I talked about how our society is inundated with drugs and what it is doing to our children–prescription drugs as well as street drugs. This got a huge backlash from some people. They called my writing harsh, even dangerous. I understand the pressure to use drugs. It is there, everywhere, we are told we must drug our “ADHD” and “ADH” children so they can fit in and succeed. I disagree, except in extreme cases.

Happily Slipping Into Our Straitjackets

It is tempting to take a pill and think it will make things better. And sometimes it does. But it only puts a Band-Aid on the issue and propels the person o a journey to find the perfect drug, just the right dose. Instead of a journey to find the right spiritual practice.

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Training with my daughter, on the right, and her friend, on the left.

It isn’t easy to discipline oneself to train, to meditate, to face a mountain and climb it. But it is the most rewarding of journeys. Every day I could find an excuse not to train. But each day is a lesson in overcoming, each day is a lesson in perseverance, in the beauty of putting one foot in front of the other. It is beautiful, it is the best to live in that moment, because each moment is unique and will never come again. And then, the energy that we expend in those moments becomes infused into the universe around us.

A beautiful journey.