With my father behind me and my daughter in front we enter the dark maze. Out of the hovels of the hutongs through which we tunnel, old men emerge with knives and melons and lawn chairs, sweaty and happy, ready to gamble in the grimy street. Rising up behind them like a spacecraft, like a hungry leviathan, a giant office complex, white and gleaming, lurks, poised to gobble them up.
I accompany the agents of future and past: the child lunges forward as the oldster drags in her wake. I am falling and then catching myself from falling with every step, somewhere in between.
Where am I?
If I concentrate, I can hear one sweaty man chuckle. I can feel the weight of my feet pressing into my sock into my shoe into the pavement. I whiff the stale urine from the public toilet. I hear the ding of the bicycle bell warning us, “coming through.”
I am here. Right now. No where else. No when else.
The unfamiliar has forced me into the present.
Why is the present so elusive?
Why does it seem there is never a single stream of experience I can call the present? Mostly, especially at home, my hopes and fears and lovely nostalgic memories crowd out all inklings of what I might call “right now.” I ignore it. I dodge it. I’ve even made a habit of coaxing people away from it when I ask, “Is there something you know you want to do before you die?”
I wonder sometimes if I am doing a disservice with this question. We have so little time to feel what it means to be alive right now. Why waste it on the future? Why waste it thinking about things that will never happen— at least never precisely as we imagine them?
“We can all make a list of things you want to accomplish, of things you want to change about your life. What each thing on that list seems to promise is that, if you could only do it, you would have reason to just be happy in the present moment. We are all trying to find a path back to the present moment and just be happier.”
- —Sam Harris, Death and the Present Moment
I urge you to find your way to the present moment just by feeling your aliveness now. Hear the cup clinking at the next table. Feel the pressure of the chair against your back. The ache. The itch. The coolness of the air through your nose.
It’s true that my before-you-die question seems to shepherd us away from the here and now, but I know it’s not into the future exactly. We will never know how it feels in the future, and our memories are just thoughts we have in the present. So to imagine and feel something we want before we die is to contact something that’s in us— right now.
I’ll put the pilot goggles on a stranger, and I’ll ask that question, “Is there something you know you want to do before you die?” More often than not what happens is a sensation of revelation, of decision, of knowing something that only feeling present can deliver. They say,
“I never felt it so clearly: I want to be a mother.”
“I know I’m on the path that is only mine. I don’t want to be anyone else.”
“At least I’m sure what I’m going to stop doing.”
We are always walking with the past just behind us and the future just ahead. So if that’s true, what is revelation? What is decision? Isn’t it a little switch that happens right now, and then maybe again when we act on it, and again when we feel the effects of our actions.
Do you hear it?
Can you feel it?
A decision. Did it happen just now?
As my daughter and my father and I descend from the streets into the subway a sign makes it clear what we are to decide, forever, for right now.