When I was a young Navy wife, living alone in Norfolk while my new husband’s ship deployed to the Med, I got to know Jim and Helen who lived in the white rancher across the street, bordered by an urban landscape of pink crepe myrtles. A middle-aged man in the Merchant Marines, Jim was a practical, down-to-earth guy, with tattoos I couldn’t decipher and one fading blue mermaid on his right forearm. You would have thought we had nothing in common but our St. Dennis Avenue address, but our interests overlapped in two other places. Jim loved butter brickle ice cream and he had lived a past life.
Jim was serving on a ship that had docked in the Scottish port of Aberdeen when he went ashore with three shipmates in search of some Brewdogs and steak. Walking up a hill into town, Jim said, he suddenly knew he had been there before, that although he’d never been to Scotland in this life, he had lived in the village they were approaching. He could describe exactly what he would find on the other side of the rise– the stone walls, the old priory, the ancient clustering of cottages and the exact layout of the town.
Ours was a brief intersection of lives, but I moved from Norfolk at the age of 23, newly aware that people who appear nothing like you, can be very much like you. Can wonder the same things. Fear and long for the same things. Be intrigued by the same mysteries.
While living in Virginia I also became aware of renown psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson, who spent his 50-year career at the University of Virginia School of Medicine compiling data on the phenomenon of reincarnation. Duke University’s Rhine Research Center has been researching this and other paranormal phenomenon for decades as well, as have other major universities around the country.
Years after moving back to Maryland, decades after knowing Jim, I became curious about the phenomenon as a possible tool for personal growth. Could any of my emotional conundrums, particularly the intractable ones, be rooted in an unremembered past? I doubted I could be hypnotized, and even more so that I’d access a past life, but I made an appointment with a highly trained hypnotherapist in Baltimore and to my surprise, something actually happened that day.
As I lay on the leather couch, responding to the therapist’s prompts, I was suddenly standing outside the walls of an early 17th or 18th century fort with a stockade fence enclosing it. I didn’t look a thing like I look now except that I was a woman in that life as well.
I had been standing alone since dawn, searching the entrance to the dark woods encircling the fort, waiting for the return of someone important to me. I waited all day and as night fell, I surrendered my search and re-entered the safety of the enclosure. There I continued to wait for days, weeks, months, and years.
I had a vague memory of raising two little girls on my own inside that fort and finally, as I died in that life, lying on a pallet as the two little girls, now my grown daughters, tended to me, I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that I had wasted that life in its entirety waiting for something that was never going to happen, for something outside myself to change my circumstances, to make me happy again.
The grief of that revelation—that I had wasted a lifetime waiting— was stunning, abrupt, like a physical blow. It was as if a freight train that had been on silent approach for centuries had blasted right through me. Later, as I wondered about the whole experience, I thought that yes, I could have just imagined that story, maybe conflated the plot of a movie or book, but nothing explained the gut-wrenching grief.
Reincarnation is a normalized, assumed reality in three-quarters of the world’s cultures, but it has been a controversial topic in the US where we frown on the concept of getting do–overs. We’re pretty strict about that along with our Judeo-Christian work ethic. Do your best and do it now because this life is a one-and-done. It’s a practical paradigm that covers all the bases. But.
Maybe it’s different for each of us. Maybe it’s a choice. Is one lifetime enough for you?
I remember the awe of holding three perfect babies in my arms. Of being taught early on that nature is a prayer made manifest. Witness the white dogwood and redbud in the spring, blooming like raspberries and cream along the roadside. The heron descending over the cove as gently as light. Life is a reckoning of riches.
I look out my window at the orange maples ablaze against a thin clear twilight. Jupiter is ascending in the east and will shine brighter than all the other stars in the sky until a new day breaks. But right now, I hope I am granted the wish I wish tonight.
That we do live more than once.
Not because regret, and I have many, calls for a do-over.
But because the glory of all that has been good in my life, makes me want to do it all over again.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.