A reply to: A letter from Mel
I’ve been thinking about your question every since I got your letter:
“What are your feelings towards reincarnation?”
I’m not sure what my feelings towards it are. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about it.
In fact, I’d say, since I read your letter, reincarnation has been on my list of top-five-things-I-think-about. (The others, in no particular order are: 1) When will another vintage Llamacorn be available on e-Bay? [preferably a gold and purple one to round out my collection] 2 a) Will we ever be able to develop a bird-safe method of harvesting wind power, and 2b) if not, how long will it take us to switch Windenburg Wind and Sun to Windenburg Sun and Sun?, and 3) How can WW&S attract more innovative physicists? and 4) Why?)
My thinking about reincarnation didn’t get me far, though, except to realize that I’d never thought about it before.
I decided to talk to people. First question: Whom did I know well enough I could ask them about their feelings or thoughts on reincarnation without them thinking I was a nut-case? Or… to reframe: who already thought I was a nut-case and wouldn’t mind talking with me about subjects esoteric and strange?
Of course, my kid sister was first on the list. I ran into her at a party at the Von Haunt Estate.
“I need your educated opinion, Meds,” I asked her. “Reincarnation: Yes or no?”
“Yes!” she replied. “Think about it, Norm. In every culture, there are references to it in folklore! And I’m not just talking about Hindu, Janis, Sikh, or Buddhist tales. Even in folklore from Christian cultures, you can find modified versions–for example, Cinderella’s mother becomes a dove, another departed mother becomes a juniper tree. There are so many instances!”
“But those are fairy tales,” I told her.
“Sure, yes,” she said. “But fairy tales always point towards experiences so deep in our collective unconscious that they can only come out in story! And, what comes out in story always indicates truth so strong it can’t be suppressed. Not even by religion or science.”
Then, a few nights later, I made a new acquaintance downtown. OK, so he didn’t know me well. But he seemed open to conversation. We were talking about stars. I said something about stars dying. He says, with no prompting whatsoever, “It is not death. It is the perfect cycle that goes on everywhere.”
“Kind of like reincarnation?” I asked.
“Ah, well. That is. Um, yes,” he replied. And then he had to leave suddenly.
My uncle Jasper was next on my list. Now, Jasper lives for this type of talk.
“Reincarnation. Yes or no?” I asked him.
Of course I didn’t get the short answer. First he launched into a recitation of reincarnation in literary traditions. Then he began a dissertation on “what can be known and what can be sensed and the difference between the two.” Then he said, “Now, Bess. She had memories. And Bess’s memories are not to be doubted.”
Turns out, my aunt had three spontaneous memories of past-life experiences. Each one hinged around a moment of decision, and each decision affected life themes for her in this life. In one, she was a peasant who avowed never to live in poverty again. In one, she was a warrior who promised to protect his family and tribe. In another, she was abandoned by a faithless husband, and she swore never to let that happen to her again.
Jasper said he believed the memories, since each had been made at what he called “a decisive moment of power.”
“The themes,” said Jasper, “these were what were ripe for her in this life: to learn to trust abundance; to protect kin and clan; to choose someone who could be faithful.”
That got me thinking. That got me feeling. I loved my aunt Bess. She was a good person, Mel. I think you would like her. So, if this was part of what made her good, maybe there’s something to it.
My niece was there that day Jasper and I talked. I decided to ask her.
“Did you have another life before this one, Jena?”
Of course, she had. She’d been born in a refugee camp. Coming here, getting adopted by my sister–that was reincarnation in and of itself. I know it’s not the kind you’re asking about. But it’s dying to an old life and being reborn in a new one, all the same.
The last person I asked was my best friend Ira.
“I’m taking an informal poll,” I asked her. “Reincarnation: Yes or No?”
“Oh, yes!” she said. “Most definitely!”
She pulled out Mistress Mew-Meow from her pocket. You see, Ira is also a collector of antique toys.
“Take Miss M-M,” she said. “This was once something very different! What’s plastic made of?”
“Oh, hydrocarbon. Natural gas. Coal. Minerals. Plant stuff.”
“Very different, yes?” She squeezed Mistress Mew-Meow to make her meow. “And now! Here she is, a little cat with a bright smile! If that’s not reincarnation, I’m not sure what is!”
I’m not sure that’s reincarnation. That’s more like the recycling of matter into another form. But then, that was what my new acquaintance called it. When a star dies, its matter becomes the stuff of life somewhere else in the galaxy.
I thought long and hard. Eventually, I realized what I’ve always known: what my dad taught me when I was knee high. Science only goes so far. I’m a scientist. My scientific training schooled me in the method of proposition, trial, blind-trial, repetition, quantifying, measuring.
I’m a scientist. But I’m also a human. So my feelings, my feelings are that there is so much more that lies outside of the territory of science: there’s folklore. There’s religion. There’s experience and memory and the collective unconscious. There’s feeling. My feeling, when I think of my sister’s bright eyes, when I think of Aunt Bess’s big heart, when I think of my niece’s little scowl, and when I think of Ira’s laughter–my feeling is that there’s more to us that endures and finds its way into a new form–carbon-based or otherwise–than not.
Some things, like the starlight in another’s eyes, simply can’t not exist.
I’m not making sense. But then, that’s why I usually stick to the realm of thought, rather than feeling.
And you, Mel. What are your thoughts–or rather, feelings–about reincarnation?
Is it silly for me to say that I hear your voice–or rather, a voice I imagine to be yours–when I read your letter?
I hope you keep writing.