Posts Tagged ‘reincarnation’

Old Souls

Monday, August 21st, 2017

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ladder up diptych by Max Greenstreet

Isaac Bashevis Singer, one my favorite writers, wrote several stories set in pre-holocaust Poland about children who are thought by their Jewish elders to be old souls. These children are prodigies and seem to possess knowledge and wisdom gained in previous lifetimes. This idea of an old soul occurs in nearly all societies and is particularly appealing to those who want to believe in reincarnation. But reincarnation aside, I have always been intrigued by especially wise young children and how they came to be so wise.

When I was in my twenties, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a day care center for low-income children, two-and-a-half to five-years-old. Among our thirty charges were a few unusually mature children, but there was one girl named Susie who seemed to be an adult in the body of a cute little 3-year-old blonde.

Susie gladly played with the other children, especially the quieter ones, and she routinely sought me out for conversation, which none of the other children did. She had a large vocabulary and liked to share with me her insights about what was going on emotionally with the other kids and staff members. These insights would have been remarkable for a teenager, but coming from a three-year-old, they boggled my mind. Susie could be goofy and giggly, but more often she was serious and introspective.

One day Susie came running to me, hugged my leg tightly, and said, “My mother came here. I don’t want to go with her.”

I had not been given much background information on any of the children, which I think was a mistake on the part of our director, an extremely moody woman who often seemed overmatched by her job. But I knew Susie lived with a woman she called Auntie, a woman she related to in a somber way, and by that I mean Susie always became quite subdued when Auntie arrived to pick her up at the end of the day.

Most of the mothers of the kids at our center were single women in their twenties; Auntie was in her fifties. I also knew that Auntie and Susie were in dire straits economically because Auntie frequently asked me for food, which I would give her; cans of fruit and beans and tuna and soup from the day care center kitchen, though I wasn’t supposed to. I could give Auntie food without anyone on the staff knowing because I was also the janitor and the last to leave, and Susie was frequently the last child to be picked up.

So on that day when Susie told me her mother was there, I went out to the playground half-expecting to see Auntie, but there on the street-side of the cyclone fence surrounding the playground was a careworn young woman.

She gave me a fearful smile and said, “I only want Susie for an hour or so. I promise I’ll bring her back before five. Okay?”

“You need to speak to the director,” I said. “I’ll get her for you.”

“Never mind,” said the young woman, running away.

When I reported the incident to our director, I was informed that the young woman was, indeed, Susie’s mother. She was a prostitute and drug addict, and Susie had been taken away from her by the authorities. I asked if Auntie was Susie’s actual aunt or a foster parent, and the director said her records listed Auntie as Susie’s temporary guardian. The director then instructed all staff members to call the police whenever Susie’s mother showed up, which she did a few more times while I worked there, though we never called the police. I think she just wanted a glimpse of her daughter.

On the evening of that first visit from Susie’s mother, while giving Auntie a bag of food, I mentioned that Susie’s mother had come by, and Auntie, who was usually reserved with me said, “If that bitch tries to take Susie away from me, I’ll kill her.”

A couple weeks later, Susie arrived in the morning so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open. The minute Auntie left, Susie lay down on a pillow in a corner of the playroom and slept all morning. And she repeated this behavior almost every day for the next several weeks. But because Susie seemed otherwise well when she woke up, the director decided to allow Susie to sleep when she needed to and not make a big deal out of her sleepiness in the morning. This abrupt change in Susie’s behavior, I later realized, coincided with Auntie no longer asking me for food.

Then one afternoon, I came in from supervising the playground, and found Susie performing a disturbingly sexy dance and singing a torch song for a spellbound group of kids. When she finished her performance, I asked her who taught her the song and dance, and she said, “Auntie did. For my show.”

The finale of this story is that on a weekend a month later, Auntie engaged me to move a new bed and furniture up steep stairs into the little apartment where Susie and Auntie lived. Auntie rewarded me for my labor with a beer, proceeded to get stoned and drunk, and boasted that she had money now because she was taking Susie to private parties in San Francisco where Susie, dressed in a variety of alluring costumes, sang and danced. In between Susie’s performances, the people at these parties, mostly women, passed Susie around, caressing her and kissing her and talking to her, for which they gave Auntie money.

I reported this to our director, she made the necessary calls, and Susie was eventually taken away from Auntie. Susie was then placed in a nearby foster home and continued to come to our daycare center for as long as I worked there. She no longer arrived sleepy and her new guardians picked her up every day shortly after four in the afternoon. Susie would be forty-eight today if she’s still alive.

Another old soul I knew was Amelia. She attended the California Summer School for the Arts when she was fourteen. I was boss of the Creative Writing department at that time, and before I learned otherwise, I thought Amelia must be one of our oldest students. The age range at the school was fourteen to nineteen, and Amelia was by far our most emotionally mature student. She quickly became the motherly friend and confidante of several of my students, and within a few days of her arrival on campus she had a handsome summer school boyfriend, one of our nineteen-year-olds.

Amelia was calm, smart, loquacious, an excellent writer, and very wise for one so young. We became good friends and stayed friends for many years. When Amelia was a senior in high school, I went to visit her and her mother and stepfather. Being with Amelia and her mother was fascinating—Amelia a mature adult, her forty-seven-year-old mother a charming adolescent. And when Amelia and I went to lunch with Amelia’s father and his very young wife, Amelia and I were the adults, while her fifty-year-old father was a classic stoner teenager.

One day when I was six-years-old, I sat in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade classroom observing my fellow six-year-olds, and I was overcome with the surety that I was an ageless being in the body of a child. I told myself to never forget this and to check in with this feeling over the course of my life, which I sometimes remember to do.

Two Stories from Buddha In A Teacup

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016

buudha-pb

Change

What was her name? She modeled for him twice. The four paintings he made of her sold before the paint was dry. Something about her angularity—a hunger in her bones. Or was it the sorrow in her eyes—the first glimmering of old age?

A gigantic face looms before him, startling him. “Hello Boo Boo,” says a voice coming from enormous lips on their way to press a kiss against his cheek. “You poopy? Need a change?”

Huge hands close around his middle, lifting him from the cushioned chair. He moans softly, a sound his mother hears as the beginning of language.

I’m Walter Casey he tries to say. The artist.

But only the most primitive sounds escape him, his brand new larynx yet untrained.

*

Helpless on the changing table, his mother frees him from his itchy pajamas and lifts away his soiled diapers. He sighs with relief to have his bum free in the open air. She wipes him clean, cooing as she pulls the string on the musical bear—Twinkle Twinkle Little Star playing for the thousandth time.

Mendelssohn he tries to say. Mozart. Anything but this ice cream truck twaddle.

*

She sits with him in dappled shade, chuckling at how ravenously he feeds on her.

Maria. That was her name. She wanted to make love with me. All I had to do was ask. But I was too arrogant. No. Afraid.

His mother pulls him off her nipple. He begins to shriek in despair.

“Hold on, Boo Boo. Switching breasts, that’s all.”

*

He falls asleep and drifts through layers of time to

a snarling dog lunging at him

his father saying You Are No Son Of Mine

forms appearing on his canvas as if by magic

mother clutching his hand as death takes her

his lover kissing his throat

*

The man who comes to visit every day is not the baby’s father. The baby’s father is bearded and stays in the house throughout the night. This other man has no beard. He only stays for an hour or so, speaking out loud to the baby, but conversing silently with Walter Casey.

How are you feeling? asks the man.

I forget more than I remember now.

Yes says the man. Soon you will forget almost everything that came before this life.

But I don’t want to forget.

What do you wish to remember?

Everything.

Choose one thing.

The baby laughs. The man laughs, too.

*

The creek tumbles down through the wooded gorge—a sensual chill in the air. Yellow leaves drift through slanting rays of sunlight and settle on the forest floor. Walter stands at the water’s edge, the tip of his fishing rod pointing toward the sun, his line disappearing into a deep pool. Tomorrow is his seventeenth birthday.

His mother appears on the ridge above him. She is small in the distance, lovely and strong. She waves to let him know it is time to come home for supper. Walter waves back to her and reels in his line. Now he looks up at the falling leaves, at the branches of the aspens, at the billowy white clouds in the gray blue sky, and he begins to weep.

*

“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says his father, lifting him from his crib. “Here we are. Don’t be afraid.”

I am not afraid. I was remembering the happiest moment of my other life.

“Don’t cry, Boo Boo,” says the gentle, bearded man. “Mama will feed you. Everything is okay.”

 

Beginning Practice

Joseph, a self-conscious young man with a shaved head, sits at a small table in the darkest corner of the café, writing a poem. The first two lines came easily to him.

broken glass, green and brown—

a necklace round the tree trunk

Beyond that, he has drawn a blank. He wants to say something poignant and meaningful about the trees that grow up through the sidewalks of the concrete city, but every new line he writes sounds trite.

He puts down his pen, rubs his eyes, and decides to have a cup of tea. He prefers coffee to tea, but the three people he admires most—his mentor at the Zen center, his yoga instructor, his favorite poet—all drink tea, so he is trying to develop the habit. His father, from whom he is estranged, drinks quarts of coffee every day.

Stepping to the counter, Joseph smiles at the word BUDDHA printed in large block letters across the pale blue T-shirt worn by Irene, the young woman who works the morning shift at Café Muse. Irene is a voluptuous brunette, each of her carefully plucked eyebrows pierced with seven gold rings, her dark brown eyes enormous. The U in Buddha rides atop her right breast, the H atop her left.

“Green tea, please,” says Joseph, raising his eyes from Irene’s breasts to her eyes. “Are you a Buddhist?”

“Sort of,” she says with a shrug. “Are you?”

“Absolutely,” he replies, his chest swelling with pride. “I’ve been going to the Zen center for years.”

This is not precisely true. Joseph has been going twice a week for three months.

“Is that, like, free?” asks Irene as she prepares his tea. “Can you just…go in?”

“We have regular meditation times.” Joseph’s voice deepens with authority. “I generally go in the evenings. Seven to nine.”

She hands him a white mug and a small black teapot. “I’ll check it out. That’s two dollars.”

“Cool,” says Joseph, eager to prolong the conversation. “So where did you get your T-shirt?”

“They’re my favorite band,” she says, turning around to show him the back. The word GROOVES is written in crimson Italics. Irene turns back around and peers down at her breasts. “Buddha Grooves. They’re kind of world beat reggae with some metal and hip-hop. Very danceable.”

“Are they Buddhists?” asks Joseph, his tone disdainful.

“Is that like a big deal?” she asks, frowning at him. “Knowing if someone is a Buddhist or not? I thought Buddha loved everybody no matter what? Wasn’t that why he stuck around instead of going off to nirvana? So he could spread the light?” She looks deep into Joseph’s eyes. “Isn’t Buddhism about becoming more and more open to what actually is, instead of just following some old dogma?”

Hearing these words from her, the blockade between his mind and his heart—an amalgam of fear and sorrow—begins to crumble.

 

 

What Lasts?

Friday, October 7th, 2011

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2011)

“You are the music while the music lasts.” T.S. Eliot

Long ago, in a time when records were big round vinyl things activated by spinning them on turntables while running needles through their grooves, when marijuana was highly illegal, and long before the advent of personal computers and cell phones and digital downloads and peak oil and whole sections of grocery stores being dedicated to gluten-free products, when my hair was plentiful and not yet gray, I performed a song of mine at a party where other songs were performed by other people hoping to become famous, or at least solvent, through their music.

Following my performance, a woman in black leather approached me, and by her gait and the slurring of her words, I deduced she was drunk. “Your song,” she shouted, “was good as anything you hear in grocery stores.”

“That was like…a classic?” said a woman in green paisley, her every statement a question. “Like…I already knew it before you played it? Even though I’d never heard it before? Like…Bonnie Raitt should cover it?”

“Your voice is decent,” said a frowning fellow in blue denim who took a long drag on his cigarette between each of his proclamations. “Reminds me of Chet Baker, who I dig, but I hated your song. It grabbed me at first. It did. But then it felt phony. Like it wanted to be deep, but it wasn’t deep. I mean…the way you sang it made it seem deep at first, but then it didn’t even last as long as it lasted.”

“I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” James Joyce

A teenager said to me, “The only reason Shakespeare lasts from generation to generation is because people keep putting on his plays and making you study him at school.”

I was facilitating a discussion among ten ambitious young writers, our subject What Lasts? Along with discussing the topic in general, each of the writers was making a case for a current song or book or movie being widely sung or read or watched four generations hence. Why four generations? Because in my estimation, the great fame of an artist may keep his or her creations whispering in the public ear for one or two or even three generations, but for a work of art to remain vital for a hundred years in a swiftly evolving culture, it must have tremendous intrinsic value.

And I think the teenager and James Joyce were quite right to declare schools and professors prime factors in the longevity of cultural artifacts, Joyce being a good example of a writer whose works would probably vanish in a few decades without the persistent intervention of academics. Shakespeare is a much more complicated matter than Joyce, Shakespeareism being a global academic-theatrical religion, four-hundred-years-old now, dedicated to perpetuating the collected works of a literary deity under whose name were compiled the prototypical plots and characters composing virtually all of Anglo-Celtic-Judeo-Christian drama and fiction.

“Friends are relatives you make for yourself.” Eustache Deschamps

I cannot say with certainty that any current part of what I am will last beyond this particular incarnation, but as I grow older I feel less and less certain about certainty. Science, the one currently holding sway in the so-called Western world, suggests that after my body dies, most of the molecules I am made of will go on being themselves but not with each other, and eventually those molecules will combine with other molecules to form particles and parts of the greater web of life; but there will be no forming of another person or animal or plant with my personality or any part of my memory.

I beg to suggest that current science may be wrong, and that something particular to each of us, our unique spiritual essence, may survive our physical death and become part of the operating system of a new physical body, possibly a person, possibly a honey bee, possibly a pelican. And before our spiritual essences gain purchase, so to speak, in new physical bodies, we hang out for a time in a parallel dimension, or in an invisible part of this dimension, with other spiritual essences, some of whom we have hung out with before, some of whom we have incarnated with before, and some we are meeting for the first time. And as we hang out, or float about, or possibly zoom around with these other essences, we connect with each other in unimaginably compelling ways that incite us to reincarnate together during the same time window. How we accomplish our reincarnating, I don’t know, but in my theory we do accomplish the feat of returning.

This theory presented itself to me as I was pondering why it is, those few amazing times in our lives, when we meet a person on the beach or at a party or in the pickle aisle of the grocery store, never having laid eyes on each other before, and we fall into conversation about ospreys or D.H. Lawrence or who makes the best kosher dills, we are both overwhelmed by a powerful awareness that we have known each other before—because we have!

My theory also explains why, on that first day at your new school, in the middle of fourth grade, when you were so miserable about having to move away from your best friends, and you were scared to death of what might happen in that new place, and you walked into the classroom and not one but two of the kids looked at you and smiled these amazing smiles of recognition, and you felt as if you were being greeted by old friends—because they were old friends!

“Mona Lisa looks as if she has just been sick or is about to be.” Noel Coward

I have only been to Europe once, when I was sixteen. I am now sixty-two, and according to the science currently holding sway in the so-called Western world, all the cells in my body have died and been replaced several times since I was a teenager. Thus, cellularly speaking, some other body went to Europe, not this body holding the pen writing these words. Be that as it may, I remember going to Europe, and I particularly remember skipping excitedly through the galleries of the Louvre en route to see Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Well…it is a little painting. Small. Dark. They keep it behind glass, and they don’t let you get too close, and in the glass, obscuring the little dark painting, are reflections of other paintings and lights and walls and the faces of people jostling each other to get glimpses of the dark little painting, the paint of which is cracked and cracking. So, actually, the only good way to see the painting is to look at reproductions, not at the painting itself. Which means, honestly, that the painting is not what has lasted. Copies of the painting have lasted, and copies of copies. Indeed, one could well argue that when we say “the Mona Lisa” we no longer mean that painting, we mean the iconic form and the iconic smirk. Yes, that form, that silhouette, and that smirk are the things that have lasted, while the painting itself is now a misrepresentation of what it has become.

“Every tooth in a man’s head is more valuable than a diamond.” Miguel de Cervantes

I went to have my teeth cleaned a few days ago, after which my excellent dentist, Chris Martin, gave me a thorough exam and informed me I need yet another crown sooner than later, with two or three more crowns looming on my event horizon pending further developments of the degenerative kind. One of the many things I appreciate about Dr. Martin is his candor and wry sense of irony.

“We could,” he said, using Second Person to discuss my options, “replace that filling that shows signs of leakage (a euphemism for murderous assault by voracious decay) and it would hold for a time, though not as long as you’re going to last, or we can do a crown that should take you all the way to the finish line.”

“You mean the crown will last until I die.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling wistfully. “That’s the goal.”