There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Between the ages of three and five, every so often my youngest grandson would insist that I, too, was his mother. At first, we explained to him that I was his grandmother, that he had only one mommy. He’d nod, but then would try to explain to us that I was also his other mother. He seemed frustrated, confused—Why didn’t we recognize this, too? Calling me the name “Moma” that both grandsons still use, more than once, he’d correct himself and substitute the name, “Mom-Mom,” perhaps clarifying for himself my additional identity. He seemed to be trying to make sense of this perceptual twist in the way the world and relationships work.
He repeatedly told his parents that he had lived in a black house and wondered where it was. “When are we going back to the place I lived before?” he would periodically ask them. And on a couple of occasions he reminded me that something troubling had happened, but he could see that I was okay now—that both of us were—so he clearly felt more relief than any upset. He wasn’t very verbal at the time, so it was difficult to get much more insight.
Unnerving, too, though I already knew of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his lifelong search for an explanation for the fact that some very young children seem to remember specific details from previous lives. In his case histories of children in Asia, each little one he studied was able to find the people and places, unknown to their family, that the child remembered from a previous life. (As is the norm for most, since about the age of six my grandson has not consciously held on to these memories.)
Needless to say, when a new book came into my hands last week and I read: NOAH IS FOUR AND WANTS TO GO HOME. THE ONLY TROUBLE IS, HE’S ALREADY HOME, I read on and ended up devouring “The Forgetting Time” in two sittings. Sharon Guskin’s work of literary fiction is much more than an engrossing mystery. She plays with the notion of reincarnation, not in a tone that suggests a dismissive wave of the hand, but by diving deep.
Between certain chapters, she intersperses accounts of actual case histories, each related by Dr. Jim Tucker at the University of Virginia. He has continued to collect data on such children—cumulatively, fifty years and more than 2500 case histories. His latest book, “Return to Life,” focuses on American children, with whom this psychiatrist has worked and/or who remember a past life.
In addition to the character of four-year-old Noah—beset by phobias and nightmares and desperately needing to find his other mom—and of Janie Zimmerman—a mother frantically looking for answers and an antidote to her son’s condition, the author introduces the reader fairly early to Jerome Anderson.
As the jacket reads, “once a shining young star in academia, a professor of psychiatry, he seemingly threw it all away,” losing the respect of his peers as he dealt with a phenomenon that was patently unbelievable. Faced with a deadly diagnosis leading to another kind of forgetting, Anderson realizes that Noah’s case may give him, in terms of his life work, “a last chance at redemption.” An excellent book club choice, “The Forgetting Time” raises questions worth exploring, like the one I’ve recently asked myself about our connection to others: What, after all, constitutes “family”?
I went to the state fair last week, also called the Great Minnesota Get-Together. It’s where over the course of a dozen days, 1.9 million of us gathered, shoulder to shoulder, for pork-chop-on-a-stick and freshly-picked roasted sweet corn dipped in melted butter. I brought along a new friend from out-of-town to mingle with Minnesotans and watch an unspoken understanding in play—fair-folks are called to be not merely civil or polite, but out-and-out friendly. Ready to give anybody—regardless of age or attire or origins—the benefit of the doubt. Watching piglets being born or waiting for a turn on the Sky Ride, the exchange of personal history with perfect strangers is likely. And when any need arises, people are more than happy to help out—like, well, family.
At dusk, my friend and I paused to take a break from trekking around. A little girl plunked herself down on the other end of our bench. Told us her mom and brother were still in the Creative Arts Building. Added, “But my feet were killing me!” As if we were the neighbors from next door, eleven-year-old Eliza engaged us in lively conversation. She was duly impressed that we had ended up on camera during the local news hour in the KARE 11 barn.
We were equally impressed with the equanimity she exhibited about going soon to a new school. It felt strange to have a grownup on my left who since our first meeting has agreed that it feels as if we’ve known each other for ages, and now, a child on my right who felt to me as if she could be one of my own. At one point, possibly feeling likewise, she asked me,“Would you mind if I sat a little closer to you?” She stole my heart. It was hard to say goodbye. Taking leave of Eliza on that bench and acknowledging that I’d probably never see her again, I said, “I wish you a good life.”
Only days later, I read about character Janie reflecting on just such unaccountable family-feeling. Standing in a crowded subway car, she muses about a possible connection in a past or future life to one or another of the strangers around her: The olive-skinned man next to her was reading a newspaper ad for a matchmaker. The kid across from her was juggling a skateboard on his banged-up knees. The dearest of the dear, she thought. A bit “punchy,” she decides, It would be hard to live that way. To look at other people that way. But you could try, couldn’t you?
Part of the story also is about a child gone missing, with its searing depiction of a mother’s suffering in the face of such loss. And right along with those passages came the actual news of the discovery of the remains of a missing child that we in Minnesota took into our hearts twenty-seven years ago. Grieving like an extended family when we first discovered that Jacob Wetterling had been abducted, turning on our porch lights to call him home. Now a longstanding hope for his safe return was dashed and collectively we are mourning the loss of this beloved. Family.
Life with its intricate weave of people and occurrences,its complex and awe-inspiring related patterns, gives me pause. It nudges me to confront a deeper knowing, a more expansive reality. And hard as it is to grasp, awakens me to the fact that we are all—each and every one of us—more deeply connected than we can possibly imagine.
A link to an engaging print interview with author Sharon Guskin and her suggestions for books and films about past lives is here. You can click on this link to access an in-depth interview on Coast to Coast radio with Dr. Jim Tucker about his work with young children who remember past lives.