I am standing in line at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge in Asheville, North Carolina, a place as exotic as it sounds. It is late March, and I am in desperate need of this vacation. Back home, a small town tucked high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I work for our county’s domestic abuse and rape crisis agency, and the ache of the work is ever with me, saturated with tales of violence and terror. Winters are brutal, too, snow-laden skies and cutting winds often hanging around well into May, but when roads are passable, more temperate weather is available within a couple hours’ drive.
Today in Asheville the thermometer has reached seventy degrees, and I am giddy with something that feels very much like hope. City workers are cleaning out the flower beds that surround the downtown squares, and I breathe in the warm perfume of newly-turned earth.
This morning I roamed the streets and ended up in a downtown bookstore where I stayed for a while, sipping coffee and jotting notes in my journal, unwinding into the open day.
Now, some hours later, I am here at the Chocolate Lounge. The menu lists a dizzying variety of truffles like Homegrown Lemongrass and Lavender Crème. In addition to plain brownies, already decadent enough in their own right, there are Cacao Spicy Nib or Coconut Macaroon Brownies. Any of these confections I can wash down with a creamy Guinness stout or a silky Pinot Noir.
I feel deliciously unmoored, overcome with a sense of having been lifted out of my life and deposited into another one altogether.
In line ahead of me are a man and two women, all appearing to be in their mid-twenties. One of the women, a dark-haired girl with blue eyes, is talking with her tiny blonde friend while the man places their order.
The dark-haired girl says, “I mean, I saw him get his first kiss. I was in his room.”
“Yes,” says her friend.
I incline my ear, leaning forward to listen while appearing as if I am not listening, one of many sinful writerly habits.
“We skinny-dipped when we were in seventh grade. I watched him grow up.”
Her friend responds, “I know.”
“In high school he started dating this girl and they got married, but then she cheated on him and now they’re divorced.”
“Right,” says her friend.
“And I just keep wondering if we have a chance now.” She glances at me, and I incline my ear back where it belongs.
They move ahead, pay for their order, and leave.
Listening to their conversation, I have been catapulted back forty-some years to a dark lake on a summer night. My high school boyfriend slips out of his t-shirt, lets his cut-off jeans and briefs fall onto the wooden dock, barely making a sound as he dives, his long beautiful body white in the murky water.
“Come on in,” he calls.
“No!” I whisper, pulling my sweater around me. “Someone will come!”
I hear him swim away and out of my life, and my heart races for a moment, snagged on the tripwire of memory.
“What can I get for you today?” The boy taps his pen on the granite counter, bringing me back.
“A Coconut Macaroon Brownie,” I say, but one foot is still in the past, and I can swear I hear the distant splash of lake water as I take my change.
Recently I joined a group of women who call themselves “Woo-Woo.” I am not so Woo-Woo. I wish I could be, but I have not yet been able to get the hang of it.
These women are a little freaky with all their fifth-dimension-higher-vibration-energetic-beings talk. Still, they invite me to their circle and I come, in part because I adore them and their creative bent as well as their tendency to produce red wine and chocolate for nearly any gathering. And because they allow me to dance around their sparky little fire, where I keep some distance but am nonetheless drawn to the light.
The women sometimes speak of past lives – as ancient Egyptians or sea captains or Greek soldiers. They talk about who they have crossed paths with in this life that they have known in other lives, discussing the issues they are working out even now, all these millennia later.
Past lives pose a problem for me. For one thing, I have the nagging sense that I’ve made enough of a mess of this one – two marriages, two divorces, a failed love affair, lost friendships, and far too many financial snafus to name – that I would rather not envision a string of previous painful sagas from eons gone by.
It also seems sadly unimaginative of any Creator – for the notion of reincarnation seems out of necessity to include a Creator, or at least Someone in charge – to make only a relative few templates and keep recycling them.
I know there are traditions that adhere to a doctrine of reincarnation. I have not been able to embrace it for myself, is all I am saying. Still, as I have been pondering the notion, it has occurred to me that when people ask about my background it is not unusual for me to disclose, “In my other life I was a pastor.” Light years away from where I am now, having if not completely lost my faith, then misplaced it pretty well, leaving me to toss around rimless questions that call into doubt the very existence of God.
In another life, on Sunday mornings I donned my robe and vestments, led confession, preached the Gospel, presided at communion, and blessed the congregation on its way.
“In my other lives,” I really should say, for I have had a number of them. I have been a baby sister, gazing with adoration at my older siblings, and a wild college student hell-bent on self-destruction. I have been a receptionist for a lecherous dentist, a stock trader for a Midwestern state pension fund, a preacher of the Gospel, a teacher of composition, a writer of grants, a teller of tales.
Reminiscent of an archaeological dig, like the Jericho Tel I visited when in Israel many years ago, I am able to toss a stone and show you the layers – there is the year I first rode a horse, there the year of my first kiss, and there the year I left home for college. There, a decade of desolation, there an age of rebuilding, and that bright layer there a time of creativity and babies and hope and delight. Layer upon layer, year upon year, loss and gain buried, folded – all past but all present, too.
It is now evening, and I am walking to dinner at a Caribbean restaurant. When I arrive I find it has not yet opened. I sit on the bench outside and open a book I’ve been reading, a memoir by an author whom I am coming to admire more with each new chapter.
Within several minutes the door opens and I am invited inside. I find a spacious table in a front corner and settle. I have my book and my journal and a tall glass of herbal iced tea, and in front of me a menu featuring a heart-stopping variety of entrees.
Several more diners wander in – two young couples who are seated far to my left, and then a young boy, around seven years old, and with him a woman who appears to be in her thirties. The boy is slim with dark hair and keeps his hands tucked in the pockets of his khaki trousers. He is wearing a neat button-down white oxford cloth shirt and moves with self-assurance. The woman with him is tall and willowy, with long wavy reddish hair. She treats the boy with a kind of deference that causes me to think she is not his mother – maybe an aunt, maybe one of his mother’s good friends. They sit off to my right, chatting easily.
For a while I am lost in my book. The author is in France. She and her lover drink brandy in the middle of the day and hop on a train that takes them into the lush countryside. I am in the process of being swept away with them when my Roasted Pork Quesadilla arrives.
I set aside my book and give full attention to the food, savoring the pineapple salsa and the caramelized plantains.
Then I overhear the woman to my right saying in a clear voice, “I lived in Pennsylvania for a while.”
And the young boy, the seven-year old responds, “In 1968 I owned a hardware store in Trenton, New Jersey.”
I stop chewing.
The woman says, “I lived in New Jersey, too.”
I incline my ear.
They continue their conversation as if they are discussing the boy’s swimming lessons or the last movie he saw. They continue to talk as if this child is not offering details about the nails and washers and nuts and bolts that he would sell for a nickel apiece, about the people who frequented his store in a previous life.
There comes a sudden sensation, as if I am floating.
Later I headed back to my hotel, tacking along the city streets amid the sounds of traffic, a soft breeze on my arms and dusk just beginning to lower.
Along the way I passed a group of street people, three men and three women scattered across the sidewalk, singing and laughing. One man in particular, with long matted gray hair and a tangle of beard, trained a wild stare on me. As I drew near he waved and caught my eye.
“It’s all about quantum mechanics!” he shouted at me.
“It always is,” I shouted back.
The group laughed and applauded.
For some years I have been feeding a fascination with quantum physics. I don’t recall what first sparked my interest. I majored in English and American Studies in college and shied away from the more brain-taxing sciences.
Still, I suppose I have always, in some fashion, been wondering about how and why the universe works. I have a long-standing friend with a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Physics, and he and I have shared many boozy late night discussion about the String Theory and the God Particle and a host of other notions that in previous centuries could have gotten one locked up as a lunatic. Educated and learned scholars and researchers are having these conversations, too, with perfectly straight faces, theories so wildly challenging that they call into question our very concept of Reality.
For example, noted British astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees speaks of “origami” universes, multiverses that exist on planes much the way folded origami paper creates multiple surfaces. Some multiverse theories posit that we are having many lives in many dimensions all at once. One may even pass one’s energetic “self” on a city street but never know it, the dimensions overlapping or intertwining or existing side by side in the same way that AM and FM frequencies occupy the same airwaves.
“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special announcement.”
It is only in the writing of this essay that I have recalled a curious incident that occurred several years ago when I was driving from Ohio, where I had just sold my house, to North Carolina, where I was moving to serve another church. I had pulled into a McDonald’s parking lot somewhere in the hills of Virginia, in need of a restroom, hot coffee, and something to munch on. It was summer and the place was crowded with travelers. As I walked toward the entrance I noticed coming my way a heavyset middle-aged man, and an older and younger woman, between them a little girl, about two years old. The little girl looked at me with something very like recognition, her face lighting up with a wide smile, and I stopped and looked back at her as something shifted somewhere – the ground or my gut or the sky.
The child’s hair was a cloud of peach colored curls, her face round, her brown eyes large – a clear description of me at age three. The child gazed at me, rapt. My breath caught.
The two women slowed to see what their little girl was looking at, all the while she and I staring and staring at one another. Then she tore herself from them and ran to me, her eyes bright with joy.
She uttered a soft happy cry and looked back at the women, grinning at them, as if to say, “Look who I found!” Then she reached her arms up to me.
“Have we met?” I asked her, half laughing, half trembling, checking a sudden insane urge to pick her up and run with her.
The women came rushing, apologizing. One of them said, “We don’t understand,” and the other, “She never just goes up to people…”
The girl kept reaching to be picked up while the women kept reaching for her, and at last she wrapped her arms around my legs for a few seconds before letting go, and as they took her, she began to cry. I stood trembling, watching as they carried her away.
When the four of them had gotten to their car, the older woman stopped to turn and look at me, her brows furrowed. I thought she might wave but instead she reached into the back, fastened the child into her car seat, and shut the door. As the car pulled away I could see the child’s small face looking out at me through the rear window.
I watched the tiny dot of her head all the way to the interstate, and then watched until the car itself was a speck that disappeared around a wide curve, watched the busy freeway a long time after as the sun lowered itself into the emptying sky and the light faded into the low droning of tires on pavement.
Rebecca Gummere blogs at www.chasinglight-ajourney.
com about her recent move into a small RV with two dogs and not enough books. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Christian Science Monitor, Alimentum, Crack the Spine, The Gettysburg Review, The Rumpus, the New South Journal, and O, The Oprah Magazine. A recent craft essay appears on the Brevity Blog.