My husband asked it first, one evening before going to bed.
“Do you think we knew each other in our past life?”
“No,” I said. “No, I don’t think so.”
We’re very different, my husband and I. Not just our countries and native tongues, but our attitudes as well. Questions come to him spontaneously, and he considers them fully. Then he moves on. I shy away from things that feel strange, but I circle around them for a long time.
We were sitting on the couch, my feet stretched over my husband’s lap.
“You’re probably right,” he said. “I didn’t think so, either.”
He spoke slowly. He was looking at the jade plant we’d bought that week from a nursery in our neighborhood, where every plant looked as if it would stay healthy forever. There were citrus and fig trees and lush-leaved lilies. It was one of those places that demonstrates a way of life. Overwhelmed by all the options, we decided on the small pot of jade.
From the couch, we noticed that our plant had already dropped several of its leaves.
“We must be meeting for the first time,” my husband continued, “that’s why you always surprise me.”
At that time, we were living in San Francisco and such questions were not unusual. We knew that burning sage was a cleansing ritual and that Yerba Buena protected the sacred within. I don’t mean to trivialize, but I’m saying that our lives contained certain grains kneaded into the quotidian.
All around our apartment were stones we’d collected from beaches, mountaintops, rivers. We had plants, some of which fared better than the jade, and fabrics from different countries, with colors and textures of faraway places. On weekends, listening to music—the type that seemed to open invisible doors, to lead us somewhere—we made drawings which spread across vast expanses of brown paper.
At this time, we were fascinated by the early humans. That time of pure, joyful creation, at the brink of settlement. That childhood of humanity. We felt that these people might have known something which now eluded us. We wanted to look past the entanglements of our own families—their troubles, grievances, resentments and demands—to something brighter, that would undo all that held us tight by the throat.
We were carving out a world within the world.
We sat silent in the early mornings or at the very least we lit a candle with intention. That’s it, I suppose: the intention of this time. The delicacy of each object. And an abundance of life, visible and invisible, sprouting up all around us.
The idea came to me some days later that perhaps my husband and I had known each other many lives prior to the present one. Way back when, before there were humans on earth. Because there was the glimmer of recognition, after all, and trust, which could not be built in a single sitting. A single life, I mean. But there was the strangeness, too, as I said.
Some nights later, when our jade plant had dropped more of its leaves and we were sitting on the couch, I told my husband my theory.
“That makes sense to me,” he said. “We might have been different species, but we lived harmoniously.”
“Tree to rhizome to tree and back,” I said.
“You were the tree,” my husband said.
Sometimes, I didn’t quite understand my own words, except for the satisfaction it gave me to say them—an instinctive, poetic gibberish. A creation without purpose. And my husband would pick up my words and continue the game, and we could not say what we were doing except that we were moving at the same rhythm, a soundless music tugging us on.
We didn’t always have the heart to talk things through logically.
We used to play a game in which we came up with the one folly that would take over the people we knew if they were to lose their minds. Our friend Katherine, for example, would start riding her bicycle into apartments, shops, and restaurants. She would read and eat on her bike too. We decided on this because she was always on the move, from city to city, apartment to apartment.
My husband’s madness was more poetic. He would constantly be trying to fill his drinking glass with clouds. I came up with this one, and my husband was pleased, though I can’t quite say what aspect of his character the madness pointed to.
I hoped that my folly would be something equally abstract and in the end, it was not so bad. I would begin collecting books, more than I could possibly read, always with the fear, or hope, that I might one day need them. And I would live buried in a kind of den, a nest of books surrounding me like a protective spell. But I suspected that the essence of my folly was not so much my appetite for knowledge as it was my need to hide from the world.
We played the game for other people we knew as well, all the orphans we’d brought in to our lives. We were surrounded by people without pasts, who were building their lives object by object. My husband and I made them feel that they had nothing to account for.
But we didn’t include parents, siblings, aunts and uncles in our game, because they already lived with their follies displayed for all to see, without needing to be called forth.
The next time Katherine came over for dinner, we told her our theory of past lives.
I must have made a curry, or something else soft and warm, because that’s what we ate in those days. We must have eaten them out of blue bowls, each with a drawing of an animal at its base. I remember a hedgehog, a parrot, a coyote. I had found the bowls at a flea market, cracked and chipped at places, like heirlooms. (No, you wouldn’t say that we’d run away from our pasts—we were surrounded by so many lovely, worn-out objects.)
“Oh, you guys,” Katherine said when we explained that I had been a tree and my husband another, sympathetic species, like a rhizome or mushroom. “That’s the best.”
Katherine had moved down the street from us after she broke up with her boyfriend Luca, who wanted to have pets. We hadn’t known that it was the cause of a serious disagreement.
All I remember was Luca pointing to dogs on the street, naming their pedigree. “Look at that Border Collie." "Isn’t that a beautiful Beagle?”
But the topic had finally culminated in a serious fight, after which Katherine moved out. She told us later that it must have been the last straw in a slowly building heap of tensions. She could not say what these tensions were because things had seemed all right to her besides the topic of the pets. We didn’t question her on this. As I said, we didn’t always have the heart to talk things through. We just wanted to keep going.
Because we believed, all three of us, that we moved through life with invisible forces pushing us forward. That was a good way of putting it, instead of concentrating on the waste, on all that had been abandoned.
Here’s something else about this time: the belief that we were moving towards something and that our direction was a good one.
Past lives appeared everywhere and explained things to us: why we were drawn to certain things and were afraid of others. My back pain, for example, might have been the accumulation of centuries of fear. My husband’s love for plants must have had something to do with a lack of nurture he still carried from a previous self.
They were gentle, these past lives, they did not blame or scold us. Besides, with the magnitude of all our past lives to consider, all the specifics of what we’d left behind—our families and countries—seemed irrelevant, even hazy.
To be sure, there were moments when we lost sight. A phone call, a message, some news of sickness or trouble from our families would come to suffocate us, despite everything we’d done to build our delicate world. At those times, we would want nothing more than to be back at our unburdened selves, burning sage and setting intentions, away from all the things that followed us relentlessly.
My husband and I gradually came to understand that we had, without a doubt, known each other not just in one, but in several past lives. That made up for everything else we’d set out to forget.
Sometimes, when we told our friends about these explorations, they would mention seminars, workshops, books, audio recordings that could help us travel to those selves. They knew people who had undertaken such journeys and had discovered themselves as panthers, or shamans in rainforests. Some of them had even seen their family members on these journeys. They all said that their family members had gained new dimensions; they had understood why their families were inevitable.
But that was not what we meant at all. No, it was something else, a mild and seeping hunger.
By the time we’d arrived in San Francisco, whose very name belongs to an imaginary time, my husband and I no longer talked to our families. We’d decided that the flaws and follies which blinded them were not ones they could solve in a single life. And so, we gave them up. We shed them like skin and moved on.
One time, I received a message from my two sisters telling me that I would eventually have to wake up from my slumber and face the world. I had responsibilities, they wrote, and a family—they didn’t just disappear because I decided to ignore them. My sisters suggested that I was spoiled, even selfish.
It made me sad, of course. And I set out ever more vigorously to set my sight on the deep time that I truly belonged to, unscathed by the illusory relations that bound me.
Once, during a trip to Big Sur, I sat for hours watching the waves and the pale tufts of samphire on the cliffs. I left the cottage we had rented for the weekend and walked all the way up the hill and along the winding edge of a cliff to a secluded spot.
Later, I told my husband that I must have lived close to the sea in a previous life, unlike my urban upbringing. How else, I asked, could I account for the peace that it gave me? What I still carried with me in this life was the need for distance, far from the demands and troubles of others, so that I could live untainted—a life as clean as the ocean air. Little by little, our past lives told us that we were forgiven, in everything we did or didn’t do. All that we hid from. They told us that we had no other choice, given the accumulation of millennia.
“My sea-dweller,” my husband said when we were driving back to the city.
We were united in the flow of time, my husband and I, aware that it was running out. We understood there was only so much we could do in this life.
“You guys,” Katherine said one evening. “You won’t believe what happened.”
She’d stopped by on her bike ride back from Pacific Heights, and her hair stuck smoothly against her forehead. She was holding a beautiful cage, the type that resembles a pavilion.
That morning, as she was getting ready to leave the apartment, a bird had flown in through her window and landed on the framed engraving of a parakeet on the wall.
“It just sat there,” Katherine said, “Like it was trying to show me something.”
“What sort of bird?” my husband said. “One of those parrots by Telegraph Hill?”
“It’s a parakeet,” Katherine said. “Just like the engraving.”
She had thought about calling Luca, to tell him that she had a pet, after all. But she had to leave for work, so she closed the window and left the apartment, with the bird still perched on the frame.
“You just wait for me there,” she told the bird, and it seemed to understand her unblinkingly.
We were surprised that it had taken so little for Katherine to warm up to the idea of a pet. But that night, when we were about to sit down on the couch (our jade plant had withered completely), she called us to say that the bird had died. She’d found it on her bed, with its eyes open. She took the bird to the park and left it beneath some leaves. She said it was still warm, by the round of its small belly, and its feathers were smooth and damp, sticking to its body.
I wished we could do something for Katherine. It was exactly the type of thing that would befall our friend, and propel her towards another move. Oh, we weren’t so solitary that we didn’t worry about our friends; we cared for them very much. Meeting us in San Francisco, you would say we were compassionate without complication; we lived with our arms wide open in welcome, without frustrations and entanglements. That’s what we loved about our world within the world: the kindness it bestowed upon us.
Katherine did move to another city, eventually, as everyone does. And we lost some of the stones, plants, and fabrics, even our flea market bowls as we moved to other places, each time building our lives with care, measuring our every step, never adding anything that did not contain some grain of loveliness. Everywhere we went, we made friends and we cooked for them and we included them in our games.
It seemed we were headed forward. We were waiting for certain things to gain focus and others to disappear. We knew each other thoroughly, present and past. We lived without the dread that something was waiting to leap out at us, like a panther crouching in the dark.