The Answers

I realized something important in the wee hours of the morning as I lay awake thinking about things.

I had the answers to dealing with all this all along.  

I once described all living beings as being essentially separate only on a superficial level, much like mushrooms grow together because they are, in truth, one organism under the soil.  One mushroom may be picked, but the organism lives on.

I once wrote that heaven is wherever dreamers can consider their wildest notions without consequence, and that it is a state we can reach within our lives.

I once wrote that the worship of prophets was false, but that all teachers had something that we could learn from.

I once considered that reincarnation is not so much punishment as a simple cause-and-effect relationship, and that someone who is born into a bad life shouldn’t be looked down on because they did not consciously choose that misfortune; it was a consequence the same way a soccer ball hitting a fence is a consequence of its being kicked, even if the fence is not where the kicker aimed.  When one has misfortune from the right intention but the wrong action, they should be treated with compassion, not with disdain.

I came to understand that life has enough suffering and that making it worse with needless violence is a grave mistake; I totally agree that reducing the suffering of others is an important part of a well-lived life.

I basically, I’ve turned Buddhist in all but name, and without knowing what I was doing (I really didn’t get Buddhism before and I didn’t really pay it much attention) I still managed to grasp nearly all of its core concepts on a level that is difficult to describe in words.  

I’m still not sure I want to call myself one because I think labels are silly and limiting, but I have to admit, I completely and totally get the Buddhist concept of how the world works now and I will continue exploring on my own and see what else I can learn simply by meditating, learning, thinking, and feeling.

And what does this have to do with my recent posts, about feeling frazzled at finding out more details of everything?

I just haven’t been applying what I knew.  I was compartmentalizing too much and not allowing the transcendental concepts I’ve learned to be applied to this, out of fear I’d be seen as a flake, a new-ager, someone who was just wrapped up in a fantasy of their own making.  But in doing so, I failed to see the whole point of the pain and joy I have seen across the two lifetimes I remember.

I am right to refer to John Harris specifically in the third person; I am no more John Harris than a sparrow is still an egg.  We grow, we evolve, we set up the dominoes, knock them down, then set them up again in a new pattern.  

I am wrong to seek that old tin box.  It would not serve me in this life; it would only be an attachment to something that is no longer mine, and I hope it is still there in France, returned to the earth as a brown stain in the soil, just as the body I had back then has returned to the earth and nourished a beautiful willow tree.  

I can continue my research now, because I see that this is only a lesson to be learned, and not a wrong to be righted.  Whatever pain, fear, and hurt I had within me as John Harris are things I must detach from, and whatever right or wrong actions I did, are things I must learn from.

A Song

“39” by Queen

It’s actually about a space explorer who suffers the effects of the Twin Paradox when only a year passes for him, but a hundred years pass on earth.  The lyrics of the chorus could be straight out of my own experience, or those of anyone who’s had memories of a life long ago:

Don’t you hear my call?

Though you’re many years away,

Don’t you hear me calling you?

Write your letters in the sand

for the day I take your hand

In the land that our grandchildren knew

I suppose we’re all time travelers, who through many lives span inconceivable expanses of time and space between physical incarnations.  Anyone who remembers a previous life can certainly relate to the devastating effects of the Twin Paradox because matter, so far as we’re aware, can only travel forward in time, never back.  One who remembers a past life from long ago very vividly may as well have been on a space ship moving at the speed of light because so much time has passed that the world that you once took for granted begins to seem strange in hindsight.

Incidentally, this was the song I was listening to when I had that memory of the flyover at the Copthorne Barracks, and seeing what would have then been a state-of-the-art Nieuport fighter (judging by the tab-like protrusions at the trailing edges of the wings).

East Coker

I’ve focused my attention more on the English side of the past, looking specifically last night at the village of East Coker where, according to census records, John Harris lived for a short time in his teens.

I discovered that this village, unlike what I had previously thought, still has a great deal of old preserved buildings that look similar to some of the buildings I remember once being plentiful in the countryside around Yeovil (sadly, most are gone) and even though there is some new development I’m happy to say much of the town- for now at least- is in an exceptional state of preservation.

The Yeovil Town Council had, more recently, discussed plans to develop the fields between Yeovil and East Coker into a massive housing estate.  However, the idyllic village of so many ages ago that I may have seen as a teenager during Victorian times has something going for it that many other villages didn’t.

East Coker was the subject of a poem by T.S. Eliot, and his ashes are even buried there at St. Michael’s church.

Naturally, his fans have made their displeasure with the Yeovil town council known and the council has- at least for now- shelved plans to develop a housing estate on the edge of this beautiful old village.

Reading through the first stanza of the poem “East Coker,” I can’t help but think how I felt as I clicked through the virtual streets of Yeovil, many of the old inns, shops, and houses long-since plowed under to make way for Chrysler dealerships and ASDA stores (a UK-based Wal-Mart subsidiary):

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

Thank you, T.S. Eliot, wherever you are now.  Here’s hoping that when I finally go back to East Coker, I’ll find something I recognize because your fans made it known that the past need not be plowed under so carelessly.

Edit: For those who wish to help save what may be an important part of my past as well as a beautifully-preserved village dating back to the Norman conquest, there is an online petition:

The Royal Star and Garter

I may have mentioned before that I spent a year and a half in England in this life.

I studied at an American university in Richmond, Surrey and very near the campus was a former hotel that had been converted to a military hospital in the First World War called the Royal Star and Garter.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but it’s strange that I lived so close to that building.  I even got to see its lovely Edwardian interior one evening when my university awarded scholarships in a ceremony there (we didn’t have the facilities for it on campus).

Back in 2004, they were talking about moving everyone out to a more modern facility by 2005 and possibly demolishing this gorgeous old building to build a block of modern high-rise flats, but the university had already had its sights set on acquiring it if they could come by the funds (I think the price tag was something like 10 million quid, a lot for a small private university that most people have never heard of).

According to Wikipedia, it’s had a brief reprieve, but will go up for sale again in 2013.  As developers seem to be the only ones with the money to acquire such properties any more (that goes for the US too, sadly), I don’t see it ending well for what had once been a safe and welcome retreat for those who got “a Blighty one” back in the trenches.

This building really does deserve to be a hotel again, or maybe a hotel/museum combination.  It shouldn’t be destroyed, and I’m wondering how difficult it would be to set up a trust to save it if developers start eyeing it.

Taking A Break

I think I need to take a short break from researching or thinking about my memories.

The series of confirmed or plausible memories that I’ve encountered in recent weeks has left me with a mixed sense of fascination and horror, with some melancholy and even pride thrown in.  

On the one hand the prospect that I may have indeed been a firsthand witness to history and a very brave man in a previous life has been an exciting prospect, but on the other hand the price of that privilege weighs heavy on my mind.  

In particular, while scrolling through the roads near L’Epinette on Google Streetview, I found a low ridge in someone’s horse pasture near the road that looked a bit like the dirt bank I remember sitting on around the time a shell exploded overhead, and although I am not sure if that shell ended my life as John Harris, it is probable that I did die very near that spot.

Seeing the site of one’s own death is a very heavy thing to deal with, and I think it was harder for me than when I finally saw a photo of the headstone.

I need some time to step back from this and focus on my current life for a while.  In the last two weeks I’ve lost a great deal of the comfortable sense of unreality that defined my earlier research and although I will never abandon the search for my past, the grim realization that this is very likely a real memory has been a very distressing thing to come to terms with. 

I will return when I’ve calmed down a bit.  If I have any more recollections I need to be braced for the possibility that these, too, will be confirmed in grim detail.

The ones I fear the most are the recollections of the Ypres Salient.  The noise, the mud, the stench of death, the horror of going over the top (and I must have if I was there) are not things one would want to experience again, and if those memories do come to the surface I want to be in a state where I can be calm enough to remind myself that the bullets and shells can’t hurt me any more.

This is not an indefinite hiatus.  I will check in with anything that comes up incidentally in the mean time so that I have a record of my recollections that I can verify when I’m ready to begin my research again.

Another One Possibly Confirmed

I may have identified one of the trucks I saw in a convoy past the trenches.

It has the canvas roof, a “C” cab, a windshield, and most importantly of all, a visible chain drive (although covered by a fairing, but still visible nonetheless).

It was probably a Commer built around 1914, as in this photo.

You can’t really see the chain drive very well in that pic, but I found another photo, this one of a 1909 model, with a close-up on that particular part.

As for the color (if memory serves, it was blue), it would have been too early for that to have been an RAF tender, but it could have very well been a civilian truck brought over from England to help mobilize supplies (this was a common practice in the first year of the war).

It’s still tenuous as to whether or not this memory is true, in part because the combination of features I mentioned could be something I might have easily guessed by my knowledge of vehicles (which is vast).  The likelihood of finding a truck with that specific combination of features was fairly high.

However, I’m not sure what the likelihood of finding that specific combination of features on a British make early enough to be the right time period would be; most of the early partial matches I turned up were American or German and from somewhat later in the war.

This is a solid “plausible.”

Reflecting On Personal Meaning

While I try to objectively examine my experiences with what I can now call a very likely past life (because the confirmed details seem to outweigh my prior knowledge of WWI or the realm of coincidence at this point), I must also say that I’ve sort of had to compartmentalize this from my personal beliefs.

The best way to describe my personal beliefs is spiritual after a Pagan idiom, though not strictly Pagan as I still have questions about a lot of those beliefs.  This is to say, nothing in my personal beliefs as they are now would have contradicted the idea of reincarnation, but I had no presumption that this was at all true or absolute and I had serious questions about the merit of that belief.

That being said, I’m also a student of the sciences (specifically anthropology with an interest in archaeology), and I’ve had to learn to discipline myself to not let personal beliefs lead me to a favorable conclusion.  I find it very interesting that the tree next to John Harris’ grave is a willow because that, in many beliefs, is a tree between worlds; but I cannot immediately say that this was some kind of psychic antenna that guided me back to my own grave.  As much as I’d like to believe these experiences affirm personal beliefs, I have to look at them for what they are: an experience that stands on its own and cannot have meaning forced onto it.

One thought did hit me today though, while I was out and about riding public transport back and forth because I had nothing better to do (it’s been a boring week).  I realized that even if this doesn’t confirm any of my current personal beliefs, it’s sort of a nail in the coffin for personal beliefs I’ve held in the past.

Up until 2006, I considered myself a Christian.  It was not a decision I tool lightly when I stepped away from it, and I must confess that it was Pascal’s Wager that kept me there as long as I stayed, even after the doctrine no longer rang true.

And to be fair, I never thought I’d get a definitive answer to Pascal’s Wager as to whether or not believing as a faithful Christian would produce the desired results.  But I have seen a photo of John Harris’ headstone, he was baptized and buried a Christian and, if the way he lived his life is any indication, believed with all his heart in God and Country.  I am sure he believed he would be rewarded with an eternity in Heaven for his faith.

But if I was John Harris in a previous life, that really is the last final thread from that belief severed, and I’m left with one square on Pascal’s Roulette Wheel (for that is what it truly is) that I know will not yield results.

Having a past life also pretty much rules out most of the Abrahamic religions and any other faith that believes there is only reward or judgement after death (except for a few sects of all of them that do accept reincarnation as a possibility), and although I no longer feel any such faith is for me, I have to admit I’m a bit shaken from the completeness and finality that those bridges have been burned with.

But I’m also left without the cold comfort of total darkness and oblivion too; oblivion, I think, would be a mixed blessing because it is a definitive end- and therefore tragic- but certain and without pain- and therefore at least marginally more comforting than having no idea where you’re going once you get to the next junction.

Not having Heaven, Hell, or Obliteration is at once a relief and a worry, because the real question that comes with past and future lives is “why?”  Is there anything beyond my own will that keeps my being together?  Is there any being out there that actually cares where I go next, or will that just be a matter of random chance?  Does death mean I will never see loved ones again, or are we reunited in different bodies even if we don’t recognize each other?  And is there some goal or objective, or am I just drifting through space just the same as all matter?

Concepts like reincarnation are supposed to help us make sense of the universe, but damned if they don’t just create more questions than answers.  I really hope there’s a point to it all; I want to believe that this means we’re all evolving, changing, moving toward some form of physical and spiritual perfection, but are we really?

I’ve gone from staring down the barrels of Mausers to staring down the barrel of a Magnum Mysterium.  Suddenly the Mausers don’t seem so intimidating.

But I never shrank from going Over the Top.  I’m back to barreling into uncertainty again, this time the uncertainty of discerning meaning in what turns out to be a very weird universe.  Looks like I find myself in an existential No Man’s Land, and now the only thing I can do is advance and hope there are no nasty surprises between here and the truth.

It took me many lifetimes to figure this much out; I don’t expect a quick answer and I don’t expect to know the truth in this lifetime, but I’ll certainly go as far as I can.

More Discoveries And Confirmations

Thanks to several users on a WWI forum I’ve posted on, I’ve learned more things and been able to confirm yet more details.

It seems that the weather near Armentieres was indeed more favorable than at the Ypres Salient; I don’t know about dry and dusty, but it was warm enough that there’s a mention in one of the diaries of a swimming contest (I’m trying to get transcripts of this diary because it may have very valuable information).

Also, my memory of a trench being near a road seems to be spot-on for the sector I would have been in.  Another user pointed out that most of the soldiers buried at Ferme Buterne would have been in L’Epinette, and looking at trench maps of the area shows that a good portion of the trenches do, in fact, run parallel to roads.

As an interesting note, “L’epinette” means “the spinet” or “the clavichord” from what I can tell.  Based on the plans of the cemetery available on the CWGC website, Ferme Buterne once had landscaping that, together with its odd shape, made it look a bit like the outline of an old-fashioned spinet.  I wonder if anyone has ever noticed this?

I’m very excited by this.  The pieces are coming together fast now, with more memories apparently confirmed.

If I can find in any of the diaries any personal memoirs or mentions of Pvt. John Harris specifically, I may be able to confirm some of the more personal memories.  It’s a long shot, but if one of the diaries mentions a card game and a tin box won from an older private, even if it doesn’t mention a name, that pretty much confirms that memory.  And if that tin box went home with someone, maybe- just maybe- I can get it back.

EDIT: As a bonus, I used the position of the road to orient to the direction I remember the shells coming in, and that confirms that I would have been looking southwest at the time.  This is consistent with the front line, which curved around L’Epinette so that a south-southwest direction would be a likely position for a German artillery division.  I am now reasonably sure I the fatal shell would have come down in a trench on the north side of a road now called Ruelle de la Blanche.  I am eager to confirm this with any accounts I can get my hands on.

Another Memory

I just remembered a flag.

I’m not sure if my heraldic terminology is correct, so instead of calling it “Per Fess a Hurt purpure on a field azure barry wavy or and vert,” I’m going to describe it as a purple spot on a blue background over some yellow and green wavy lines.

I’m trying to match that to something, I don’t know if this is related to the Great War or something much older.

To Be British

In this life, I was born and raised a US citizen, which definitely has its perks.  And yet, I never really fit in among other Americans.  I always had an inexplicable fondness for all things British.

It was no surprise when life took me to the UK in 2003 and 2005, and it should come as no surprise that I forgave the many faults I saw and wanted to stay there permanently.

It really makes sense now, if I was willing to die for England, that I would want to come back.

I’ve abandoned plans to return in recent years, in no small part because it was simply too difficult and expensive to emigrate with less than $100,000 and no college degree; you really need both to qualify for an easy “leave to enter” permit.

I feel torn, though.  I see what the UK has become in the present day, not so much because of the government (which wasn’t the greatest even back during the Great War) but because people there have simply lost ambition, and it pains me because this is a land and people that I have loved across two lifetimes.  On the one hand I want to see if that spark of ambition is still there in the British people, waiting to be rekindled.  On the other hand, I feel like my present nationality would make any such attempts extraordinarily ill-received; I don’t want to be “just another yank trying to tell the world how to run things.”

The 20th century made pride and ambition seem like bad things, in part because governments the world over used them to lead their people to do horriffic things throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  I only wish the British could learn that you don’t have to go back to conquering the world to be proud and ambitious.  

I see it in British TV programs all the time; there’s always a sense of feeling lost, having no ambition or drive left, a general malaise, and hints that the people deep down hope for someone to lead them to a new golden age.

But it won’t be a glorious leader to take them there.  It’ll be something in each and every one of the people that finally wakes up and decides that there is so much potential left in those rainy islands of long ago.

But I can’t be the one to wake them, nor can anyone else.  I hope one day to see it happen but sadly, I can only be an observer.