War, Mostly…

…is tedium.

I’ve mentioned it in posts before, I think. The long hours spent in a trench were mostly just going about daily routines, trying to keep one’s mind occupied.

This film gives a pretty good impression of it:

About the only major details (besides the trench being a bit too clean, forgivable because it would take many weeks of weathering to get it looking grungy and wet enough) is the fact that there’s only one actor in this.  The trenches were much more crowded than that; we had the better part of an enormous modern army strung that front!  It was close quarters for sure.  Also, you could be guaranteed at least a small barrage most days even in a quiet sector (it certainly seemed that way at Houplines, anyhow).  But yes, a surprising amount of time was spent waiting with frazzled nerves for something to happen.

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Now This Is Strange…

I had a brief memory flash of serving in India during colonial times.

Now, I know for a fact that Jack (the life I lost in WWI) had served most of the Edwardian era in Secunderabad.  However, the flash I had was of going into arid hills with a band of soldiers to hunt bandits.

According to a quick scan of search results on Google, hunting bandits in arid hills sounds more like the 19th century.

I am pretty sure that I was a soldier in my mid-19th century life, but could I have been in India during that time as well?  That would be two lives, back-to-back, as a British soldier serving in India.  I’d had a strong feeling that I had been to India in that life before, but after I discovered Jack’s tour of duty in Secunderabad I had nixed that.  I hadn’t considered that I’d been there in two subsequent lives.

That would explain why the flowery trappings of British Victorian orientalism seem so stuck in my head, in some deep place that I can’t quite see.  Two lifetimes of that is enough to make a deep impression.  Every time I saw some fragment of that cultural phenomenon while I was in England in this life, it gave me weird feelings.  The Royal Pavilion at Brighton was downright eerie in that respect, with its orientalist whimsy bordering on madness, stylized banana leaves all around in places where they were really not needed.  In some part of my mind, I see flashes of dark, smoke-filled rooms with dim lanterns and brightly-colored fabrics all around.  I smell a hit of exotic spice.  But this isn’t a place I’ve been necessarily; it’s a cultural construct of a place I thought India might be all those ages ago and it’s still there, in my mind, a dated and ego-dystonic construct born of Imperialist naivete.

I wish I could remember something more, something concrete that I could track down and confirm once and for all.  What did I do as a soldier in that earlier life, and what went wrong that saw me drummed out and turning to the seafaring life?

Thinking of doing a past life regression again soon.  It seems that earlier life has come through pretty clearly in regressions and dreams, so it’s probably not very deep in my subconscious.  Exactly why this life in particular would be so close to the surface is anybody’s guess.

Beautiful but Damned

I’ve had this emotional impression that has deep resonance for me since I was very young, but I’ve always had a great deal of trouble describing it. It’s an archetype of a situation that has appeared in lots of media, but it’s always had a powerful emotional resonance for me. Whenever I’ve seen a character in a film or TV series who does this I’m immediately in their headspace.

The scenario: I’m usually an Englishman in my prime, usually well-dressed, usually handsome and full of life. I’ve just been told that my days are numbered, either because of a fatal illness, or an imminent execution, or some other dreadful event that I have no way of stopping.

I don’t descend into panic. I become stoic and extremely sincere, with a “Well, I suppose that’s my lot” attitude. Inwardly, though, I feel something drop, almost like a gallows door opening under my heart.

And yet, revisiting that emotion was always such a bizarre guilty pleasure. It was a feeling that, while not pleasant, felt strangely right in a peculiar way. It was an indulgent, sentimental, bittersweet sort of place emotionally that seemed to come out of a very old-fashioned emotional landscape. In many ways, throughout my life I actually wanted to feel that way for real, to have that moment, to be among the beautiful and the damned so that I could have that sweet moment of poetic stoicism to show the world what I was made of, and be remembered as a portrait of pride with a silver lining long after I was gone.

In the last novel I published (good grief, it’s been over a year! I’m getting slack) I had a character who, faced with imminent annihilation, suddenly stops driving away from it, gets a pack of cigarettes out of his glove box, climbs into the back seat of his touring car, and lights the cigarette, stoically accepting his fate. Of course, it goes somewhere much more transcendent from there (it’s a moment of epiphany ultimately) but that’s the beauty of fiction.

I hadn’t really thought that re-enlisting in 1914 was the source of this, because I had always assumed that it had to have been something beyond my control, a destiny I was faced with.

Then I had a moment today. After speaking at length with my bishop about some angst over having not transcended the bounds of material existence in my last life and my general existential crisis after the death of one of our most beloved parishioners, I took his advice and got out a little (actually, I’ve had both a bishop and a nun tell me the same thing in the last 3 days so I figured it was sound advice).

After mass, I drove south on 99E until I came to the little village of Aurora, OR, which has an idyllic historic district filled with antique shops. I seem to find it easy to meditate on the past in places like those. I didn’t find anything that triggered a strong memory, but when I came across a Victorian or Edwardian portrait of a man in his late 30s or so, his posture impeccable, his chest out, his clothes immaculate, a look of stoic serenity on his features and a soft light on his skin that gave him a gentle glow, it came back to me.

I pictured myself before making the final decision, walking the scenic parts of Hereford, to parks where children played, down by the river where the college boys rowed in the pleasant late summer. But I remember thinking at the time that it was more like Gethsemane for me, because I didn’t have a sense that I really had a choice.

I believed, with all my heart, that going to war was my destiny and I was there, in that familiar emotional space, a man in his prime, beautiful but damned, taking in the thought of my own likely demise.  I was so steeped in the stoic masculinity of the Victorian era I’d been raised in, brought up on stories and rhymes of God and empire by the like of Kipling and Tennyson, that I couldn’t see how it wasn’t the destiny of an Englishman to throw himself into the line of fire for his king. I was sold hook, line, and sinker on what Wilfred Owen called “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”

In short, I made a tremendous error in understanding my own free will, and I did it because I wanted to believe I had no choice.  I was falling into an indulgent, self-serving motivation for self-sacrifice.  I was thinking, “Lord, not as I will, but as you will” but in truth, it was exactly as I willed. I had every opportunity to walk away and have a peaceful (if impoverished and boring) life as a retired soldier.  I had a choice.

And now that I know where that emotion comes from- now that I’ve remembered how I turned a stroll in the park into a prayer in Gethsemane 102 years ago almost to the date, I’m left with a strangely desolate feeling about the whole thing.

Longsword

Tomorrow, I’m going to a HEMA school in the southwest of Portland to see if I’m up to learning longsword technique.

The technique they teach is actually Achille Marozzo’s 16th century longsword technique, though Marozzo did preserve a lot of information from earlier eras.

I’m not getting my hopes up about becoming especially good at this since I’m about 8 centuries out of practice and in a very different body, but I’ve been burning with curiosity about HEMA since the early 2000s.  Now I finally get to try it, and I’m very excited.

Incidentally, at least one of my friends into HEMA remembers a medieval past life too.  I guess once a knight is never enough.

101 Years Gone…

Today, I took communion on the 101st anniversary of the end of the life I once lived as John William “Jack” Harris.

The service wasn’t for him really; it was a practice mass to get me ready for this coming Sunday, when I’ll be serving at the altar for the first time in our church.

All the same, I was very grateful to have some way to spend that day other than ruminating.  And I’m happy to say that I’ve really begun to properly heal.

It’s strange really.  That was more than a century ago, but I carried that hurt deep within me in some inaccessible place for so long.  And now, a little less than four years after it all came back to me, I’m starting to finally recover.

My psyche is almost as “normal” and “well-adjusted” as it’s been in hundreds of years.  I’m not subject to wild ups and downs any more.  I still get anxious and depressed but I don’t get white-hot rage any more, and my derealized states, like I had in this life and my last one, have become less and less common.  I still get panic attacks every now and then, but I haven’t really had one since my job situation stabilized nor do I really expect to, unless I have a major trigger.

I’m finally getting on alright.  I suppose it’s never too late to heal a very old wound.

I still have one last act on this journey.  I still want to travel to Europe and see the places I saw during the war as they are today.  I want to put the cold hard fact that it was over a century ago and subjective experience of actually being there together at last.  I want to attend the Last Post at Ypres in particular.

When I do finally go back to Europe to put that business behind me, I might end this blog, or I might keep it.  I suspect I will remember other lives in time, or confirm other details, so it wouldn’t make sense to delete it or shut it down completely. It will be a turning point in the life of this blog, though, and it will be an ending of sorts.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to chronicle my journey into Gnostic priesthood here or if I’m going to start another blog.  I suppose I’ll give it some thought.  It is, after all, a continuation of the path I’ve been on.

It Was In The Stars

I discovered something interesting about the rough time period that my memories of the war came back.

It was on or about 8 September, 2012.  On 6 September 2012, looking at the astrological events, I come up with an entry for Pluto sextile Chiron.  Apparently, according to astrologers, this can have effects up to and slightly after the event by several days.

Pluto sextile Chiron, it is said, reveals what is hidden, what has been bullying or burdening you.  It invokes the archetype of the wounded healer in Chiron, an archetype I have been told I resonate strongly with.  It is, in short, the absolute perfect astrological alignment for a painful past life to suddenly well up to the surface.

So after three years I finally know: it was in the stars after all.  I don’t know if I believe that this was a decisive factor but it would seem that the heavens were aligned in a way consistent with what happened whether I believe it or not.

Out And About

As the punishing heat of the El Nino summer dissipates into a mild early autumn, I’ve been trying to make good on my promise to myself to get out more.

Today I rode a bus down Barbur Blvd. in Portland down to a world food market near the Barbur Transit Center.  I’m going to have to go back because they had a lot of the necessary exotic ingredients I might need to recreate some of the recipes in the Forme of Cury (a 14th Century cookbook full of delicious recipes).

I met a Londoner there… how I love meeting Britons anywhere in the world!  There’s always an instant rapport when we get talking about the comforts of home.  He gave me some good tips on places to check out including a chippy up North Portland and a British food store and tea room down in Lake Oswego called Lady Di’s.

So, grinning ear to ear, I hopped on the bus and went the opposite way, back through City Center and down Sandy.

The stretch of Sandy Blvd. I was on is a rather unusual place.  There’s a lot of mid-century architecture; it must have been heavily developed from about 1930 to 1970.  There are novelty buildings shaped like jugs of rum and persian Palaces (and there used to be a now-infamous chicken place which is now an unassuming rib joint), there are art deco theaters and offices, and there’s a jet age Pepsi bottling plant.

Among (and sometimes inside) these relics of the mid-century, sprouting almost cthonically like the wilted flowers of yesteryear bearing fruits of chintz, are numerous vintage shops selling pretty much every item of everyday life from the last 100 years or so.  They cater not only to collectors, but to hipsters who appropriate items for re-use as decor and to old souls who actually use these items the way they were intended (and there are many in this city).

I was looking for things that jog memories, as I often do, or things that might have some sentimental value related to past lives.  I was also looking for a suitable Edwardian tin to become the basis for a sort of portable shrine to John I’ve been wanting to put together for a while now.

As “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny played on the PA, a friendly clerk in a pretty black Chinese dress asked if there was anything she could help me find.

Thinking quick, I gave her a perfectly plausible story about a thrice-great uncle who had died in the war and an unwise great aunt who had thrown out his belongings, which is utter bullshit.  I then told her that I wanted to create a simulacrum of the sort of thing he might have kept in his dresser had he survived the war as a sort of shrine in his memory, which is entirely true.

She replied that she did get Edwardian tins in every now and then and I left my contact info just in case.

I wandered a bit more, going into a couple more stores, mostly lost in my own thoughts as I picked through the detritus of eras I vaguely remember, lost in the inscrutable mess of past life memories and present life ruminations.

I wonder sometimes if the bits and pieces of John Harris’ life weren’t sold off in shops like this.  Photographs without context bundled into bins and sold piecemeal, letters from the front, his old phonograph un-played since the summer of 1914, memorial placards distributed among his friends and family back home, all of them behind glass and priced to sell.  It’s a desolate thought, but these are exactly the sort of items from other people’s lives I kept seeing.

All the while I kept feeling the strangest yearning to be a straw hat-wearing dandy.  I pictured myself in those days as a handsome man with a straight back and a trim figure, enjoying all the things a young Victorian or Edwardian dandy might enjoy, and I cringed to think of myself, bloated and craven and hovering between male and female.  For a while I thought “what the hell happened to me?” and questioned if I should have transitioned at all.

But then I realized that these weren’t my aspirations at all, they were John’s.  In every one of them I was dreaming of a time that doesn’t exist any more.  And when I thought of forswearing my gender-bending ways and becoming an anachronistic dandy in the 21st century, it began to feel silly and wrong; that just isn’t me at all.

At times I feel that fragments of my earlier selves compete with who I am now, and have to be reminded that the past is gone.  Maybe vintage shops aren’t the best place for someone like me after all.