Finding Past Lives in the Present
How my soulmates accidentally taught me that we all straddle multiple existences at once.
I have an eidetic memory. Not as eidetic as this famous case, but eidetic enough that I was able to skate through school, acing tests on my rich recall. I used to assume that everybody remembered things as movies, too—not just the event or activity and relevant cast of characters, but also the wardrobe; weather; seating arrangements; date or day of the week; food selection (if applicable); dialogue; and even the songs that played in the background. Having an eidetic memory makes life easier in lots of ways, and it’s beautiful to be able to revisit favorite moments in detail. I hold this gift with a loose sense of wonder, a sense of “appreciate it while it’s here”—because a head injury, a medical accident, or even simple old age might corrupt or erase it.
Hence, while I can, I write memoir.
In recent years, though, I’ve begun to wonder just how far memory can go. Even when we’re not aware of our memories as memories. Even when our memories happened before we were “us,” and they emerge disguised as dreams, habits, and emotions that move through our lives, the way a pond ripples well beyond the place where someone, far away and unseen, has tossed a pebble into it. You don’t know what happened to cause the ripples, but you observe them all the same. And maybe you don’t even question what caused the ripples; you simply think, Ponds have ripples. Yes. They do. But for a reason. And so do we.
I wasn’t raised in a faith that believes in reincarnation, but as a kid, I had various, exceptionally vivid nightmares from which I woke up thinking matter-of-factly, “Oh, that was another life.” Like the recurring dream of being a very old man, living out the last of his days in a cave, hundreds of years ago in China: he was me, and I was in the cave—I understood—because I’d been exiled from my community. (Many years later, I realized these nightmares were a strange sort of analogue to the weird, misfit years I’d live in China detached from my “tribe.” As the spiritual teachers say, we re-live old patterns until we learn our lessons.)
There was also a (thankfully non-recurring) nightmare of being a young Spanish man during La Conquista, defending against the British in the middle of a nighttime ambush on the coast of some unspecified Spanish colony. In that dream at age 10, I experienced utter shock—experienced it as this man—in the moment that he stabbed someone in the gut. The next thing I knew, he/I was hiding in the belly of a ship in an attempt to get away from the scene and its attendant “need” to kill. That was where the dream ended, because that was apparently all that was really important to see… But I remembered it again at age 26, stunned, when I read a case study in a book on past-life regression about a patient who happened to recall being an Englishman slaughtering Spaniards on the shores of the New World—and about how the patient recalled that the overarching spiritual “point” of that past-life moment was to viscerally understand the senselessness of slaughter.
We were strangers visiting opposite sides of the same moment and coming to identical conclusions.
Yet there was another, much darker, much more frequently recurring theme in my childhood nightmares: the Holocaust. And to be honest, the nightmares didn’t stop at childhood. Years might go by between some of them, but they’ve been a staple in my life since I was a very little girl, screaming as I ran down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom. These nightmares were sometimes so horrendous that I instantly willed myself to repress them; to this day, I have a memory of having had a Holocaust dream at age 19 that I intentionally forgot. That’s how bad some of these nightmares were.
So when I first visited a spirit medium at age 26 for some life guidance—broke, fresh out of grad school, and contemplating a move to China—and this woman who’d never met me said that I should move to China, I was wowed. But when she also channeled a message that I’d had a traumatic lifetime during WWII and that I had to heal some apparently-lingering issues from that incarnation (to be clear, not a service she was selling)… I was chilled. I wasn’t convinced that reincarnation was real, and if it was, I didn’t know what lurked back there — but whatever it was, I wanted nothing of it.
And yet somehow, being told by a stranger, “You lived during World War II” makes a lifetime of Holocaust nightmares so much more real.
Here’s where my past-life soulmates begin to come in. Recognizably:
Around the time that I first visited the medium, I’d been crushing on a guy I’d met the summer before. For over a year, we only bumped into each other once every few months. But just a few weeks before I visited the medium, there had been a plot twist: in a chance run-in with him, I’d discovered that our mutual attraction sealed a mind-blowing, transnational love triangle.
His best friend—who lived thousands of miles away—was apparently the guy I’d fallen in love with the year before in a literally life-changing encounter. Realizing that we had these interlacing connections felt potently significant. I surmised perhaps we were all soulmates of a sort. But on the same night that I learned of our unusual connection, I also learned that my crush struggled with alcohol abuse. As we wandered around town at 3:00am, talking about love and dreams and writing, I observed how he staggered, occasionally stumbling into poles and bicycles. We stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for me to get him some water, and, sitting at an aggressively orange table while he sipped from a styrofoam cup, he showed me scrapes and bruises in various stages of healing all over his arms and legs. That’s when I understood: getting fall-down drunk was a hobby for him. My heart broke.
For a few months after that evening, we drifted apart, and I was worried sick about him. Yet my fear was not that he’d drink himself to death: it was a fear that he would disappear. In a war. I figured my irrational anxiety might have been inspired by a passing remark he made about wanting to join the military, and in one of my nightmares, he wanted to show me a film related to WWII (and then disappeared). But my anxieties of losing him during a war began to feel less and less like a projection as the months unfolded and the strange “coincidences” began.
First, there was the night I slept with a new crush, entirely unrelated to the love triangle. A sweet, sensitive, gentle guy, of whom the song “Pumped Up Kicks” always inexplicably reminded me. (Perhaps a past-life clue, in retrospect.) For some reason, the morning after our hookup, I spontaneously recalled a dream I’d had in his arms: it was a series of images of a young woman I felt like I should recognize but couldn’t. The dream had no context, just the sense of being set in the 1940s; the sense that the townsfolk understood who this woman was; and the strange detail that, despite the 1940s setting (and the aesthetics of the time), her hair was shorn to a fuzz. So when my hookup waxed enthusiastic about “long hair and afros” as I lay across his chest during our pillowtalk, suddenly I remembered the woman with the super-short hair and thought, That was something from the war…
As “chance” would have it, hardly half an hour after he left my apartment, my comrade in the love triangle called me. For the first time ever. Opening with an attempt at small talk. “I was in D.C. last weekend.” Then quickly veering away from small talk. “I visited the Holocaust Museum. It was pretty intense. You know, when I was younger, I used to research the Holocaust a lot. I’m not sure why, I was just really compelled by it…”
I sat on my bed on the other end of the line, stunned. Why is he telling me this? And why now, right after I just had a war dream? (And why did I dream of WWII mid-hookup?)
I didn’t want to dwell on it. I put the weird coincidence away.
Until a few months later — 7 years ago today (eidetic memory…)—when my love-triangle friend and I woke up together for the first time. And his first, hung-over words while he lay there blearily gazing at me (after he cursed, and croaked at me that he needed water) were:
“I want to watch a movie right now. I really want to watch Schindler’s List. I have no idea why.”
There was no more questioning. The truth settled into my bones: Yes, we must have lived back then. Yes, we must have known each other.
I’d never told him about my past-life suspicions, and we hadn’t really talked about the Holocaust ever, beyond his brief mention months earlier of the museum in D.C.
But it just made sense.
(Then I got stupidly self-conscious and wondered, Good God, if the first thing a man thinks when he wakes up next to me is ‘Holocaust,’ is there ANY hope for my love life? Turns out, this moment was just a very mild preview of past-life partners to come… but that’s a much longer story.)
We didn’t watch Schindler’s List—there was no copy available at the house — but for the rest of that day, I continued reeling from that dark synchronicity, trying to reconfigure my sense of reality, because the past kept coming up in strange, un-ignorable ways. Like the fact that he had insisted on watching a video the night before and resurrected this recommendation again that afternoon: “Go to YouTube and search for ‘The Greatest Speech Ever Made!’”
I knew nothing about this speech or why he was recommending it, but when I watched the video that afternoon, I was stunned at what it was: Charlie Chaplin dressed as a parody of Hitler, delivering a rousing anti-fascist address.
And then my soulmate slurred, “That’s why people drink. Because humanity is a violent beast and people. won’t. stop. killing each other.”
My heart shattered: I knew that addictions usually had a current-life trigger… but I also knew that I was probably hearing some devastating truth spoken straight from his soul. Perhaps addictions had a past-life trigger too.
And so, to this day, the song “Some Nights” by Fun. reminds me of that hookup (and of that crush-turned-friend). The lines about war and ghosts and endings and forgettings and awakenings, and about the martyr you happen to sleep next to, who somehow lays to rest some crucial questions and reveals to you who you are.
Because after a lifetime of trying to repress Holocaust nightmares, and to dismiss the spontaneous and brutal war-era visions in my meditations as “random” intrusive thoughts… it was no longer so easy to ignore this all anymore. My reality had already begun to shift.
By the next year (2013) — through nightmares, feelings, “memories,” and additional uncanny coincidences — I’d already begun piecing together what might have happened to me during the war: that I was a young woman at the time. That I’d fallen into trading sex for survival. That, for some reason or another (and probably no surprise), this didn’t go well. That I was eventually humiliated and brutally beaten for my activities.
I didn’t understand most of the details, and in some ways, by 2013, I already assumed I knew everything I needed to know about that life. I was mistaken (there was MUCH more I was apparently meant to learn), but that’s where my head was when I began dating someone new that summer. And in the middle of my very first date ever with this new man, my old soul-friend (of the Holocaust fascination and the Charlie Chaplin video and the Schindler’s List remark… and the alcohol addiction) sent me a drunken, nonsensical, non-sequitur text message:
“Are you okay?”
Of course I was. Why would I be not okay? I was out on an incredible date.
Alas, he had no idea I was on a date in that moment… and I had no idea — but it became clear a very short time later—that I was on a date with one of the men I used to sleep with in the previous life, and whose past-life connection to me had been dangerous. I started to figure this out from the fact that this new guy brought up WWII and sex workers and the public humiliation of women who slept with Nazis on our earliest dates. From the fact that he happened to have memoirs written by Nazis right next to his bed (That was a mindfuck of a discovery the first time I entered his bedroom.). And from the fact that he once told me, “I could see you as a partisan.”
A partisan? The thought had never crossed my mind, but by this point, I figured I might as well take his word for it.
After all, even when we don’t remember our past lives, they are speaking through us.
I write this from 2019. It’s honestly been a really long and wild ride; since 2011 or so (though the clues were there much earlier), I’ve seen the past and the present dovetail in ways I never imagined possible. There is so much more to this story than I am capable of sharing here, but I wanted to share its “beginnings” with you to plant a seed of the understanding of how our spiritual connections to other times, places, and people might work. Life speaks to us. Our soulmates speak to us. And even when we aren’t aware of who we’re meeting and what we’re working on, we’re meeting who we need to meet and working it all out anyway.
Once in a while, though, over the years, I’ve met a soulmate or two who does recognize their latent connection to the war — and to me. Such as a friend I met in Shanghai: she, too, could sense some of what had happened to her back then, and we’d even shared a few trippy moments of mutual recognition with other wartime soulmates. Shortly before I left Shanghai, I visited the city’s Jewish Ghetto with her, and while we stood in the middle of a darkened viewing room, we saw a quote by Elie Wiesel, turned to each other, and froze.
“Did you read that quote?” she asked me.
I did. And it has stayed with me ever since.
And so it is with all of us. Whether we remember other lifetimes or not, whether we even believe in other lifetimes or not, our former experiences are still in the now. They’re in the now because time, the great mystery of physics, is not strictly linear.
Our lives are like a hand writing in a notebook: what we write on one page simultaneously leaves its imprints on all the pages below it — all the pages to come. And when we arrive at those pages, they are blank — we can write new stories — but occasionally the new stories we’re writing will intersect with the invisible impressions of things written on the pages that came before.
But each page is clean. Each page does allow for a new story. And that’s what really matters.