These memories are six decades behind me now, and there are not many. Yet those that remain are vivid, like post cards from another life. They say the young pay more attention, for everything is new, and there is truth in that, and it perhaps accounts for the vividness, yet so much has been forgotten. Where does your life go when it has been forgotten and no one living now remembers? The Tibetans will tell you that even waking life has the nature of a dream. Such gaps in my mental inventory make it easy to agree with them. Were there then other lives before that have been forgotten?
My parents and I lived beside the Strand in Hermosa Beach when I was very young, a sidewalk some ten feet wide, protected from blowing sand by a low wall that followed the curve of wide Pacific beaches for miles. From the low concrete porch of my house, even at four, I always stopped to take in the bright changeable horizon of sea as I came out. My days were mostly about little girl things. Giggling with friends, tiny paper cups of grape juice, roller skates that tightened with a key, scabbed knees, the Little Swings set on the sand near my house, and the Tall Swings farther along. We pumped our short legs back and forth, back and forth, gaining altitude until the gold sky beckoned, and then leaned back all the way, upside down to savor the sensation of the earth tickling our sun bleached hair on the downward sweep.
One day a friend invited me to explore the attic of her small beach house next to mine. There were several adventuring children, a ladder, a hatch in the ceiling. I see still in memory the dimness of the small room, with a shaft of light coming from one window, and mysterious things stacked in boxes all around. And then there was the old hat she took out of a box, still redolent of a scent, some ancient perfume that left me stunned. For suddenly my child’s mind was filled with complex adult sadness and a profound sense of loss, as if another life echoed in the far chambers of mind, every detail forgotten except the sense that something or someone once treasured had gone away, was forever out of reach.
I don’t know if the sensation started that day, or if it was only triggered by the old perfume, but I woke with it searing my mind many days in childhood and far into my thirties. It was a sensation of something interrupted, something I must do or find, so strong it felt almost like physical pain. I t would last two minutes or so, until the present asserted itself. For, rack my brains as I would, I could think of nothing I could do to assuage it directly.
There were other flashes of deja vu from time to time that left me straining after the feeling they evoked – the way the peninsula of Palos Verdes descended into the sea on a grey and windy day – a feeling of …what? Memories of battle? Of being on the sea? My Viking forebears? I watched the grim grey movie “Sink the Bismarck” as a young teen and found myself again overwhelmed by the same flavor of déjà vu. I have often thought the English language is missing a much needed word for this - mental flavor is the best I can manage. As if one has entered a door and found oneself in a world different from the world of 1950’s and 60’s Los Angeles. The feeling never lasted - it had no name, no place to latch onto – yet leaving it was like waking from a dream with tears running down your cheeks while all the drama that held you within it vanishes like mist.
There were other glimpses. The brick face of a Victorian house, seen through trees on a walk, set by a stream, covered in ivy – attached to an emotional memory of strictness, cloistered living that gave me only an odd relief at having escaped.
There was a memory of a place perhaps like southern India, glimpsed sometimes, a warm place with palm trees, white clouds, strong joy with a “mental flavor” all its own and absolutely beyond my power of description, except to say that everything seemed right there and when the sensation comes to mind, it leaves me yearning, for what, again, I cannot say. The pure white tops of thunder clouds can give the same feeling. And high mountains with snow, and a river below on a dusty plain.
I think it was in pursuit of such a memory, such a place, that I started out one night, at the age of five, on my first real journey. My parents did not take it personally when I made the announcement I was leaving home. They claimed to understand a person just has to go sometimes. They helped me pack my cookies and other essentials and followed discretely at a distance as I made my first happy exploration of the unknown (a bench a little further down the Strand than I had ever been before). There I sat and looked out at the moonlit Pacific Ocean and offered a cookie to a passing cat. Fifteen minutes later I started for home, journey complete. They welcomed me without comment and tucked me in with a kiss on the forehead. The seed of the desire to cross that ocean was present that night, however, strong enough that I remember it still. And when I did arrive, many years later, at my first airport in Asia, I looked back east across the familiar Pacific that had always lain to my west. I remember walking outside where small flags whipped in a sea wind, and tried to compare it with the image I had that night. Is this the place? Does it feel the same? It did not. Not quite.
I remember when the Dalai Lama made his escape in 1959, setting out at night, in the midst of a dust storm over Lhasa on his two week run for the Indian border. I was only ten but I heard about it somehow, and imagined him as a boy king and conceived a desire to see him. My father, generous-hearted as he was, decided about that time that I should be honored once a year on a day of my choosing. It was to be a day to mark, not my unearned birth, but my talents. I was to share all those childish drawings not only on the refrigerator door but with the world. So we went to Aunt Robbie’s apartment in Westwood for this special day I had announced, the day forever after to be called “Cesca’s Day” though we never actually did it again. I remember large crackling sheets of butcher paper stiff with water colors, several distracted youngsters who had no idea why they were there, adults dutifully admiring my scribbles, proud Hamp (my father) with the classical music on. And a Mr. Potato-head set that occupied us all for an hour. Though the occasion did not repeat, to this day, I always brighten a little when March 19 comes, even all these years later. And, as a Buddhist, I marvel at the synchronicity of choosing that particular day as my special day. For I know now that March 19 of that year was the very night His Holiness was leaving Tibet, after making his first steps into exile concealed in the uniform of a soldier, through the confusion of the crowd outside the Norbulingka, massed to protect him from a Chinese general who was demanding his presence and planned apparently to kidnap him. Was my choice a coincidence? Almost certainly, but it pleases me that that is the day I chose.
What does deju vu mean? Were these fragments of nostalgia and synchronicity meaningful? I wish I knew. I feel quite sure I am no former Tibetan. Indeed I feel little affinity for Tibetan culture at all – however I may admire the teachings of her religious leaders. But I have heard many stories in this long life that have lead me to believe we may indeed reincarnate somehow. Those childish feelings may really have been wisps of old memory, past lives as faded as this one already is in many aspects. I cannot say. But I hope they were. Who I may have been before does not really matter. But it would be nice to think those remnants of memory are a sign that there may be more to come. I think it was Voltaire who said, when asked, that he did not find the idea of being born again any more implausible than having been born once. And that had certainly occurred.