Reinventing Reincarnation: Seeing Forever On
A Clear Day or The Opposite of YOLO
If you’re hip or at least partially aware of present-day slang, then you probably know what this acronym stands for. If not, please let me quote from bawdy comedienne Mae West who once said, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
That’s right, kids. You only live once.
People have been known to repeat those four words when challenging themselves to try something new or to indulge in illicit activities. I know I’ve said those words a hundred times or more. When trying something for the first time or engaging in bad behavior, it helps to shrug and say, “Why not?” to justify one’s actions. After all, we only live once.
According to some, our spiritual selves live more than once. The subject of karma has been defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as the “force created by a person’s actions that is believed in Hinduism and Buddhism to determine what that person’s next life will be like.” While I am not knowledgeable whatsoever in the multiple facets of either religion, that idea of ending one life and beginning another smells suspiciously like reincarnation, which takes the belief one step further by stating that people are born again with an entirely different body after death. Reincarnation most certainly does not stand by the YOLO tag.
As a product of a traditional Irish-Italian Catholic family without a whiff of exposure to any other outside belief systems, I simply did not believe in reincarnation. In fact, such a sacrilegious idea was thought to be the Devil’s doing. No one in their right mind would believe such nonsense that a person could come back to life in a different body after death, not unless they were in the nuthouse or a non-believer without faith in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Since I was raised as a believer, reincarnation was a sinful no-no. As with most things that are prohibited as a child, one usually wants more. In the case of this strange spiritual idea, I was too young and unschooled to give it much thought yet too pulled in by darkness to not be intrigued.
Growing up in the 1970s, reincarnation was everywhere as hippies and flower power combined in a frothy mix to bubble nontraditional ideas up to the brink of the pop culture basin. This was a time of love-ins, “Laugh-In,” and living situations beyond the nuclear family. John Lennon looked like Jesus and hallucinogenic drug-taking was at an all-time high. It was a heady time and in my little head, vivid pictures flooded my voracious imagination time and time again regarding reincarnation, mostly due to a couple of movies that became an integral part of my childhood.
Let’s start with the scary ones.
A movie released in 1975 adapted from a Max Ehrlich novel, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud frightened the beejesus out of me due to the frightening movie poster alone.
Being a sheltered child at the time, I was not allowed to see such a titillating motion picture although I still recall the sense of unease and creepiness this Peter Proud exuded for me, as well as the rabid curiosity that consumed me. What was this reincarnation? And what was he so proud of? Only eleven years old when the film was released, I still recall the image of that screaming man (shirtless, no less) which continues to haunt me to this day. *shudder*
Let me also mention Audrey Rose if I may, another reincarnation-themed novel and film from the 1970s. Honestly, I cannot remember if I read the 1975 novel by Frank De Felitta or not. I think I did because of my obsession with the 1977 movie but, alas, I’m having a brain fart. All I know is that this story had a huge impact on my imaginative little mind. Anthony Hopkins starred as a widower with haunted eyes alongside some unknown girl called Susan Something-or-other (Swift, it was Swift!) who portrayed Audrey Rose. Check out this creepy movie poster as well:
The fact that my birth year of 1964 was emblazoned across the film’s poster (“Born: 1959 • Died: 1964 • Born: 1964)” only added to my terror. Upon further research, I discovered that the 1977 horror film was directed by the legendary Roger Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music). Who knew? What I do know is that I did see this film and it truly was a “haunting vision of reincarnation” as the poster states.
The plot revolves around Elliot Hoover, a man grieving over the death of his wife and young daughter Audrey Rose from a fiery car crash. When two psychics advise him that his daughter has been reincarnated in an 11-year-old named Ivy Templeton in New York City, he becomes obsessed with the girl and is truly convinced that his child lives within her. Several frightening incidents bolster his case, including one where Ivy burns her hands while banging on her bedroom windows one night during a nightmare, just as Audrey Rose did while perishing in flames. Elliot becomes the only one who can calm her down by calling her by his dead daughter’s name. Unfortunately, Ivy’s father has Elliot arrested and, during the trial, young Ivy is hypnotized to dire results; she dies on the witness stand re-living the painful death of Audrey Rose. The end of the film contains a quotation from the Ghagavad-Gita: “There is no end. For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does it ever cease to be. It is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval.” Heavy stuff for a kid to wrap his head around, especially one who is only thirteen years old.
An additional major brush with reincarnation from my early childhood was the somewhat goofy musical On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, a durable classic in my eyes.
On A Clear Day (1970) was directed by Vincente Minnelli (yes, Liza’s father and one of Judy Garland’s gay husbands) and starred Barbra Streisand, Yves Montand, Jack Nicholson, and Bob Newhart in a musical about a hypnotherapist falling in love with a woman who remembers past lives. My father, an obsessed Barbra fan, took me to the Arden Fair Movie Theater in Sacramento to see this picture on the big screen one year after popping my Barbra cherry with 1969’s Hello, Dolly! [As an aside, no wonder I’m a homosexual.]
Anyway, although I have now seen On A Clear Day a multitude of times, it is easy to recall the shock I felt during her smoking scene like it was yesterday. To start off, Barbra’s character Daisy, a ditzy-though-clairvoyant gal in New York engaged to a straight-laced businessman, sings a song that makes flowers grow before sitting in on a university class taught by the French-accented Dr. Marc Chabot (Monsieur Montand). In that class, he demonstrates the techniques of hypnosis. As he hypnotizes a student in front of the class, Daisy becomes entranced as well and performs a ridiculous stunt that the teacher is suggesting, even though she is seated in the back of the lecture hall. It is a phenomenon he has never witnessed and before he can grab Daisy to ask how that came to happen, she runs away. Unnerved, the next day she decides to go to his office for an appointment. You see, she is a rabid chain-smoker (five packs a day!) and feels she can quit if the professor hypnotizes her to that effect. There is an important business dinner she must attend with her fiance and he has asked her to stop smoking. The scene where Dr. Chabot opens the waiting room door to bring Daisy inside for her session is mind-blowing. The little room is entirely engulfed in cigarette smoke! Barbra Streisand sits there in a page-boy hairdo puffing away like a chimney and one can barely even make out her prominent nose in all that white haze of smoke. As a child, the image was terrifying; now I just find it hilarious, it’s so over the top. Although I will admit, I’m surprised that it did not turn me off from smoking forever.
But I digress.
My point is, once she goes under hypnosis to quash her smoking habit, the good doctor finds another woman besides Daisy in the room with him—a high-bred British woman named Lady Melinda Winifred Waine Tentrees, complete with hoity-toity accent. Turns out Daisy was once the seductive 18th century beauty Melinda, also a clairvoyant, and Daisy’s gawky, awkward demeanor falls to the wayside as the hunky doctor falls in love with the exotic woman she USED to be. Reincarnation, man, what a trip. Jack Nicholson’s stoner character takes it all in stride, of course, but when Daisy finds out the truth about herself near the finale, she freaks out beyond belief. Who wouldn’t? To cap off the film, she goes under the doctor’s spell one last time, and here is when Daisy describes fourteen additional lives including her forthcoming birth as Laura and subsequent marriage to the very same therapist in the year 2038. Fascinating stuff. And in my closed and closeted mind, an utter fantasy.
So, the question may be posed: is reincarnation fact or fiction?
Well…who knows? Perhaps we never will learn. Not in this lifetime anyway.
The point is that one should have faith in one tenet or the other in order to make peace with oneself. Growing up, I believed reincarnation was fiction. When actress Shirley MacLaine came out with her 1983 autobiography entitled Out On A Limb, she blew up the taboo on reincarnation and claimed it as a fact of her life.
Regardless of my skepticism, the book was a worldwide bestseller and Ms. MacLaine went on to write several more immensely popular tomes about her many New Age beliefs. During the publicity of the book’s release though, she was the butt of many jokes (including mine), although none were as scathing as the late-night television comedians. In fact, when David Letterman once badgered her on the topic, Shirley snapped, “I think Cher was right. You are an asshole!”
Ten years after the groundbreaking Out On A Limb, even Mrs. Doubtfire got into the action. I happened to catch portions of the 1993 movie starring Robin Williams and Sally Field the other weekend whilst doing laundry and, boy, was I startled to hear the following conversation. “I feel like I’ve known you for years,” says Sally with an uncomprehending expression on her face, staring at the elderly housekeeper who reminds her of her husband. “Maybe we knew each other in another life,” Mrs. Doubtfire responds wistfully. Maybe.
Only recently have I begun to perceive a small ray of light peeping from the cracks of this tightly-wound veneer surrounding the idea of reincarnation that I have built up after approximately five decades on this planet.
Here are two reasons why I now think that reincarnation cannot be summarily dismissed.
1) As a boy, I desired nothing more than to be a girl. I loved my sister’s fancy dance costumes and tap shoes, hoping I would look just as natural wearing them one day. I played with Barbie dolls constantly, wishing I had the supernatural power to stop time in order to raid a Toys R Us and handle every single doll in the store without my parents’ knowledge. I prayed to God every night that I would wake up as a member of the fairer sex. I wore silk scarves pinned on my head to emulate Farrah Fawcett-Majors’s bouncy ‘do from Charlie’s Angels. And one year I almost went to bed on Christmas Eve with a long wig on so that Santa Claus would gift me with girlish presents on Christmas Day. Just recently, when I began reminiscing about such affectations of mine as a child, I wondered: Were these extreme actions an actual linear result of being a girl in a past life? Previously, I would have scoffed at such a ridiculous notion. Now, on the other hand, I am at least up for entertaining the notion. After all, what do I know? In the grand scheme of things, not much. If reincarnation does exist, as many religions other than Christianity believe, then my passionate pursuits as a boy would make sense. Acting like a girl desirous of feminine items and behaving in a stereotypically “girly” way, all of those things that made me wretched as a boy, could now be justified. Those feelings can now be chalked up to being intrinsically part of who I am and part of my makeup as a fully realized human being, one who has lived through many such lives in my past.
2) Smoking the herb has made me ruminate upon reincarnation in ways I never dreamed of before. As many of you know, the mind does magical loops on cannabis. For instance, my fascination with religion and all its pomp and circumstance? Chalk that up to donning a priest’s robe in a past life, obviously. Early yearnings to have children of my own? Duh, that is a direct result of me being a father at a previous time and place. And could my expressions of humble servitude come from being an actual servant in a past life? I mean, I’m pretty sure I would make a great butler if I haven’t already been one. On the other hand, I know for a fact that I could not have been a knight in days gone by nor could I have been a mechanic or welder or pirate or murderer. Why? Because none of those things are in my blood. Nothing about such pursuits feels familiar or possible or pursuable. That’s why.
People say they have regrets about certain things they never got around to in their lives. Maybe we think we “regret” not doing them now because we’ve done them in the past and these remembrances cling to us like cobwebs that we learn to brush away until they are no longer upon us. As for me, I want cobwebs. I want to feel gossamer strands of the past spinning around me in wave after wave of possibilities, of lives led, of encountering experiences I could never imagine. Is that why I’m a writer? Are all writers just reimagining their past (or future) lives? How else could someone delve so deeply into a topic or character that they really have no personal experience with or in? Or do they…? Again, more unanswerable questions.
I, for one, have decided to base my newfound faith on the possibility of having a past life or two and would like to propose a reinvention of reincarnation. Why not? If dumpy Daisy can be marvelous Melinda, then there is no end to the multiple lives and experiences that we can learn to embrace. If she can see forever on a clear day, then so can I.
Now if only I can quit my damn smoking habit as well.
Hey, does anyone know of a good hypnotist? Not the one that put little Ivy Templeton on the witness stand though. That didn’t end too well.
Instead, I’ll take the suave Dr. Chabot any day.