Through a glass, darkly
winter thoughts in spring
We are driving through the perpetual twilight of the deep forest. The snow that was falling at the outset of our drive down from Mount Rainier has settled into a gentle, windless drizzle, and the play of light through the clouds gives the sky an ochre cast rather than its usual gray, a warm glow that somehow shifts the mood from sullen to pensive. Those of us from these wet climes recognize this as a perfect rain.
My son is in the back seat performing some kind of past life regression therapy on his sister. There is only the sound of the rain, our tires on the pavement, and Dylan's voice, gently prodding.
"Imagine you have lived before in a different body," he says. "Try to picture what your life was like."
I play with this thought problem in my head. I spend a lot of time investigating the lives of the people who have come before me, trying to get a sense of how their lives might inform my own. I have lived a thousand lives within them: I am my mother's mother, and her mother before her, on back before her to the origin of these genes that define us. But this is genetic legacy, mapped out in neat lines of code we’ve learned to decipher over time. Dylan’s question is more mystical, an invitation to think on the life of a soul. What, he has me wondering, has been my spiritual ancestry?
Many faith traditions accept reincarnation as a fundamental truth, even though their practitioners have no conscious access to their previous incarnations. Of course, some people claim to know how their spirit has been embodied through time. General George S. Patton famously did. In fact, he might have enjoyed this talk with my son. Patton believed it was his fate to be continuously reborn as a soldier, and he was unselfconscious about discussing his beliefs. In his poem "Through a Glass, Darkly," he describes the range of battles he participated in during his many lives, serving as foot soldier and general alike, “Dying to be born a fighter / But to die again, once more.”
His life as General Patton ended in the German hospital I served in nearly two decades ago now, and as adjutant of that unit, I was tasked with putting on a ceremony each December to commemorate his death. At the time, Patton's granddaughter Helen Patton-Plusczyk was living in the country with her German husband and children, and she would attend each year's ceremony to read her grandfather's poetry and provide some remarks. It was a strange and almost surreal event in retrospect, this bridging of generations, this marriage of past and present, of German and American ideals. I still wonder how much the general had a hand in arranging certain ironies of the occasion.
I can’t help but marvel at the access I had to Patton’s story and the ease with which I was able to peer into his final days. I can recall one evening spent casually digitizing the hospital historical files—many of which pertained to the general's hospitalization and eventual death—as my way of keeping busy during an otherwise dull 24-hour staff duty. Historians might scoff at the nonchalance I applied to the task.
I sometimes think about Patton’s certitude in his belief that he was predestined to live and die by the sword. His conviction intrigues me. Why are some people so attuned to their purpose—regardless of how they have arrived at their belief—while so many are left adrift? We are told from childhood that we each have our own specific purpose, something that we alone have been called to do. I tend to reject this idea as fantasy, a fiction successful people have written for the underclass to keep them striving, but then I will think of Patton’s sense of singular purpose and I am given pause. He believed he was called to fight through God’s will alone, that he could “see not in [his] blindness" the reason for his eternal fate, but he knew it just the same. The reason itself was unknowable and therefore irrelevant. We can only do what life expects of us, regardless of the drives of our ego and ambition.
What has life called me to do in the past? What does it ask of me now? I wish I could have access to that knowledge, wish I could see in the smoked glass a reflection of the life I am meant to live. I have to believe I will be given a clear view in time. Perhaps it will take many lifetimes for the reflection to take shape. Perhaps it is enough that there is an image in the glass at all.