Originally published in Hotshoe, photography by Chris Shaw
It turns out there is such a thing as reincarnation. I know this because I’ve been reincarnated as a cactus.
It sounds like a joke, which is fitting, because reincarnation certainly sounded like a joke to me in my former life. In my forties, certain friends – recently divorced or getting over drug habits – began to follow paths of spiritual enlightenment, filling their dreary suburban homes with joss sticks and carefully placed crystals, and one or two spoke to me about reincarnation as though it was no more shocking a prospect than Christmas, or a second cup of coffee. Personally I never gave the idea serious thought except as a child when the subject came up in a school assembly, and I briefly considered the benefits of coming back as a rock star or world leader. I never entertained the possibility that one might return as flora. Perhaps this is punishment for my scepticism.
And yet somehow it’s not that bad. I have the sand beneath me, the blue sea crashing a few hundred yards away, the celestial smear of the milky way arcing overhead each night – as a former amateur astronomer limited to stargazing from my back garden in light polluted south London, the latter is a limitless source of wonder. For entertainment, I get to ogle the antics of a fabulously rich young couple on the grounds of whose beach house I appear to be planted – their endless parties, their spectacular rows. Nor do I have any of the cravings associated with human life: no ambition, no desire to socialise or procreate – not that I managed to procreate in my former life (some would argue that I barely managed to socialise). I’m quite content to sit here for my allotted decades or centuries and do whatever it is cacti do to help planet Earth stay balanced.
Which seems to confirm a suspicion that occurred to me following my wife’s death, during a period when I was distancing myself from friends and spending more and more time alone with my telescope: it occurred to me that consciousness was a curse, that self reflection didn’t elevate humans above the rest of the natural world, but dragged them behind it. Look at ants, I would tell the few people still willing to meet up with me: they live and die as part of an unquestioning hive mind, working the same way cells or nebulous star factories work. Perhaps it is they who understand existence, whereas we – weighed down with the cumbersome question ‘why’ – are destined only for anguish and disappointment.
All of which is arguably interesting, though it doesn’t explain why I’m still able to think such thoughts; why I’m able to associate the sound of seagulls with images of my grandmother’s arthritic hands fumbling with the wrapper of a Cornetto on Bridport seafront. If I’m now part of Earth’s unquestioning hive mind, why am I still cursed with memories of the life preceding this one? Why do I still think of myself as Marcus Whitworth of Blackheath, south London? Is this part of some punishment? Is it a mistake, the result of a corrupt file on the divine hard drive? Or is there something even more unusual at work?
This last possibility occurred to me a couple of days ago, when I realised that the house in whose grounds I stand is the property of Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I’m guessing that it’s currently the mid 1960s, somewhere between the high watermark of the band’s surf pop era and the recording of Pet Sounds, the record that triggered Wilson’s psychedelic journey and subsequent psychological breakdown. I wasn’t a fan in my past life – I was born in 1974, around the time Wilson was stupefied on drink and drugs in the bed he barely left for two years, and growing up I listened only to my mother’s classical records, lumping the Beach Boys along with punk and disco as distractions for dull minds. Towards the end of my life I saw a film about Brian Wilson called Love And Mercy, and as a result I’ve been able to put two and two together: I’ve begun to recognise the songs that I hear from inside the house, to understand snatches of conversation drifting over from awkward band meetings by the pool. Finally, three nights ago, Wilson himself spent eight hours staggering around the veranda while high on LSD, stumbling across the sand to kneel by the shore, sprawling on his back to look up at the stars. At one point he crawled towards me – a strange word, ‘me’, in this context – and passed an hour running his fingers lightly over my spines, tears in his eyes, insensible whispers breaking occasionally into song.
All of which made me realise how much unhappiness awaited him, and got me thinking about my own former life. I thought of my father leaving, of my mother struggling to raise me on her meagre income, of the kids who bullied me at school for my home-cut hair and worn out clothing. How I’d buried myself in books, hidden from women until my late thirties; how against the odds I’d fallen in love only to be forced to sit at my wife’s bedside and watch her fade away three years later, afterwards closing myself off completely, just me and my telescope, a bottle of wine and a film each night to dull the pain. I thought about how all that time I’d never quite shaken the idea that I could have been born as a rock star or a world leader, how I’d resented the universe for stitching me into so minor a life.
Looking at Brian Wilson’s face up close, listening to his nonsensical exaltations to god, I realised that no life is minor; that all human consciousness is plagued by the same euphoria and sorrow, the same Great Unknowing. At that moment I experienced an overwhelming urge to reach out and touch him, to tell him that everything would be alright in the end.
Another funny word, that: ‘end’. It seems there’s no such thing as an end after all. I must say I suspected as much, standing in my back garden and gazing into my telescope, or attending lectures at Greenwich Observatory, where I was once told that there were more suns in the known universe than there had been heartbeats in the entirety of human history. And what about the unknown universe? At the time of my death scientists were discussing the idea that the universe in which we exist expands only so far before contracting back to a point of light the size of a galaxy, then a planet, then an apple, then something infinitely smaller than an atom, after which it explodes into being once more to repeat the whole process again. Maybe that’s true, and maybe every time it happens we’re reassigned, all us individual consciousnesses, to live out different lives at different points in history.
Which leaves me wondering: why now? If I could have been reincarnated as a grunting Neanderthal stomping through the mulch of a primordial Earth, or a lightspeed traveller from a distant world (there’s clearly life out there amid the countless suns, and presumably consciousness is consciousness wherever it occurs), then why have I been reborn here, on this same planet, just a handful of years before my last time around? Is that a coincidence? Or again, is there something more unusual at work? I must admit that Brian Wilson up close did look a lot like the actor who played him in that movie – which, now that I think about it, was the film that I watched on the last evening I remember being alive. Maybe I’ve passed out on the couch after too many glasses of wine, and this is all a dream. If so, then it’s a turning point: no more lying in bed till noon, no more hiding away in my flat. I’m going to get back out there, immerse myself in the world, enjoy the company of my fellow humans for what little time I have left. If Brian Wilson was able to find redemption after those years in bed, then so am I.
If it’s not a dream, and I really have been reincarnated as a cactus, then that’s fine too. Life’s winking window on to the infinite is a dream whichever way you look at it, and it’s a pleasant one, for the most part. Take today for instance: the sun is about to rise, and sea birds are beginning their morning migration from a big rock on the eastern side of the beach; they leave in parties of twenty or so, loose Vs undulating in the lavender sky, a crescent moon hanging overhead. A camper van is parked by the shore, and a pair of surfers are paddling into the dark glass waves, the sound of their laughter drifting in the wind off the sea. It’s all one. There is no why.
Life is a beautiful thing. This time around, I’m going to enjoy it.