In my creative nonfiction course this quarter, we do an exercise in which they have to introduce themselves with a one-liner story. “When people say ‘tell us about the time,’ what story do they want to hear from you?” I ask them. Then, we write those one-liners as three to four paragraph narratives. And then, I have them choose a title from a set list of four. “Don’t pick the one that you think is an obvious fit,” I say. “Now, write another paragraph that ties that title and that story together.”
This is what I wrote in class Tuesday.
When I was two, my parents believed I was reincarnated from a poor black child. I had a heavy Southern accent and would paint myself all black with water colors. I spoke often of “Tom and Peggy.” “Who are Tom and Peggy?” they’d ask. “My parents,” I’d say. “From my other life.”
One day, the UPS man came to the door, and I answered. “Hi,” I said, looking up at him, a tall African-American. “We’re all white here—except for my dad. He’s black, too.”
There were no African-Americans in my western Kansas town. There were Hispanic field workers and two adopted Korean children. And my dad wasn’t black.
Years later, I’d ask my dad if he remembered me talking about Tom and Peggy. “Oh god, yes,” he said. “That used to creep me out.” My mom read a lot of Shirley MacLaine in those days, so she was down with the past life idea. When my grandmother died, I asked my sister how she explained death to my four year-old niece. “Oh, you know–the reincarnation stuff Mom told us: energy, moving into anther life.” We’d grown up Catholic, and the niece was being raised Methodist. But sitting on my lap after the funeral, she stared hard at a woman wearing all white, consoling us. “Are you my grandma’s new body?” The woman smiled sweetly. “Oh, I’m sure your grandmother has a new body in heaven now.” “Noooo,” I said. “She wants to know if you are actually our grandma’s new body.”
What I know about thunder is that it is an indication something’s shifting in the atmosphere. It rolls across the plains like a finger swiping right on Tinder, starting a conversation: thunder calls, lightning responds, and then the sky cracks open with the rain. My “past life” opened me, even as a child, to the possibility that difference was in me, that Western Kansas was not the world, that a black man at your door might be a brother from another mother. My niece, at four, was looking for a way to give a voice back to the dead, and we had an atmosphere for that possibility in my family.