In other lives

I’m not sure how I was introduced to the music of Vienna Teng. It might have been a special on a local PBS channel about bay area musicians. The special included short clips of the artists’ music, and I was intrigued. I’ve now become a fan of her music. I own several of her albums. The track “The Next Time Around” on Inland Empire speaks to me especially.

In another life
You and I worked West Virginia coal mines
Side by side
Collecting the black dust like sin
The day the main shaft caved in
I caught your eye
As the lantern light guttered out
And the after damp swallowed us slowly
I gripped your hand
And caught a glance
Of the next time ’round

I don’t believe in reincarnation, or any sort of afterlife. I believe that each person gets one shot to live, which begins when you’re born, and ends when you die. I don’t believe in reincarnation as a do-over, or as punishment or atonement, or–at all. Nevertheless, there is something here that speaks to me deeply. I don’t believe in literal reincarnation, but I believe in what I’ll call metaphysical oneness. Specifically, although each person is an individual in every way that matters, we are also one–each person is only aware of themselves, and that self is always, at base, the same. I don’t experience myself as any not-others, only as myself, and likewise for everyone else. This oneness is the essence of the human experience, and it’s the thing that enables us to read writing on a clay tablet or papyrus that an ancient scribe scratched out five thousand years ago and get it, to know that regardless of circumstances, people are basically the same no matter what.

I find comfort in this. I find comfort in knowing that no matter what happens to me–or to any individual, even though it pains me to think of anything bad happening to my loved ones–that human experience, that striving, that onward-ness, will continue. I am me, and only me, but it is not inaccurate to say that I am “the next time around” for any number of people who lived and died in much less comfortable circumstances.

The rest of the song continues, not, as one might think, as a discussion of reincarnation, but more as an awareness of the harshness of circumstances, and of the need to be grateful for when you land in good ones. I don’t know if Vienna Teng really believes in reincarnation, or, if, as I suspect, she’s using the form as a meditation on circumstance. It doesn’t really matter. The song moves me every time I hear it. Life is short, and sometimes harsh. Each of us gets a set of circumstances–givens–not of our choosing, and changing them can be hard. Nothing is guaranteed, but I find strength and comfort in knowing this–that I have, metaphorically, lived other lives, and that I am someone else’s “next time around.”

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