After the Dragonfly

Running slowly, under a balmy, cloudless late-summer sky, my eyes fell on the grassy border between the wooshing traffic and my plodding feet and saw a tiny black dragonfly following me.

I looked again. It was definitely following me, buzzing fast enough over the recently mowed grass to match my plodding pace. For a moment I admired its shimmering wings and effortless grace.

Could this be my mother-in-law?

Some time ago my wife told me that, long before she passed, her mother warned her that if she could reincarnate herself, she’d come back as a dragonfly. My wife said she asked her mother why, and her mother, an Australian native known for long silences and longer distance stares that presumably connected her to her homeland, did not reply.

I’ve met people who believe in reincarnation. Some claimed they could “regress” into their past lives, in which they turned into the wide-eyed actors you see on DNA ancestry commericals, delighted to know that they were descended from severely interesting people, some of whom were royalty, heroes, famous, admirable. No one was a peasant pulling up potatoes or doing what almost everybody else was doing all the way down the evolutionary tree: hoping to outrun disease, famine and marauding armies in a desperate scramble to survive.

Reincarnation came up in a college religion class, in which my professor cleverly noted that, because more people are alive now than ever before, if every soul is unique and immortal, there simply aren’t enough to go around, unless there is a vast bank of souls somewhere all of whom have nothing to do until they’re born. Add to that the ethical judgement built into some religions: your new life depends on how nice you were in your previous existence.

If you believe that, you know that some people–I’m not saying who–deserve to come back as a bacterium.

So the dragonfly probably wasn’t my mother-in-law.

But (you think these things when you’re running and a dragonfly continues to follow you after you’ve explained it all away as a bug’s attraction to some aromatic element in your soap, shampoo, deodorant or what you ate for breakfast) how can you be so sure? Just because something doesn’t make sense now, with what you might know about the “real” world, doesn’t mean it may not make sense, somehow, with added knowledge.

The reason I was running was not to get additions–of anything. I wanted some portion of those extra pounds to leave me, the sooner, the better.

Though it would have been a treat, the dragonfly did not pause and speak to me in a noticeably Australian accent. Nor did it pause and stare off at the Melbourne streetcar line where she met my father-in-law, or back at the house I share with her daughter.

After about a hundred feet of close pursuit, the bug veered away.

I was left with a feeling that, no matter what we believe about life, death, souls and efficacy of exercise on a summer day, I was not alone.

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