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Magic Or Not
(or How My Atheist Mother Taught Me about Prayer)
What is magic? Is it a sleight of hand used to entertain children or technological wizardry that astounds the masses? In either case it is always possible to pull back the screen and show the man behind the great and powerful Oz starting up the smoke machines and pulling the levers for the show. We all know that real magic, magic beyond our ken and explanations, is finally a fantasy, a fairy tale, nothing more than a children’s story that we all must, ultimately, grow up and grow out of.
As a child my mother read me stories about magic. She was a woman entirely without religious, or even spiritual inclinations. We didn’t go to church, or affiliate with any denomination. There was no Bible in our house, no mention of Jesus or Moses or Buddha, and certainly no discussion of prayer. My parents were modern people who believed in science, politics, various theories regarding their own psychologies, and the New York Times, the only news that was fit to print. People who saw things were crazy. People who heard things were crazy. People who didn’t keep their senses gated and monitored were probably going to go crazy. My grandmother had “gone crazy” and my mother liked to assert with some regularity when she had something to say, that she was “talking about reality.” Still, she had been read the stories of a socialist British feminist as a child that were about nothing but magic—and she read them to me, and all the many authors who were influenced by this turn-of-the-last-century author.
Edith Nesbit was a Fabian, part of a radical group of thinkers and activists in England that included such characters as George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle who believed in social equality and economic justice. She believed in women’s rights, and worked and supported her family, and smoked cigarettes and tolerated an open marriage that had her raising her husband’s children as her own. Like my mother she had no interest in institutional religion, spiritual nonsense, or perfecting her soul. She was involved very much in thinking about reality and its problems. Yet in book after book, she created a world, available only to children, where anything could happen and wishes might come true.
Inevitably in her stories children were left to their own devices while the grown-ups struggled with some intractable problem—financial, medical, personal, and always catastrophic. The children knew all this was going on but felt helpless to help until they find themselves immersed in an unexpected magical adventure instigated by an unexpected magical object—an amulet or a carpet, say. Suddenly they find themselves transported through time and space and getting in to no end of trouble because magic, it turns out, can be hard to manage. Usually a creature of some kind—a grumpy phoenix or a cantankerous sand fairy—offers them complicated counsel. Ultimately, the children figure out how to use their magical means to solve the grown-ups problems—without the grown ups knowing that is what they’ve been up to.
Nesbit’s books initiated a whole new culture of children’s writing—that was both fantastical and funny. C.S. Lewis was indebted to her for his Narnia stories with their magical wardrobes and talking animals and so many of the tropes in the Harry Potter series have their genesis in the tales of cast-off kids needing to save the day. The American writer Edward Eager* explicitly adapted Nesbit’s stories for a more modern audience, turning his musical theater background to great comical effect as his children tried to negotiate magic that only came in halves or needed a body of water or a patch of garden to contain its wonders. Alice Hoffman, the bestselling author of the Practical Magic series, has cited Eager as a direct influence on her work.
For me, growing up, the message I received was that despite what the grown-ups might think and say, magic was what was needed and magic was what was there. I had a runaway imagination and I spent much of my childhood waiting for the animals to start talking and the statues and old necklaces to begin granting my wishes. Little did I know that these yearnings would only find their fulfillment when I had left childhood behind, that only when I was a grown up would I discover magic is real and always saves the day.
What is magic?
In each of Nesbit’s and Eager’s stories the magic leads these children to their heart’s desires. They may begin by playing with it, experimenting with it, messing around with it but they always discover that the magic has shown up to help them solve their biggest problems. In Half Magic the children find a coin that will only grant half of whatever they wish for. The children’s mother, a widow, is incredibly unhappy and their wishes on her behalf create no end of mayhem…at one point she finds herself halfway home, for instance. But it is here she meets the man who will renew her lifeforce and heal her fractured family. But the last wish of the children, before their mother’s marriage, is to see their father one last time…
What I realized was that magic was about prayer. Magic was prayer. Magic was activating the prayer of the world…and the whole world would show up to help you learn to manage it. This is what happened in my life. The owls and the hawks and the herons offered guidance. The statues granted wishes. I could shut my eyes and trust my reveries to help me time travel. I could see the future. I could visit the past. It could be tricky knowing what to pray for, knowing what was in my heart, and often it has felt like the magic has taken me on a merry romp indeed. But always, always guiding me on the path of the heart.
My atheist mother in giving me books about magic that gave me practical guides to the art of prayer. You had to want something. Truly. Madly. Deeply. You had to wish for it with your howle heart and you had to step into the unknown and the impossible and the unimaginable.
The magic of prayer is the only way we are going to solve the messes that the grown-ups have made of everything. The techno-narcissists may think that we’ll invent a better machine, a better car or bomb, and solve the problem of life—but life itself is magic and we can only heal it with magic.
Magic is not a game we can game or an entertainment we can use to distract ourselves. It is the Hail Mary prayer we hurl out into the cosmos from the depths of our heart.
We will need to remember that objects have hidden powers, that all the animals, especially the grumpy ones, are speaking to us, that time travel may be necessary for guidance, that things can seem to be in a terrible muddle but once we are on the path of our hearts there are no wrong steps, that everything is conspiring to help us get where we want to go.
Jesus the magician invited us to become as children again…to stop gating out most of our sensory experience, to stop confining reality to an ever narrower set of functional concerns, to make ourselves available to wonders. Can we listen to the animals again? Can we remember what is in our hearts? Most of all, can we play and imagine and have fun again?
Because real magic is funny, playful, and unexpected. It will lead us where we really want to go—on a road we never imagined with adventures we cannot predict. Real magic can only happen when we let go of the levers of control.
Magic is what we are going to need to regreen the world.
Magic is what happens when we open ourselves up to collaborating with the seemingly unseen world.
Magic is real and yes, Mum, I’m talking about reality.
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