Ordinary Magic

Today is the Dark Falling Leaves Moon. Tomorrow the 13th moon of the wheel of the year, the Hunter’s Moon, begins. Next week is Halloween, All Hallow’s, and the Day of the Dead. Also Bonfire Night if one is so inclined. It is cool and damp and rather dark with not much more than 10 hours of daylight — and wet weather eating into that. The leaves have been falling for weeks. By now the only colors left are the rusty oak leaves that won’t fall until Candlemas and the scattered golden flames of white birches in the midst of grey maples.

It is unequivocally the season of the witch. 

This is when quite ordinary people put on tall pointy hats and drape their homes in the webs of what must be highly energetic spiders. There are skeletons next door and an impromptu graveyard around the corner (gravestones for politicos… this being Vermont). The mayor’s house has black-lights trained on tiny ghost-lings in the crabapple trees. And the kids are a bit more interested in the crazy lady who lives in the witch house on the side of the hill. I think they’re waiting to see the broom take off…

I’ve been out of the broom closet for a few decades though I don’t make much of a fuss about it. Nor do I overtly look the part. I don’t go in for demonstrative couture, preferring comfort, and the few times I’ve ever tried hair dye I’ve ended up with an orange head… so that doesn’t happen. I do have a cat. Or a cat lives here and expects the biped with opposable thumbs to manage the facilities. But that’s about as far as I go toward filling in the stereotype. In any case, most adults don’t notice the subtle signs. But many of the kids do… My boss’s daughter wants to know where I “forage for potions”.

I get to explain myself more frequently at this time of year. Mostly I get to explain magic. Or maybe magic-with-a-k. 

I don’t do much of the latter. What is really fun though is showing kids that they do magic all the time. Every day. That there is little about the world that is not magical. Though sometimes they do get bummed that no letter from Hogwarts is forthcoming, and the dishes do not wash themselves. Ever.

Here is what magic is not. It is not pointing sticks or fingers with or without visible colored lights beaming toward the object of our intentions. It is not levitation or donning an invisibility cloak, though you can learn to fly out of body and walk invisible in broad daylight. It is not mumbling charms in badly garbled Latin and turning princes into frogs — nor the other way round. It is not control or power over objects. It is not manipulating hidden energies or ancient spirits. It is not bloodlines of special skills or powers. It is not mastering or becoming an adept. It is not forcing anyone to obey your will. It is most particularly not causing harm. 

All that is just tiresome and ever-so-mundane yearning for power over others, for domination, for superiority. Nothing special at all, and very much not magical. Though quite the effective way to dupe other humans out of wealth and labor…

Humans are not masters of the universe. We are hardly masters of our own bodies. There aren’t special people with special abilities and special access to especially hidden knowledge. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is selling you something… probably something worthless.

Now that is not to say that there is no mystery, that there aren’t ways of being that are occult — to us. But that’s not saying much. When we can’t explain 95% of the weight of existence, there’s bound to be quite a lot that is just plain incomprehensible. And it’s not that we’re stupid; it’s that we are inside the universe. Inside a very small and not especially central, very average backwater of the universe, to be more precise. Our ability to comprehend is limited by our ability to perceive, and here in what is rather akin to the prosaic suburbia of a somewhat boring galaxy we can’t perceive all that much.

Think about it this way. You inhabit a cage-like cubicle in a generic office building. There are windows, but you can only see a small portion of anything on the other side of the glass. You can’t interact with anything outside the building in any other manner. No touch or taste or smell. You have limited contact with other things within the building. You can talk to others. Some have cubicles with different views of the outside, but otherwise they are just as confined as you are. Nobody has ever been outside the building.

This is our experience of the universe. Even our comprehension of this planet that made us is constrained by our ways of being, our cubicles, our bodies. These cubicles don’t tolerate much and can’t interact with much of anything outside a very slim sliver of the surface of this planet. We can’t get sense information from what our bodies can’t tolerate. We can’t feel the weight of dark waters at the bottom of the ocean. We can’t breathe in the scents of high mountain glaciers. We can’t feel the texture of viscous magma or taste the difference between feldspar and olivine.

We have great difficulty with the very large, the very small, the very fast, the very slow. We must resort to imagination to explore quarks and quasars, photons and orogenic events. We don’t understand soil or fungi or how trees keep track of time. We don’t understand magmatic hot spots or the irregular but frequent shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field. We don’t have a clear view of what causes that field either. We don’t know how birds navigate much less how butterflies unerringly migrate to places their bodies have never been. We can’t talk with whales and have no idea what an elephant knows, much less a tree, or a forest. We are only beginning to notice the deeply entangled nature of existence; it’s unlikely that we’ll ever understand it.

We can’t interact with a great deal of what we know about. How much less can we learn about what we don’t know? Do you see how there might be room for mystery in all these unknowns?

There may be ways to travel in time, to change the tempo of the atoms in our body, to flow through all the vast empty space in solid matter. There may be other worlds and ways to travel between them. There may be ways to subvert what we understand as immutable laws of physical existence, since our laws are very likely little more than our average experience with the world. The problem with all those maybe’s is that our bodies only deal with what is and what is here. I imagine that we’d not be intact, never mind viable, after that level of material reorganization. It’s quite probable that matter is shimmering between worlds all the time, even matter from our own bodies… but not all at once and in the same configuration as an entire body. We can’t get there from here as bodies. It is much like the problem of existence after death. If our bodies quit operating as an organism, what remains of us? What are we when we aren’t this body? Can we name that being? We certainly haven’t been able to openly communicate with it… yet… In any case, it seems we can’t take our thoughts and memories and sensory experiences with us when we aren’t in these bodies. So in what way are we still “we” on the other side? If every part of this body is shifted and rearranged to some other way of being, how does anything of me remain? Even if all the shifting is merely to shift planes. All the connections and interactions and entanglements are new, so…

I doubt that’s still me… I know I can’t talk with it.

And these are the things we can imagine. How much more is completely beyond our capacity in all ways? Always keep that in mind when considering human mastery and occult mystery.

Which brings me back to magic.

What is magic in all this mystery? I like to think of it as a cause and effect relationship that doesn’t fit what we think we know about the world. Most of the effects take place in the body, particularly in the ways that we experience the world with our bodies. Most magic is a shift not in the rules of materials, but in our perception, especially perceptions of those rules. Though with all that wiggle room in the realm of the unknown, there is the possibility of pulling on entangled strings and having effects far beyond the body. We might be using mysterious connections all the time and not even know it. Because we can’t get outside our bodies to know it. We are these bodies…

Nonetheless, we do magic all the time. All of us. We do things that have no physical, logical, or practical relationship to anything but that have real effects on ourselves and, possibly, on the rest of the universe. Don’t believe me? Well, belief is one of the core acts of magic. So is imagination. And dreaming. Belief does not change the rules of matter, but it does change us and how we interpret those rules. I may not know anyone who can walk on water (except when it’s frozen… ), but we all have experiences with superhuman feats that are largely the effects of belief. We’ve seen old men walk barefoot on glowing coals. We’ve encountered women who can communicate with and pacify raging wild horses. We’ve all heard tales of astonishing, if temporary, surges of strength and endurance in times of acute distress. These all may be anecdotal and irreproducible, but there still remains the incontrovertible volume of these miracles. Belief may not make it so, but it certainly seems to help our bodies make it so.

Believing in magic is magic, but it’s not all of magic. Magic is so much more, so much of what we are every day. All the ritual acts, all the traditions that have no physical basis, no explanation, no why except just because. Be – cause. Revealing word, no? 

Everything from our religions to most of our forms of entertainment to much of our built environment, our tastes, our preferences — all that is magic. We spend most of our lives engaged in magical acts. Doing things that have no physical or biological explanation but that have large effects on both ourselves and on the world. Life itself is magic! That we are, that we are alive, that we are we is inexplicable magic. We are an occult cause with manifest effects.

Magic comes in many flavors. There is the cosmic miracle variety that may or may not have anything to do with humans. Probably not… But one never knows… There is the ceremonial variety that we all engage with in churches, in theaters and concert halls, and more recently whenever we watch a screen. These are all ritual spells, things done that have little meaning in the actual act but great meaning and effect in the perception and interpretation of those actions. Music is ceremonial magic. The act of drawing a bow over strings or blowing into a hollow tube produces effects far beyond the generated sound waves. For those who listen, music can change their interpretation of everything in the known world. Music takes on meaning and creates more change even after the voices and instruments have fallen silent. How? No idea. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real. It’s magic.

Which brings me to the third kind of magic — practical magic. Those things we do every day just for ourselves. No pomp or ceremony. No regalia or scripts. Very few tools. Little preparation or forethought or deliberation. But also very little reason to do these things other than it’s the done thing. Be-cause.

We begin the day with magic. We move our bodies in ways that signify the end of sleep and the beginning of action. These are magical postures. There are some physical justifications for stretching, but mostly we reach up toward the heavens just because. Because it makes us feel awake, alive, alert, ready. And there’s really no biophysical logic behind that elicited feeling.

Then we go about preparing our bodies for the day. Again, some of these things have physical bases. That we put on clothing is explained by our exposed skin and a general intolerance of hot, cold, wet, and too much sunlight. But the clothes we choose? That’s pure practical magic. From the making and obtaining of it to the donning of specific combinations on any given morning. And we do this before coffee, guided by instinct, gut feeling — belief! We magically array ourselves to meet the day each and every day. (Granted, some days we’re not very well arrayed, but nothing is an exact science…)

Not convinced that’s all magic? Well, consider… Why do you have candles on the table for some meals? Why do you have pictures hanging on your walls? Why do pictures get made at all? Why do you plant flowers? Why do you mutter swear words when injured or thwarted and whisper pleas for help when scared or sick? Why do you say “bless you” when someone sneezes? Why do you kiss your loved ones good night? Why do you love at all? Be-cause. 

Yep… it’s all magic! We do so much magic that we’ve lost sight of it. We don’t know we’re doing it. We don’t notice that none of this makes much sense except in terms of mystery. Small acts with large consequences. Real consequences. Physical consequences. We are magical beings. And we’ve just… forgotten that.

Yes, our power fantasies are somewhat to blame. When there are tales of mastering the stars and dominating demons, ordinary magic is just that… ordinary. But it’s still magic. And it is no fantasy. Magic is real and pervasive and in your hands every day of your life — which is itself the greatest mystery of all!

In this season, I find myself noticing more. And the more I notice, the more astounded I am. Why did that happen? How did I do that? All that from just… nothing? I am more aware of the mystery, the inexplicability, the magic. That awareness is one of the effects of being a witch. Truth to tell, that awareness might be the principal quality of witchcraft. I can see the mystery. The entangled relationship of existence. I can’t control it. I usually can’t understand it. But I know it. And that knowing gives me the supreme super-power of being… magical!

Just like you!

©Elizabeth Anker 2022

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