Updated: Apr 13, 2021
how to imagine magic in the Anthropecene
A recent webinar I watched featured a British anthropologist talking about how humans live (and do not live) alongside the land they occupy. It reminded me of a night a few years ago that I spent among friends. I was comforted that our actions made use of the experience of being human alongside the created land upon which we stood, even if it was close to the inner city of Nashville. We used fire, winter, and each other’s company to make a little magic.
A man in my life, whom I count among those dearest to me, claimed to be an atheist. Having grown up Roman Catholic, however, he would often send me the saint whose feast it was on any particular day. Theological beliefs and celebrations of cultural heroes do not necessarily go hand in hand, but I found it notable that he still used the Christian saint calendar to march through his year. Perhaps it was a little magic he sprinkled here and there.
More than this, however, I saw in his presence and practice of walking through the woods an ability to appreciate the energy that caused small tendrils to push out from the ground and wind themselves around grass fronds and saplings or admire the eons-long processes that eroded rock faces. He remarked on the fascinating way heat produced visible effect in hot coals, the ripples of soft flameless fire consuming wood. He talked about death in terms of "the worms getting to us," but added that the energy that propels us through life leaves a dead body. It goes somewhere. This energy doesn't decay like flesh, so perhaps eternal life, he admitted, is the infinity an electron spends spinning its way through time and space.
He celebrated life in general all the time, it seemed to me. I consider him an earthling of one of the highest orders. As a way of marking this and helping him celebrate yet another shift in season, I once planned a celebration of the winter solstice with a few of his close friends. One of them wanted to have a kind of pagan recognition of the special night. Being the religiously curious and open-minded Christ-follower that I am, I looked up what Starhawk recommends and quickly realized that I would besmirch these ancient traditions and my own theological integrity by attempting to lead some rite. I have neither the exposure, committed understanding, nor belief in the actions and symbols Starhawk offers. I told the friend this and she helped lead us in a truncated, yet meaningful goodbye to the previous year and its darknesses. With a pinch of salt and some intentional words, we welcomed the coming of new light once again. Then we burned my previous year's Christmas tree which had thoroughly dried out. It crackled and practically exploded in brilliance, the flames climbing to an almost frightening height. It was mesmerizing, the power of that heat and the brightness of the flames. Yet I ran and got the hose just in case it took a wild turn.
There was magic in the moment of that fire. What magic effected what outcome? At the very least, the shared moment underscored our friendships. At most, such magic cleansed our spirits to start a new year fed by our loves for living and contributing goodness to the world. For me, I was reminded on the longest night of the year that the light of Christ lives in me, illuminating my shadowing places with love. The responsibility to share that loving light with others left its warmth upon my face as I watched the high, furious flames eventually die down to undulating embers. I was suddenly Moses with his sacred sunburn burnished on his forehead and cheeks after speaking with YHWH on the mountain. Sharing that love is not about counting “saved souls,” but about giving out, paying forward, extending the Love of the universe that names me beloved and belonged to Itself, other humans, creatures, the stones that hold up my feet, even the distant stars that calm my restless spirit. There was Love everywhere. There always is. The cosmos is full of this Stuff.
If I had one wish, a dream I could make come true before I die, it would be that all life could feel the warmth of such interconnected enchantment upon their faces, humans especially. They could look into a mirror or a still pool and see the sunburn of love rosing their faces and foreheads. They would feel this lasting warmth and know they too are beloved and belonged. Know in the sense that we know how to swallow water. Know in the sense that we know to find shelter in a lightning storm. Know in the sense that our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits operate in tandem to give us a lasting sense of wellbeing: “that all is well, that all manner of things shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich wrote.
Perhaps we should make more magic moments out of everyday things everyday. Washing our hands is an ablution to offer thanks for so many things: indoor running water, heated indoor running water, soap and sanitation that support good hygiene, the freshness of being clean. Cooking over an electric stove is a ritual of thanksgiving for food and the means to cook it. Walking in our neighborhoods might take us on an imaginative journey to observe the strata beneath our feet that makes “civilization” possible: what lies under the pavement? What lies under the gravel pad under the pavement? What lies under the flattened dirt that lies under the gravel pad under the pavement? What moves and lives and eats and breathes and reproduces under the flattened dirt that lies under the gravel pad under the pavement?
What if walking outside, no matter where you are, be it urban center or farm and field, what if walking outside and noticing that all createdness is interconnected and sacred, sacred because of its interconnectedness, even our own human buildings? Perhaps we could better honor where and how we live with ourselves? Maybe bend down, put your hand on the hard, unattractive thing we call a road and pause for a moment. Pause for just thirty seconds, holding all of the life associated and connected by the hand-sized space of material you hold in grateful attention. Then say out loud, “Thank you.” Stand up, take a deep breath, and keep walking. Hold an apple or consider the grass. What imaginative magical thought attends what you experience with your senses? And how does that thought lead you to respond?
What if we created small magical moments like this every day, even several times a day? How much richer our lives would be knowing that we have honored the Sacred Thing, whatever you wish to call It, that connects us and keeps us in relationship. How much whole-ier we might be as persons fragmented by 21st century living, running to and fro, collapsing at the end of the day. How much gentler we might walk upon this fragile earth, too full of gratitude to be able to abuse it.
I love Shel Silverstein’s short poem, “Magic.”
Sandra's seen a leprechaun, Eddie touched a troll, Laurie danced with witches once, Charlie found some goblins' gold. Donald heard a mermaid sing, Susy spied an elf, But all the magic I have known I've had to make myself.
Like Silverstein, I make magic myself because I must. My gratitude compels me to ritualize each day. I cannot help but do this. For me, the four directions of Christ’s equidistant cross show me that all of Creation can be my amulet or wand or vial of herb. In every direction I see the stuff that can help me mark each day sacred. I open my eyes each day. I close my eyes each night. I strive to mark each moment in between by listening for the wind or the dependable mourning dove, touching dirt, putting my face to the sun, smelling a leaf, tasting a rock--each moment is a failed effort to adequately express, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." I believe I shall spend my life trying to feel satisfied with the expressions of my gratitude.