Do You Believe In Magic?

lightsOne Sunday morning when I was 7 or 8, I got up early. Everyone else was asleep, so I grabbed some Corn Chex and turned on the TV. There was this guy in glasses and a brown suit, talking fervently about how God always answers our prayers. You only need to believe hard enough and open your heart to Jesus Christ and accept him as your lord and savior and all manner of miraculous things would be possible, he said, and he was really into it, sweating and crying into the microphone. God can and will do anything for you if you only submit yourself to Him.

I was pretty little at this point, so I took him quite literally. And primed as I was by bibbity-bobbity-boo and cartoon talking dogs and stuff like that, I guess this premise sounded reasonable to me. At least, I decided to try it out.

So when I finished my Chex, I crawled into the hall closet, shut the door, closed my eyes. Then I prayed. I submit to you, Lord Jesus. I open my heart to you and ask you only this one thing — I want to be beautiful. Blonde, blue-eyed, and thin. When I come out of this closet, I want everything to be different.

I must’ve been in there an hour, concentrating so hard that I vibrated with the effort. And … maybe I was also stalling a little, because I was scared that it wasn’t going to work, that I’d come out and look in the mirror and be exactly the same as before.

Which, of course, is precisely what happened. And an acid-green vein of cynicism started to grow across my heart that day, because I began to realize that magic — at least the kind of magic I’d seen in movies and read about in books — didn’t exist.

I had to learn the lesson a few more times. I had to fantasize really hard about several pretend boyfriends before it sank in that fantasizing about someone is not an effective way of making them love you. I had to daydream about being discovered as a great singer/wit, and go broke while waiting, before it sank in that I needed to get a damn job.

It wasn’t until I was around thirty, I guess, when it occurred to me that expecting someone to discover me and make me a star was not actually a viable life plan.

In fact, waiting around for anything to happen ever is basically the same thing I did after watching Jimmy Swaggart that morning thirty-some years ago. It’s wishful thinking. It’s future-tripping. It’s believing in the wrong kind of magic.

Because, you see, magic is absolutely real. But it doesn’t work the way we think. It’s not something that — bam! — just happens to you.

It’s more like … something that rallies around you when you focus your effort and love on something, whether it be a painting or a child or a software project. Sometimes you point yourself in the direction you want to go, and you start paddling, and then the wind comes up behind you and fills your sails. That is what magic is.

I’m pretty sure it’s not supernatural — it’s just how nature works. And it rarely comes down like a lightning bolt from the sky. Usually, magic requires that we participate in it. That we take the first step, pay attention, ready our sails to catch the wind as it rises. It requires that we know how to sail. It requires effort and skill. It’s not given so much as earned.

Real magic is even more subtle and lovely and fantastic than what we were taught. It comes out of our very own fingers and brains and hearts when we engage, when we work to learn and understand and shape the forces at play in our lives, even as they shape us.

photo by Billy I // cc

Crazy Compared to What?

ヤマアジサイ

Short answer: Compared to how you want to feel.

Long answer: This is all subjective. One person’s mildly crazy is another person’s normal and yet another person’s completely out of control. So I’m not here to judge.

Sure, I might see patterns in how people are behaving, and I might talk about those patterns, but it is clearly not my role to call anyone anything. It’s more like, I’m here, and I’ve been on the planet for a while now and have struggled with many situations where I felt out of control and cloudy and like I couldn’t understand myself … like

  • when I’ve gotten stuck in a fat shame spiral trying to get dressed in the morning and feeling 100% like Jabba the Hutt
  • when I’ve obsessed about someone hardcore for months on end, fully believing I could force love to bloom through blunt psychic force
  • when I’ve lusted about buying more eyeshadow I don’t need and ultimately can’t resist buying more eyeshadow I don’t need and I’m forced to question whether there really is a any concept of free will in the universe.

Over the years, I have found a few things that have helped me reframe these situations, let go of them, and move on to different and slightly more interesting problems (although, yes, I admit it, I still buy excessive amounts of eyeshadow ).

It starts with taking a good hard look at what we’ve been taught, recognizing much of it for the bullshit it is, and making the choice to leave it behind. No longer burdened, we can then connect more easily with the most rational and relaxed part of ourselves, and bring forth our personal forms of genius.

I know that reading and writing about these ideas helps me — it helps me remember what is important and what is not. (Not important: the person in front of me going 5 mph below the speed limit. Important: Making some time to write, stretch, and dream every day.) Sometimes in reading I come across a turn of phrase that retunes my thinking in a useful way. And other times I feel certain that spouting off about how to keep my mindgrapes in good nick actually helps keep my mindgrapes in good nick.

So my goal here is to do a couple of things. First, it’s just to ask — how are your mindgrapes? Are you happy with the way you’re thinking about your life? Is it serving you? Or do you need to shift some stuff around?

If you do feel like you might want to shift some stuff around, then I hope I can provide some turns of phrase and maybe some new perspectives that will help you retune your brain.

All of this is so that you can spend LESS time feeling bad about your chubby legs or withering away in a relationship that isn’t serving you or spending all your money on shit you don’t need in a desperate attempt to fill the void … and MORE time playing with the makeup you already have and hanging out with people who love you properly and making significant contributions to the small and big circles of your life.

Because here’s the thing — all the self-limiting rubbish that’s blowing around our heads? It’s not even special. As Liz Gilbert says, “Your fears are just regular old mass-produced, made-in-China, sold-at-Walmart fears. Nothing fine or precious or artisanal about them.”

Our super-fragmented, always-online culture encourages us to curate ourselves, to treasure our eccentricities and cultivate our tastes with pinpoint precision … and I think sometimes in the course of doing that, it’s easy to end up kind of fetishizing our own weaknesses and fears, to spend precious time tending our garden of craziness, contemplating each flower and leaf, thinking that the complexity of our pain is what makes us special.

But it’s not. It so really is not. The thing that makes a person special is what you do after the fear, what happens beyond the pain.

So that’s the goal here — to identify our Walmart fears and set them down, thus leaving our hands free for more interesting work.

You in?

photo by Kazuhiro Tsugita // cc

Who Gets To Decide Who You Are?

Staring catLately I have fallen into Octavia E. Butler’s dimension, and it is a mind-exploding place to be. Her novel Kindred is about a young black woman named Dana who mysteriously disappears from her own world — 1976 Los Angeles — and finds herself in Antebellum Maryland.

After this happens a few times, she figures out that she goes back every time a white boy named Rufus lands in a life-threatening situation. She also figures out that Rufus is her ancestor, so she needs to keep him alive until he’s fathered the child that will keep the chain going from him down to her.

Told from Dana’s perspective, the book is vivid and haunting and terrifying and even funny, full of descriptions that bring the reader directly into her experience and her thoughts about that experience. We see how her modern ideals conflict with the reality of her 1800s situation, and we see how that conflict wears her down over time.

And here’s what the conflict boils down to — who gets to say who she is?

In 1976, Dana gets to say who she is, at least to a certain extent — she’s strong, intelligent, capable, a young writer free to think or say or do whatever she likes.

But in 1818, her ideas about who she is are overwhelmed by everyone else’s ideas of who she is. Everyone else sees her blackness and thinks “slave.” They see her femaleness, too, and they think “for my use.”

It doesn’t matter that there are no papers showing that she has ever been bought or sold. It doesn’t matter what she says, it doesn’t matter that she knows about Black Power, and it doesn’t matter that she’s wearing pants. She is a black woman, so she must be a slave. There’s no room in their minds for her to be anything else.

Not having been raised to see herself as a slave, sometimes she forgets. She looks at white people too directly, challenges men too easily. But over time, after repeated beatings and humiliations, the conflict wears her down. As the book progresses, she finds it harder and harder to internally resist sliding into the subservient role. In the overwhelming pressure of what the world thinks she is, she struggles to hold on to her idea of who she thinks she is.

This, to me, is the most exquisite and painful part of the story, because it shows exactly how oppression twists the souls of those who suffer it.

***

I say this not from some intellectual position outside of this phenomenon. Though clearly I have never experienced anything like those who suffered through slavery, my soul has been twisted, too. To hate my imperfect body, to believe in the impossibility that I will ever truly be okay, even to allow others to take brutal advantage of me simply because one shouldn’t raise a fuss.

But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that I am in possession of more physical, cultural, and emotional freedom than any of my ancestors ever had. I have been shaped by my culture, there’s no denying it — but I also have many opportunities to shape my culture back. I have the ability to examine and reject the criteria my culture has set for success. I have the freedom to make myself better.

And these two opposing forces are at play in and around all of us. Cultural pressure to conform presses from the outside, and the soul’s inherent desire for freedom strains from the inside. The inertia of the past presses up against the call of the future, like tectonic plates shifting, and the interplay between these two is called history.

But it moves slowly, because the gravity of the past is IMMENSE. The most fucked up ideas of the past have been blunted a bit, for sure — we don’t have slavery anymore, we don’t have women being owned by their fathers or husbands. But we don’t have to look far to see those old ideas still in action today: the racist brutality in Ferguson and all over the country … the casual attitude toward rape and domestic violence … the notion that wealth means you are a good person and poverty means you’re a bad lazy one who deserves no help.

Culture if not law is still trying to dictate who each of us is. And to be limited like this, to be categorized like objects, to be denied the most basic human right of deciding for oneself who you are —  it’s a soul-level injury. And it creates a fundamental conflict between individuals and the society they live in.

Personally? There’s nothing that pisses me off more. When black people are repeatedly beaten and imprisoned and murdered by the state, when women’s access to healthcare is systematically removed piece by piece, when the powerful willfully refuse to acknowledge the experiences of the powerless, my response is 100% incandescent rage.  Who do these assholes think they ARE? And how do they get away with it, even for a minute, when there are so many more of us than there are of them?

This is one of the brilliant things about Kindred — it explains that mystery. We can even watch as it happens to Dana, page by page. If you stick around in a culture that wants to limit you for long enough, that shit is going to seep into your brain, too. 

***

And that’s where we are now. A lot of the heinous, racist, sexist awfulness our culture was built upon has seeped into our brains. It still dictates some portion of our internal monologue and our external behavior. It still governs a lot of how we see ourselves, and how we see each other.

But the tectonic plates are sliding, and I believe we are coming to a tipping point in history. Think about it — millions of us now possess the education and resources to see the world from a very broad perspective. Millions of us understand that any perspective worth anything must include other perspectives, too. So millions of us already have everything we need to shift ourselves and our culture in a significant way.

Like, we already have the ability to evaluating ourselves and each other based on old-ass criteria.

We already have the ability to step back from the blur of suck-you-dry hypercapitalism and decide what we believe is important.

We already have the ability to refuse to allow the limitations of the past to dictate our personal and collective futures.

We simply need to claim these freedoms — all of them, and as many more as we can get our hands on. And then we need use them. Use them up. Use them till the wheels fall off.

This is what Dana does in Kindred. Everyone and everything pushes in on her, demanding her surrender. But the force rising out of her is stronger. She holds on to who she is. She fights for who she is. She uses every tool at her disposal to hold on to who she deeply knows she is.

And I can’t help but thing that this is exactly what the people of Ferguson have been doing, too — claiming and exercising the freedom they have on the books but not in reality. Rejecting the old idea that their role is to placidly accept murder and injustice and humiliation. Standing fast to what they know is right about what human beings are worth.

And we see the same thing happening in this year’s discussions about rape culture as it still exists in 2014 — women claiming the freedom to tell the truth about their experiences, even if others would rather not hear. Rejecting the idea that men are ever entitled to women’s bodies. Standing fast to what they know is right about what human beings are worth.

And on a much smaller scale, there are untold numbers of people claiming the freedom to say what they really think, and to have happy thoughts about their bodies even if they are fat or otherwise imperfect, and to define a sense of life’s meaning that has more to do with nature and relationships and less to do with consumerism and Kardashianism.

There really are millions of us, all over the place, popping out of the patterns we were raised in. Claiming and exercising our right to decide who we are, and then be that, regardless of what the world thinks.

It’s a beautiful, breathtaking thing to behold, and it’s also important. Because exercising freedom is how we increase it. It’s how we shake off limitations, create more options, and shift the tectonic plate of history in the right direction.

Dana didn’t live in a perfect world, even in 1976, and neither do we. But it’s a damn sight better than 1818, or 1890, or 1940. And if the brave folks who came before us were able to find a way to claim their freedoms and push history forward, even in those wildly oppressive times, then we can certainly find a way to do it now.

It’s not easy, but it is possible … and there is the realest kind of power in it.

photo by Dave Townsend // cc