Should You Wish Upon a Star?

I’m of two minds about magic. On the one hand, it seems too good to be true -too naïve and unexamined, too much like Santa Claus; but there’s a part of me that wants to believe in another world where faeries dance on dew-soaked blades of moonlit grass, and bird song fills the dawn forest as a paean to the aborning light. In a place -or was it a time– where anything was possible, because no one had proven that it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, I grew up and found an adult proof -or thought I had. I suppose most of us do, though. It’s not even a choice -as we wend our ways through the interstices of everyday life, we shed those things which impede our progress -like a shirt on a hot day, unregarded magic is in corners thrown, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Our route is littered with it, if we cared to look. But we don’t anymore. We can’t be bothered.

And yet, in my darker days, when I find myself staring into the ordered chaos that encloses me like a cape, I sometimes wonder if it was all a mistake. Perhaps we were meant to keep a little in reserve. A curtain we could peek behind in times of need. In times when we realize that what we have is not enough… or, rather, too much.

In one such mood, I happened upon an article written by Frank Klaassen, an associate professor of History in the University of Saskatchewan, entitled The Magic of Love and Sex, who characterizes himself as a scholar of medieval magic. I have to admit, that anybody who purports to be able to unmask the most mysterious trappings of an enchanted, faraway age has got my ear -or in this case, at least, my eyes. https://theconversation.com/the-magic-of-love-and-sex-91749

He says that ‘[…] passing the magazine stand at the checkout counter is like stepping back in time.’ Both the men’s and the women’s magazines promise to divulge secret methods of procuring unattainable things we all want, yet could only dream of: sex, power, influence… ‘Bronislaw Malinowski [a Polish-born British social anthropologist] says that the function of magic is to ritualize optimism, to enhance “faith in the victory of hope over fear.” By this he means that when we perform magic, we ritualize our hopes, even if that ritual itself produces no effects.’

‘There is a massive modern industry that leverages our vulnerabilities. Hundreds of scientifically unproven techniques offer not only power over love and sex, but health, wealth, good luck, influence over other people, improving appearance, intelligence and public speaking, assuring happiness and protection of self and family.

‘Modern books on magic like Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and New Age handbooks like Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization have become classics over the past 40 years and have sold millions of copies. They cover pretty much the same ground. With few exceptions, the goals of medieval magic were identical to these personal growth manuals from the 1970s, and fulfilment in love tops the list.’

But interestingly, similar to today, Klaassen says that scholars back then were also critical of magic and superstition. ‘Medieval philosophers expended a lot of ink demonstrating how seemingly miraculous things were just natural effects […] To respond to these attacks, writers of medieval magic books often did exactly what their modern counterparts do —they tried to make them look like they were scientific. They used scientific ideas and language.

‘In comparison, one would think that modern people would be far less interested in magic, particularly given our advanced sense of how the physical world functions and the scientific educations we all get in public school.’

But, I think the crux of his point is to compare the two modes of thinking, and whether things have changed all that much over the years. ‘[…] it challenges the idea that scientific thinking somehow banishes magical thinking. Clearly, it doesn’t.’

‘[…] Modern science may have helped us live longer but it hasn’t made illness and death any less inevitable. It certainly hasn’t made it possible to make ourselves more wealthy, desirable, charismatic, intelligent or successful in love.

From one perspective, love magic is biological. We are biologically programmed to try anything that might help us reproduce ourselves. Skepticism would just get in the way of that. Hope, on the other hand, keeps us creatively trying things out and doing whatever it takes: The perfect clothes, the right music, giving flowers, perfume, beautiful words, … or magic.

From another perspective, as Malinowski suggested, magic springs from human qualities that we all value very highly: Optimism, hope and creativeness. Where would we be without those? If our ancestors only stuck to the tried and true, things they knew would not fail, we’d still be in the trees. We’d certainly have no love songs.’

I like the idea that magic is hope. And hope is no less real because what we wish for hasn’t yet happened; there may not be faeries dancing on the lawn at night, but if I want to believe that if I hid out there under a blade of grass one night I would see them, should you lock me up? Or put me on medication? All of us hear stories, some more fanciful than others -and not all of them are as we remember. We colour our narratives with almosts and often sneak in a few might haves to spice the tales. The rest of us wink at the clever interpolations, and then add our own when it’s our turn to speak. Who’s to say what really happened -what might have happened?

There is a ragged border between fact and fancy sometimes, and maybe your misspeak is my magic -or at least my hope. Would you really want to take that away from me… and should you? Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I want to believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…

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Presume Not that I am the Thing I Was.

We are all stories, aren’t we? But as I slip further down the years, I wonder about my story. Some of it I suppose I don’t remember, and yet what I do might still be suspect –a revision I make even as I think about it. Memory doesn’t reproduce the past so much as create it. And therein lies the problem. There was a time when historical validity was only accredited to its witnesses –a first-hand account told by someone who was actually there, someone who experienced it. But we’re long past that now…

When we are dead, we become fictions; when we can no longer speak for ourselves, what we might have thought, what we might have been, is merely interpreted, as the historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel has said. And even modern historians, scrutinizing the same evidence, will often differ in their explanations of the past. Who is to choose among them –and why?

So, history isn’t fixed, as we often assume, and it certainly isn’t static –it changes with new evidence, or transmogrifies according to the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Mantel sees it, history is not the past –it’s a method we’ve evolved to organize our ignorance of it. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.

I think that what occasioned this reminiscence was a short feature in the BBC news about a fifteen-year old toilet sign found in Italy at a farmhouse B&B: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40936110. The sign was attempting to use emojis to indicate that the toilet was not restricted to any particular sexual orientation. It had three symbols –one of a man, one of a woman, and one of a gay person. Unfortunately, the latter is depicted as a rather flouncy individual who is clearly neither male nor female, but rather an amalgam of them both, I suppose. Why it was felt necessary to suggest that ‘gay’ belonged to neither group is unknown. At any rate, the LGBTQ community reasonably complained of the sign’s confusion of sexual orientation with gender identity and the (new) owners obligingly removed it, even though it had apparently been covered up when they bought the property, and had remained so. They had meant no offence.

Things change. Sensitivities change. And signs are expected to reflect that… I, too, am caught up in the current ethos and find the sign unfeeling, and ill-informed, but things were different then, I think. The world was a different place for sure; the Umwelt itself was less evolved. But nonetheless, it makes me wonder whether we can ever understand the lived-world of another era. Whether even I can ever understand my own historical self, and so continually amend what I can remember of him –and continually rewrite the story…

I was waiting for a bus on the outskirts of town the other day, and sought the tiny shade afforded by a small wooden bench. Two older ladies arrived and seemed more in need of shade and rest than me, so I offered them the only gift I had –the bench. But it was in a covered structure and under a tree, so I stayed nearby in its cooling shadow.

They were both in their eighties, I would think, and both wore loose floral-print cotton dresses like I think my mother would have favoured. They wore their hair like her, too –short and manageable under almost identical blue hats. In fact, the more I looked, the more like her they seemed –they could all have been sisters, although my mother was an only child and died many years ago. It’s strange how often older women seem similar. Men do too, I suppose, but I notice the women more. Age homogenizes their faces, and memory standardizes their appearance… Blends them together into vague familiarity like apples in a crate. Fish in a tank.

I contented myself with leaning against the tree and staring idly down the street lost in thought… Okay, I was listening to them; I can’t resist an argument and they’d been going at it even before they sat down –some sort of family thing.

“You have to admit that father was ahead of his time, though, Thea…” The only difference between them I could detect was the colour of the flower pattern on their dresses. It was the red flower who was talking.

Thea, the blue-flower, sighed loudly. “What on earth makes you say that, Flo?”

Flo promptly crossed her arms and glared at her sister. It was hard to tell from where I leaned, but I think she rolled her eyes because it pulled her lip upwards and something rattled in her mouth. “Remember? He encouraged her to work outside the home, and told everybody about how women should have the same rights as men. Nobody thought like that in those days.”

“What house did you grow up in, Flo? He wouldn’t even let me work in that restaurant, remember?”

Flo shrugged at the memory. “You were too young, Thea. He was protecting you…”

“Then why didn’t he protect Ronny? He had a paper route when he was even younger.” Thea seemed pout for a moment. “And anyway, he didn’t encourage mom to work until he lost his job that time. And even then, she had to clean the house and cook the dinners for us when she got home.”  She stared at Flo. “That’s not equal rights and it’s certainly not ahead of the times…”

Flo stared at her sister with a slight tilt to her head. “Well, how about when Ronny came out? Father welcomed him back into our house…” I could sense that Flo was a bit hesitant to speak about her brother, though.

Thea sighed loudly again, but this time contemptuously. “Only after five years, Flo! And even then, it was because mom kept phoning Ronny and inviting him over. Father had nothing to do with it! And remember, the only reason Ronny agreed to come was because it was a family dinner –their anniversary- and yet, Father wouldn’t even speak to him at first. He totally ignored him at the table.” She shook her head sadly and looked at her sister. “Ronny was so hurt. Remember he even left the table and went to sit in the living room until mom convinced him to come back? And then, years later, Father had the gall to tell everybody that he’d never harboured any grudges against homosexuals? That he’d always accepted them?”

“Father’s last boss was a homosexual, wasn’t he?”

Thea glanced my way and her eyes strayed onto my face for a second, as if fleeing from her sister’s naïveté. “Father always pretended to move with the current, Flo. But deep down, he was a man of his time. That was the way things were when he was growing up. There’s no sense in applying today’s values to another era. It took slow and painful steps to get here…” She touched her sister gently on the shoulder. “It’d be like blaming the doctors in his day for not having discovered penicillin.”

Flo looked down the street and saw the bus approaching. “You certainly remember a different Father from me, Thea…”

Thea shrugged as she fished around in her purse for the fare. “We’ve always seen the world through our own eyes, Flo. It’s a puzzle, eh?” she added as they both boarded a bus that was not mine.

I moved to the bench, now in deeper shade, and thought about what Thea had said about their differences being a puzzle.  I remembered fragments of a thought Alan Watts, had written back in the sixties. It was something about there being a difference between puzzles and mysteries: puzzles are meant to be solved, but mysteries are meant to be enjoyed. Wondered about. Tasted. I think I’d prefer to think of the past as a mystery, you know. That we each taste the world with different eyes; there’s no one history that satisfies us all… And therein lies the wonder.

 

The Tales We Write in Water

We are all stories, aren’t we? Largely untold, and seldom transcribed, we travel through our lives like cups filled to overflowing, spilling drops like patterns on a dirty tablecloth. It’s often not so much a reticence that keeps our information bottled up, as opportunity to share it. It’s why, I suppose, there is such a need for counsellors. Therapists. Ears, not just to hear what we feel is important to us, but to listen. Someone to understand our need for time on the pedestal…

Diaries do that as well, albeit with little feedback unless they are publicized. No feedback in fact if they are left unattended and unnoticed in a drawer somewhere for fear of discovery -disclosure of inner secrets too personal to admit, embarrassing moments too painful to discuss, dreams we fear are out of reach. And yet the very act of writing them down may not be wasted: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170601-can-writing-about-pain-make-you-heal-faster

Okay, I don’t really buy the premise of the article suggesting there may be something immunologically regenerating about writing, that healing occurs faster, or that there may be beneficial effects on health in general –and yet I readily admit that, as a sometime writer myself, it intrigues me. I’ve always thought about it in terms of catharsis, but now I’m not so sure. In 1986, a psychology professor named James Pennebaker asked his students to ‘spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives or, if they hadn’t experienced a trauma, their most difficult time’. Six months later, he discovered that this seemed to have had an effect on their general health as measured by fewer visits by them to the health center. A bit tenuous, it seems to me, but it was his subsequent analysis that interested me more.

‘What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing. He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions.’ The students ‘[…] began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative.’

The perspective change that evolved in their writing is fascinating. As I write this, I’m reminded of a fragment of a poem by Robert Burns (To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church): ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!’… But, come to think of it, isn’t this very non sequitur an example of how the act of putting down words unlocks unexpected doors? Could writing be the Power to which Burns was referring…?

Well, perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit, and yet…

I had travelled into town to buy a piece of technological kit at a store in a huge mall in the center of the city, when I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the noise, the movement, and even the smell of the thronging crowd flowing over and around me like a debris-strewn river. I wanted to sit down somewhere, but it was lunch time and all the benches were full, so I headed outside to a little dog park I’d noticed on the way in. Even there the pews were occupied, although admittedly, not by dogs, but people eating fast food out of wax-paper wrappers. I felt a bit nauseated and I didn’t think I could handle sitting beside one of them, so I chose a seat beside a young woman who had eschewed her stomach for a little notepad on which she was furiously scribbling. A thin woman, with short blond hair and a blue business dress, I thought at first she was just catching up on office work; the fact that there was neither a laptop nor a phone in evidence, seemed only passing strange. Her face, young and unblemished, was somewhere else – certainly not here, despite the soft breeze that rustled the leaves, and the sound of birds flitting from branch to branch above our heads. But she looked happy. Content. Absorbed…

It was pleasant sitting outside, and the trees that ringed the tiny urban meadow seemed to keep the more annoying attacks of traffic noise at bay. After a while I became aware of something I hadn’t heard since I was at school, I think: the sound of pencil hurriedly scraping across paper. There was something atavistically soothing about it –something that brought back childhood memories: the sound of walking on fallen autumn leaves maybe, or the soft hiss of bacon that my mother was frying in the kitchen… Sounds totally unlike what I was hearing, to be sure, and yet compelling. Comforting.

In my reverie, I’m afraid I began to stare at her –or rather, at the notebook on her lap. Eyes, when left unleashed do things that are hard to explain. Hard to justify. And because of my unsolicited proximity to her on the otherwise crowded bench, she noticed. At first it was a scowl that tried to shoo my eyes, if not my very presence away, but then, seeing my embarrassed smile at being caught in flagrante delicto as it were, she smiled.

“Just writing down some thoughts,” she said glancing at her watch and then carefully closing up the notebook as if it were a bible.

In some way exculpated by her words, my face relaxed.

“Sometimes I just have to write them down before my office thoughts take over,” she added, shrugging contentedly as she stood to leave. “Helps me cope somehow…”

I saw her walk away along the wide gravel path, stopping from time to time to stare up into the trees, oblivious, it seemed, to the city that roared around her. And as I watched, I have to admit, so was I.

Life’s Like That

Why is Life so hard to define? When I was in school, it was easy –as mentioned in a BBC article on the topic: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170101-there-are-over-100-definitions-for-life-and-all-are-wrong -Life was MRS GREN (Metabolism, Reproduction, Sensitivity, Growth, Respiration, Excretion, and Nutrition). That’s all you needed for the exam –although I’m glad they never asked for an explanation of Sensitivity. But times change, and as do definitions, so by the time I was in university, I was confused. Every faculty had its own perspective –chemists defined in terms of chemicals, biologist preferred DNA, and physicists were partial to the dynamics of molecular properties that bypassed structural components in favour of information transfer.

Me? I wandered around a fair amount in my undergraduate years before I ended up in Medicine so, already rainbow-hued, I opted for a just-right-baby-bear definition -not too much of anything. By then, I understood that Life was an amalgam –but the product and not the recipe. The final taste, and not the way the ingredients are cooked. Telos, I suppose, rather than methodos– words sufficiently nebulous as to dissolve in most of the more erudite proposals. To me, Life is a story – scilicet, a spirit-  and one whose progress is tied to the outcome. We humans are requisite classifiers and groupers –itself a story- and we thereby miss the uniqueness of entity, the magic of identity; for us, something is either alive or not. Black or white. It’s an important distinction to be sure, but as I said, it misses the pungency of the flavour. The excitement of the effect. The Proustian Phenomenon of the madeleine biscuit soaked in tea… My route explains nothing, I’ll concede, and yet somehow, it’s what makes it Life, and not something else.

But I was always hopeless at philosophy, and despite my zeal for it, perhaps wisely accepted parental advice and wandered off into Medicine and eventually a career as an obstetrician/gynaecologist. I suspect they were concerned that otherwise I might end up living with them at home.

From time to time, however, I am still tempted to wax lyrical on Life with the occasional patient who seems to require some additional prodding with regard to their own. I can’t say I’ve achieved any truly publishable results, but the process is nonetheless enjoyable for me on those otherwise interminably complaint-ridden days that crop up from time to time.

It usually requires a stimulus –an opportunity when my input would not be construed as an imposition on their time with me.

Janet, for example. She was a forty-one year old woman who had pursued her own career as a lawyer at the apparent expense of a stable relationship. Intelligent, and attractive, she had finally ‘decided to accede to an intimacy request’ from an acquaintance –that’s how she put it- and when she had first made the appointment had wanted some advice as to how to avoid pregnancy. Her would-be partner was an older man who had not felt comfortable using condoms however. So he hadn’t. And she was. Not only that, but she was confused about it.

“Doctor, I’m almost forty-two years old, and despite the occasional ‘dalliance’ I’ve never been able to become pregnant…” She stared at me like I was somehow to blame for the vagaries and vicissitudes that had befallen her.

I could almost see the quote marks around her word ‘dalliance’. “You said ‘able to become pregnant’, Janet. Were you trying?”

She shook her head almost before my question reached her, but I could tell by her expression that she wasn’t sure. “Life is such a precious thing… I’d want to be sure about everything…”

“Like…?”

“Like whether I could care for it. Whether I would regret whatever decision I made about a pregnancy I hadn’t planned.” She didn’t even mention what effect the father might have on the process. “So…” she thought about it for a second. “…So I suppose I’m happy I didn’t have to make that decision before…”

“And now…?”

She shrugged and sent her eyes, like beggars, to ask my face for something –wisdom, maybe; suggestions, at least. “I mean, what are my chances, doctor?”

“Chances?”

“You know, that I won’t miscarry anyway. Remember, I’m forty-one now… And there’s also a risk of genetic malfeasance, isn’t there?”

Even though I have many lawyers as patients, I’d never heard the risks of pregnancy in an older mother put quite like that… I’m definitely in the pro-choice camp, as she well knew, so I realized she wouldn’t think I was trying to sway her ultimate decision no matter what I said. But still… “We can do the usual prenatal testing to identify any genetic problems beforehand, Janet. And yes, miscarriages are more common with pregnancies in older mothers…”

Her eyes grasped at the hems of mine like supplicants. “And if I were your daughter…?” I knew I had to be careful then -she was asking for an opinion, albeit framed as a personal one.

I sighed and sat back in my  chair. “A new life is a new story, Janet –a bit of yours, a bit of the father’s- but at this stage, most of it is still an idea somewhere. It doesn’t have to get written to qualify –we all have ideas inside when we stop and think about them. We write down some of them, I suppose but sometimes even then, we just can’t get the wording right. Or the idea, once on paper, doesn’t seem what we thought. Remember, a story is no less a story for not being completed, and no less a creation for not being read… But sometimes, you just have to take the chance that you’re on to something.”

Her eyes flew away and settled on her lap for a moment. “You’d make a great lawyer, doctor,” she said, with a mischievous smile, her eyes back on mine once more. “Obfuscation is something they just can’t teach…”

I’m not sure she followed my argument so I risked a little smile. “Isn’t it what you do when there really is no case to be made beyond a reasonable doubt?”

She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “I don’t take cases like that anymore.”

I suspected she hadn’t this time, either.