Where's The Magic?
When I was little, my mom would take my brother, sister and I to Vashon Island, where her best friend Jackie lived. Jackie had two young daughters, Desiree and Ryan. Desiree was a few years older than me, a gorgeous child with shiny brunette braids and almond eyes. Ryan was the tomboy, always slipping out of the house to dive headfirst into the shockingly cold waters of Puget Sound. She would swim for hours, arms folded behind her head, eyes fixed on the shifting sky. She was an insulated seal, a slippery sea pup.
My favorite Vashon Island memories are of the days when Desiree took us Unicorn Hunting. She’d round us up and lead us into the woods, twisting trails taking us further away from the sound of the sea. High in the woods, on the forest floor, she might discover a ruby-colored stone, evidence of a recently passing unicorn.
This is its eye, see? she'd say, holding the stone on her open palm as we gathered around to inspect the tiny treasure.
It must have been a fiery one, a dangerous unicorn. We’re lucky we missed it!
We'd hear imaginary hooves pounding, see the unicorn’s white mane as it tossed its head and pawed the air.
During our Unicorn Hunts, Desiree carried a small velvet bag with a golden-tasseled drawstring. She would loosen the top and spill a pile of glinting stones into her hand.
These are parts of unicorns, she would explain, pointing at a dull blue stone, a sparkling oval emerald. Looking back, I recognize those treasures as polished pieces of glass, or colorful beach rocks. But at the time, they were magic, evidence of unicorns- an eye, a tooth, the tip of an ivory horn.
Sometimes we came across dragon’s teeth.
Oh no… Desiree would say, slowing her step and bending down to retrieve a triangular white stone. This one’s bad. This one means that a dragon has been here recently.
We would crowd around in exhilaration and terror, darting looks over our shoulders to see if a green-skinned dragon was lurking in the shadows, wings veined, black eyes narrowed.
See how sharp it is? she would ask quietly, stroking the pointed edge, allowing us to press it into the soft pads of our fingers. We shivered and became silent, and then she would drop the stone into her velvet bag and hurry us on.
One of the strangest things about that forest was the abandoned elevator shaft. It stood alone in those whispering woods, silent and eerie, entirely inexplicable. The shaft dropped several stories into the earth, a carved box that would swallow you up if you fell in and attempted to crawl out, the dirt walls coming away in your panicked, clutching hands. We would stare down in dread and awe, curious as to who would build an elevator shaft in the middle of the woods, with no house, no people, no creator to keep it company. It was an haunting mystery, a surreal statement made by an invisible artist.
Later, back at Jackie’s house, Desiree would spill the pile of stones onto the bottom bunk, and we would crowd around to measure, inspect, and stroke them. They were little geniuses, mineral miracles, tiny worlds of ruby and bone. A sapphire unicorn eye, an onyx stone that came from a dragon’s throat. Blazing remnants of mythical toenails. A chipped piece of horn. Magic.
Growing up, I found magic in other places. It was in my dad’s roses and climbing clematis, terraced vegetable gardens, perfectly pruned Chinese maples. Fairies lived there. We knew it. In other parts of Daddy’s garden, we would swing from the branches of fruit trees, teaching ourselves gymnastics, practicing kips on the makeshift uneven bars.
Magic existed in the school woods, where we skipped over hollow wooden bridges, and twisted huckleberry branches into the frames of playhouses. The floors were packed earth, the walls, fluttering leaves.
Magic lived in the evergreen trees we climbed and conquered, domesticating their thick trunks with tacked-up maps of Washington State and swirls of colorful paint. Those hanging branches became our friends, portals into another world. We would shimmy up, heedless of cuts and scratches, emerging into a space beyond chores and homework.
Traveling to Thailand for the first time, I was liquefied by the magic I experienced. It wasn’t on the littered beaches, always recovering from a Full Moon, or Half Moon, or Black Moon Party. It was in the jungles, high above the sea, where the rich sounds of monkeys and iridescent birds overlayed the heavy silence of solid trunks and breathing trees. Green, green, green. Everywhere, green. Tiny streams trickled through boulders, and some of the hills were so steep you had to use your hands to climb them, gripping thick roots and ropy stems. Finally, sweating and panting, we explorers would emerge into softness, sunlight, an open meadow of rippling green. A respite in a tangle of forested lushness. An open field, a swaying gift from God.
The trail made its way through the sharp grass, tall as our waists. We imagined an orange and black tiger crouching ahead, ready to pounce. What would you do? my brother John asked. What would you do if you saw a tiger RIGHT NOW?!
We would speculate and plan, running the palms of our hands over the spiky grass as we walked through the small, warm meadow.
I’d climb straight up that palm tree, I said, before reconsidering. Cats climb. Really well.
Yeah, but they get stuck, John said, when I voiced my concerns. You could drop coconuts on that bastard's head until you knocked it out, and then run away. Good call.
Brigitte walked ahead of us, a jungle princess in bare feet and swinging ponytail, her head held high.
I’d play dead, she said with a shrug, and I imagined my little sister going limp as a huge-pawed tiger mauled her.
I’d feed him, like, two hundred valiums, my brother said, pulling out a bottle and popping a few more in his mouth.
I’d punch him in the nose, said Kat, laughing and shaking her small breasts like a rumba dancer.
We were at the highest point now, where you could sense, but not yet see, the ocean. It spread out in all directions around us. We were tiny specks of life, ascending through the jungle of a remote volcanic island. Barefoot, chattering. Freckles on our noses.
I always felt a thrill on those hikes, a heating of my blood, an increase in the pressure and pulse of my heart. Anything was possible in the jungle. Life, death. Hidden waterfalls, mystical lagoons.
Just beyond the meadow, the trail curved left and led us past the locked door of a silent bungalow. It was the only bungalow we ever came across in that jungle, the sole trace of humanity for miles around. The jungle seemed afraid to come too close, giving the bungalow a wide ring of dirt to squat on, leaving it to bake in the sun.
I bet there’s dead bodies in that place, John said, coming up with the same hypothesis every time.
I decided to contribute my own dark twist. Have you guys ever heard of Blue Beard? I asked. He killed, like, a hundred of his wives, and stacked their bodies up in one room. What if there’s a bunch of dead Thai girls in there, rotting?
Someone would usually get the balls to walk up to the house and sniff at the plank-shuttered windows, trying to detect an odor of death. But we never smelled anything ghastly. Just fresh earth and sunshine.
Why were those hikes through the jungle so magical? Despite the gory speculations that often accompanied our progress, the sense of aliveness was always there, the feeling of being utterly vital and present. Strong legs. Swinging arms.
Sometimes I did that jungle hike alone, leaving one beach and arriving at the next several hours later. I would take my time. I would make friends with the tiny white flowers, silently dare the monkeys to swing down from the trees and fuck with me. They never did, but I had a stick just in case.
Other times I would challenge myself to an adventure, waiting to leave until the sun began to sink in the sky, knowing it was always darker in the jungle. If I didn’t run, I’d be lost, trapped, swarmed by mosquitoes and ghosts if night fell and I hadn’t found my way out. On those solo hikes, when afternoon merged with twilight, I’d run like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, feet pounding the dirt trail, sharp grass cutting my legs. I didn’t care. It felt good. On the edge of danger, just safe enough, but no guarantees. The jungle was my co-conspirator, rushing me through, guiding me along dry creek beds and uncertain paths. When I finally descended from the gathering darkness and emerged onto the shadowy white beach below, I was exhilarated, alive.
Where does magic lie? Do you have to go to the jungles of Thailand to find it, does it only exist for small children? Why do we feel it sometimes, and not others?
When I was meditating under a boddhi tree in a Buddhist monastery in Chiang Mai, I had an epiphany. I opened my eyes and looked up to see fluttering bamboo leaves framed against the vast blue sky. I wanted to fly there, mingle with the leaves, rub my soft cheeks against them. I wanted to become the slender, swaying tree. Why? What did that tree have that I didn’t have? Absolutely nothing. But what happened when I looked at those rustling leaves, a soft purr against the sky, was this: I felt something. Something moved in my chest, and a million associations flew through my mind- Asia, freedom, ancient wisdom, caged birds, enlightened art, yellow sun, the gnarled hands of a Universal Grandfather. Expansion in my chest, a feeling of flying in blue skies. I wanted to bottle that feeling, capture it, become it. I wanted nothing more than to feel more of what I was feeling, to end in it, to drown in it.
Magic lives within us. We embody magic, we are the possessors of magic. And yet, we think that it exists outside of ourselves, in a beautiful woman’s body, or in the flight of an eagle in the sky. What we don’t realize is that magic is an internal phenomenon, a feeling that we experience in our bodies. A shiver of connection. A surge of wisdom.
We see a graceful arm, a perfect brush stroke, and a big feeling fills our chests. Sometimes we have to catch our breath. The crystal blue ocean hushes us, the chirping jungle excites us. But does the magic really lie in those fleeting forms?
If an angel appeared before you, and you felt nothing, would you perceive that angel to be magical? Probably not. She’d be a cutout against the sky, a woman with wings. But if you stumbled across a cluster of delicate mushrooms on the forest floor, and an echo of familiarity rang through your body, you might consider those mushrooms magical. Why? Because you felt something. If I cut open the Evergreen trees of my childhood, would shimmering fairies fly out? If I dissolved the swaying grass meadow into its tiniest component parts, would I be left with a handful of magic dust? Of course not. Magic lies elsewhere. It is in the feelings that move through our bodies as we observe and experience these outer phenomena. Magic is the shiver of awe you feel when beholding rainbows in waterfalls, or the pink curve of a newborn’s ear.
Our feelings are magical, our internal experiences made of fairy dust. You could never break down the physical world and isolate a “magic molecule.” You’d only find carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, 115 other basic elements. You have to go somewhere else entirely to find magic. You have to go inside of yourself and be willing to feel life. Magic can’t be located with a microscope, it dances free. It is a feeling, a state of being. You can find magic anywhere, on a safari in Africa or in a prison cell in Bangkok. Children know this. That’s why they prance, giggle and sing in the middle of a slum. That’s why they are fascinated by a straggly weed growing up through a crack in the ugly sidewalk. Magic is an unadulterated feeling, accessible to us when our hearts are open and our vision clear.
Invite magic into your life. Press your palms together, kick your feet up in the hammock, pray how you pray. Ask the universe to help you feel the magic within yourself. Begin to notice little things around you~ a dragonfly’s wing, the perfect geometry of a seashell. Acknowledge the breeze on your skin, the way it makes you feel inside. Cultivate magic. Become aware of it. The more consciously we participate in life, the more we realize that the potential for magic exists in every moment.
Feel the way you move. Hold your head high. Open your senses to the magic that is buzzing within you. The moment you let your guard down and decide to trust, it can flood through your life like honey, glinting rubies, swaying grasses, and rustling bamboo leaves. You are made of magic, based on magic, infinitely capable of feeling and creating magic. Make space inside of yourself, and allow your magic to come to life.
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