November 20, 2021

This is the Real Meaning of Magic.

When my tall, hairy, loud 15-year-old son was just a wide-eyed toddler, he loved the moon.

I remember a night in the car when he used the phrase “broken moon” to describe a crescent-shaped moon, which led to my half-hearted attempt to explain the moon phases. What he said after my explanation still makes me want to choke up, “Mommy, maybe it’s magic.”

Ah, what is magic? I look back at that time in my life when I had two toddlers and hazily recall somewhere between the exhaustion, plastic loud toys, and constant climbing that feeling of watching them re-enact Peter Pan scenes and pretend they were the Lost Boys with epic sword battles and threats of walking the plank (yelled in a pirate accent while in costume). When I used to tuck my big-eyed, round-faced daughter in her pink horse-adorned bed, we would put our hands together after saying her prayers and chant in unison, “faith, trust, and pixie dust.” I would walk out of her room and some nights—those nights when I wasn’t so tired I could fall over—I recall feeling overwhelmed with my love for her in a way that surely felt like magic.

It’s the small rush I have always had on the first snow of the year—the snow that is light little puffs falling from the sky—each one unique, brushing the trees and dusting my golden retriever’s sweet, perfectly handsome face. It’s watching a hummingbird and being mesmerized by their beauty and grace, and understanding where legends of fairies had to have started. It’s spotting a delicate praying mantis. It’s watching my dying mother slowly and deliberately fold her hands over her heart as I said a rosary aloud while she was otherwise non-responsive on hospice care.

It’s that urge you have to cry when you are instantly so overcome with raw emotion that you momentarily lose yourself and your throat tightens and tears fall before you have a chance to catch your breath. It’s Christmas morning. It’s my youngest boy singing along to Justin Bieber with every ounce of passion he can muster. It’s the feeling in my soul when I escape with my siblings and their kids to Colorado or Mexico and relish in the respite and the too-rare time with them.

It’s the way my oldest looks out for the younger two in completely different ways that melts me to my core. It’s a cat walking along a flower bed, body gracefully poised, sniffing something in the air. It’s all four of my babies’ movements in my womb.

It’s the peace I feel rarely, yet completely, toward the end of mass. It’s the hooting of owls heard late at night. Or the fact you can spend all day surrounded by people, but then that special one brushes your hand or looks at you just right and a rush of sensation almost knocks you over.

It’s definitely that carefree feeling of singing along to the radio obnoxiously in the car with whoever is there joining that moment with you. And surely, you know that feeling when you’re with your friends, usually on a porch, deck, or patio, and you’re all just the right amount of drinks in, and time is frozen. You aren’t thinking about money, work, household chores, schedules, or where you have to be in the morning. You aren’t thinking about anything in the entire world except the moment right there—maybe 90s music is playing in the background, your friends are laughing and telling stories, and you are at peace.

You can’t tell me that isn’t magic. Maybe when it’s the last at-bat, two outs during a night baseball game under the lights, and your boy goes up while you’ve sat there so tense your shoulders ache and he hits a dinger and wins the game. It’s thunderstorms. The perfect tomato. It’s certainly rainbows. And it’s present every single time laughter and tears are together simultaneously—magic.

I had a moment of what might be magic a couple of months ago in the midst of purging my house of boxes and boxes (and boxes and boxes) of things I had been successfully avoiding for far too long. One afternoon, I came by a large box of printed photos. They were not stacked in rows or ordered—imagine a beat-up cardboard box of printed photos just thrown together. Some of the photos were clearly bent up, some were upside down, some had stains or were folded from having been piled up for years and smashed in a back kitchen cabinet.

In my effort to ascertain if these were photos from high school, college, law school, someone’s wedding, my sister’s kids, or my kids, I reached my hand into one of the boxes and pulled a small photograph out. Out of all of those photos, the one I grabbed was of a person who recently re-entered my life after 25 years and brought along a refreshing simple grace I have never experienced, allowing me to come back to myself and find my own way, which, coincidentally (perhaps), was why I think I was purging my house and going through those boxes to begin with.

I have thousands of pictures from the 90s. I was the friend with the box disposable camera tucked in my Lucky Brand jeans pocket or a cheap K-Mart packaged, purple off-brand one that lasted for about two months before I dropped it or lost it taking constant pictures and putting puffy paint on plastic frames to adorn wherever I was living or giving mini-albums I bought from Walgreens and filled with embarrassing photos as gifts. I had no idea I had a photograph of him, and I’m certain it’s the only one.

I squealed and screamed like a 13-year-old girl—as luck would have it—for my actual 13-year-old girl present in the house, to come downstairs and see this picture. As I excitedly told her the story and showed her the photo of three college-aged boys all wearing open, varying plaid patterned flannels with t-shirts underneath holding cheap beers in someone’s run-down college house (you can almost hear Dave Matthews playing when you look at the picture), she did not disappoint in her jumping up and down and acting like a total spaz along with her goofy old mom.

My fingers being drawn to that photo (a photo, out of thousands, I had no memory of even existing, of a night I have no idea the context, of a person who moved from a guy at a party in the 90s to the forefront of my life) is perhaps a total coincidence.

But, if you were there in that moment with my daughter and I giggling and laughing and caught up in the serendipity, no way. Providence maybe. Magic definitely.

But don’t we all have so many moments like that? Moments we can look back and tell ourselves it has to be a coincidence? Or maybe what you thought happened isn’t really what happened? We find a way to talk ourselves out of those moments instead of talking ourselves into believing—believing in something. We don’t trust our own humanity and that need to believe.

Catholicism has been an unexpected home for me, but one that has, thus far, brought certain contentment I once doubted myself capable of finding. While there are many reasons for that, one of the most meaningful is the church’s appreciation of the word “mystery.” In certain Catholic readings, and even in the prayer of the rosary, there is an opportunity for reflection on mystery. And while it may be heresy to say this, so much of the tradition, sacraments, symbols, and relics found among the tenants of Catholicism, seem not only mysterious but, dare I say, a little like magic.

In the early months of my path toward Catholicism, I had an encounter with a dear college friend of mine, who at the time was on his way to becoming a priest. As we discussed my unexpected interest in my own faith and my consideration at that time of conversion, he told me that all religions provide their faithful a certain set of gifts or offerings, and in searching for a spiritual home, what Catholicism had to offer was a “vast toolbox of tools.”

For Catholics, those tools include the role of Mary, the Saints, ancient relics, Latin masses, a strong emphasis on sacraments, a great community, legions of art, schools seeped in tradition, and for each tool, even more specific sub-tools (i.e. within just Marian adoration: Mary of Guadalupe, countless novations, specific prayers, her presence in Art, statuary, her role in the rosary, and on and on). As a young child, the things that seemed exclusively Catholic (those listed above) seemed strange, almost paganistic, mysterious, and a bit magical to my young Lutheran mind.

Across the street from my father lived Tim and Mary Gilligan. Their daughter Meghan was a close childhood friend. Meghan and I wore out the brick road separating our houses spending most of our young summers sleeping in each others’ beds and teaching our make-believe classrooms of students, running our pretend ice cream businesses, and choreographing dance routines for our imaginary dance pupils. Meghan and her parents were some of the only devout Catholics in my young life.

As a child, I was overwhelmed and sometimes almost frightened being in their formal front living room after dark. Portraits of Mary looked down on me and strange, foreign beads were placed on the end tables, and along the back of their piano, there were always lit candles. I had no recollection of ever seeing a candle lit in either of my parents’ homes. Maybe a time or two at my Aunt Karen’s, but just on the table centerpiece for Thanksgiving dinner. The rest of the Gilligan’s house was a child’s haven—a wonderful attic playroom, books everywhere, one of those old laundry shoots we would throw stuffed animals down, pictures of Kirk Cameron in Meghan’s bedroom, and Nebraska football regalia everywhere. Well, everywhere except that one room. The silent, always dimly lit living room glowing in candlelight where Mary and Jesus softly looked at me.

I remember a few nights that I spent the night at the Gilligan’s house and got up to go to the bathroom. Despite being terrified, I was drawn to the living room and slowly crept in there. I’m not sure what I was looking for. I don’t know if I was testing myself and my own bravery, or if I was longing for the feeling that room brought me.

And now, as an adult, I can identify that feeling. I felt magic. Peaceful, frightening, all-encompassing. My heart would race, I was on edge, but somehow, at the same time, I felt put at ease.

The Gilligan’s living room may have been a critical element to my personal religious and spiritual journey. A longing for the answers to those mysterious beads, the glowing light behind the lovely and beautiful mother Mary’s head, and the intentions found in the warmth of the candles. While I still can’t answer most of the questions I had as a seven-year-old, I am now a part of that mystery and not on the sideline. Our home too is adorned in various pieces of Catholic art. There will always sit a rosary on my fireplace mantel and when my kids were little, they would hug or kiss the statue of Mary in our front yard.

And how can you talk about magic this time of year without talking about Christmas? A holiday that has been celebrated all over the world, in so many different, yet strikingly similar ways, for centuries? All of mankind seeking that feeling—the Christmas spirit or that feeling of magic.

I am a person who has had some dark Christmases. A couple of years after losing my parents, Christmas was the hardest part for me to force myself to keep my head up. God, my mother loved Christmas. And she delivered. Year after year, no matter what was going on in her own life or mind, how broke she was, how over-worked and desperate she may have been, she did it all. As we got older, without her parents, too.

I will never understand how she made it all happen. But no matter how I try to soften it or contend with my own guilt for those feelings while my kids were so young, truly nothing made me feel more lost than the holiday season. People often say when you’ve lost both of your parents, you feel like an adult orphan and that was what Christmas felt like to me in those years.

What was Christmas without your parents and your mom’s living room? I was lost. Unsettled. So insecure. So, as my life felt like it was falling apart through a few Decembers, I clung to her in some way—barely hanging on, but needing to deliver what she had delivered to us. I survived by going through the motions, like so many of us, as surely there were years she did too.

But as life goes, I eventually had a moment, an epiphany. My daughter was in third grade and her music teacher called and asked me if she would sing at Christmas eve mass. I was so taken aback. We are not a family of singers. Her teacher, Miss Susie, suggested perhaps I come in and watch Sylvia during a rehearsal (just that mere suggestion by Miss Susie is a moment of fortuity).

So, there I was, in my open, empty church, about three-fourths of the way toward the back to be out of their way and not a distraction. The only three people were myself, my little Sylvia, and Miss Susie. My parish had been such a place of peace for me anyway, and suddenly, this tiny voice echoed through the rafters. Watching this little nine-year-old girl do this thing I didn’t know she could do, that I couldn’t do, with the patient and sweet Miss Susie stopping her, going back, coaching her along, was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

Heck, I don’t know, maybe sitting here re-living it is the most beautiful moment of my life. I can’t write about it now without weeping.

A week or so later, watching Sylvia sing in front of the entire congregation, at Christmas eve mass, I felt that classic Christmas spirit feeling. It was beautiful. The church was full of poinsettias and greenery, she had a gorgeous, bright dress, and her full dark hair was up with braids and curls. She sang like a tiny little angel. But it was that moment of sitting far back in a pew alone and experiencing her voice like that for the first time and observing Susie working with her in that empty church as they rehearsed—just as Susie had done with hundreds of little kids before her—I found myself.

My whole world collided: I felt my parents, I felt my siblings, I felt God, I felt a swelling up of all of my Christmases past and those I had worked so hard to deliver for my kids with my head in a fog of grief and pain. I came back from somewhere I can’t describe. And you can’t tell me something magical didn’t happen in that church that day.

If Christmas and our traditions—children singing at Christmas Eve mass, big dinners with family, certain dishes or desserts, movies we watch together, games, stockings, a pink Santa decoration that was your grandmother’s—have hung on through all societies and are celebrated on all ends of the earth, no matter economic status or age, the question becomes why and what are we all seeking?

What is humanity after? And what have we been seeking for so long, once a year with the Christmas holiday?

When you hear Faith Hill sing “Joy to the World” on your car stereo, she is singing a song that was written in 1719. No other time of the year are we driving around listening to someone belt out lyrics to a song written in 1719. In the car with your kids, in nursing homes, in children’s choirs, in the department store you’re frantically doing your Christmas shopping, that same song ringing along with so many others we continue to find comfort in.

It may be that Christmas and the feelings it brings, the traditions, the passing of recipes, and sharing of the same stories, and Night Before Christmas fables is really about some kind of connection we all so deeply need once a year.

It’s all of humanity being bound by those long-standing holiday customs. Connections to our friends, our siblings, our families, our communities, and our children. And, let me tell you, as one who knows, part of Christmas is a longing for the connection to your parents and the Christmases you shared with them.

And, of course, our connections to a higher power, greater purpose, and God. Maybe that’s what all of our own personal faith journeys or our solace is: a connection. Like Faith Hill singing “Joy to the World,” or the shared coincidences, and remarkable fall colors in the sunlight, rainbows, and mountain majesties that universally bind us together.

What if that’s what magic is? Maybe magic is connection. Connections with each other, the world around us, nature, our past, and a bigger meaning.

And to me, that’s what the Christmas spirit is—the feeling in the Gilligan’s candlelit living room, a sunset connecting us with nature and the great unknown, a little girl singing on Christmas Eve, or a little boy talking to his young mom about a broken moon—it’s all a quest to connect. And when that connection sparks—it’s magic.

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