A COUNTERVAILING MAGIC

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Last evening I was running some errands in town when the owner of a tiny used-and-antiquarian bookstore, bald in the style of a sea captain, flagged me down: he had a couple somethings I’d asked for months prior. So I went in, and settled into a narrow armchair, losing track of time until I realized that his open sign hadn’t been up, and I was likely keeping him from his tea.

He waved off my apology; he was staying late, as it happened. A young man would be bringing his girlfriend by, to guide her toward a certain book with a carved-out center containing—yes—a ring. Once said young man had proposed, the owner would clear a space for a small, well-appointed table, and a local restaurant would provide a catered meal. (I didn’t ask, but imagined a lone violinist there as well.)

Hearing that, surrounded by a warren of shelves all but obscuring the ancient blue wallpaper, with a peach-faced lovebird singing in the other room— “Alas, in a cage,” said the bookseller—was an instance of countervailing magic, the current that runs against the ills of the world. Such encounters—magic is always an encounter in some form or another—restore me to joy.

There is a great deal of pain involved in working with children. My first client, as an intern, was a little girl whose mother punched her in the nose and took an ax to her father’s car; she couldn’t concentrate in class and wept for the loss of an animal she’d loved, plus everything else, tears that shook her frame. We did a sensory inventory one day, and the wind spoke to her and told her to find her own safe place in the landscape at home; she let a pond remind her of peace, and the sun shining through a leafy trellis bring her hope. Magic: her dear, intelligent face, as we meditated at a picnic table, beneath the tall tall trees and a vibrant sky. May it carry her forth.

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NEXT TIME YOU MEET A UNICORN

I’m going to step out of my comfort zone today and dispense some very direct, very practical advice: Next time you meet a unicorn, ask for a wish.

It was last Saturday morning, and I was at the farmers’ market, which has thinned considerably at this point in the season. There were gaps between stalls, and the flowers all looked the worse for wear, tatter-petaled. The farmers and their helpers blew on their hands while visitors such as myself eyed their squashes and greens.

Into this autumnal scene came a unicorn on a bicycle. Really! Okay, outwardly she might have been a preschooler with a novelty helmet, but I looked past the (to me, hideous) molded plastic, to her own magical nature, and addressed her with astonishment and wonder.

“Are you the mythical lost unicorn I’ve been hearing about?!” I asked. She looked at me with what I would describe as uncertain pride, and after hesitating, she nodded.

“Oh!” I said. “Then will you please, please grant me my wish?” I pressed my hands together like a steeple in supplication. A moment more of confusion,with something like pleasure crisscrossing her expression, then she waved her hand at me and said, “Wish!” (It looks like a command, but it felt like a bestowal.)

So I closed my eyes, and I did.

There is a telegraphy that flashes back and forth between parents and myself, as we meet somewhere and I note the unicorn (or fairy or caped crusader) accompanying them. I speak to children or not depending on my sense of their parents’ comfort, which is frequently important to ensure a child’s own comfort anyway.

Other important elements of my methodology: I don’t talk too loudly; I don’t stand too close or even lean into their personal space. (What “too” means to any given person is a felt matter, of course, but my instincts are usually pretty good in that regard.) I don’t linger. And of crucial importance? Tone.

Humor and playfulness can be empowering; they can just as easily feel exclusive, or worse. Children are exquisitely sensitive to the ways the world deals with them, so I try to speak to them in a manner that says, “I’m making this up for fun and you’re in on the fun! But also, by the way, magic is real—and you can be in on that, too.”

 

spotted wren-babbler (Elachura formosa)

 

And speaking of magic, this photograph made my day. (Click here for attribution.)