[Author’s note: this column involves a brief suggestion of self-harm.]
Where should I take a walk, I asked. I asked everybody I knew, and nobody in particular.
This is the voice I inhabit most often these days: calling into a familiar void, asking for help from everyone because I am too afraid to ask any individual friend. It is a stance that could not have existed before the internet. Before, one could stand on a ravine and shout into the valley below, hoping not to be heard, or scribble one’s anxieties into a notebook, knowing that nobody would ever know what was written there save through the graces of larceny or posterity. This is different. Now there is the possibility that some acquaintance will see a message, understand its subtext, realize the plea buried within. The possibility is there. That’s what draws us – draws me, anyway – to want to shout into that sea of words: the hope that somebody will come and offer their understanding without having to be beckoned first.
According to the algorithms of the medium – which, is to say, that which mediates – my question pops up with a map and a friendly notice. Eric is looking for recommendations, it says.
Yes, I think. I suppose I am.
What is magick for?
I have been – I am – going through a hard spell. The past few weeks have been among the roughest in my life. I don’t want to go into the particulars of the situation, and in any case, it’s not solely my story to tell. But, as I have moved through this rocky terrain, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my grief and my faith, and the place where those two parts of my soul meet.
There were a few days during this period where I waited for news to come, and nothing I could do would make it come any faster. From what I knew, there was no way to predict, really, what the news would be, whether it would be what I wanted to hear or what I was afraid to hear. In those days of silence, I sat wringing my hands and wondering what would happen.
After a day or so of waiting, I came to a realization: it had never crossed my mind to do magick about the situation. I had never thought to call upon a god or some other spiritual power. I hadn’t even thought to light a candle.
I wondered about that – about why I didn’t turn to my religious traditions for solace or my magickal training to seek assistance. An answer came to me: I didn’t do any magick because I didn’t want to blame the magick if it failed. I didn’t ask anything from the gods because I didn’t want to be angry with them afterwards. It seemed easier to accept the universe as fundamentally random and amoral in that moment: if it’s all just chance, then there’s nobody to blame.
That all made sense. But if I could only trust in magick when the stakes were low – then what good was it?
I looked at my altar, which I keep tucked into a corner of my bedroom. Much of it was missing: my statues of gods, my chalice and athame. These things had all been packed into my wooden chest last year for Yule, and I had never set them back up. That meant it had been two months, at least, since I had done any work at my altar. I brushed away some dust and found my fingers left clean trails behind them.
If a person does not work magick at the altar and does not call upon the gods, then what do we call that person? Can he be called a Pagan? A Witch? I did not know.
There is a place just south of the town where I live that I go to be wild.
That is what I wrote just about a year and a half ago. When I wrote that sentence, my mind was on what we mean by “wilderness,” what a place means, how we constructed that meaning into the very landscapes of the places we think of as “wild”. I haven’t thought much about that recently. The thing about finishing something – a book, a degree, a time of life – is how radically one’s mind can change in response to that conclusion. While I wrote that column, and that long essay into which I wove it, stitch by stitch, I couldn’t think of anything except what we meant when we say the words “sacred space”. And then it was done, and I didn’t think much about it anymore.
It was still cold out when the hardest of the hard spell happened. A day or two later, though, Missouri saw its first genuinely warm day in months. It has been a long winter here, week after week of deep snow and treacherous ice. I like the winter – I have long annoyed my friends and covenmates with my insistence that winter be appreciated, respected, and even enjoyed – but this one turned out to be more than even I cared for.
And then, on that day in the middle of my grief – all at once, it was spring.
I asked the familiar void for its thoughts on where I should walk, and one voice from the legion suggested I visit the place where I once said I go to be wild. I knew, as soon as I saw the words, that there was nowhere else worth going. I ducked out of work early and drove south to Rock Bridge State Park – my wild place.
All the winter snow had swelled the creeks and streams, causing them to overflow their banks and turn the park’s lowlands into a muddy bog. I stood on a bridge near the entrance to the park for a long while, watching the current rushing past sharp peaks of stone, leaving white rapids in its wake. The gentle, insistent murmur of the water wrapped around me, like I imagine my mother’s hush might have swaddled me as an infant.
It was late in the afternoon, and I only had an hour or two to spend in the park. I settled on a short trail that had been built up as a boardwalk. The boardwalk led to one of the park’s major attractions: the long limestone cave called the Devil’s Icebox. Every time I had ever been in the park, I’d found the Devil’s Icebox closed for the health of its native bats, and this time was no different – it had closed for the season just a few days before.
Instead, I wandered up the steep flight of wooden steps to an overlook of another feature of the landscape, the eponymous rock bridge. A sign told me the bridge had itself been part of the Devil’s Icebox before a massive section of the limestone had collapsed in on itself, leaving only this thick stone arch to remember it by. I puffed, out of breath, and came to the edge of the overlook, bordered by a chipped wooden railing. The overlook was about thirty feet above the rushing water flowing from beneath the rock bridge. I could see the jagged rocks below.
I had a thought. Not for long. But I had a thought.
I turned away from the overlook and kept on the path.
The ground had become a deep and verdant green, but the tree branches remained barren and skeletal against the pale gray sky. I walked with my eyes turned upward, looking for any sign of buds. I crossed a section of the boardwalk that had been repaired over the winter and listened to my boots clopping along the young, honey-yellow boards. I came, in time, to the end of the line, another platform and another set of stairs, these heading down. They led to a smaller cave, a tributary of sorts from the Devil’s Icebox, called Connor’s Cave, which must have also been created from the collapse of the limestone that resulted in the Rock Bridge.
One has to duck under a low ceiling to enter Connor’s Cave, and when I stooped to enter, I found that the rushing water would have come up to my waist. I thought for a moment of stripping down and going in anyway, but although it had warmed up some, it hadn’t warmed up nearly enough for that. Instead, I watched the water crashing around the base of a rock, its flat top turned at an angle to catch the sunlight filtering through a hole in the roof on the far side of the cave.
I turned to head back and looked up. From atop a craggy wall full of bright moss and lichen, water spilled down onto the rocks below, a perfect waterfall that I could not recall ever seeing on my previous trips down the stairs to Connor’s Cave. I watched the waterfall, and I was miles and years away, standing at the edge of Barnafoss, the “children’s waterfall” in western Iceland; and then further back from that, up to my shins in lake water at Camp Gaea outside of Kansas City, cutting cattail leaves for use at one of the Heartland Pagan Festival’s sweat lodges; and further back still, standing at the treeline edging a new and green field on a cool night caught between the winter and the spring, kissing a girl I had known in college; and back, and back, and back, until I was a child standing in the shallows of the Big River in St. Francis State Park in the golden light of summer.
The waterfall was young and thin, and it would not last the season. But in its song I heard the call of all the green and all the water with which I have been blessed in this life, all that existed around and beyond my current state of grieving. It did not erase that grief, but it reminded me that there would be more than that sadness to come in time – that there was more than that already, right in front of me.
And somewhere in my Pagan soul, I heard a voice say that sometimes, it is less that magick is something we do, and more that magick is something that finds its way to us.