magical thinking in unmagical spaces

magical thinking in unmagical spaces

San Francisco, California
October 19, 2012
238 days until Arctic Circle journey


There is a patch of ground I cross on my way to work every morning about four blocks from work. It’s a triangular patch, with some scraggly pines and twisted, leaning eucalyptus trees, at the edge of Kezar Stadium. In an aesthetic sense it’s ugly: an irregular patch with a dirt path bounding one side, a crumbling dead-end road on the other, and a bike path completing the third arm of the triangle. A loud, dirty, and very heavily-traveled thoroughfare runs next to the bike path: this is where Lincoln Avenue snakes through the panhandle and becomes Oak Street.

This little stretch of brown is usually scattered with garbage. The fall of pine needles and eucalyptus leaves, along with the permanent shade beneath, stifles the growth of anything but foxglove, nasturtium, and a few weeds. It’s an urban transitory space. Like a semi-colon in a sentence, it’s a place you pass on the way to somewhere else, not a conclusion in and of itself.

But almost every day something out of the ordinary, sometimes even magical, happens to me in the five seconds it takes me to pass through this area. Two weeks ago, I was walking along the dirt path and noticed a movement out in the dead leaves. It was a thin, tall weed, and it was shivering, and then jerking back and forth. When I stopped walking, it stopped. When I started walking again, it started again. So I walked really, really, slow, not taking my eyes off it.  Over the course of about 45 seconds, the weed got shorter and shorter, and finally retracted into the ground and disappeared. I didn’t have time to get my phone out and film it, I just had to watch. And when it was over, I had this swelling sensation in my chest and jumped up and down and felt a totally unexpected flood of joy.

Yes, yes, I know… a pocket gopher was eating it from beneath the ground, or turning it into an origami chandelier. The magic is not in the fact that I didn’t know what was causing it. The magic is that I knew what was happening in front of me, and it was happening… in front of me! This is something I have difficulty explaining, but that I feel is so inherent to discussions of how we seem to treat things with less significance when we think we’ve got them figured out.

Let me give you another example: today as I walked through the patch, I saw a bunch of leaves flying inexplicably into the air, but only a few inches above the ground. Then I realized that a sparrow was perfectly camouflaged there, flipping dried eucalyptus leaves into the air, looking for seeds, or insects, or leprechauns, or governmental micro-drones. And also taking a dust bath. When I stopped to stare, the bird stopped to stare at me. When I started walking again, it started flinging leaves and scratching the dirt. When I stopped, it stopped.  So I walked really, really slow, and it flipped leaves really, really slow, and we did that until we couldn’t see each other any more.

When we figure out how things work, why is it that we think that cheapens them?  If I am a complex array of genetics, and biochemical signals, does that make me a “mere” complex array of genetics and biochemical signals? Why do we believe that naming something is taming it?

I do acknowledge that my definition of magic is not one you’d find in the wiktionary. But it’s a poet’s sense of magic: things are not creepy and wonderful and beautiful and arresting because I don’t understand them. They give me the heebie-jeebies and make me jump up and down because I do understand, because I see, and for a terribly short moment, I am part of them.

If I am sitting out on the roof, which I was last weekend, and two ravens fly over my head and catch an updraft and hang there, and then roll and put their feet together and lock claws and barrel roll down the wind together, and someone tells me, “oh that’s just this behavior or that behavior.” Why is the word “just” involved? Do people really believe, (or want to) that knowing what something is, or why it happens, means we own it?

Maybe it’s that a thing that becomes familiar gets taken for granted. But the most familiar thing in the world could be this ugly little patch of ground I pass through every day. And it isn’t me that makes it come alive… it was already alive. The trees make all kinds of noise when I’m not there to listen.

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