Archive for December, 2011


Do you believe in magic…

A woman I knew in Syracuse, NY ran a New-Age Wiccan bookshop and giftshop. Once my daughter and I needed to get home, and she offered to drive us. It was a cold winter day and we were glad of the ride. Her car was old and of uncertain power. As she was about to turn the ignition key, she uttered a prayer I remembered from my Catholic childhood (though I do not remember which prayer it was now — go figure!). I asked her about the apparent inconsistency that she, a practicing Wiccan and the owner of a Wiccan shop, was uttering a Christian prayer before turning the ignition key. Her response has stuck with me — “there are all kinds of magic in the world, and so I like to keep my options open.” The car did start, and she thanked St. Jude (patron saint of hopeless causes) or St. Anthony of Padua (patron saint of lost items) for the help. Thinking that it was all just good luck, I thought little more of it.  But I often think of the spirit of her sentiment, that the world is full of magic, that each of us has some magical power — just yell at someone doing something that drives you crazy to stop, and that person will almost certainly stop, if only for a minute.  Still, you uttered something that might be called a spell (aren’t all commands and requests spells of a sort), and it had an effect.  And I often think of the eclectic quality of her thinking.

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the feast day in honor of the appearance of Mary to a simple Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, with instructions that a church should be built. The church authorities, who were more educated and more powerful than Juan (they knew it, and he knew it) did not believe him, but asked for a sign. The sign that Juan got and presented to the Church authorities were roses in bloom in the winter. And so the Church was built and Mary became the patron saint of Mexico. When I taught in Chicago, I learned of this story because the Latino students in the school would sell roses on December 12 to raise money, but also to celebrate what, for Mexican Americans is their Valentine’s Day. I was so affected by the story that I soon adopted it as one of my own Feast Days.
Nineteen years ago, on this day, December 12, I signed the book at May Memorial Unitarian Society in Syracuse, NY. Having had my conversion experience on Easter Sunday, I had determined to join May Memorial as a member and to announce to all that I was now a Unitarian. But I chose not to sign the book publicly at the next service for New Members, but to do so privately on December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (which was a Saturday that year). For me that would be a signal event. Yes, I was switching my official religious affiliation from Roman Catholicism to Unitarianism, but I was doing so in a way that celebrated that part of my Roman Catholic upbringing and indicated that I wasn’t leaving that behind.
Though I remain Unitarian, I still hold on to those stories of the saints that I loved so as a kid, and I still hold on to a belief in revelation (and magic)  in the world that those stories suggested to me then, and suggest to me now.  I no longer believe in some all-powerful interventionist God, nor do I accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  But, I often think that we (all of us) are the hands of Go(o)d in the world, and that we can make magic happen.  It is not Samantha Stevens/Endora sort of magic (twitch your nose and move furniture about telekinetically).  But we do  have the power to make someone’s day a bit better, to make the world a bit better and to do the reverse.  We can respond to the beauty of a sunset, or roses, or beautiful words beautifully read.  And all of those are magic, I would maintain.  And I think most of us have some sense of that — when we do something special for someone, we clearly do it from good intentions, but also because we want to have that magical effect on our world.  And if the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe has any significance for me, it is that the vision happened to a poor peasant, a nobody.  He wasn’t expecting something amazing, but he was open enough to see it when it happened.  And those know-it-alls in the Bishop’s office — they had their minds so made up, they couldn’t entertain the idea that Juan Diego might be right, might have had something wonderful happen.  The certainty of their knowledge almost got in the way of their ability to believe and to wonder, and, but for the roses, they would have remained firm in that knowledge, and missed something spectacular.  So in our busy and often crazy whirlwind of a life, you have to ask yourself one question: do you believe in magic, well, do ya, Pink? (I’m thinking Pink probably does).


Alone together in the dark…

Alone together in the dark this Yuletide (in loving memory of Otis [AKA Bunkie])

Lately in my musings over Christmas, I found myself on the road with Charlie Brown moving into the darkness of Russell’s Corners in Woodstock, NY. Having never been to Woodstock, nor able physically to stand beside a cartoon character, I figure I may already have lost you. So let me fill in the blanks. I know Russell’s Corners only through a few paintings of that specific spot in paintings by George Ault, but when I first saw August Night at Russell’s Corners (you can go see this and other works of Ault’s at  — the five pieces shown are, in order Daylight at Russell’s Corners, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, Black Night at Russell’s Corners, August Night at Russell’s Corners and January, Full Moon) at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, NE some dozen years ago, I somehow knew that Russell’s Corners had always been part of my psychic makeup, and though I don’t live my life in that dark place, barely lit by a single light at the bend in the road, it’s always been there in my mind.
At times when I reflect on that beautiful and somewhat unsettling painting, I feel tremendous loneliness; at other times, I am amazed by the amazing transformation of the daytime world by the darkness of night which seems so much darker for the intermittent light. Standing before that painting (and to a lesser extent before Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, which looks at the same corner from a different angle, and with better lighting), I find myself having a liminal experience, as if on the edge of some other world, being here, but with a strong sense of a world beyond. Making the familiar strange is something that Ault does exceptionally well. He also captures the profound loneliness of living in the world, casting the viewer as sentient observer of a material, but insensate world.
A Charlie Brown Christmas evoked a similar feeling for me when I was 9, many years before I first encountered Ault, or even Woodstock. There is a scene (about 16 min. into the show) where Charlie Brown and Linus head into town to buy a Christmas tree. When I first saw the show in 1965 at Brendan McHugh’s house, I was amazed (like so many others) by many scenes in the show, by the opening skating scene, by the bizarre dancing to “Lucy and Linus,” and by other scenes as well; the scene that really clicked with my inner psyche, though, was the scene (lasting only about 10 sec.) where Charlie Brown and Linus leave the school and head toward town. At the point where they turn to their right and head down what seems a really long road to town, they appear as rather small figures at the bottom of the screen; in the distance, the town with searchlights panning the sky.
Just as the single light in Ault’s painting calls attention to the darkness, the searchlights suggest the darkness (Schultz and the animators don’t do Aultine darkness) and emphasize just how tiny Linus and Charlie Brown are in the world. The full effect of the scene is lost in video and DVD versions; for a second after Linus and Charlie Brown turn towards town, there was, in the original production a jump to commercial. I’m sure there were plenty of images of Dolly Madison cakes in the snow during that commercial break – but I don’t remember them. What I do remember is that I stayed, in my mind, with Linus and Charlie Brown on the road until we came back (the next scene has them already in the tree lot). So, for me, those 10 sec. stretched out for a couple of minutes, while I considered the pair, small and alone in a much larger (and it seemed to me, as a kid, darker) universe. And yet, Charlie Brown is not alone – Linus is with him. The two of them, however, are (however briefly) alone. We know that the rest of the crew is back at the school dancing together which makes the two boys alone in the dark and the cold seem even lonelier, and their bond seem so much greater.
What kept me from being traumatized by that scene (I was 9) was the awareness of the close friendship of Charlie Brown and Linus – everyone else is part of the group, but setting these two apart, the creators give their bond greater weight. And that’s what I’m thinking about this holiday season, being alone together in the dark. Doesn’t sound too cheery, but where others see Ault’s depression, I see courage in his facing that dark place again and again, and when I visit Russell’s Corners, I am also aware of familiar barns, of a corner I’ve visited many times, and I reflect on the people who built those buildings, who owned them, who, when day comes would be there working; I also think of the power grid that provided that tiny point of light and the structure underlying it. Even as I feel profound loneliness, I am aware of the world beyond, of all the humanity behind the world I see. So, in my loneliness, I am aware of the void, but still somehow feel connected.
And I’ve been blessed in my life at finding my Lini, close friends who have provided and still provide a fixed point, a solid counterpoint, as I contemplate the void. And Carla and I were blessed these past few years with Otis (AKA Bunkie), an old, blind pug who passed this November past. We’d always have to carry Otis out to the yard, and retrieve him after he had some yard time. Whenever I did this at night, and I’d pick up Otis, and we’d head back to the house, there I’d be, Linus to Otis’ Charlie Brown, heading to the light.
So, this holiday season, a period when the overwhelming darkness seems so great, I hope that you find, or rediscover, your Charlie Brown and your Linus, and if the immensity of the big bad world seems overwhelming, especially during the holiday, that you’ll remember the people behind the objects of the world, and in your life, and that you’ll know, in the darkest moment, there is a light which promises more light to dispel the darkness.