I was doing this interview to get a scholarship for college, it was me and something like four or five faculty members in a conference room, and I can’t remember whether they asked me if I had a philosophy of life or if I volunteered it, but I remember quoting Our Town:
Does anyone ever realize life while they live it… every, every minute?
Saints and poets maybe, they do some.
I’d actually learned that quote not from Our Town (though, like most young people interested in theater, I would eventually help stage the play) but from the novelization of My So-Called Life — which I did not mention.
I also don’t remember mentioning that one of the reasons I wanted to work in the arts — or more specifically, make art — was so I could realize life every, every minute. It seemed too much like comparing myself to a saint or a poet, and I was neither.
But I was ambitious, and I was a hard worker, and I was, for lack of a better term, a chaser of dreams.
I bought Nate Staniforth’s Here Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World for three reasons:
- I’d recently moved to Cedar Rapids and I wanted to start building a relationship with my new local bookstore.
- It had a blurb from Lev Grossman on the cover, and you already know how I feel about The Magicians.
- I was curious whether Staniforth’s definition of magic was the same as mine.
Here’s how I defined “magic,” when I wrote about visiting Disneyland:
I don’t believe in magic but I do believe that people can create magic, which is to say they can imbue items or people or experiences with meaning. They can imagine, to borrow what seems to be the theme, something more—and then it exists.
The magic, to me, isn’t in the action; I know enough about how stage magic works that I can look at something like the opening scene of Now You See It and think “they just forced the seven of diamonds.” The magic is in the reaction; in hearing a theater full of people take a quick breath when the seven of diamonds is revealed.
Or, to go back to the Disneyland example: Snow White’s Wishing Well isn’t magic, but the people who believe in magic (or want to create magic) have made it so by the way we respond. Dropping coins, making wishes, saying prayers. Leaving the grotto feeling hopeful or happy — or like we’ve participated in something larger than ourselves.
Here Is Real Magic, as the subtitle suggests, isn’t really about magic. It’s about wonder. Staniforth writes about two different kinds of wonder: the kind that can take hold of an audience, which falls in line with my definition of creating magic, and the kind that can take hold of the self.
As a musician, I am well aware that you can create the type of performance that delights an audience without necessarily feeling that delight yourself, but it’s hard to create a truly captivating moment without also being equally captivated. It’s the balance between what you’ve rehearsed and what you make new; discipline and connection. The moment when you are singing with someone else (or with a choir) and your voices blend to the point where you can’t tell where you end and your partner begins. The moment when you are listening to the audience as intently as they are listening to you.
But even that, as Staniforth knows and as I know and as anyone who does any kind of creative work over a period of time knows, isn’t enough to maintain your own personal sense of wonder. At some point you’re no longer realizing life as you live it, every, every minute, and you have to go find life again.
It took me until this past year to put a name to what “finding life again” felt like, and you’re going to laugh when I tell this story because it’s so obvious, but here we go:
I bought Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven’s Prophecy tarot deck after reading The Raven Cycle, and here’s where you go if you want to read my thoughts on The Raven Cycle, but when I started using the deck I had the same feeling you get when you’re a child and someone gives you a new toy to explore or take apart or turn into stories.
And I hadn’t had a new toy in forever. I’d occasionally try to go back to old toys, like replaying SNES games, but I’d get bored. That wasn’t play anymore, and this was.
Before I get a bunch of comments on how tarot isn’t a toy, I want to say that I agree with you. It isn’t! But it is play. It’s creative interaction. It’s self-directed and generative and it teaches you something new and helps you grow — and, by the definition above, can be magic.
I didn’t fully put together that “finding life again” meant play until I got my bike. I felt that same strong sense memory of getting a new toy — and although bikes aren’t toys either, they are self-directed and generative and they teach you something new and etc. etc. etc.
So I started looking for other ways to play, and it was interesting to learn what did and didn’t qualify. Caring for my succulents is a little too passive to be play. Cooking can sometimes be play, but sometimes it’s just chores. Singing and dancing are often play, but it’s a little more complicated when you get into the performance end of things because then you start switching over into trying to make something specific, which is why writing can also sometimes be play but sometimes it’s more of that goal-oriented, dream-chasing trying to make art, which is equally captivating but not regenerative in the same way that play is — because play isn’t working towards a desired outcome. It’s just seeing what happens.
(This is where I should sidebar and say that yes, sometimes “just seeing what happens” can result in art, but there’s a difference between play and performance — there’s a lot more vulnerability in performance, for starters — and if you want to read more about that, go get a copy of my novel The Biographies of Ordinary People.)
This is why walking or biking a new trail feels like play, which brings me — finally — to the photo at the top of this post. Finding an empty frame placed on the side of a lake felt like a discovery (even though I in no way discovered it) and the fact that the frame was empty made me imagine everything that could go inside it — the lake, of course, but I could also bring friends here and show them the frame and we could take photos of ourselves through the frame, and I could come back in a month and see what the trees looked like with leaves on them — and suddenly I was connected to this piece of art and interacting with it, and it was wonderful. ❤