It just hit me, exactly what I’m missing: magic. Life used to be magical, at least sometimes, at least potentially. Me being me, I’m talking about those moments where reality is bended — bumped up into something wholly unexpected and seemingly unexplainable through standard means. When something bad was inevitable but didn’t come to pass. Or when something great seemed impossible but seamlessly happened. Or events just popped into order, creating a wonderful outcome that seemed poised to generate additional wonderful outcomes for years and even decades to come.
For the past number of years, life has just been… life. No magic has intervened. The sucky thing that seems poised to happen actually happens. The mean person’s plan is not foiled by some miraculous twist. I fail. I fail again. Someone dies. Someone else dies.
This is so crazy, but part of the problem may be that I’m no longer a student. It’s been eons since my school days, though I hate to admit that because I kind of pretend to be a slouchy Cambridge graduate student when I can. (I’d pretend to be a slouchy college student, or even a middle school kid, if I thought I could get away with it, but even I have some remote sense of objective reality.) My adventures as a student created some amazing scenes. Often I was horribly unsuccessful, but I pulled through again and again despite it, when it counted most if not during day-to-day pursuits.
Take me in fourth grade, when I couldn’t learn how to do long multiplication. Should I admit that? Will years spent trying to pretend that I’m smart crash down in a final haze of defeat if I throw that out into the world? If so, I can’t worry about it. True, my friends’ kids are learning advanced algebra in fourth grade, but I couldn’t learn long multiplication and that’s just how it was. And this sticky problem led to a miracle.
On test after test, I got a zero. I tried, I really did, but long multiplication took entirely too much organization and neat handwriting for me to master it. All those numbers had to be written perfectly, in neat columns, or the whole thing would get lost. It went on for a whole marking period. I was failing. A zero on every test means you’re failing. Right?
My mother had a conference scheduled with my teacher right when grades were coming out. For the longest time, I didn’t even tell my parents about the long multiplication thing: somehow sharing it with them would bring it to a new level of reality, solidify its role in the universe. But when grades were due out and my mother had a meeting with my teacher, I warned her.
She gave me a look. “You got zeros on every test?”
“Why didn’t you tell us? We could have helped you.”
And it dawned on me: I didn’t tell my parents partly because I didn’t want them to help me. I didn’t want long multiplication to spread out into my life after school, with my parents yelling at me because I couldn’t learn it. I wanted to come home, hang around, watch my mother make dinner, anything but continue trying to master long multiplication. But, at a certain point, reality grows and blooms until it can no longer be ignored.
I was going to fail. Probably, I’d get kicked out of our class and placed in a less advanced one. And if that happened, the kids in my new class might beat me up, and the kids in my old one would look down on me, giggling to themselves when the thought of their former classmate passed through their minds. Year after year, I’d never get back into my former class, where all my friends had been.
My mother shrugged and said: “Oh well, what’s the worst thing that could happen?” and headed off to my school.
I sat on the stairs right in front of the door, waiting. When I heard my mother’s car, I ran upstairs to my room and shut the door. Minutes, then a half hour went by, and no one came to get me. I tiptoed downstairs and heard my mother on the phone with my grandmother, talking about the new sweater she had bought and making plans to meet on Saturday. She was laughing a little.
As quietly as I could, I snuck into the kitchen where my mother was talking, figuring it was better to face her while she was distracted on the phone. She glanced at me and smiled a little. My report card was on the kitchen table. I looked at it without opening it and caught my mother’s eye, and she barely reacted. Then my mother gave me the phone so I could say hello to my grandmother, and, as always, Grandma was thrilled to hear my voice. When we hung up, it was just me, my mother, and the report card.
“So how was the conference?” I tried to seem as nonchalant as possible, but I knew something horrible was coming.
“We had a really nice talk. Mrs. Rockett just loves the haikus you’ve been writing.”
She looked straight at me. “You got a C-plus in math, and Mrs. Rockett is going to work with you after school until you learn how to do long multiplication.”
“A C-plus? But I failed.”
“Oh, come on. She wasn’t going to fail you.”
“Other than the math issue she’s really happy with how things are going. She’s a great teacher. I think she really gets you.”
Something clicked in my mind right then: a conviction that, if something really awful were about to happen, a magical force might stop it, because there was only so much I could take, and the universe realized that. Magic wouldn’t necessarily come, but it was a possibility. I did work with Mrs. Rockett after school for many weeks after that, and lo! Eventually, I learned how to do long multiplication. I still remember the process, though I haven’t tried it in many years.
Many minor school-related miracles happened through the years, but the next big one unfolded during my senior year of high school. I’d been an uneven student throughout high school: sometimes fantastic, sometimes far from it. The best math students were two years ahead of me, taking calculus while I was slogging through geometry. Pretty much all the generally acknowledged “good” students were at least one year ahead of me in math. I didn’t even take precalculus as a senior; I ended my struggle-filled math career with a C-minus in algebra 2/trigonometry. My college counselor tried to convince me to soldier on with the precalculus, but I balked, fearing that math would consume my life, and I’d have to steer almost all of my time away from the ideas and pursuits that I loved.
When I started looking at colleges, Brown University seemed perfect. It had no course requirements to graduate beyond fulfilling a major and passing 28 total classes. No more suffering in courses that tapped all my weaknesses (organizing numbers on a page, stumbling through incomprehensible labs while breaking equipment and hurting myself, and the like). It was also prestigious, and, much as I hated to admit it, I valued prestige. More important, I really wanted to be around smart peers, and to finally show that I could succeed among them, in an environment that didn’t punish me for all the things I couldn’t do.
But I had to get in, and I wasn’t really qualified. My overall test scores were OK because the high verbal results pulled me through, but my grades, objectively, were not. Neither of my parents went there, so no alumni admissions boost for me. When I told my school’s head college counselor I wanted to go there, she made a face. But then I discussed it with the teacher who would actually be writing my main recommendation (at my school, some teachers took on the role of college counselor). She smiled and said she would do her very best to write me the kind of recommendation that couldn’t be refused.
I applied there early, along with one of my grade’s best overall students, who was also editor-in-chief of the school paper. One afternoon, while I was eating lunch at the mall with my mother (I’d love to say it happened while I was soaking in the sun on a glorious mountaintop or some such, but that would be a lie) I prayed that I would get in, and told God, or whatever mystical forces might be behind the world, that if I did, I would regard my acceptance as a miracle, and spend the rest of my life trying to understand spiritual questions.
Notification date rolled around, and I heard nothing: no acceptance, no rejection, no mail at all. (Though I hate to admit it, this was back in the days when these results arrived in a physical mail box.) I wondered whether I was such an awful candidate that the admissions office decided they wouldn’t even waste paper and postage on me.
Finally, my mother called the head guidance counselor at my school, figuring she might know something. Mrs. Tomaino practically shouted: “You mean you don’t know? She’s in!”
This all happened during a school break, and, when classes resumed, everyone knew about my acceptance. It was weird and unexpected, and all kinds of people were congratulating me and speculating about why this had happened. The teacher who’d acted as my counselor thought my essay had gotten me in. The head guidance counselor thought it was the poems I’d submitted along with my application. But I knew the truth: it was magic. Really. To this day, I continue to explore spiritual notions, with this strange event in the back of my mind. What really made it wondrous (then, as now, I was super-mature and generous): the kid who applied with me was not accepted, even in the spring when final decisions were made.
I wound up going to Brown, loving it, and, for the first time ever at a school, excelling there. But I wonder if I used up my lifetime quotient of magic at that point. Does it work that way? Are we each allotted a certain amount of magic, and when it’s used up, we’re on our own, forced to brave the natural world and all the standard odds? This seems to go against the very nature of magic, which by definition busts rules and definable allotments of goodness. All I really know is, since then, life has mostly been a chilling dose of this-worldliness.
I prayed that death would never hit my family. I prayed that I’d find my niche in the publishing world, able to share my ideas and passions in books that would spread around the world. I prayed that, somehow, despite my bizarreness, the world as a whole would embrace me, make me feel valued and able to contribute to the larger conversation. And of course there are stories, nuances, and fabulous triumphs when I explore all these hopes in relation to my life, but, on the whole… Nope. Not magical. I sit here in front of my computer feeling that time is passing much too fast and nothing much ever happens for me. What once seemed like magic ultimately faded into disaster, again and again. The oh-so-promising publishing situations that never came to fruition. My grandmother who rallied after my intense prayers, but who, of course, eventually died. Life doesn’t seem magical anymore. It just seems like life: the life you expect when you keep your hopes very, very small.
I want magic to return. Is that possible? I want someone or something or some force or… I honestly don’t even know what form it would take, but I want it to push back inside of me and around me, and let me know that it’s all really OK. Time isn’t passing like I think it is. My days aren’t careening towards the end, when I’ll have to turn around and face a life that never took off like I’d hoped, unable to accept it. Death isn’t really what it seems, and neither is life. That’s what magic is, isn’t it? A sign of something beyond what we normally see, pushing through the normal rules and boundaries.
I’ve recently decided to embrace prayer, regularly and intensely. I’ve gotten lazy about praying, and also, I think, too restrained. I used to pray wildly, with emotion that burned. I’d throw myself out there, saying: “Look: I may not know what’s best for me, but I know that the current situation isn’t working. Help, help, help. Please help. Whatever happens, make it be good, and make me feel that goodness — help me know, intuitively, that it’s all working out.” Can I get this energy back? Is that what I need? Call me a magical thinker, but I’m excited to try and see what happens.
***Image Credit: “Magic Mountains,” by Dean (Vegas) on flickr.com