November 29, 2012
In this book excerpt to “Not in Kansas Anymore” author Christine Wicker shares her first encounter with magic.
On Monday, I reviewed Not in Kansas Anymore by Christine Wicker. Today I’m sharing an excerpt from this thought-provoking book. I hope you enjoy it!
An excerpt from
Not In Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America by Christine Wicker
I don’t believe in magic, of course. Hardly anybody does, but we all live by it. It permeates our lives every day, and we wouldn’t give it up for all the science on earth. Most of us can’t. We can’t because we aren’t aware of how completely we live within its thrall. Who can break a bond they don’t know exists?
My first magical lesson came when I was five. I was playing with the crippled girl who lived down the street. We didn’t like each other much, but being the only children in the neighborhood, we made do with each other in a grudging, bickering way. At one point in our play she took two bananas off the kitchen counter and told me to pick the one I wanted. I wanted the bigger one. I knew I shouldn’t take the big banana. To take it from a crippled girl would be especially bad. But I wanted it. So I took it.
At this point, in defense of myself, I’d like to mention that I was cross-eyed. I’m not saying that cross-eyed trumps crippled, and to be completely truthful, it wasn’t much of a factor in my case — morally speaking, I mean — because I didn’t know I was cross-eyed. No one had mentioned it, and I wasn’t an observant child.
I might have forgotten about the bananas by now except that mine had a big brown soft spot in it that ran all the way down the side. About two inches of my banana was edible. Her banana was perfect, and she ate it while I watched. If I had been generous, she would have been eating the rotten banana.
I knew what this meant. Somebody was watching, keeping score. It was God maybe. Who it was didn’t matter. What mattered was that I got the message. I never have taken the big banana again. I’ve never taken the biggest piece of chicken or the last scoop of mashed potatoes or the cookie with the most chocolate chips. I’ve never pushed anybody aside at the bargain table. I say to myself that I don’t care as much about such things. I don’t want them as much as other people do, but that’s not the truth. The truth is that I am still ruled by the bad magic of the big banana.
I was smart enough not to tell anybody in my family about it. If I had, they would have given me the horselaugh and brayed, “Taught you a lesson, huh?” I didn’t call this experience magical even to myself, but it clearly was, just as magical as that bad witch who wasn’t invited to the party and got so mad that she cursed poor little Sleeping Beauty.
It was a curse for sure. Luckily the big banana curse was a minor, manageable spell, evoked by my behavior and not by a capricious universe. The behavior it evoked dovetailed well with my Christian upbringing. But the lesson of the banana was deeper even than Christian teachings because it didn’t have to be taught. It had been experienced, and it seemed to affirm something basic in the fabric of reality. It didn’t, of course. But it seemed to.
Life went on. My eye got fixed, sort of. The doctors call it satisfactory. It turns outward a little instead of inward a lot. It hasn’t been much of a handicap, as far as I know, and it has helped me some. I understand outsiders in a way that not everybody does. Or I try to. Not because I’m smarter or more sensitive, but I know how it feels to be among those who can be summed up with one word of physical attribute. There are lots of them — cross-eyed, fat, crippled, bald, weak-chinned, spastic, crazy — and knowing what that feels like makes me listen harder. Or try to. If I wanted to make it a joke, I’d say I look at the world askance. Nobody who knows me would disagree with that.
I grew up. I became a big-city newspaper reporter, which is not a hopeful or fanciful or magical profession. If anybody had asked me two years ago to describe the age we live in, I’d have painted a picture right in line with what the world’s wise thinkers expected of me, except that it would be utterly dismal.
I’d have said science is our true God. I’d have said that we live in a world of marvels gone stale, adrift in an empty cosmos. We hear no voices but our own. We believe no omens, listen to no oracles. If otherworldly visions come to us, we close our eyes. And we never, ever think that we might have some great task, noble destiny, or grand calling. Such thoughts are generally believed to indicate a need for medication.
That’s how lots of people would describe life, but if an extraterrestrial were to watch these nonbelievers as they go about their lives, it would become quite clear that they do believe in much more than a material, soulless world. I first began to know about these hidden beliefs because I wrote a book on Lily Dale, a western New York community of Spiritualists where people have been talking to the dead for five generations. I wrote the book because I thought people with such extravagant ideas were rare, an oddity, something strange that would excite wonder. What a chucklehead.
Whether the dead talk back is a matter of contention, of course. I was careful about that, not wanting to be branded a crazy. But it didn’t matter. In writing the book, I’d been transformed. I’d become a person who could be told things. People all over the country started coming up to me in bookstores, at meetings, during parties to tell me stories they didn’t usually share with strangers.
They’d often start by glancing to each side. They would shrug as if they weren’t to be held responsible for what was coming. Then they’d say, “I don’t know what this means,” or, “I’m just going to tell you what happened.” One by one they came, butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. Few would have described themselves as believers in magic.
Once, for instance, I was in a Bible Belt state with a group of women who raise charitable funds for children’s hospitals. I talked about my book on the town that talks to the dead. When the talk turned to spirituality, heads nodded about the room as several women attested to their strong belief in Jesus Christ as their own personal, living savior and to their complete reliance on the Bible as the direct word of God, suitable for any occasion. I thought, Oh, boy. I hope they don’t go to praying and try to save me. I hadn’t needed to worry. They finished dessert, and then they lined up to tell me things.
“My mother read tea leaves all her life. If a relative was about to die, she always knew it,” said one. Another told me that her husband had second sight. His whole family had witnessed it.
The eighty-year-old former president of the group reached into her bosom to pull out a silver cross with a little charm next to it.
“Know what this is?” she asked.
“It’s the evil eye,” I said. According to magical theory, the eye on her charm would stare down the evil eye if it were directed toward her.
“Evil eye. That’s right. I’m Greek. All the Greeks wear them. Even the children.”
A blond woman of middle years asked, “Have you ever known anyone who had the evil eye put on them?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, someone put it on my daughter,” she said.
The daughter was about eighteen months old. She and her family were strolling along a New Jersey beachfront boardwalk when a man approached them. He was an actor from a fun house and was dressed in a monk’s robe. He had a rope around his waist. From it hung a cross, which he was twirling.
“Oh, what a beautiful child,” he said, looking intently at their daughter. Then he began to follow the family, continuing to stare at the little girl.
The man’s focus was so strange and his tone so eerie that the father turned the child’s stroller around and began pushing it away from the man, faster and faster until the family was practically running to escape. That night the child fell ill. She had a high fever and began throwing up. The next day she was still sick and crying constantly. A child who had always loved men, now she wouldn’t go to any of the men in the family. The mother’s sister had been on the boardwalk when the actor approached, and she was troubled by his actions. She called their aunt, who was of Polish heritage.
“He’s put the evil eye on her,” the aunt said. “You’ll have to remove it.” The mother’s sister was to take four straws from a broom and throw them over her shoulder into the corners of the room as she said a litany of Polish words. She was then to take a fifth straw, burn it with a wooden match, and drop it into a glass of water. They were to give the baby a spoonful of water from the glass.
“Make sure you do exactly what I told you,” she said, “and don’t let anyone who doesn’t believe be in the room when you do this.”
The mother, who didn’t know Polish, was so frightened that she would foul up and kill her daughter that she couldn’t do the spell. So her sister did it. The baby fell asleep immediately and slept four hours. When she awoke, the fever was gone and so was her fear of men.
“Are you telling me the truth?” I demanded. But I knew she was. She was as wholesome as Thanksgiving dinner and probably sat in the front pew of the Baptist church every Sunday.
Kids upchucking in the night and then getting better the next day isn’t all that unusual, but I didn’t say so because she knew that already and my saying it would have missed the point. The point of the story was that evil is alive, and good can defeat it in magical ways. It’s a good story, and the last part makes it better. No one told the little girl about that night, and she was too young to remember, but for the rest of her childhood she feared men in monk’s robes and would cry whenever she saw them.
As I heard a hundred tales and more, I also began to see magic everywhere, planted deep in the stuff of everyday life and flourishing. Britney Spears appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly wearing a red Kabbalah cord on her wrist. Paris Hilton had one, and so did Madonna, who adopted the name Esther to go along with her new faith in Jewish mysticism. The cords, which deflect the evil eye, were so popular that the Kabbalah Centre, where the stars go for instruction, tried to patent the string, sold for $26 to $36. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office declined that application.
Go into any large bookstore in America and you’ll find several books on regional ghosts and haunted places. Ghost hunters and ghost busters work all over the country. E- Bay sells haunted dolls and teddy bears. One week’s auction offered a haunted tuning fork, a haunted milking stool, a haunted gravestone rubbing, a haunted blanket, and a haunted bathtub.
Magic also penetrates our lives in ways that are quite mundane. It’s at the car repair shop when the engine stops pinging as soon as the mechanic appears and begins to ping again only when you pull out onto the street. It’s in the beauty salons when hair that spikes about your head like a scarecrow’s coiffure turns supple and silky on the day of the appointment. It’s at the restaurant when diners arrive only after the waiter sits down with his own plate and smokers’ food comes only after they’ve lit up.
You’ve heard of voodoo economics perhaps? Money magic is the most pervasive of all. Of course it would be, since money itself is the ultimate magic, a piece of paper that can do everything. Everyone wants good money magic, a way to win the lottery, gambling luck, an unexpected check in the mail, but the money magic of everyday life is more often bad. Win some money, get a bonus, have a little inheritance, and a major appliance will go out, the kid will get sick, a tire will go flat. Once you’re as poor as you were before the money arrived, life returns to normal. It’s as though there’s some kind of balance sheet that makes sure we stay at exactly the same level of prosperity all the time.
These are matters of life’s proceeding that hardly need to be commented on. They’re so common that they show up in jokes, and no one looks bewildered or wonders what’s being talked about. Trot out all the scientists you want, arm them with a million statistics. It won’t do any good. We know these things.
I often heard people talking about inanimate objects as though they were alive and powerful. This can opener never works for me, someone might say, or the bus always comes early when I’m running late. Or I always have to kick the machine before it will start. Or this computer only works for Mark — it hates the rest of us. Or it never rains when you’ve got an umbrella. No one is serious, you say? Maybe not, or maybe they’re whistling in the dark. It doesn’t matter which because language creates reality. What we name is what we notice, and that’s another argument for the inherent strength of magic. We’ve been programmed to ignore as much of it as we can, and still it pops up.
Copyright © 2006
Christine Wicker, author of the highly acclaimed national bestseller Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead. She is a former religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News and has won numerous awards for her journalism.
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