I just made myself a cup of tea while working on papers, and had a Proustian moment.
When I was young, maybe nine or ten, I decided that I would be a witch. My family’s reaction was not what you might imagine. My father gravely informed me that there wasn’t any such thing as real magic. My mother informed me that, in fact, there was. I remember I made the announcement at the dinner table. It seemed important that I let them know, since it would, no doubt, involve — umm — something noisy or messy. Hopefully both.
I made some rather arbitrary decisions what was necessary for witchcraft. Among the things necessary were tomes of forgotten lore. Our local library had exactly one such tome. And I could only keep it for a week. Fortunately, there was a bookstore in our little town, and I used to order books by name (carefully copied out of the backs of other books). The proprietor’s name became a household word, and he seemed quite willing to order the most outlandish and age-inappropriate books for me. The only time he ever choked was when I ordered The Function of the Orgasm. He also taught me to pronounce Machiavelli.
In any event, I had other things on my list of things a witch must do:
- Burn incense. I remember the first scent was coconut. I burned the hell out of that incense. Our house no doubt smelled like Copa Cabana.
- Read books. I read everything, all the time. At one point, my mother asked if I’d bring a book to my first date when I got old enough, and I believe I said yes.
- Burn candles. Fire figured heavily in my view of witchcraft.
- Drink tea. Actually, technically, tisanes. Herbal teas. These, like the incense, were chosen largely for scent and not for purpose. I didn’t know anything about correspondences.
Obviously, what I was doing was being a hippy, not a witch, but close enough. My mother did her best to teach me some actual magic — visualization, affirmations, that sort of thing. When I wanted to do some magic and didn’t know how, I would squint on my incredibly inadequate books (in the ’80s, there were a string of occult books promising vast power and great wealth and listing “spells.” They were risible, but I didn’t know). I’d squint until something looked like it made vague sense, and then I’d just — make it up. And sometimes, it even worked.
Later, in my teenage years, I discovered the Qabalah. Became an instant fan. Studied Hebrew in college, Latin and Old English in graduate school, etc.
But the thing is, I wonder . . . Yeah, coconut incense, a blue candle, and a cup of apple cinnamon tea are not exactly the way to vast and terrible power. But there was something in the beginner’s mind of the whole thing that, sometimes, I miss. After all, I didn’t just light a stick of coconut incense; I lit a stick of incense, brewed my tisane carefully (I had a peculiar ritual involving the saucer on top of the cup; I don’t know where I got that from), and paid attention in a way adults rarely ever manage.
When was the last time a cup of tea was mysterious, dangerous, and forbidden? When was the last time an air freshener might open the way to Power? When was the last time I excitedly carried a book home, expecting to find a Great Secret in its pages? Most people grow out of a belief in magic. I never did. My belief in magic became more and more sophisticated, complex, and philosophical. I think, instead, that I grew out of wonder. Damn.