Highlights from Enchantment by Katherine May

Cover of Enchantment
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Highlights from this book

  • But enchantment cannot be destroyed. It waits patiently for us to remember that we need it. And now when I start to look for it, there it is: pale, intermittent, waiting patiently for my return. The sudden catch of sunlight behind stained glass. The glint of gold in the silt of a stream. The words that whisper through the leaves.

  • I don't know what's wrong with me, really. It's nothing, but it's also all-encompassing. I feel strangely empty, devoid of thought and energy. I am not sure where my days go, but they go. Every single thing I must do—any hint of a demand—grinds against me. I resent it all. I want to be left, quietly, alone.

  • Autistic people are intimate with burnout, particularly those who, like me, were not diagnosed until late into adulthood. Burnout comes when you spend too long ignoring your own needs. It is an incremental sickening that builds from exhaustion upon exhaustion, overwhelm upon overwhelm.

  • How do we worship now? How do we get past the blunt knowing of our disenchanted age and tap back into the magic that we used to perceive everywhere? I wanted to touch the stones and for them to return a tingle of meaning laid down over millennia. Instead, they seemed to shrug me off. Make your own meaning, they said. We can't do that for you.

  • My bored childhood habit involved picking black pebbles out of the garden and smashing them with a hammer. The results were patchy and untidy, but a surprising proportion of them revealed geodes, hollows in the centre of the stone lined in sparkling crystal. I never quite got over the high of finding something so beautiful hidden in something so plain and commonplace; of being the first pair of eyes to witness this minuscule cavern. Later, I started to attend a mineral fair held at my local shopping centre on Sunday afternoons, spending my pocket money on specimens of malachite and serpentine, amethyst and obsidian, pyrite and celestine. I think I loved the words as much as the stones themselves, each one of them difficult to spell and salty on the tongue. It gave me a language that no one else around me spoke, a system of knowledge to contemplate and build.

  • I glance over my shoulder to check I'm still alone and unbuckle my sandals. The ground feels cool, and barefoot, I walk slowly, careful to land each tread safely. This place feels safe. It's pleasurable to watch the blown grass creating abstract patterns as it sways and billows. There are so many butterflies. I feel my attention settling for the first time in a long while, in this place that is infinite with detail, with layers and layers of life arrayed before my eyes. It occurs to me that I am resting. It is not the same as doing nothing. Resting like this is something active, chosen, alert, something rare and precious.

  • Mircea Eliade coined the term hierophany to describe the way that the divine reveals itself to us, transforming the objects through which it works. When we make a tree or a stone or a wafer of bread the subject of our worshipful attention, we transform it into a hierophany, an object of the sacred. For the believer, this means that absolute reality has been uncovered, rather than anything fantastical projected upon it. Hierophany is the experience of perceiving all the layers of existence, not just seeing its surface appearance. The person who believes, be it in an ancient animism or a complex modern religion, lives in an enhanced world, having been given a kind of supernatural key to see wonder in the everyday. “For those who have a religious experience,” said Eliade, “all nature is capable of revealing itself as a cosmic sacrality. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany.”

  • The forest, I believe, will stay with Bert as he ages. It is a deep terrain, a place of unending variance and subtle mean-ing. It is a complete sensory environment, whispering with sounds that nourish rather than enervate, with scents that carry information more significant than “nasty” or “nice.” It is different each time you meet it, changing with the seasons, the weather, the life cycles of its inhabitants. It is marked by history and mythologies; stories effortlessly spin from its depths. It is safe from the spite of suburban playgrounds, and dangerous in a way that insurance won't indemnify. Dig beneath its soil, and you will uncover layers of life: the frail networks of mycelia, the burrows of animals, the roots of trees.

  • But that would be cutting off his branches. My son must make his own holy ground. He must find his own hierophanies, in his own way, without my interference. Sacred places are no longer given to us, and they are rarely shared between whole communities. They are now containers for our own knowing, our own meanings. They don't translate across minds. It falls on us to keep them.

  • You take off your shoes when you come home. You do it to keep the floors clean, but also to show how you trust this space to treat you kindly.

  • As I got older, I noticed more about how she waxes and wanes, and I began to remodel her in my mind: perhaps she was just like me, sometimes round with power and some. times dissolving into the sky, eternally shifting shape, rest. less. By then, I no longer thought I was the centre of the universe, and so it felt as though the moon needed me to notice her, too. Our relationship was reciprocal. When I stepped outside at night, we witnessed each other, and that was all that needed to happen. I couldn't ask the moon for anything. But between us, it felt like an exchange of information between two entities who know what it is to endure constant change.

  • Lately I have returned to my silent conversations with the moon. I go outside each night when everyone is sleep ing, and I try to transmit the depth of my longing for my own self back again, for time not to work, but to simply exist; for the right to feel curiosity again, without the sense that it would only make everything harder.

  • Danger, when it is always imminent, does harm. It doesn't need to actually arrive. You exhaust yourself in the act of forever looking over your shoulder. Your body readies itself to fight and never quite discharges that chemical cocktail. You channel it instead into anger and self-pity and anxiety and hopelessness. You divert it into work. But really what you do, with every fibre of your being, is watch. You are incessantly, exhaustingly alert. You don't dare ever let up, just in case the danger takes advantage of your inattention.

  • But most of all, I miss the sense of worship that comes when I get into the sea. I miss the feeling that I am entering a vast cathedral, and, rather than sitting in its dry pews, that Lam merging with it. I miss how when I feel the pull of the tides, I am also feeling the pull of the whole world, of the moon and the sun; that I am part of a chain of interconnection that crosses galaxies.

  • We are a forgetful species, obsessed with the endless succession of tasks that hover over our days, and negligent of the grand celestial drama unfolding around us. And here I am, remembering.

  • I often think that ritual gives us something to do with our hands rather than our heads, performing a set of actions that root us into our being again. Ritual is different from worship: a matter of instinct rather than construction, a gesture that lets us weave significance in the moment. It is so undemanding, so simple, almost passive. You follow the steps, and they take you down to find what you need.

  • It seems some of my angst has been absorbed into its [the bread’s] very fabric through the pummeling of my hands. It's as though I've allowed a different part of my body to think for a while, alleviating the pressure on my brain.

  • I tend to think that God is not a person, but the sum total of all of us, across time. That only makes the imperative greater. We have a duty to witness the broad spectrum of humanity, rather than to defend our own corner of it. That is the work I crave: the sense of contact. The possibil ity that it might change me in ways that I can't predict. The possibility that I might one day do better.

  • That's because we misunderstand play itself, casting it as exuberant, silly, a frippery that signals to us that our children are still young enough to have not yet turned their minds to more weighty en-deavours. But play is serious. Play is absolute. Play is the complete absorption in something that doesn't matter to the external world, but which matters completely to you. It's an immersion in your own interests that becomes a feeling in itself, a potent emotion. Play is a disappearance into a space of our choosing, invisible to those outside the game. It is the pursuit of pure flow, a sandbox mind in which we can test new thoughts, new selves. It's a form of symbolic living, a way to transpose one reality onto another and mine it for meaning. Play is a form of enchantment.

  • Through all my brave rejection of the writing life, I had been making one basic assumption: that writing was my path to reject. In that hour spent in my makeshift study, I learned many things: that a childhood talent does not necessarily translate into an adult one; that your craft will die if you don't nurture it; that your most profound thoughts seem shamefully thin when they're at risk of appearing on a page. Above all, I learned what happens when you turn away from play. The most beautiful reaches of your attention degrade within you, leaving behind a residue of bitterness and frustration. In playlessness, your adult self is not nurtured, but strangled. And deep play that play that connects across months and years, that fosters its own arcane missions, that delves into the minutiae of being is hard to find again.

  • Deep play is a labyrinth and not a maze, a twisting path with no destination. The walking is the thing. You are the walk. There is no end to it. Your only reward is more of the same more wells to fill with your attention, more fires to tend. And every now and then, for reasons beyond your control, those fires will go out.

  • This is not just a matter of knowledge, but also a matter of desire. We have forgotten how to want one good dress over fifty disposable ones. We have forgotten how to crave each new food as it comes into season. We must learn to know with our hands rather than our heads.

  • I think I'm beginning to understand that the quest is the point. Our sense of enchantment is not triggered only by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant land-scapes. The awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is transformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it. It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning. The magic is of our own conjuring. Hierophany that revelation of the sacred is something that we bring to everyday things, rather than something that is given to us. That quality of experience that reveals to us the workings of the world, that comforts and fascinates us, that ushers us towards a greater understanding of the business of being human: it is not in itself rare. What is rare is our will to pursue it. If we wait passively to become enchanted, we could wait a long time.

  • Cairns are spontaneous, shifting monuments to a hundred different things. A bunch of browning flowers is secured under one of the stones, facing seaward. I show Bert that he can add a stone of his own, and he does, and then adds one for every member of his family: for me, for Daddy, for Grandma, for the cats and for the dog all the beings he treasures. And just like that, he makes his own ritual, an act of invention and a gesture of connection. He doesn't need to be shown this. He knows already. What he needs, as he grows older, is continuing permission to map meaning across the landscape.

  • We don't destroy colonial attitudes about the landscape by erasing people from it altogether, and forbidding their ever-morphing acts of meaning-making. We don't preserve our natural landscapes by turning them into a museum. We heal these rifts by inviting back gentleness into our relationship with the earth, by allowing meaning to take hold again. We should encourage enchantment to bolt like a weed. It is, after all, native here. The stones, and the dried-out heather, and the sound of the sea, and the moon above our heads have all been storing it like a battery, waiting for its current to be found again.