Magical Realism In Real Life

Real life can feel real old sometimes but you can get a fresh start this fall. The first step is becoming a magician in the tradition of William S. Burroughs, which is actually very simple (instructions linked here). The every day magician is someone who does things with deliberate attention, transforming seemingly meaningless acts into art through concentration and contemplation. That deliberateness makes all the difference between a dreary life and one of meaning. 

Take a haircut for example. Maybe you go get a trim every six weeks and you relish the salon experience — your head being washed, chatter in the background, the smells, the feels — and your haircuts are heaven, a small retreat. Or maybe you rush in and are annoyed at having to wait and hate how you look when you leave and generally are getting things done but not having any fun. The magician is the former, a transformer of the mundane, and it is with the trick of attention that simple acts turn symbolic. 

Symbolic acts are important because form and formlessness. As the Tao Te Ching points out, things are defined by both absence and presence. We carve out special days to gives shape to the mundane and vice versa. But if we wait for official occasions to celebrate life, we may find ourselves out of practice or unable to enjoy special moments because we cultivated no taste for this, instead living in a state of obligation; that is how holidays turn into tedious lists of forced gifts. We live in a speedy and complex society and it is hard to get in touch with anything more than the material. 

The reason we have to see beyond what is to live is meaning, which we need because just getting things done, checking accomplishments and activities off of lists, letting the years pass without asking what is behind all we do, is dangerous. There is no escaping the ultimate fate and it would be a shame to spend all of our days just chasing things that don’t satisfy. But nothing will suffice unless we learn satisfaction.

Enter magic, helping us to find our own way through civilization without becoming discontents. And one way to do that is by deciding to do whatever it is you do as if it counts, as if it means something. Because that is the only way for anything to mean anything.  

My symbolic act for September was drastic, and hair-related. I lopped the long locks it took me years to grow, shedding cares with these silken strands that fell down my back (not flowed because that would give a grander impression than is due these binding strings). It seemed like a spontaneous decision but probably it was a long time coming and in retrospect the influences are clear — the close shorn skull of a sweet ten-year-old girl I saw at a wedding, so clean, unadorned, and simple, the corkscrew curls of a friend’s fresh new afro, the razed head of a monk with nothing but a bowl. 

There was an indescribable thrill as I chopped. With sewing scissors and only one mirror, mistakes were made -- but hey, punk rock. After the ecstasy, the ennui, or the sweeping, cleaning up the bathroom now covered in the slashed relics of my past, also a symbolic act, as the masters all say that dull tasks are fertile ground for practice. 

This brings us back to Burroughs. Magic is a mystical endeavor to be undertaken lightly and seriously, spontaneously and continuously. It’s mindfulness, paying attention to what is and playing. But it is a big deal too, very serious business, as magic works, and with our acts (which spring from our thoughts) we do change the world. Magical realism IRL.