Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reconciling Magic

Lately I've begun to reconsider my stance on whether or not I believe in magic.

I am a person of faith, and while that comes with a willingness to believe in the mysterious, the counter-intuitive and even the miraculous, I've never been comfortable with believing in the supernatural. My mantra has always been, "I believe in God, but I don't believe in magic."
There was a time when I believed in it; I think this is true for most of us. As children, we are taught that 'please' and 'thank-you' are 'magic words', and many of us had little difficulty believing that one man could visit all the households on Earth in one night, propelled only by flying reindeer. I remember being mystified as my father pulled a coin out of my ear, but he would eventually relent and show me the truth, explaining how 'the hand is quicker than the eye'. So when I speak about magic, I am not talking about illusion or misdirection, or the revelation when an undiscovered truth is revealed, but what the dictionary describes as "apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces"; a power undetectable by scientific instrumentation.

In this context, for me at least, the roots of magic lie in symbolism, the meaning we imbue objects and events with. Birthdays are a perfect example; on the anniversary of my birth, the Earth will still complete one rotation on its axis, and complete 1/365th of its navigation around the run, and very little will distinguish it from the day that precedes it or the one which follows it. But because it has a significance in our culture, if I choose to share with a stranger that it happens to be my birthday, it would not be unusual for them to wish me a happy one.

Faith communities are well aware of the power of symbolism; in communion, you have some who see this sacrament as an opportunity to reenact the last supper, while those who believe in transubstantiation feel that these elements of bread and wine are becoming, in a very real way, the body and blood of Jesus. Let's not overstate this; these believers also understand that there is no way to detect the change with our human senses, and are left with a paradox to sort out, where the elements have changed substantively, even though they haven't.

Baptism gives an even better example of this blurring between symbolism and magic. In many Christian faith communities, this symbolic cleansing prepares someone for entering that community, and committing to their articles of faith, whether they are a baby, child or adult. What's unusual though, is the number of people who might hesitate to call themselves 'believers', may not be looking to connect with that particular community or doctrine, but who nonetheless bring their newborns to be baptised

Is it out of respect for tradition? Is it out of fear? Do they long for that sense of community? Do they feel a need for a connection to something larger than themselves, perhaps even infinite? It is difficult to say, and I daresay many of them would have a hard time articulating their motivation without a considerable amount of reflection.

My most recent encounter with this kind of mysterious power didn't come at a church, but at the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission event here in Edmonton.

In case you hadn't heard of it, the TRC was a national event that gave survivors of the Indian Residential School system the opportunity to talk about their experiences and have them recorded by the commission. These are harrowing tales of indigenous children being taken away from their parents, against their will, at a very young age, transported great distances to remote boarding schools where they were divorced from their culture, and harshly punished if they attempted to speak their own language.

When we speak about the Indian Residential Schools, it is important to be clear that we are not talking about an institution with noble goals, where a lack of oversight allowed occasional abuses to take place; we are talking about a systematic attempt at cultural genocide perpetrated by the Canadian government and aided and abetted by many churches, including the United Church of Canada, of which I am a member.

It is also important that we not delude ourselves into thinking that the Indian Residential Schools are a part of our distant past; the last one wasn't closed until 1996. Almost every aboriginal child you encounter has a parent or an uncle or aunt who survived the residential schools, and many of the challenges that face our First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples can trace their origins to the damage done by this pernicious institution.

Audrey and I felt it was important for our family to get to the last national TRC event, held here in Edmonton last weekend, to educate ourselves and to show our support. We weren't necessarily comfortable with listening to the live testimonials with our daughters, given the fact that sometimes this could include frank descriptions of physical or sexual abuse, but we saw a number of exhibits and on Sunday night we took part in the 'Walk of Reconciliation' from the Shaw Conference Centre to the steps of the Legislature.

Saturday afternoon we attended the screening of a movie, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a rough-edged but mesmerizing movie about a whip-smart 16 year old girl living on a reservation in Ontario in the 70's. Haunted by the spirits of her mother and brother, she uses the proceeds of her uncle's grow-op that she manages to stay out of the residential school he calls 'the mill', until the opportunity for revenge presents itself.

The room was packed, with perhaps slightly more indigenous than non-indigenous people in attendance. Young people moved to the floor so the elders could sit in chairs. We were warned that the movie was fairly violent in places, and that some of the scenes could trigger strong emotional responses in some of the audience, given its depiction of life in an Indian Residential School. While the facilitator was explaining this, boxes of tissues made their way up and down the rows of seats, with most people taking two or three just in case, but some people taking more.

Most interestingly to me though, they advised us not to throw away the tissues containing tears; it was explained that they would be collected in the brown paper bags being held by volunteers stationed around the room, and that they would be put into the sacred fire burning outside the conference centre as an offering at the end of the event.

I felt an irrational and profound sense of gratitude that these tears were not being wasted; that they were being preserved and committed to something symbolic, something worthwhile and important. The rightness of the action was never in question in my mind; although I had never given any thought to such a practice, there was an emotional logic and internal consistency to it that made me feel as though it was not only worthy and good, but that I had always known it, and just not had the opportunity to express it. A powerful symbol, brimming with significance, bordering on magic.

After a group of Dené drummers played a healing song, they dimmed the lights and the show began. True to the warning, it was a fairly intense film, with language feeling a bit stronger than what I expected from a film with a PG-14 rating. Still, I wouldn't have changed anything; I felt drawn into a world every bit as alien to me as what I have encountered in science-fiction, despite knowing it was all drawn from real or at least realistic experiences.

The most harrowing scene in the film comes towards the end, when our heroine's plans for revenge have taken a turn for the pear-shaped. Unable to pay her 'truancy tax', she is dragged into the school that has taken such a toll on her family, she is stripped of her clothes, and in a final humiliation, the nuns take a pair of shears and cut off her braids, a powerful symbol of wisdom and maturity in aboriginal culture.

As soon as you saw the heavy scissors sawing away at the braids of this helpless, angry girl, so capable up until that moment, you could hear and feel the effect on the audience.


A ragged, shuddering intake of breath.

A low moan.


A muffled sob.

And even without hearing this, you knew tears were being shed.

Tears of sorrow for all, but mixed with pain for the native people there, and with shame for the rest of us.

Knowing that these tears were being collected and given a purpose by our actions, that these tears and the emotions that provoked them were being honoured and given a significance and meaning, that we shouldn't hide them or be ashamed of them, that they were necessary and good and healthy, was more than symbolism; it was transfiguring. It radically changed the way I experienced the event and the feelings it provoked.

The movie had become too intense for Glory well before this scene, so Audrey had taken her out of the room. A native woman saw Audrey comforting her, and asked if she could talk to them.

This stranger had found the movie too much to handle as well, and had left shortly before they did. She told them that she was a survivor, and looked directly at Glory when she told her how proud she was that someone so young would come to the TRC in order to hear what she could and to show support.

And out of this random connection between strangers, still more tears were shed, between all three of them. And it was good.

These tears were combined with mine, and those of the people I heard in the room where the film was screened, with the people who told their stories, and the witnesses who came to hear them, and they were offered up to Creator in the sacred fire, in the spirit of healing and forgiveness.

And the logical, rational part of my mind, the one that wants to live in a world of rules and laws, of gravity and mathematics, that part knows that this offering is simply the transformation of water and salt into steam and ash; a chemical reaction older than mankind.

But if I'm honest with myself, I know, deep in my heart, that those tears and the feelings behind them, they went someplace.

And when I tell the story of that offering of tears to other people, and I can see the connection made in the glimmering of their eyes, how can I not believe in magic?

I'm not asking anyone to change their mind; I'm not yet fully convinced myself. I ask only that we at least attempt to keep our eyes, and our minds, and most importantly our hearts, open to the possibility that there is a place somewhere on the continuum between science and superstition, between symbol and skepticism, where magic could exist.

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