Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Half Magic

When I was a little girl, I read Edward Eager's Half Magic, at my mother's insistence. She had read it as a little girl. We just finished reading it to my five-year-old tonight.

The story involves a family of four children who find a magic charm on the sidewalk. Mistaking it for a coin, it takes them a little time to figure out that it is magic -- but only half magic. If they make a wish, it will come half true. For instance they wish their cat could talk, and he does talk... but not very well, sputtering unintelligible nonsense words. They figure out that they need to double each wish--wishing that an attacking knight would grow two puddings on his nose, or wishing themselves twice as far as home.

Part of the background of the story is that their mother is a widow, and Jane, the oldest, is the only one who really remembers their father. As the plot unfolds, their mother meets a wonderful man named Mr. Smith, who believes in believing in six impossible things before breakfast. Mr. Smith helps them through their adventures, finally marrying their mother and bringing new support and security into their struggling family.

After they go through some harrowing and hilarious adventures, the children discover that the magic of the charm has been used up, at least for them. I'd forgotten the part at the end that I read to Raimi tonight. My voice wavered as I read these paragraphs to him:
The last wish was Jane's alone, and she never really knew she made it.
That night, as she was getting undressed, she found the charm in her pocket, and sat on the bed looking for a long time, and pondering the mystery of how it had come into their hands, and why.
And from that she went on to thinking about their mother's being married, and the changes it would bring into their lives.
She was quite contented about everything. But because she was the only one of the four children who remembered their father, she would have been more contented still if she could have felt sure that he knew about what was going to happen, and approved of it.
It had been a full day, and she was ready for sleep. Already her eyes had begun to close of their own accord. But as she put out the light and tucked the charm absentmindedly under her pillow, her last waking thought was that she wished her father were with her now, so she'd know how he felt about things.
She wasn't worrying about the charm, or working out the right fractions, as she wished it. But because there was still this one small corner in Jane that wasn't completely happy, the charm relented, and thawed out of its icy used-upness, and granted the wish, according to its well-known fashion. Immediately her father was half there.
He was there like a thought in her mind, ensuring her that everything was all right, and exactly as he would want it, and that he was happy in their happiness.
And a wonderful feeling of peace filled the heart of Jane, and she went to sleep with a smile on her face.

For some reason my son has recently had a lot of questions about death and spirits -- about burial rituals and what happens when we die. He's interested in Egyptian tombs and has asked about graveyards. He questions whether God exists and whether God created the Universe, because we've spent a lot more time talking about evolution and cosmology than about our spiritual roots.

I want to help him find his own spiritual answers, and connecting to my own helps with this.

As I write, I'm watching a documentary on the Mormons. It's really very beautiful, the absolute certainty that Mormons feel about the afterlife -- that they will rejoin their families and go to be with God after death. The film interviews a young woman in her twenties with a condition that will take her life within years. It's not a happy thought -- there are tears in her eyes as she describes not being able to see her youngest brothers and sisters grow up. But then she seems so peaceful, saying she will be with them again -- her family will be ultimately, and eternally, reunited.

The Mormons are unusually devout and certain in this conviction, but of course they aren't the only ones to believe in an eternal afterlife. I recently attended a memorial service conducted by the United Methodist chaplain at the agency where I work. The memorial was for one of our former kids, who was killed in a car crash, leaving a five year old son, an eight year old who called him daddy, and an infant he was planning to raise as his own. Their mother was also killed. The chaplain acknowledged the tragedy and sadness, but quickly - too quickly for me - began offering words of comfort. "Today we are united by our grief, and yet we know that he is with God, and he is in a better place. He is at peace."

I don't think I do know that.

My father was too much of a scientist and my mother too much a free thinker for me to grow up with many certainties about the spiritual realm. The best memorial service I've ever been to was for the Orthodox Jewish grandmother of my partner. The Rabbi asked, "Why would God take Helen from us?" And then he paused. "I don't know," he said. "But, we believe that there is an order and a meaning to the Universe." I can't remember his exact words, but the message stayed with me. We don't know why we live and die. But we believe there is a reason, and so we must go on.

So as I read Half Magic to my son, I remembered my father describing the exact sensation Jane experienced--that his mother, long passed away, was with him during some of the most important decisions he'd ever made. He was agnostic as to whether this was a psychological or spiritual experience. Himself influenced by Spiritualists, Theosophists and Unitarians, my father's scientific training and humility about what he did not know allowed him to find comfort in the experience without needing to explain it.

Since he's been gone, I've felt my father's presence with me at times. Never when I expected it, yet at times when I needed it. I know my four sisters have described feeling him with them, too, as they fished or taught or puzzled through a problem.

What I'm thinking, and so grateful to Edward Eager for describing, is that although the children in the story are confused by the half-ness of the magic they find -- they ultimately learn that half magic is enough. Maybe this is what we can hope for, enjoy, and celebrate. The semi-conscious feeling as if in a dream that those we love are with us at moments when we need them. The revelation in our hearts when we witness something transcendent, like a spectacular sunset or the birth of a child.

These experiences both are and are not magic. They're half magic, and fully human.