Individual Magic: Thinking of Food (and Plenty) at Christmas

These dishes set the tables of our past, and today they connect us to a culture of resourceful cooks who prepared year-round to feed their families. Many of these recipes were considered too mundane to merit writing down. Now they risk being forgotten.

From those traditions, the recipes grow from simple things you might make on a weeknight to more elaborate dishes I serve in our restaurant.

—–Vivian Howard, Deep Run Roots (“Don’t You Dare Skip This Introduction?”)

Almost three on Christmas afternoon, and the magic of the day has settled in, saturating. There is, as a writer of lyrics once said, a marshmallow world outside. Green Christmases are pretty common here, so the fluff of snow,—white, pristine snow that creates a glowing, freshened palette—is a holiday card-kind of treat.

And this morning, during the Gifting, Jim tore open the wrapping on a new appliance—a combination air fryer/convection oven/ toaster oven. We were all taken with it, and with its possibilities, and we halted what we were doing to drag it into the kitchen. Mark and I wrangled it onto the counter where appliances reside, removing two venerable specimens, which will go into the rapidly filling Goodwill box.

But Jim stood, staring out into the side yard through the big window.

“Look,” he whispered, and finally, plugs fussily plugged in, new oven situated just so, we did.

We saw something we’ve never seen here before: a fox hopping and snuffling in the snow. We gathered at the window; Mark and I pulled out our phones to click photos. The fox, surely sensing us there, seemed unconcerned.

It became clear she was wearing down a mole; the new snow now is full of tracks and splot marks where the little canine ran and leapt up and then landed full force in the snow. The mole was cagey; it burrowed and disappeared, and the fox looked up, perplexed.

Then it stuck its trim red snout into the snow; its fat tail wagged, and a tiny black creature surfaced, running, and disappeared again.

The fox leapt, and the chase continued.

It was focused and intense.

I didn’t watch to see the end of the hunt, but Mark says the mole finally, despite its courage and cunning, met its end.

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He posts a fox photo online, and someone comments that sighting a single fox is good luck. We’ll take that little bit of magic, that Christmas visitation, as an omen of good tidings at the end of a most distressing year.

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On the dining room table, where Jim is diligently working on lists—cataloging the new books he got for Christmas, creating pairings of superheroes that he might use in a short story here and there—the Christmas candle, lit first thing this morning (before the coffee started brewing, or the cinnamon buns went into the oven) burns steadfastly. That’s another harbinger, we believe, of good luck: a candle burnt, on Christmas, to its socket.

And wonderful smells emanate from the oven. This year, we are roasting a standing rib roast. I’ve only done this once before, so I have been frantically searching recipes. I could put the roast in the oven at 375 for an hour, I discover, then turn the oven off and let the meat sit in its waning heat for three hours. Then, I would turn the oven back on for another hour’s roasting.

This method sounds intriguing and the recipe-writer says it’s guaranteed to produce a succulently juicy roast…but: there can be no opening of the oven door once the process begins.

I think about side dishes, and I finally settle on the method outlined in my New Cookbook (itself a Christmas gift, once many years ago). I roast the meat low and slow. I boil some golden potatoes. When the meat reaches a certain temperature, I pour the potatoes into the roasting pan with a half cup of water, and I stir until they’re coated with juices. They start turning a beautiful golden brown almost as soon as I shove the roasting dish back into the oven.

Mark and Jim waft into the kitchen now and then like cartoon characters uplifted by aromas. All that remains is to throw salads together and to decide if we want garlic bread.

“Look at those potatoes,” Mark says, peering in the oven during one wafting.

And I think there’s a kind of magic, too, in the foods we eat on holidays.

And, really, there’s magic in the foods we eat in general.

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I’m thinking about this—about the magic and the specificity of food—because last Saturday, I declared it was a Scottish cooking day. I made a loaf of oatmeal bread (it was so good, or it had been so long since we had homemade bread, that we fell upon it with serrated knives when it was fresh from the oven. We ate big slabs with butter melting on them. We ate much of the loaf in fifteen minutes.)

I made a batch of Scottish shortbread for cookies; I rolled out half the dough and cut it into shapes and baked them up.

“Can we use the Christmas sprinkles to decorate them?” Jim asked, and I said sure. But the cookies went the way of the oatmeal bread. When I opened the plastic tub I’d put them in on Sunday night, there were two cookies left—a Santa and a Christmas tree, un-iced but delicious. I put them in a container and took them in my lunch the next day. On Christmas Eve, we rolled out the rest of the dough, and James and I cut out a new batch of cookies. They may or may not live to be frosted.

And, that Scottish cooking day, I made a batch of Chocolate Fudge Delight, my mother’s celebrated recipe. She found it, I think, in a magazine in the late fifties or early sixties (I have a copy of a letter she sent to my brother Dennis’s friend Jim’s mother; in that letter she enclosed a copy of the fudge recipe. That letter is dated 1962; she’d been making the fudge for a bit at that time, but I do remember, as a very young child, the excitement of that new find, that wonderful fudge that would become a staple into the next generation and beyond.)

The fudge recipe is not Scottish, but my mother certainly was, and so creating a batch of that fudge, for me, constitutes Scottish cooking.

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And I’m thinking about the magic and specificity of food because Mark got me copies of Vivian Howard’s two cookbooks, Deep Run Roots and This Will Make It Taste Good, for Christmas. Howard, who is talented, personable, and not afraid to be quirky, has two shows on PBS. Mark and I grew addicted to watching her; we cheered her successes and laughed at her foibles (she laughed at them, too) as if she were a beloved friend or a family member. We looked up her recipes online and tried things—tried combinations and ingredients—we’d never ever thought of using before.

When we exhausted every episode of the show, I felt unexpectedly bereft, as if Howard was one more person we couldn’t see in person because of this damned pandemic.

I was excited to get the books, and I stayed up late last night to finish my library book, which was really good, but which had a disappointing ending. Now, I thought, I can read me some Vivian, and after the morning’s Gifting, that’s exactly what I did.

Deep Run Roots has recipes for sure, but it’s also a story book. In it, Howard explains that she grew up in Deep Run, North Carolina, counting the years, then months, then days, until she could escape. She made good her plan; she went to boarding school as a teen; she took advantage of internships and courses that drew her away from her birthplace. She went away to college, and then she went to New York City to work.

She had no plan to become a chef, and she had no inclination to be a chef in the town where she grew up, but that’s what she did.

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Howard tells us that her New York City odyssey started in advertising and ended in the restaurant business. After burning out in the advertising business, she took a job as a server in a restaurant devoted to authentic southern food; she rose to line cook.

She didn’t think, though, that “southern food” meant HER kind of southern food, which she took for granted and kind of shunned. And then life, as it does, drew her back to her family and to her region. She and her husband started two restaurants; she had the opportunity to do a PBS program; she grew as a cook, and she and the restaurants and her book won awards.

Along the way, she grew to appreciate the foods of her region and the cooks from whom she grew up learning. Now, she uses the ingredients that are available to her in her corner of North Carolina; she studies the methods of the best cooks she knows, including her mother; and she puts her own unique spin on those things in her restaurants.

She rebelled against her culinary roots and then she embraced them, and in doing that, she created her own individual cuisine. That’s something that, it occurs to me, we all do on one level or another.

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It’s funny: I think the kind of cooking I grew up with is the default cuisine; I can, if I choose, explore to choose a fancier or a less elaborate ‘font.’ But I’ve seldom thought about the influences on the food I eat, and ate; I just accept it as the foundation and build on that.

So today I look up Scottish cooking; I find a post on matador.net that claims to showcase the best traditional dishes of Scotland. Mark reads over my shoulder as I scroll through.

We agree that we probably would NOT enjoy haggis, black pudding, or clootie dumplings. We agree that we would probably try kedgeree and porridge. And we both think we’d probably really like Cullen skink, fish supper, and cranachan.

I think I’d like bannocks and Scotch broth and Scotch pies, too.

I think about the foods my mother cooked when I was growing up, and I see the influence. We used a lot of oats; I have a recipe for oatmeal cookies tucked away that I think are probably very similar to oat cakes and that may have come from my grandmother, who died when my mom was only three.

My mother would often make things like boiled dinner, which was maybe Irish in origin, but followed Scottish cooking methods. We grew up loving Scottish shortbread. Our meals were often plain, always substantial, and seldom featured lots of spice or long-simmered sauces.

Of course, much of that came from my father’s preferences. Dad’s background was German and Irish; he did like cabbage and sauerkraut, which a quick look online associates with those two cuisines. But he grew up in an orphanage, and when he was finally allowed to return home—his father had remarried—his stepmother was a very good nurse, and a very bad cook.

“Her idea of fixing dinner,” my mother would tell us, appalled still after thirty and forty years, “was to send one of the kids to the corner store for white bread and cold cuts.”

My father liked things plain. He liked meat and potatoes. His preferences, of course, also shaped the family cuisine.

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As did the times. Depression kids, my parent grew up in a time when the government, an article in The Atlantic tells me, got involved in what people were eating. In 1929, when the impact of the Depression hit, Herbert Hoover was president, and he invoked the famed resilience of the American people, declining to set up support programs.

U.S. citizens, he believed, would figure it out. Using Yankee ingenuity, they’d weather the economic storm.

But then Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide, and then drought and disaster hit the farmlands, drying up food sources. Roosevelt created FERA—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The USDA then had a branch—the Home Economics branch—that was an all-woman department; they were charged with figuring ways for US housewives to feed their families using what foods were available.

FERA had five million pounds of dried beans to distribute, for example. A USDA spokesperson called Aunt Sammy went on the radio to tell Americans just how to cook those beans.

The government began telling people what and how to eat. The thirties were when, for instance, the five food groups became a commonly held concept. The idea of ‘scientific eating’ arose. Eating for pleasure was dismissed; the much less appetizing prospect of eating for health was introduced.

Ethnic food and the spices that made it appealing were on the government’s bad list. (So, I read with horror, was caffeine.)

On the government’s good list, the Atlantic article tells me, were things like prune pudding, canned-meat stew, veggies casseroles with lots of butter and cheese, Jello salads, and dishes made with canned creamed soup and canned tuna.

I see the influence of that on the foods I grew up with.

I see the influence of food trends that countered those methods—Julia Child was a big instigator—beginning in the 1960’s.

I see the influence of convenience embraced by our parents. Howard writes that her mother, who grew up on a farm and had to participate in creating almost all of her childhood food by hand, loved the wonders of buying ready-made foods at the supermarket. And my mother, who remembered her grim aunt decapitating chickens in their city backyard, was a grand advocate of frozen, ready-to-cook chicken.

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We are informed by the ethnicity of the places where we grew up—my hometown boasted many people of Italian descent and many people whose families had Polish roots. Wedding buffets, for instance, might feature both baked ziti and golumbki, and no one would think that odd at all. A little German snuck in with sliced beef sandwiches on kimmelweck rolls. It was a frugal Italian mama who came up with Buffalo-style chicken wings.

We are informed by the places we visit and the new places we live; even just fifty miles of separation can encourage whole new dishes and different styles of eating.

And there are, of course, the preferences we have, and the preferences of the people we eat with.

We, each of us, and each unit we eat with, develop our own cuisines.

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My mother never once fixed a prime rib dinner. Even when she and my father retired and their finances settled down and they became ‘comfortable,’ prime rib was not a dish they’d think to fix at home. It was, by reputation and habit, a cut of meat that was just too expensive.

For a long time, I absorbed and accepted that point of view, and then opportunity and adventure nudged me out of it.

We eat a lot of things now we didn’t grow up eating. But we celebrate a lot of things that were part of our culinary upbringing, too.

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Dinner is delicious. The potatoes roasted in the pan juices almost melt. Jim insists on demonstrating that the meat is fork tender. We eat crisp salads and we crack apart a loaf of cheesy garlic bread.

We have a cookie jar full of the kind of cookies Mark’s grandma always kept on hand for her grandchildren. We have a plastic tub full of Scottish shortbread. There’s a little bit of fudge left, and there are special cookies and savory mixes gifted to us by colleagues and neighbors.

It’s a heady, extravagant mix of new and old and beloved and experimental.

The food of Christmas is a little bit of the holiday magic.

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“This,” says Jim as he wanders by, on his way to the family room, “has been a GREAT Christmas.”

He is right: we are healthy; we are together; we have been blessed with all kinds of plenty even in the midst of a year ravaged by a pandemic. The early dark settles on the fresh snow, and I hope that the part of the magic that remains is a sense of how lucky—how blessed—we are, and the awareness that there are ways to share our blessings.

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https://matadornetwork.com/read/best-traditional-dishes-scotland/

https://www.executivethrillseeker.com/executiveblog/traditional-german-food-to-try-in-germany

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/great-depression-eat/511355/

Mail Call

I am in deep, grading a final paper that proposes a solution to worldwide pollution, when I register a scuffling and scraping at the front door. The mail slot clanks open; paper shuffles through.

But the front door doesn’t close right away. Instead, there’s an electronic peeping…the peep that says a package has been deposited. As the outer door softly closes, I yell, in chorus with Jim, who’s in the dining room, and Mark, at his desk in what we optimistically call ‘the Florida room,’ “THANK YOU!”

The mail carrier’s response is pleasant but muffled. I force myself back to my paper. It’s a good one, a pleasure to read and respond to. I post the grade, email a message to the student, and jump up.

Time to see what’s in the mail.

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Mark and Jim are there ahead of me. There’s a stack of ridiculous— three Medicare supplemental plan solicitations, the bane of the almost 65-year old. There are two invitations to buy life insurance: only 14 dollars a month for $25,000 (IF you qualify). Don’t leave your family stranded by debt when you pass, reads the unctuous text on the bottom of one envelope. Old people junk mail. We slide those envelopes and a stack of retail ads into the recycling basket, and sort through what’s left.

There’s a bill or two; there’s a midwestern travel magazine…a dreamer’s book, right now. There’s a pretty envelope with a handwritten address. My heart does a little dance: a letter from a friend.

Mark’s push pins, for the tattered bulletin board he covered with the back of an old tattersall plaid shirt, have arrived.

Jim cuts open packaging to find the graphic novel he ordered last week.

Good stuff, I think, feeling satisfied. We dispose of packaging; we wash our hands. Mark heads off to his office space, ready to pin up some physical, hard copy, important documents. Jim runs downstairs to fit the slim new book into its place in the series he’s collecting. I take my letter to the reading chair; when I open and read that familiar handwriting, I hear my friend’s voice so very clearly…more clearly, maybe, then when we actually talk.

The house settles in after that pleasant energy spike–after mail call in the COVID-19 quarantine.

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The mail, the real, tangible, paper mail, has always held that sense of wonderful possibility. Most days, it’s ordinary, banal, unexciting. But every once in a while…

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When I was a child, it was an exciting day when a letter from Aunt Annie arrived. She lived fifty miles away, in the City. Not too far by modern reckoning, but at that time, visits were rare events requiring careful planning. Aunt Annie would write about what my cousins were doing, about new clothes she had made or special treats she fixed. She asked me about schoolwork and about my brothers.

Sometimes, her envelope was tantalizingly lumpy. There might be a bookmark enclosed, or a tiny pin on a small, stiff square of cardboard, or a pretty card festooned with a jaggedy plastic flower.

I would flatten the letter on the kitchen table, and respond right away, carefully answering all my aunt’s questions on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. Sometimes I, or my younger brother, would include a drawing.

I would painstakingly address the envelope, a cheap white business class number, all by myself. My mother would yield me one stamp.

It was my first correspondence. I took it very seriously.

Writing to Aunt Annie ignited a lifelong love of letter-writing in me. There were pen-pals through Girl Scouts: what joy to come home from school and find a grubby envelope on the table, “RMA!” or “2 Young 2 Drink 4 Roses!!!” written in pencil where the flap was sealed. In high school, as exchange students came and went and friends began to travel, parchment airmail letters appeared. Inside would be fragile stacks of paper, sheets of ponderous missives inked in the crimped, fountain pen, East Coast script we all espoused. (I began, then, to cross my upper-case Z’s and my 7’s, trying to be Europeanly trendy. That’s a habit—or maybe an affectation–still.)

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In those high school days, we had a wonderful mailman; his nickname was Yogi, because he really did resemble the iconic ball player. He kept track of us through our mail, and he wasn’t shy about asking questions or demanding explanations.

Once a boy I liked loaned me his white tennis jacket after we’d played a set or two; the sky darkened, the air cooled, and I was walking home. Gallant, he insisted; I pulled the light covering on, and I hoped people would see me wearing it.

We were pushing the season; it was before Easter, and the boy and his family were heading to Florida for two weeks in the sun. He needed the jacket back before they left.

One of my brothers dropped it at his house. I pinned a piece of paper to the right breast pocket, a note that simply said, ‘Thank you.’

The boy and his family went off south, and school let out for a two-week break. I was there when Yogi brought the mail in the morning, when he said, “Ahhhh, nothin’ much today. Just bills and junk,” and, disappointed, handed over a thick stack of boring.

One day, though, I heard his heavy boots pound up the stairs, but I didn’t hear the mailbox squawk open. I waited, and then, finally, opened the front door.

Yogi was scratching his head, flipping a postcard back and forth.

“It’s for you,” he said, “but I don’t GET it.”

One side had a picture of a pristine Florida beach. The other side just read, “You’re welcome.”

I had to explain the whole story about the jacket, assure Yogi that no, that boy wasn’t a smart ass, that he really COULD put a whole sentence together, that he really was a nice guy; he was just being funny.

Finally, Yogi was satisfied, sort of, but he did mutter that when HE wrote to a girl back in the day, he had something to say and he said it.

“I don’t GET it,” he said again, clomping back down my front steps, shaking his head.

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When friends went off to college, we wrote.

When we graduated, when life picked us up and whirled us around, we wrote.

And always, I felt that same warmth and glowiness, coming home from work, finding a handwritten letter in the mail.

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The mail can yield a magical missive from a much-missed person; it can offer other wonders, too. Magazines are wish books: look what I could do with my kitchen! Look at this wonderful restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri; this funky museum in Toledo, Ohio; this park in Indianapolis, Indiana: maybe, after, we could go…

Magazines offer recipes when standard fare becomes boring, they give craft ideas, they share stories of fascinating or inspiring people—the famous and the unknown alike.

I read my magazines, sometimes more than once. Sometimes I plunder them, ripping out a recipe or a book review. Sometimes I put them on the Half Price Books stack, and we take intact copies in for trade-in.

Always, the magazine imparts a little jiggle of excitement and possibility, of lives lived differently, of the chance to grow and change.

Sometimes the mail yields an unexpected check…a refund from an insurance overpayment, say. Hey, we say. Eighteen dollars and 75 cents! We could…go get frozen custard at Whits…buy a new nozzle for the hose…put the money in the travel jar…

Every once in a while, the mail serves up an exciting letter. The editors liked your essay and would like to run it in the June issue…

Thank you notes and museum newsletters, rich with glossy photos. Professional journals. Catalogs for fun goodies; catalogs for sustainable stuff.

The mail can be dull, but it always holds the potential for adventure.

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And the people that bring it are important, like Yogi was,–known characters who handle those important arrivals with respect and responsibility. I thought our current mail carrier would be annoyed when my heavy vats of detergent arrived from Amazon—one for dishes, one for laundry. But when I went out to the front steps to wrestle those babies inside, he stopped to talked about them.

I told him I was buying bulk to save on the plastic we use, and he was really interested in that. He is interested, too, in ways to save money, and he asked me what a five-gallon tub of laundry detergent cost. He did the same when my box of eighty rolls of toilet paper arrived (temporarily unavailable during COVID days, more’s the pity. The eighty rolls come wrapped in paper and boxed in cardboard; the eighty rolls don’t require me to use even a tiny shred of plastic.)

The mail carrier tipped me off to buying shampoo in bulk, another way of downsizing plastic use. It’s cheaper, too.

There’s something about knowing the information and stuff that lands in my house are delivered by hands attached to people who are not strangers, but more like friends.

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And there’s something, in this at-home time, about the once-a-day possibility of something wonderful falling onto the floor by the front door. Anything could happen. Any number of miraculous things could arrive.

And sometimes they do. Not always, maybe not even frequently, but enough to make mail call an adventure, a chance to scare up and entertain possibilities during days when most adventures have been hog-tied and contained in very small spaces.

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I wish you something wonderful, something that makes you laugh or smile, in your mailbox today.

What I Might Miss When I Dismiss White Magic

Magic. n. (esp. in stories for children) the use of special powers to make things happen that would usually be impossible: a tale of witchcraft and magic

Magic is also the skill of performing tricks to entertain people, such as making things seem to appear and disappear, or the tricks performed: My daughter loves doing magic.

A special, exciting quality that makes something or someone different and better than others: As an actress, she has lost none of her magic, and she still is thrilling to watch.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/magic

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I shook the stones from their gauzy yellow, ribbon-tied bags, and spread them across my desk.

Chunks of rosy quartz looked sugared, like candy. The kyanite was smooth and glossy, striated blue and gray. One facet of each of the seer eggs was polished smooth; the rest of the rounded rock looked cloudy and rough and opaque.

I looked each up on-line, and discovered…

…rose quartz carries soft feminine energy, encouraging things like peacefulness and compassion, the giving of nourishment and comfort, the achievement of healing. This rock, I learned, promotes unconditional love—its receipt and its extension.

…blue kyanite enhances meditation; it calms the entire being. The stone fends off negative emotions, warding away frustration and confusion and stress, and it clears things that are blocked. It has a special connection, I read, to the throat. Holding blue kyanite near promotes honest, effective speech.

…the seer eggs have a smooth facet for the holder to gaze into. Then she’ll be connected to, and understand, the past, present, or the future. (Some say that there’s a way to use the eggs to transport the beholder to one specific time.)

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I bought these pretty baubles at The Lavender Hour, bought them to share with friends who couldn’t attend the opening of the wellness center and yoga studio. This enterprise was Terri’s dream; when she died in March, her daughters vowed to make it happen. And the whole family pitched in…and damn. Didn’t they just pull it off?

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The rocks are beautiful. But do they really carry any potent, magical powers?

I don’t know. We may be as ignorant in our ways as those unschooled people in fables who are awed by the appearance of fire, or by a soda can dropping from the sky. Years from now, scientists and scholars may well establish links between certain minerals and different kinds of well-being.

But the creation of the concrete interpretation of a wonderful dream…well, that, to me, IS magical.

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I was warned, as a child in a Roman Catholic school in the 1960’s, against tinkering with anything magical. The nuns, stern, often humorless, and absolutely certain of what they taught, were a little confusing on the topic.

There was, they told us, no such thing as magic. But if there WAS a thing called magic,—well, it would be the devil’s doing.

A brave child raised her hand and asked about what Jesus did—the turning of water into wine, the raising of a dear friend from the dead. Weren’t those things magical?

Our teacher was appalled. Those were MIRACLES, not magic, she intoned, and only God could perform miracles. Jesus, of course, could do this because he was God. The apostles, the saints…sometimes God worked through them, and miracles happened as testament to God’s great power.

But other things—Ouija boards, for instance—were either fake, shallow party games, or connected to dark forces.

We were NOT, Sister told us, to dabble in or even wonder about magic. And she firmly closed the door on that topic.

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I let go of the idea of magic—a comforting story, magic was, for fairy tales and Harry Potter books—but not something connected to real life. I did not, though, relinquish the concept of miracles.

I prayed for miracles when relationships foundered painfully, when catastrophic illnesses struck, when people I held dear struggled with insurmountable problems. The nuns had taught us that one must be pure of heart and free of sin to have prayers answered. But some of the kindest and best people didn’t get their miracles.

The idea that healing came to deserving ones—or that attitude and optimism inspired remission—well, I came to see that was false. Stalwart people who believed that worth determined miracles would have to believe that they had failed—that they weren’t good enough, or upbeat enough, or something enough, to have their prayers answered.

I did not think there was a God meting out horrible diseases as punishment or test.

Instead, I believed that much of the disease that we suffer is human-made, environmental, caused by who knows what—lead paint on plastic bread bags, maybe, or toxins released into fresh-water creeks, or fertilizer particles floating randomly through the fresh Fall air. Human free will created and released those things; our complex genetics determines who would be felled by them.

Modern science, we are told, is searching for the miracle. There is no magic cure for sorrow and pain and death.

But sometimes, I am coming to see, there is a kind of everyday enchantment, the kind of magic that shines lights in the darkness, and that, sometimes, (for short periods, anyway), can make the awful losses bearable.

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There are talismans, like the stones I brought back from The Lavender Hour.

I keep a crystal Terri gave me in the pocket of my purse. I bring it out and roll it around in the palm of my hand sometimes. It’s something she selected, and holding it brings back memories of a wonderful friend.

My son James carries a variety of talismans in his wallet. He, too, has a crystal Terri gave him. His Health professor gave him a shiny bit of decorative glass at the end of the last semester; he likes the way it looks and it feels, and he carries it with the crystal. They nestle with a tiny rosary—a solid piece of metal with round knobs that a small person might slide over a pinkie finger—that Jim’s grandfather Angelo gave him.

I don’t believe Jim invests any of these items with mystical properties, but they have the power to remind him of special people—some living, and some whom he’s lost. And there’s no sacrilege and no disrespect in the religious icon mingling closely with the earthly ones.

If I package up the little stones this week, and send them, with the on-line explanations of those minerals, to special people, those people won’t say, “Hey! Magic!”  

But I hope they’ll feel the power of connection, and the enchantment of special memories.

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There are places that extend their magic.

Wetlands have been created on the farm where Terry’s son John grew up playing. His dad’s family lived on that land for generations; its mysteries introduced the boy to the passion for wildlife that would become the man’s career. Now that acreage is a living text that scientists and students will study to learn about the birds and the water creatures, the snakes and the reptiles, the warm-blooded furry creatures, and the cold-blooded, scaly ones, the flying ones, the creeping ones, the ones that slither and the ones that swim, and that inhabit a special place.

The wetlands are beautiful, teeming with life, busy, but—to the uninitiated observer, at least,—serene. There’s a magic in their creation, in the energy and passion of one young man inspiring a center for study and preservation: and a place where those who loved him can go to celebrate him, and maybe to feel close.

The same kind of magic stirs in the Lavender Hour where Terri’s children bring her vision of a healing place into clear, real focus. We arrived late at the grand opening last Saturday; a free yoga class was underway, with Terri’s daughter Kate leading it. In the long, long space, so many people took part that scant inches separated yoga mats. There is the magic of a dream fulfilled, and a lasting love expressed in concrete ways.

Even the city paths I walk each morning have their soothing magic. They bring me smiling familiar faces: the man who always heads to the corner to catch the bus when I am trekking; the young man on his porch who waves vigorously, grinning, when he sees me walking by, and when he’s waiting, with his burly patient dad, for the bus to arrive to take him to his work experience. The lady with her dignified little dog. The guy with his two mismatched, rambunctious, caramel-colored hounds.

The walks bring me adventures into the unexpected, too—four ducks waddling down an inland street, the pungent smell of a recently visiting skunk, the fleeting visit of a bluebird on a wire. And all of this—the expected and the surprises—is wrapped in nature…in the fog or the heat, the slickery mud, or the dusty, dry pavement,…that every day brings. It’s a magical merging of the mundane and the mysterious.

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There’s the enchantment of books—the true magic when I find the book that opens exactly the door that needs opening right now, or that provides the comfort and respite to enable me to take a short refuge in its pages, and then to jump back, refreshed, into the fray.

There are photos and letters and emails, gifts received whose meanings withstand the onslaught. A ring worn thin and smooth, worn for fifty years or more; a favorite mug. A funny card.

These are just things, of course; but they are magical in what they represent.

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And of course, there are the people—the ones who cheer us on, who catch us when our knees shake loose and we begin to go down, down, down. Sometimes, the call comes at just the right moment, or the card slides through the slot at precisely the time we need exactly what they share. And what could be more magical than that?

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The nuns taught me well. The only horror novel I ever read was The Exorcist; even the memory of that terrifying tale makes me reach to snap on a light in the darkest part of night. Black magic—well, that’s nothing to mess about with, and nothing I want to learn more about.

But there’s a white magic that generates hope, that shares joy, that supports and uplifts. We can find it in the icons and talismans of everyday life; we can feel it when we walk through spaces imbued with special meaning. It zaps us with its power when the people we love generate it; we strive to nurture that power, to shoot it right back at the times the originators need it, too.

This is not a magic that will swell and roar, not one that will fell the Bad Ones, or heal the ill ones, or bring us back the ones we miss so dear. But it is a kind of magic that comforts and rocks us, that helps us hold on when our fingers are slick and tired with the effort.

I’ll take that white magic in whatever homely ways it presents itself; I will take and it and use it and try to absorb its strength. And I’ll hope that when I’m called on to send that helping power, that I’ll be ready—ready with a word, or a walk, or a rock—whatever small white magic I can share that might have the potential to lift that special one’s darkness just a little.