I’m not much for magic, although I love “believing” the magician, probably out of sympathy for the performer. I don’t try to figure out his or her tricks, and I don’t feel cheated. I tried to watch Guillermo Del Toro’s adaption of Nightmare Alley, an epic novel about the rise and fall from grace of a carnival grifter. But Del Toro’s take on Depression-Era exploitation, superstition, and ignorance proved too grotesque and vicious in its portrayal of carnival “magicians” for me to stomach.
Del Toro’s cinematic magic aside, augury, sorcery, and alchemy do hold a fascination for me. I extend my notion of magic to include the realms of performance, science, healing, and the spirit. Magicians are performers. And some performers are magicians. I think Tina Turner is a magician. Cate Blanchett is a magician. John Coltrane is a magician. Lady Gaga is a magician. Bob Dylan is a magician. They are transformative, shape shifters. They create their own reality.
Magicians are descendants of shamanism. Sha-men and sha-women were typically individuals in collective communities who were unable to fulfill useful roles in hunting or gathering societies. They were often physically or mentally deficient. They had to make themselves useful. Many learned how to become healers. Many learned how to journey to the spirit world. And that is where magic becomes real for me.
My mother was a health-conscious woman. Even back in the 1950s, we ate right to keep fit. I stole that line from a book by the nutritionist, Adele Davis. While everyone else brought peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches to school, I opened my Roy Rogers lunch box to lima bean and cottage-cheese sandwiches on brown bread. Humiliating.
My mother continued her healthy ways through two husbands and a seemingly limitless lineup of smitten gentlemen. At 80+ she gracefully radiated beauty and health and could out-hike me. But, after her second husband died, she moved out of her home in the Sierras to live in an ecologically designed cooperative housing development in Davis, California.
Davis, California is the proud host of U.C. Davis, an aggie school known for its adventurous work in agricultural and environmental sciences. The community surrounding the campus makes a governmental and collective effort towards sustainable living. But just a few miles north of this green, eco-dreamy paradise lies one of the largest tracts of agri-industrial land on the planet. The giant fields are constantly being dusted with fertilizers and pesticides.
My mother loved living in her sustainable condo surrounded by sustainable friends, flora, and fauna. But she began to develop throat problems and a speech difficulty. She was misdiagnosed with mini-strokes. She insisted the doctors were wrong.
The doctors were wrong. My mother was diagnosed with ALS, which stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and leads to a loss of muscular control.
We moved my mother to an assisted care facility in San Francisco where my brother and I could be close by. In her last years, she and I worked hard to resolve all differences. She could not speak so we both took to writing on yellow legal pads. With her throat paralyzed, she also lost the ability to eat. She gradually lost weight and finally, at 87, well ahead of any failing in the rest of her health, she went into hospice.
Fortunately, we had followed her demise closely, so, when the time came, all her children had gathered at her bedside. While the hospice gently counted off the lengthening times between inhale and exhale, she finally released her last breath.
Until then, I had never understood how much energy it took to maintain the life flow. With that final breath, my mother’s body collapsed, imploding upon itself. And in that moment, a lithe, blithe wisp of white, translucent mist danced upward from her body and disappeared through the ceiling. It was there; I saw it. I can still see it. And I heard the music.
I’ve seen Tina Turner, Lady Gaga, John Coltrane, Cate Blanchette, and Bob Dylan prove that “the magic’s in the music…” Because a shaman or woman uses tempo as a bridge between our world and the spirit world. Because tempo is the most essential element of music. Because that translucent wisp that had been my mother for 87 years danced to the music while it danced through the ceiling and out into the cosmos. So yes, I believe in magic.
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*Sebastian, John, “Do You Believe in Magic,” 1965
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.