Enchantment, in Four Stories
The magic of songs, stories, and candlelight
Sparks, NV (circa 1991)
It’s a cold November Monday, our first day back at school after Thanksgiving break. As I walk through the outdoor corridors to choir class with all the other fifth-graders, my excitement builds: today we’ll find out which songs we’ll be singing for the holiday season, and Christmas songs are my FAVORITE.
Specifically, the religious ones. Though I’d never admit this out loud, I find it hard to get excited about the secular tunes that are usually the mainstay of our holiday repertoire. “All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” was a staple on the set list in years past, but surely they won’t expect us elementary school elders to stoop to that level—we’re far too grown up for that!
Whatever they choose (hopefully not Rudolph again, either), I’ll diligently sing my part, but secretly I’ll be waiting until the song is over. Give me “We Three Kings” or “The First Noel” or even “Silent Night,” though, and I’ll come alive. Those songs make me feel… something mysterious and inexplicable. It’s like I’m transported somewhere else, or to another time? I’m not sure what it is, I just know that singing them feels different.
This year, the teacher throws us a curveball. “We’re going to sing something for Hanukkah this year,” she explains, and hands us a Xeroxed copy of the lyrics. The title of the song is “Hashivenu,” and the whole thing is in Hebrew. I’m not sure how I’ll be able to remember the words, but she sings it through, and—oh—
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so beautiful. When we sing it together, it’s like our voices form an invisible road, and my soul travels outside my body, gliding along as the road spirals through the air around us. It connects us all, surrounding us with a powerful web that pulses and swells as we sing.
Three decades later, I still remember every word.
Sequim, WA (circa 2005)
Nana’s house sits at the end of Enchantment Way, a tree-lined gravel road that she named herself. She’s not my grandmother by blood, but she always treats me like I’m one of her own. My husband and I are visiting for the weekend, snacking on chocolate-covered almonds as we catch up with her, soaking in the peaceful atmosphere of her cottage in the woods.
Serene is the only way to describe it. Her shelves are lined with sparkling amethysts and thriving houseplants. There’s an actual crystal ball in her living room. Her garden is full of culinary and medicinal herbs; deer and quail are frequent visitors. The windows are always cracked open so the cats can go in and out. She putters around in the kitchen, making her legendary baked tofu, as I peruse the books on her shelves.
She notices me looking and comes over once the tofu’s in the oven. “You should read this one.” She pulls it out and puts it in my hands. The book is called Entering the Circle: A Russian Psychiatrist’s Journey into Siberian Shamanism. It’s not really my thing, but I accept it anyway.
Later, I start reading and find myself drawn in despite my initial uncertainty. It’s an interesting tale, but it veers so deeply into mysticism that it almost feels more like fantasy than memoir. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I want to shake it off and return to the world I know, the one that makes sense, but the story keeps nagging at me.
I have never considered myself to be a spiritual person. Growing up, my family didn’t practice, or talk much about, any forms of spirituality or religion. Which is fine by me. Religion, with all its rules and obligations, does not entice me at all. Spirituality in general isn’t appealing either, since it’s obviously incompatible with one of the qualities I most prize about myself: my pragmatism. Plus, embracing a spiritual worldview would just make me a target of everyone else’s ridicule.
I know this because of the time when I was an undergrad and took a class on emergence—this idea that complex organisms are greater than the sum of their parts. Emergent theory holds that parts of a system interact to create something new, something the parts don’t have on their own, when they come together in a wider whole. I loved that class. But when I was trying to describe it to my microbiology lab mentor, he just laughed and said, “No, the whole is the sum of its parts,” and I felt all flustered because I couldn’t quite articulate it, the concept felt like it was nearly impossible to explain in words, and there was no point even trying because it obviously wouldn’t make me any friends in the scientific world where I so desperately want to be accepted.
Nana gets it, though. And even if I’m not sold on the New Age spirituality she subscribes to, I have no doubt that there is something special about her as a person and the home she created. Why did she give me this book, of all the options on her shelf? I know she’ll want my review when I return it to her the next time we visit, but I don’t know what I’ll say. It was… interesting? But it has nothing to do with me or my life.
So why do I keep thinking about it?
Seattle, WA (circa 2014)
Winter solstice is only a few days away, and one of my favorite events of the year has arrived. I usher my children, decked out in their finest clothes, into their preschool classroom. At the door, we pause. The room has been transformed: the massive round table they sit at during their meal and snack times has disappeared, replaced by a spiral path of cedar boughs. Their scent fills the air, which has a slight chill to it. The room is lit only by a few candles. A cellist sits near the entrance to the spiral.
The kids take their seats in the front rows. They have been practicing for this: they know exactly what to do. The atmosphere is quiet, reverent. Brett and I stand with the other parents, exchanging murmured greetings. I overhear one of the moms confessing how nervous she is. Another one whispers back words of reassurance.
Their exchange reminds me that I should be worried, too. Kids + fire = disaster, right? But, although I am anxious about many things, and a champion at soaking up the anxiety of others, I feel absolutely at ease in this space. This is my fourth winter spiral, and I know in my bones that it’s going to be fine. More than fine, actually: it’s going to be magical.
The cellist begins to play, and one by one, the children enter the spiral. The youngest ones go first: from their teacher, tiny three-year-olds accept an apple with an unlit taper candle placed inside the hollowed-out core. They walk to the center of the spiral, where a single candle burns atop a pedestal. They light their candle, and as they exit the spiral, they carefully set it down on one of the golden paper stars positioned along the sides of the path.
Soon, it’s my son’s turn. Even though he’s often bursting with a raucous wild energy around his preschool friends, there’s no trace of that now: it’s somehow incompatible with this space. He stoops for a moment to position his candle just so, then walks triumphantly back to his seat.
Slowly, the room grows warmer as it fills with light. From one central candle, all these small flames glowing in the darkness.
Every year, the sweetness of this ritual gets me. I want to sob the entire time. I’m so grateful that my kids have the sense-memory of this experience. How it feels to spiral into darkness, and back out to light. At the same time… I want to walk that spiral. I want this, more of this, rooms lit by candlelight, the smell of cedar, the deep resonant hum of a cello, this feeling of being inside something that’s sacred and fleeting, but so incredibly beautiful while it lasts.
Seattle, WA (circa 2022)
I’m in my basement writer-cave. It’s January, and the damp winter chill seeps through the thin window above my desk. But I have blankets and heaters and tea, so it’s all good. I’m working on revisions to What We Bury, the last installment of my book series. Right now I’m at the fun part: I’ve finished writing all the Roya chapters, and it’s time to re-read the almost-final draft of her storyline.
I love all of the characters, but Roya—she’s a special one. Her chapters come so easily to me; her emotions and her voice are always clear and strong. I’ve started thinking of each of the four main characters as corresponding to an element, and Roya is most definitely air: she’s the fresh breeze in a stuffy room.
She also happens to be deeply spiritual. This was not a conscious decision, but apparently this series came about, in part, because I needed a space where I could grapple with the tension between science and spirituality. Where I could try to figure out what a healthy balance of the two might look like.
I’m reading along, enjoying the ride even though I know every twist and turn—and then I come to a paragraph that stops me.
She’d followed the banishing instructions exactly, but what if that was the problem? It was someone else’s ritual, and she’d taken it and tried to make it hers, but it didn’t quite fit right. She needed to remember her own ways of doing magic. And the flute had been her very first wand…. No one else in the whole world could use it the way she did.
—What We Bury
Goosebumps explode across my arms as I recognize myself—my own journey—in these words. I’ve always thought that being spiritual or religious is supposed to look a certain way. That it takes a certain kind of person (a kind of person I’m not); that I wouldn’t be able to access it no matter how hard I try. Because, lately, I sure have tried! But so few things have felt right.
This whole time, maybe all I needed was to remember my own ways of doing magic. To find my way back to my very first wand—the pen. (Or, more recently, the computer keyboard.) I’m always comparing myself with other writers and finding myself lacking, but that feels pretty pointless in this moment. I can’t use my wand like they do, true—but they can’t use theirs the way I do, either.
The knowledge fills me with gentle warmth. To think that I, despite feeling powerless in many ways, might actually have some kind of power? That storytelling could be a spiritual practice in itself, one I’ve already been honing through years of quiet dedication without even realizing it.
I think about that book Nana gave me so many years ago. The details of the story have faded, but the feeling remains. I wonder if she knew this was something I needed to carry with me, the agitating “what if?” that needled me all through my science-focused years. Perhaps she was handing me a call to adventure that I wasn’t ready to heed at the time. But I’m heeding it now, Nana!
I’m well into my depression recovery at this point, and I know that I wouldn’t have made it this far if I hadn’t acknowledged that there are greater forces at play in this world. I used to think there was nothing more amazing than the human brain, that rationality and logic would save me, would save us all. But I know now that it isn’t the whole picture. After all, the brain is just one part of the larger nervous system. Similarly, the words of a story or song are just one part of what makes them powerful.
Roya always knew the truth: that songs are roads. Stories are, too. They meander through pain so deep it cannot be contained inside the human heart; they climb to the very highest reaches of joy and love and devotion. They speak to us from past, present, and future all at once, reminding us that we can endure even in times of unspeakable suffering. Reminding us why we survive. And sometimes—at the most random moments—we might stumble across one that opens a path leading straight to the divine.