The world is a magical place. I believe this to be true, although many would quarrel with the meaning of “magical.”
It is surely a realm possessed of wonders. Many of these can be classified as natural. The Earth alone is an awesome, infinitely rich organism of astounding beauty, extravagance, eccentricity, diversity — and the meticulously harmonious precision of it all. And yet it is but a pocket-size gem in a lavish cosmos, with its millions and billions of stars, galaxies, nebulae, sink holes and dark matter — and unfathomably vast spaces. To gaze into a night sky, consider the workings of plate tectonics or evolution, or ponder the origins and very existence of the universe is to confront mysteries too profound to confine.
Illustrations by Luci Gutiérrez
It’s more like a miracle. As is our being here, you and I.
We associate miracles, though, with the supernatural. They happen when the reality we can see, touch and measure gets cross-wired with something unseen, unprovable, beyond rational explanation. We sophisticated, scientific-thinking Westerners like to separate the world this way — matter and spirit. And we have become increasingly dismissive, if not scornful of supposed spiritual elements. The stuff of superstition and make-believe.
Yet, as far back as we can see, humans have populated their world with the spirits of things, believed in unseen forces, gods or angels, gremlins or goblins whose powers affected their lives. Most indigenous cultures have believed a spirit world coexisted with, was one with the material reality that provides the hard-edged appearance of things. But now we understand such notions come from a primitive knowledge of the world. Scientists these days speak instead of multidimensional universes; they reconfigure our sense of time and space, and suspect that the basic building blocks of matter do not consist of matter at all. Their theories, formulae and tests to divine the tracks of unseen things say it’s so. Science fiction gets real — as believable as a planet teeming with dinosaurs, and no people.
Human nature — the nature of humans — is a crucial border state in this boundary between matter and spirit. Long-held beliefs about the fusing of body and soul evaporate beneath the penetrating lens of modern science. Our clinical probing of anatomy and mind have taken us to a frontier that leaves almost no place for a soul to hide . . . or room for a self, or even free will in our driverless computer brains.
Still, I wonder.
Curiosity and wonder come naturally to children. No one taught me how or why to ask, or to marvel. What better response to encounters with the spectacle of life? I was encouraged, though, in Catholic schools to seek and believe in things that flew beyond the bonds of verifiable proof. Some things simply defied explanation; that made them no less factual, or certain, or belief-worthy. The world held great potential for mysteries, miracles and strange occurrences where folklore, faith and truth somehow intersected.
When I was a boy, there was an old book on the shelves of my home that I turned to time and again. It was Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and my copy had been published in 1938 — 14 years before I was born. Robert Ripley had collected onto those 360 pages a panoply of human oddities from his travels across 167 countries early in the 20th century. I learned to read by deciphering the text that accompanied his pen-and-ink drawings of fire-walkers in Fiji, shrunken heads from Peru and a man in Benares who’d spent 18 years on a bed of nails.
There were drawings and stories of a horned man in Tibet, a man in England who died of old age when he was 7 years old and an ascetic in Singapore who walked three miles with 50 spears embedded in his flesh. There was a four-footed chick and a caterpillar that turns into a plant — the pepe-aweto known to the Maoris of New Zealand. A fakir in Bengal held his hand aloft for 10 years, long enough for a little bird to build a nest in his palm. A man in China had two irises and two pupils in each eye, and a Hindu yogi could touch his forehead with his tongue. A yogi in Lahore slowed his heartbeat and breathing to survive being fully buried 40 days in sand. There was a 3-foot pygmy in Africa with 10 wives and 37 children, and a village in Spain where every inhabitant — with one exception — had at least six fingers or toes on each hand and foot.
Believe it or not.
I never felt the need to make that decision. But I drew other conclusions. That the world is an infinitely fascinating place. Far-flung and exotic. Full of people — and funky zealots — doing strange things. And that the possibility that very strange things could possibly be true was far more interesting than tall tales you knew to be false (unicorns, dragons, wizards and such). I also learned it’s a lot more fun to believe than to not believe.
We were fourth graders on a playground at lunchtime when a circle formed around the sun. Deborah Salvail was the holy girl in our class, and she announced she had dreamed the night before that Mary was coming — there would be signs in the sky. We had all been reading about the peasant children at Fatima and were spooked by our recent classroom drills to survive Russia’s atom bombs. Recess took on an eerie feel, the schoolyard an ominous disposition.
When the bell rang, we took our excited buzz into the classroom where Sister Lucy set us straight. High, thin cirrus clouds, she said. The halo around the sun is not a sign of divine portent; it’s ice crystals in the Earth’s atmosphere refracting and reflecting light. Despite knowing we were free of any danger of the world coming to an end, I felt let down, deflated.
But I haven’t stopped believing.
It’s interesting what people do and don’t believe in. There are stories, accounts and ideas that many find far-fetched, possibly crazy — even though they themselves may hold fast to beliefs that others find equally preposterous. In astrology’s arcane scheme my birthdate makes me a Pisces, and the water sign’s characteristics fit me to a T — amazingly so, convincingly so. But I put no faith in daily horoscopes — while my mother, certainly no fruitcake, would call me on occasion to warn me about the day’s threatening predictions.
I don’t know what to make of crystals, pyramids or aromatherapy, but am enthralled by the Bermuda Triangle’s disappearing acts. I know folks who won’t allow a Ouija board into their home, have interviewed a psychic who told me stories from her previous life and have crossed paths with those whose sixth sense or powers of clairvoyance stopped me cold and shifted my perception of the world I walk around in (and, yes, frauds and charlatans are out there, too).
I don’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I’m pretty sure Elvis and Tupac are dead. I want to believe that Uri Geller could bend spoons with his mind, that a crop circle is astral artwork, that misfit creatures still prowl the landscape. But I do not hunt down hauntings, poltergeists, the occult or paranormal; I steer clear of stories about exorcisms or séances. I am skeptical of the faith healers I see on TV, but I have been there when a medicine man made the spirits rattle and flare and have accepted the sincerity of those who swear that a shaman cured their grave affliction or repaired a broken part. And I have spoken of the preternatural with journalists who write science for a living, who have also witnessed things they simply cannot explain.
I believe in miracles. But I puzzle over “miraculous” interventions that seem so capricious.
Over the years I have stayed with the course nurtured by my reading of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. I live in a world of strange and unexplainable occurrences, phenomena that stretch the imagination, things that happen that defy logic, proof and rationality. I need not decide on the veracity of claims. I am open to the possibility that the improbable and implausible just might be true. There is so much we don’t know, so much more than ever meets the eye. And simply because phenomena can’t be replicated in a lab or performed on cue doesn’t mean they don’t ever happen.
I have read the accounts of those who have seen flying saucers and watched video of radar screens tracing dots traveling at speeds faster than humanly possible. I have a good friend who’s seen a UFO up close and a sister whose campsite along the Appalachian Trail was buzzed one night by an object emitting incredible light. I’m inclined to believe the truth is out there.
And I believe in the presence of things unseen.
I was 8 when my grandmother died. She lived with us and had been through a bout of pneumonia, but was feeling better on this Saturday morning in February — feeling well enough to have made breakfast — and was undressing to shower. Her daughter heard her speaking to someone, so went to her room. My grandmother said it was time to go, that her mother and Aunt Minnie had come for her. Her daughter, seeing no one, protested. You were sick but you’re fine now, she said. Still, her mother, Nettie Eudora Finnegan McPhee, 78, put her nightgown back on, lay down in bed, pulled the covers to her chin . . . and died.
My mother, too, in her final days seemed to be on the doorstep to another place, and found solace in what she saw while awaiting her passage. The hospice chaplain told me other stories of those on the brink of death who seemed comforted by escorts who had come close in the final moments — whom others could not see.
I have been told stories, too, by those temporarily suspended between here and there, those with near-death experiences or those declared dead, who came back somehow. I suppose they could have been misty-headed from medications or an oxygen-deprived brain, hallucinations or wishful thinking. But I had seen my grandmother minutes before she announced it time to leave this vale of tears. She was none of those things. She insisted her deceased kin had come to fetch her home.
My family told ghost stories — on late-night drives home from the lake, at Halloween, on breezy summer nights sitting on the front porch. But they didn’t count. They were standard fare — folk tales and urban myths, retold from storybooks and old radio shows. The real ghost stories came later, when swapping secrets with friends late at night, at college, in adulthood, things that friends, family or acquaintances had experienced. Firsthand encounters with spectral figures, cold and creepy sensations, physical objects moving about.
Most of these I accept as true, and am tempted to recount them here. The man who lived in the boy’s closet, coming out at night to speak softly with him, unbeknownst to his parents till later — when it was revealed the previous owner of that Indiana house had hanged himself in that very closet. The grandmother, long deceased, who had gone room to room in the night, visiting grandchildren and their offspring who were having a weekend reunion in the family’s Illinois farmstead before putting it up for sale. The couple who bought an old house in Michigan that came with a ghost — one whose presence scared them, whose messing with their tools and home repairs alarmed them, especially when they came home one night and found a shovel tucked into their bed. The mystery of matter and soul.
These stories and others speak for themselves. I do not judge, scoff or try to change people’s minds. I, too, have seen and experienced things that I cannot explain. A wrinkle in the cosmos. A stranger at the door. A bolt out of the blue. Landing somewhere between “what if” and “I don’t know.” Almost always on the far side of the rooms where we live. Spaces with membrane walls perhaps more porous, more permeable than we might think.
So I cannot keep from wondering at it all — all of it — as I keep trying to figure out what’s going on here, in this surprise-packed cosmic funhouse.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.