By Brandy Renee McCann
I light a small candle while nodding to my grandmothers whose faces smile out of framed pictures displayed on the table that serves as my home altar. Words of prayer and whispered gratitude are my offering along with some candy. Also on the table are nature treasures given to me by my children and my partner, seasonal flowers, plant matter tincturing in jars, and, in the center, a large candle waiting to be lit.
I’m here this particular moment because I’m writing and I’m stuck—rather I am not writing, but spinning my wheels. I’m researching folk magic traditions in Appalachia these days. The reading is fascinating, and endless, but I need to start putting words on paper. I’m starting to forget things and lose the thread of earlier energy bursts. I have some precious moments to do work on this pet project and I don’t want to waste them by cleaning out my kitchen cupboards or reorganizing my underwear drawer. My energy is diffuse and my mind won’t settle.
So I call my energy back. While thinking of my grandmothers, I visualize a soft, yellow light, a light that encircles me with their love and protection. A light that fills the room. Once I feel safe and my mind starts to calm, I do some hatha yoga—not a traditional Appalachian practice, perhaps, but it’s gaining ground in these parts. These exercises use and channel some of that diffuse energy and help me to feel grounded in my body. I then light the large candle on my table and visualize calling my energy back. By calling my energy back I disentangle myself, for a few protected moments, from all that causes distraction.
After a while, I head to my cushion where I normally say prayers about an issue that’s bothering me or spend time in reflection or meditation. This time instead of prayer or meditation, I take out my magical tools—the notebook and pen I’ve tucked beside my cushion—and I begin writing.
I begin by explaining it to the spirits of grandmas who didn’t graduate high school. I start at the beginning— what background information does spirit grandma need to know before I get to the meat of the piece? I remember using this strategy while writing my dissertation for my Ph.D. I was nearing the end of the project and needed a fresh introduction to guide the revisions of all the other sections— I knew I wanted to use some creative elements, and I knew I needed a clear idea, an anchor of sorts, that I could keep coming back to. But I felt bogged down in the details of the study I’d done. And, worse, I’d lost track of the “so what?”—what was the point of all this research and writing. So I wrote a letter—and that letter became the basis of the introduction to my dissertation (which later won a writing award).
Both writing and spiritual practice (whatever your tradition) are efforts to make sense of the world, and both practices depend on objects. Archeologist Chris Gosden, in his fascinating book on the history of magic, says that “objects are active partners in working to make sense of the world.” Writing as a form of magical participation in the world invites us to reconsider our relationship to our writing tools and our writing spaces. And here I don’t mean that you need a special ink pen or notebook or to create an elaborate, sanctified space for writing—although those things are nice and can be helpful.
Rather, it is recognizing that the world –from objects to people—is always, already animated with spirit. Just as in Appalachian folk magic, where healers and grannies make do with what’s available, and may use gravel in a working rather than a rarified semi-precious stone, a writer’s tools can be anything so long as it gets words on the page and contributes to regular practice. Regular practice deepens the connection between our bodies, our tools, our work, and our world.
Likewise, calling my energy back through spiritual practice doesn’t just help me get unstuck, but regular practice in writing becomes a means of calling my energy back when I’m unable to be in a “room of my own.” I create that enchanted space where words begin to flow; sometimes they are stilted and I can make only lists; but sometimes I’m able to be still for a long time, the whole hour I’m sitting in my car while my son is at basketball practice.
In this year’s Artful Academic column I’ll be discussing some elements related to a project on Appalachian Folk Magic—with the understanding that magic is an ancient way of knowing that was once inseparable from science and religion. Writing and magic grew up together, with some scholars speculating that, as much as trade, magic was the mother of invention for writing.
Read Brandy’s other work here at Reckon:
Brandy Renee McCann
Brandy Renee McCann, PhD is a writer and social scientist whose work is focused on life in Appalachia. Her creative work has been published in Reckon Review, Still: The Journal, Change Seven, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, The Dead Mule, and other literary venues. Brandy’s scholarly, collaborative work on aging in Appalachia can be found in a variety of peer-reviewed journals including the Journals for Gerontology: Social Sciences, Journal of Rural Mental Health, and Journal of Family Issues among others. Brandy is a research associate and project coordinator at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. To learn more about the family caregiving research in which she’s currently involved, visit here: https://careex.isce.vt.edu. Her social media handle is appalbrandy.