“This is a song about a person I now know doesn’t exist,” I announced, introducing a tune I’d written about my lovely young bride when I was a 23-year-old kid who had just graduated Baptist college. Seven years later by then, I was playing on the outdoor stage at the James Joyce Irish Pub in Durham, N.C., where I live. At 29 and 30, my wife and I weren’t so young anymore – or, at least, we didn’t feel it. Our marriage was over. I had written the song about the way your lover can make you feel and taste and see and hear things that were there all along but you never noticed. “You multiply my senses, five million, maybe more,” says the chorus. But raising two kids, moving house six times and relocating by at least 800 miles – twice – amidst marital strife we could never quite tame, it was hard to pay much attention to the beautiful world, as I’d called the song. I’d written about the magic of being in love, and the magic was gone.
Why I thought a bunch of drunk Duke undergrads would be interested in a songwriter’s broken dreams, God only knows. You don’t make the best choices when you’re in pain. My stage banter sucks at the best of times.
On the other hand, I had spoken a truth. Who can live up to a love song? In one of the greatest, “My Girl,” The Temptations’ sang about “sunshine on a cloudy day,” and most of us fall in love with people who bring both sunlight to our hazes and stormclouds to our picnics. None of us is made perfectly for another, at least not with the baggage of brokenness we all carry. Our needs collide. We’re all too complicated to fit into the pop-radio format. Nobody exists as they exist in love songs. Love is a long, slow grind of trying to understand.
What, then, of the magic? What, then, of my senses, multiplied? We all know it’s true – that other people make us pay attention to things we’d otherwise ignore. My song was built on literal, concrete, factual images. “Without your breath, I’d never breathe the salty sea, though it gives chase.” In my early 20s, I had just never paused to appreciate the smell of the ocean until my young love mentioned it. Now, 15 years later, it’s a scent I can’t NOT notice. The briny perfume remains in my nose. I am changed, more observant, more present in the world than I was before.
How can I account for this? Our marriage was broken from the start. At our Valentine’s dinner, a month before the wedding, she withdrew, to punish me because I insisted on a big ceremony for my family instead of running off to elope. As our marriage was ending, she told me she had never loved me. She told me she had tried to leave me at the altar, but her father talked her out of it. Our love was a fairy-tale all right – literally fiction, not true.
And, yet, amidst the unmasking of another silly children’s love story, she helped to turn me into a better version of myself. Lamenting the lies I had told myself in writing that song, I had to excavate my experience for a more sure foundation. How is it possible that she could draw me into greater harmony with the world, when she was neither in harmony with me nor herself?
At first I thought I could continue to sing the song in truth by transferring the sentiment to my daughters. If anyone can help us to lay claim on the wonder of nature, it’s a child, right? And, yes, when I sing, “Without your eyes, I’d never see the purple sky or crescent moon,” it is for my girls. My youngest always sees the sunset before anyone else. But parenting is as complicated as romance. Their wonder can stir your heart, and their whining can send you straight to the whiskey bottle.
If I were going to begin to understand the mystery of how relationships had changed me, there had to be something deeper, and that’s why I still believe in magic. You might say you don’t believe in magic, and that’s OK. You’re not supposed to believe in magic. We’re enlightened Westerners. At this very moment, you and I are communicating through that vast expression and storehouse of rational, scientific knowledge we call the Internet. The Age of Reason did away with superstition. Magic is dead. For the most reasonable among us, God is dead. If you want a mystical experience, go on a spiritual retreat, if you must, but don’t try to tell the rest of us about it. We can’t understand. Voodoo made for funny 1970s TV, and Buddhist monks seem nice enough, but what’s all that got to do with reality? Even for most Christians the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the third person of the Trinity, is a scary thing we’d rather not talk about because there’s no reasonable way to talk about it. We’ve seen more than enough people make a mess of the world at the urging of some divine inner voice none of the rest of us can hear. God the Father, we get, because we get fathers, more or less. Jesus, well, he was human. We can relate to that. Direct connection with “the supernatural?” No thanks. You can’t believe in things you don’t see, taste, hear, touch or smell. You can’t believe against the evidence.
But I can, and I do. For seven years, I lived a lie of a marriage, and in that lie, there was love. And by love, I don’t mean a purity of positive feelings toward one another. I say I received love because the presence, words and actions of another pushed me toward a truer version of myself. That happened because of who we were and in spite of who we were. You can call it natural selection, adaptation, survival of the fittest. I won’t argue. But why is that possible? Why is the logic of death and resurrection built into the universe?
The evidence can’t explain it, and that’s why I believe in magic.