When Magic Ruled the World by Collin Duff

Lately, a deep, almost painful sense of nostalgia has come over me, a nostalgia that appears around this time every year. Both strange and cyclical, and existing somewhere between sadness and joy, this deep longing has been with me for some time. Each year the seasonal changes taking place around me, particularly the smell in the air, signal its approach and with the arrival of Christmas lights and music it possesses me fully. But, if I were to ever try to express the significance or even the object of my longing I would be speechless. Initially I confused it with yearning for childhood and the excitement of Christmas morning, but I quickly realized that the superficiality of presents was not enough to account for my experience. Its too deep for that, too heart breaking, too personal to be about presents under the tree. I soon realized that my nostalgia wasn’t for any item in particular, or for a moment, or even for Christmas itself, but rather for something typified by Christmas. What I was longing for was something I had lost: I longed for the time in my childhood when magic ruled the world.

As a child, I had a strong exposure, through faithful grandparents and parents, to an assortment of fairy tales. Naturally I developed a belief in what I can only call  Possibility. That is, because I had no definitive reason to disbelieve the stories I heard and read, there always remained the possibility that they were true, or that one may be able to access these magical lands. So, as a child, the world was mysterious and unconquered. Every ivy wall concealed an unexplored garden, every forest hid the way to a new world, every lost key recovered opened a secret door. And all of these were simply waiting for me to find them. The sense of adventure, the sense of the possibility, always kept me searching.

Often, the strongest sense of adventure came when I was at my grandparent’s house. Built mid-century, it was large, old, and filled with magic. There are two places that stand out as significant in the development of my sense of magic: the basement and the yard. The basement and I had a love hate relationship that changed with the flicking of the light switch. When the light was on, it was fully furnished and filled with books. There were cupboard spaces to explore, more places to hide then I could possibly wish for, and lost items waiting to be recovered. For instance, one day the space underneath the stairs yielded an elaborate and ancient looking key. Clearly this key was important and so all day I looked for its correlating lock never once stopping to check the obvious spaces. I looked behind the bookshelf and deep in cupboards thinking, “why would a hidden key open an obvious lock?”  It was simply the realm in which I ruled… while the light remained on. When the light was turned off, however, it became uncontrolled and frightening and always inspired a mad dash to the top of the stairs where there was light and safety and grandma. It was more than just a basement for me; it was a world where I was protected and yet in danger—it was familiar, yet unknown. It was real and verifiable, but magical and unruly. It was wild. It was a place where the fairy tale world and my world would meet.

Strangely, the same is true of my grandparent’s yard. For the most part, the entire property was well maintained. Yet there remained areas ripe for adventure. A deep layer of ivy, large elevated juniper bushes, and arching lilacs covered the whole north side of the property hiding me from every eye and concealing secrets buried underneath layers of growth. The ruins of my father’s childhood tree house, broken stone irrigation tunnels, lost tools and toys damaged by exposure, neighbors yards all overgrown and just a fence jump away—each of these things cultivated in me a certain understanding of the world. When I was a child, true adventure was possible purely because the boundaries of the created world were outside of my explanation. The only thing that prevented my storybooks from becoming reality was the simple fact I hadn’t found any rabbit holes to fall down. I knew that if I were ever to experience something truly extraordinary, of all the places in the world, it would most likely take place at my grandparent’s house. I often thought to myself, “Will I find trap door buried deeply beneath my grandmother’s ivy? Can animals secretly speak like those in The Wind and the Willows? Do nymphs, fairies, monsters and ghosts really exist somewhere beyond the reach of the normal man? Might I ever be privileged enough to discover them?” My worldview then, so formed, always kept me in great anticipation.

Now, my understanding of the world carried beyond my grandparent’s property, and I carried it with me everywhere. It was with me the first time I read Where the Wild Things Are and The Hobbit, and, most importantly, Abel’s Island and The Polar Express. “Why couldn’t I be awoken by a train on my street one Christmas eve?” I thought to myself as I poured over those pages again and again. At times mere musings would soon resemble a prayer. My desire to see magic fed the passion with which I read those books and their contents reciprocally enflamed my passion. The “possibility” was with me as I explored the woods behind my house and throughout my neighborhood (on one adventure I found an abandoned bomb-shelter much to my excitement). Possibility was with me each time I explored, each time I read, each time I sat up in a tree during twilight listening to the world slow down. The possibility of something more, of something greater, of adventure, was unquestionable.

My parents also helped me develop a strong sense of wonder. Through them, I have some of my fondest and most forming memories. For instance, I was in first or second grade when my mother secretly purchased an old looking tin chest, filled it with treasure, and buried it in our garden. When I got home she told me she wanted me to dig a hole for a new tree she bought. Suspecting nothing, I dug. After creating what I thought was an impressively deep hole I called for my mom, but she told me to keep shoveling. After some time I finally thrust the shovel into the dirt and hit something metal. I nearly burst with excitment when up from the ground I pulled out what could only be considered a treasure chest. Even though the contents were recently purchased I didn’t care because, well, I had just dug up a treasure chest! At that moment my mom helped change my yard from normal to magical.

The final memory I will share with you stands at the pinnacle of all my childhood moments of awe. I was raised with the strong belief in the existence of Santa Clause. While for some this seems unnecessary, deceitful, or distracting from the real meaning of Christmas, I wouldn’t change it for anything. Every Christmas Eve brought with it such an immense amount of excitement that I could hardly sleep. One Christmas, when I was very young, I awoke to find not only presents under the tree but real, inarguable evidence of Santa’s visit to my house: a boot print in the soot of my fireplace. My parents had taken a boot and brilliantly made a perfect imprint. Somehow, I thought, he had been careless and forgotten to look down. I could not have been happier standing over that print for I knew that we had beat Santa. To me, this was clear evidence of a world that was just outside of our explanation, and in retrospect, this experience typified what I would be looking for in the years that followed. From this moment on, every Christmas Eve night I would wait up silently just to see if I could hear him, and in the morning I would search for signs of his former presence.

Now, grown and matured, I look back at those days with a tragic fondness. My understanding of the world brought me a lot of joy and a real sense of wonder, and for that I am glad. But as time went on my sense of Possibility faded, and I was confronted with raw reality. I can’t appeal to any specific moment or age, but at some point I came to the realization that fantasy was just that—fantasy. There was nothing I could do and there was no place I could go to make my hopes come true. The world had in fact been conquered, and there was no adventure left. I realized that many of my most dearly held stories were inaccessible and imaginary. They were nothing more than the products of the same desire I had struggled with for years—the desire for something more. Ivy walls yielded no lost gardens, forests hid no pathways to other lands, and lost keys recovered were often disregarded due to uselessness. My awe and wonder subsided along with my imagination.

One of the hardest things I had to come to grips with was the understanding that I was ordinary. As a child I saw that most great adventures were naturally exclusive. Not everyone went to Narnia, only a select few. Not everyone saw Santa, only certain chosen individuals. Adventure necessitates exclusivity, and exclusivity in some ways implies a unique status. I knew that if I were to participate in some grand adventure I would be distinct. I would be a chosen one. I would be special. But as the years went on and adventure remained far from me, I realized that I was ordinary. This is why my childhood memories are so bittersweet. While my wonder brought me a lot of joy it was also the cause of a lot of sadness. The “possibility” of hidden worlds, adventures, and even Santa Clause came to an end, and the possibility of being a hero ended as well.

As I said before, it isn’t necessarily Christmas or even a moment in Christmas past that makes me feel nostalgic. Rather, I long for the underlying assumption behind the holiday spirit—magic. To be fair, my reminiscence has revealed some positive facets to my experience. It reveals a longing common to human nature—for something more than what is seen and heard on a daily basis. There is, therefore, comfort in that I am not alone, for camaraderie exists among all of us who yearn. It also formed in me a deep hunger for knowledge and the strength to search out answers, a characteristic which profitted my journey to Christ. Yet there is a strong sense in which my heartache  remains unassuageable.

I am not old, but my senses have grown dull. Time now controls my life, I don’t stop to listen to the world at twilight. Efficiency insists I sacrifice a deeper inspection of that mysterious key. Work’s deadlines demand time in the office and not in the woods. My life is dominated by the responsibilities of adulthood. Like any body part that goes unused for long periods of time, my senses have atrophied.

Every December feeling briefly returns, and I long for a lost childhood. I long for adventure. I long for Possibility. Each year I long for the time when magic ruled the world.

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