Oh man, how do you field this one? How do you maintain the delicate balance between preserving childish innocence and imagination and providing a realistic view of the world? I stall for time.
“Well, it depends on what you mean by magic. There are magicians who perform magic tricks, so in that sense it’s real.”
He’s not buying it. “No, I don’t mean illusions and tricks, I mean is it real?”
“Is what real?”
I really don’t know what to say here. That no, elephants can’t be made to vanish and beautiful assistants can’t really be sawed in half? But I know there’s something more at work here. He’s not really talking about sideshow smoke-and-mirrors magic, he’s grappling with the gulf between what his own experience and observation are telling him, and the world of fantasy and fabrication that stories and films and his own fancy present to him.
He’s been devouring Roald Dahl lately, and although I know that he knows that Oompa-Loompas and giant peaches are just bits of storytelling, he wants to know if such things are possible. If there’s a world beyond what we witness every day that holds out the opportunity for the wondrous, the miraculous. That holds, in short, magic.
I say again, “It depends on what you mean by magic. Give me a specific example.”
“Okay. Is the Easter Bunny real?”
Whew. I feel on fairly solid ground here. I can rat out the Easter Bunny. Never a huge fan anyway – the whole giant rabbit delivering sweets thing never made much sense to me. “Well,” I say, giving him a wry smile, “what do you think?”
“I think it’s you and Mommy.” I wink and nod, and he smiles knowingly. His next question would have logically involved Santa Claus, but I don’t think he was ready to relinquish that particular bit of holiday illusion. We leave it at that, but neither of us seems satisfied. There was some unspooled thread of thought hanging in the air, the unsettling feeling of something left unsaid.
What I wish I’d said is this:
Magic? Absolutely. There’s magic everywhere, all around us, all the time.
Seeds sheathed in brown blades helicopter from a maple tree, spin in the breeze until they hit a patch of soft bare soil, and that tiny nodule, no bigger than a pea, becomes a new tree. Magic.
A family’s Christmas tree starts a fire and torches that year’s presents and a good portion of the house, and a whole community comes together to make sure those kids have gifts and Christmas dinner and a warm, safe place to stay. Magic that certainly outshines a fat guy circumnavigating the globe in a single night.
An amputee learns to run again on artificial legs. A woman shot in the head lives to lead a movement. A composer goes deaf, but plucks notes from the silence and turns them into a symphony. A black seamstress on a bus who’s tired of sacrificing her dignity helps to spark a revolution.
‘Esprit d’escalier’ the French call that perfect witty retort thought up too late (‘staircase wit,’ as in you thought of the perfect riposte as you – or your victim – are on the way home). But is there a term for the good advice or simply the wise response we should have given a child’s question but that comes too late?
Perhaps I can revisit this conversation with my son. Bring it up again and deliver what I’d wanted to say but failed to at the time. Is magic real?
Oh yes, my son, indeed it is – magic is very, very real.