Magical Spaces

Across the driveway opposite my bedroom window there is a little field. The little field is more of a yard than a field. It is less than a hundred feet wide, maybe two hundred feet long. It drops a few feet down from the entrance driveway and parking lot, like a little emerald bowl carved out of the earth to compensate for the concrete piled up next to it. Still, the field rises above the busy road on the other side. It is an engineered space.

It is also, I have found, a magical space.

The little field is shaded almost completely by stately pine trees emerging from the bowl. I like to take my dog, Penny, over there for walks. She finds little things in the grass to chase and smell. Sometimes she is overwhelmed by some aroma there, driven to flop over and roll around, covering herself in its wonder. There are patches of grass she enjoys eating. I call this “salad time” and we do it almost every day.

At the back side of the field, right up against the fence separating us from the high school next door, there is a tree unlike the others. Where the pines tower, telegraphing their power to absorb the sun’s energy by shading the ground far below, this tree huddles. Its branches swirl and cascade, creating a sort of greencast temple underneath the spreading boughs. I like to pause there on our walks and bask in this little space. This tree, a mulberry in a pine field, is the wellspring of the field’s magic.

There is magic everywhere you go. I don’t mean abracadabra magic, rabbits from hats, wand-waving, magical beasts. I mean magic as an expression of the mysterious power that certain spaces can exercise over us. You know it when you see it. We are drawn to these spaces. Perhaps it is an echo of the space’s past. Our neighborhood used to be a dairy, for example, and the little field calls out to this past in stark contrast with the lumber, concrete, and steel of the parking lots and buildings surrounding it. Or perhaps the magical space is a zone of quiet in an otherwise hectic environment. It could be a nook, a void, a hiding place, a lively spot in a drab surround. It could be anything, but it must be powerful to pull us so.

As often as not, the magic that a space works on us has as much to do with what’s happening in our own minds while we’re there as it does with the power the space possesses of itself. Behind my workplace, for example, there was once a little picnic area cleared out of the squat hardwood margin between the interstate and the parking lot. They ruined it some time ago by dropping a big wooden gazebo back there, but it was a nice place for awhile to read a book and eat a sandwich while the cars and trucks roared by on the other side of trees. This was a magical space for me, but now that it is gone the magic persists in my memory as an enchantment of time and place rather than harmonic space. It was magical because I lived with significant feelings there.

I started my job at the end of my graduate coursework. It was a time when most of my colleagues began turning their attention from seminars to teaching and conferences in preparation for the workforce. I will spare you the “quit lit” picaresque–which is an insufferably self-absorbed genre that exists out there on the wild internet–but in order to explain the magic of the lunch clearing I need to explain that I felt like there wasn’t much future in academia. Living here was as good as living anywhere else, I thought, and if I got a job instead of starting to teach I would still be free to write and do all of the big thinking that I went to grad school to do in the first place. But it still felt like giving up on the dream. I remember making my way to the clearing some time in my second week on the job and thinking, this isn’t so bad. I remember the autumn afternoon, watching the long shadows playing across the building through the trees while completely re-imagining who I was and who I could be. Sitting at one of the picnic tables there I got a text message from my friend which read, “Is it soul-crushing?”

“No, actually,” I replied, “it’s not bad at all.”

I would return to the clearing again and again, day after day. I read books there: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one. I wrote there: poetry, essays, emails. I wrote about a Water Oak tree living next to the bench where I sat to read and think. I wrote an ode to my wife sitting beneath the tree’s branches. Occupying this magical space helped me escape the workday. It charged my creativity and gave me peace. It helped me adapt to a period of profound change.

Think of a magical space like a power-up in a video game. Being there may recharge your batteries or allow you to focus. It may give you a moment of peace or an hour. What it is and what it means will vary as widely as the people who occupy the space and the feelings shaping their experience from moment to moment. On this blog I intend to share examples. Perhaps, by doing so, I can better explain myself.