If You Believe in Magic (1967)

I’m writing about interesting things I did before I had a blog to report it on. Some of these will seem like fantasies from another world. I can see my grandchildren reading these, many years from now, and asking, did this really happen, or did you make it all up? False dichotomy, I would say. (I mean, if I didn’t make up my own experiences, who did?)

BACKSTORY

I grew up in a home where there were no miracles, no magic. That is, everyone in my family was a strict rationalist. Some religious observances, like candles for Hanukkah, were made out of respect for the family’s roots, but not out of any belief. 

Could I have lived my life within the confines of that world view? Maybe, but the discovery of LSD opened up too many other possibilities to ignore.

In my sophomore year of college at Reed, we had such visitors as Timothy Leary and Gary Snyder. My friends were studying yoga and zen meditation. I wondered if the gap between the “alternative consciousness” life and the academic life could be bridged; I even started a petition asking the college to establish courses in yoga. The petition gathered, without any effort on my part, some enormous number of signatures; but the faculty committee treated it with disdain. When my two best friends decided to move on to more inwardly-satisfying pursuits, I knew it was time for me to go, too. 

I had no plan to pursue, except to go to San Francisco and discover what might be possible there. At that moment, I was so in tune with the times, that myriads of other youths did exactly the same thing, giving rise to the “Summer of Love.” But it wasn’t even summer yet.

I arrived in San Francisco in March, so the weather was good. But my budget for housing was, well, about zero. I was trusting in magic, already, although I wouldn’t have said that (yet). Getting a job didn’t even cross my mind; that seemed incompatible with my reason for being there, transforming consciousness. 

Many other kids were in the same situation; we didn’t have dwellings, we had “crash pads.” Seventeen of us in a one-bedroom apartment seemed perfectly comfortable at the time, we were so grateful for each other’s company. But only for a short time, like until the landlord found out and evicted everyone.

Soon I found a more stable opportunity with a “commune” on Webster Street. The flat belonged to an older guy, Allen, who regularly communicated with space aliens; they told him to start a commune, and he was letting about 5 of us live with him for free, in exchange (theoretically) for building a community. I suspended disbelief in the UFOs, and just enjoyed the proximity to Haight Street, the companionship of my fellow freeloaders, and a ready supply of LSD.

Sorry for all the long back-story, but it was such a pivotal time of my life, I can’t leave it out. This is where I was when magic became real.

1. The Shard

We were supposed to be helping Allen set up a storefront for the commune’s public work, but the weather was so fine that I usually opted, instead, to walk to Golden Gate Park. In those days I always went barefoot—not just in the park, and on campus, but on city streets as well. I had plenty of callous, of course. So one day I was walking through the park (I still remember the exact spot, by the tennis courts), while tripping on acid, and stepped on a shard of glass.

Not a crisis, of course. I sat down on the edge of the walkway to remove the shard. But the more I worked at it, the deeper it seemed to go under my callous. After a minute or so of this, I began to feel anxious. On LSD, anxiety can get pretty overwhelming, quickly. And I had no one around to help me.

At some point, it occurred to me that the anxiety was making everything worse, and I had to change my attitude before doing anything else. I took my attention off my foot, and put it on my breathing instead. In just seconds, I was calm again. Now, I was in a better place to deal with the glass—

But I couldn’t find it. I studied my foot carefully, and could find no flaw, no break in the callous. And no pain. Did I have the wrong foot? The other one looked exactly the same. The shard was gone.

Now, I can’t prove that any of this happened in the physical world. Maybe the glass never entered my foot in the first place, and I was chasing a phantom the whole time. But that doesn’t matter. The profound lesson here is that what we do with our attention can make a minor blip become a major crisis, or the reverse. If you believe nothing else of my history, please believe that.

Meanwhile, The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe In Magic?” is topping the charts. The magic’s in the music, and the music’s in me. Oh, yes, I can work with that.

2. Mosquito

After several weeks of this kind of life, Allen realized that most of us were not actually helping with the commune, and kicked us out. I soon found an even better situation, moving from the city streets to the bucolic East Bay hills.

The hamlet of Canyon is almost impossible to find, even though it’s only a few miles from the big city. (This already sounds like a fairy tale, right? That was my life, that year.) For a few weeks, I was fed and housed as a volunteer for the collective that ran the Port Chicago Vigil—an ongoing protest against the Vietnam War. Port Chicago, on the Sacramento River estuary, was where the Navy loaded ships to send munitions to the war zone.

I was certainly no stranger to anti-war protests, although I had shelved that passion in favor of more spiritual pursuits. But compared to my experience in Washington D.C., and even Portland, this was a low-key protest. Each morning, one of the volunteers would drive 3 or 4 of us from the house in Canyon to the entrance to the military base. We’d sit by the side of the road holding a couple of signs all day. At the end of the day we’d go back to Canyon. And every other day, another team would go, and we had vacation time, all while getting free meals and shelter. What a sweet deal, for a kid with no money!

I generally spent those days off exploring the landscape. As a city-raised kid, I was starving for immersion in nature, and the landscape around Canyon was perfect for my barefoot, psychedelic lifestyle. It was springtime, so the ground was soft, the grass green, and the rare encounter with a neighbor always friendly.

One day I dropped acid and climbed to a grassy spot near the top of the ridge, with a nice view, and sat to meditate. I focused on breathing, and felt all my senses, thoughts, and emotions join in one beautiful buzz. 

And then I saw a mosquito landing on my arm.

This is a perfect moment. It’s still a perfect moment with the mosquito.  Any other day, of course, I would try to slap the mosquito, or at least brush it away. But this time, I felt no need to do that, no conflict. I spoke to it:

Okay, little one. I’ll feed you; I can spare a drop of blood. No worry.

The insect finished its business and flew off, and I waited for the challenge of using my blissed-out meditation to cope with the inevitable post-bite itch.

The itch never came. The swelling around the bite never came. My body had heard me, and chose not to react at all to the bite.

Many times since that day, I’ve tried to duplicate that result: with or without psychedelics, with or without the little speech. But no luck. Magic cannot be replicated, like science in a laboratory. It’s a gift.

3. The Amulet

When I was staying at Webster Street, one room in the flat was not part of the Allen’s commune; it was occupied by an obese man named Richard, and his boyfriend, Michael. On the rare occasions that I saw them, Richard exuded confidence, and would occasionally engage in conversation. He called himself a witch—probably the first self-styled witch I ever met, certainly the first male one. (This was years before Starhawk popularized the term.)  I asked Richard how to work magic, hoping he would offer some kind of practical lesson, but his answer was enigmatic, so I still knew nothing. 

But just before I moved out, Richard found me and gave me a present: a large, misshapen plastic bead with a silver wire embedded in it, which he called an amulet. “It has two powers,” he said. I knew he wouldn’t tell me what they were, so I didn’t ask. “Don’t take the wire out, that changes it.”

Though it looked silly, it was the only possibly-meaningful piece I had for my hippie bling, so I wore on a thong around my neck.

One day on the vigil, as we sat by the side of the road, my partner Chad started whittling a piece of scrap wood.

—What are you doing?
—I’m making a totem, to cast bad luck on the military. 

(I’m sure “totem” is not the right word for this kind of magic, but he knew no more about magic than I did—maybe less—and that’s what he said.)

Archival photo of Port Chicago vigil, 1967

So of course I thought of my amulet and its unspecified “powers.” I gave it to him and said, here, maybe the energy from this amulet will help you.

Chad took the amulet, finished his carving, positioned it facing the gate, and we went home as usual.

Chad and I shared a sleeping platform in a tree behind the house in Canyon. (Not an erotic relationship, if you’re wondering). That night the moon was full, and as we were going to bed, Chad said, can I see your amulet again? I gave it to him, and told him to be careful. He curled it up in his hand, tucked his hand inside his sleeping bag, and we slept.

The moon was full.

When we awoke, I asked for the amulet back. It was no longer in his hand. It was not in the sleeping bag. It was not in the tree house. It was not on the ground under the tree house. We could not find it anywhere. 

Weird. But it got weirder when we got the news later that day: at Port Chicago, a truck had overturned as it tried to turn into the gate where the vigil was held. The mess it made stopped the movement of armaments for most of the day.

I wonder….weird coincidence, or did the amulet somehow disappear from Canyon in order to perform its magickal duty at Port Chicago? If that seems too implausible…read on!

***

Weeks later, I was walking in the Haight Ashbury again, and encountered Richard. I told him the amulet had disappeared. “They tend to do that,” he said cheerfully. I learned nothing more from him.

In September, I returned for a visit to Washington.  On the first day after my return,  I was walking (for no reason I can recall) on M Street in Georgetown—not an area where I’d ever hung out before—and encountered my friend George (no relation to the Town) whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. An unlikely encounter at any time, especially since he lived on the other side of the city, so we were btoh surprised… but the first thing he said to me, the most urgent thing he had in his mind upon this unlikely chance encounter after a year of absence, was, Look what I just got.

What he had just got was, in fact, my lost amulet. 3000 miles away from where it had disappeared. There was no doubt it was the same object: the same purple color, the same weirdly-distorted shape, and two little holes where the silver wire had been.

As I held the amulet, I told George its story. He looked at me, not with skepticism, but with wide-eyed fear. He wouldn’t take it back; he told me to keep it.

A few months later, I met a lady who claimed she had some experience with witchcraft. I showed her the amulet. She was perturbed. “There’s a spirit trapped in there!” She said. The only ethical thing to do was to free it, which she did with a simple spell. Now, we were looking at an unremarkable purple plastic bead. It was no longer distorted in shape. I let her keep it.

Don’t ask me to explain this. Even after 50 years of study, I don’t know how any of that is possible. But it happened, so it is possible—and so, very little is not.

2 thoughts on “If You Believe in Magic (1967)

  1. Notes:
    The historical references are all verifiable.
    You can read about Allen’s UFO commune, which continued for many years, at https://dirtpoor.as.ua.edu/galactic-messanger/
    Everyone’s name is clear in my memory, except “Chad”— I made that up because I can’t remember the man’s name, or anyone’s name from the Canyon episode. I hope he found good mentorship for that magickal talent of his!

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  2. Thanks for the memories, Bear. I think all of us- at least, those of us who were paying attention- can recount similarly inexplicable experiences while using psychedelics. Certainly, I have a few. They’re easy to discount, of course, because “we were stoned”, but, as I remember, LSD actually tended to clarify, not confuse, my experience, if I let it. Be well.

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