Recently, one of the magical discussion groups I’m in has been talking about preparation vs. doing. Really, the question amounts to, “How do you decide when you’re ready to perform a magical operation? How do you know when to actually do instead of just preparing?
The answer, I think, is different for everyone who does or claims to do magical work. Some people say you should be an absolute purist, and be rigorous in your preparations, and only perform magical workings when you’re 100% perfectly certain that you’re ready. Some people say you should do the magical rituals from your preferred grimoire or occult-lodge tradition when you’re about 70% ready.
Me? I say 20%.
I’m not saying this because I think I’m more hard or more clever or more skilled magically than most of the other people in the group. I say this because of my experience working with young students for twenty years. Because if I waited to teach students until I was ready, with my lesson plans completely organized and all my handouts perfectly aligned, I would have been eaten alive in my first year in the classroom.
In many ways, a modern American classroom and a Renaissance magical summoning circle are not so different. There’s a standard set of rules and guidelines that govern behavior within those boundaries and limits, there’s all sorts of expectations and standards about what’s supposed to happen or not supposed to happen, and ultimately, what happens is rarely an idealized or perfect version of what was supposed to happen. It’s messy, things go wrong, people wind up learning the right things in the wrong way, or the wrong things in the right way, and in general it’s complicated is the standard-issue result at the end of the day.
Kids, like spirits, are entities with consciousness, free will, and a range of different responses to different stimuli. They’re curious, they’re insightful, they’re sometimes truthful and sometimes not, they’re sometimes engaged in the communication and sometimes not, they can easily become bored one day and be utterly engaged and fascinated the next.
The magician, like the schoolteacher, is called upon to enchant them — to tell them stories, to ask them for their homework, to assign responsibilities, to dispense gifts (sometimes intellectual and emotional tools, sometimes physical things like worksheets or origami or books)…and, let’s be honest here, to ask for certain kinds of proof of both sentience and compliance with requests.
There are, of course, mightier powers lurking in the wings, just off stage, both in conjuration work and in school teaching. Sometimes we call them angels, archangels, demon princes, archons and ascended souls; sometimes we call them parents, vice-principals, administrators, and guidance counselors. A twenty year career in teaching, more or less, taught me that I am constantly embedded in hierarchies — halfway between the unscaleable heights of heaven and the unreachable depths of hell, and that boredom is the thing most likely to turn the children of God in my classroom into the scions of Satan. So the most important thing is to get through the opening and closing procedures of any particular classroom period with a minimum of fuss, and then be entertaining for some variable length of time in between.
A twenty-year career in magic has taught me more or less the same thing, really. At the beginning of my teaching career, I was really fussy about doing things right, about doing things correctly. Then it became clear that there were nowhere near enough hours in the month to do what needed to be done every single day. So I began to identify shortcuts. They weren’t really shortcuts, exactly — but memorized stories that you used year after year started to take shape in my mind. I saved worksheets from year to year, too. In many ways, magic is no different. Sometimes you make do with the tools on hand. Sometimes the challenge is not getting the student to the top of the mountain, but getting them home safely. Lots of things go wrong in the classroom, far more than we as the adult in the room let on. I expect that most magicians have the same experience — lots of things go wrong in the magical circle or the temple space, far more than we let on. Maybe the trick is to get over ourselves, because most of the time, the work gets done anyway.
If you feel, for example, that you’re entitled to a Rainbow Wand, then make one. I promise — it will be the ugliest Rainbow Wand you have ever seen. But it will be yours. And it’s possible that you will be able to make it again, better than before, having done it once and failed to do it to your expectation.
But before you trash your labors, consider. Making the wand has shifted you from an armchair occultist to a practicing occultist. You have made yourself a magician.
Maybe not a very good magician, I admit.
But you will have begun. You will have said to the world, “Look, I have made a wand of power, and now I expect the spirits to do my bidding!”
The mindset to control a room full of children and the mindset necessary to command a legion of spirits are not so far removed as you might think, though.
Because whatever you have done, whatever you have created, you will not get applause, either from the spirits or from your students.
You simply have to go on to your next trick, and you have to be very careful about whether you identify it as a trick or not.
Sometimes you will fail. It doesn’t matter: tomorrow you must go to the same magical space, classroom or summoning circle or temple (whatever you want to call it), and try again to be at once authoritative, capable, imaginative, communicative, trustworthy, graceful, kind, entertaining, and useful.
And then you have to do it again.
This is a marathon, this business of being a magician. Do not wait until you are 100% ready for anything — instead, be daring, accept the consequences of your deeds, and then do again. The triumphs may be spectacular, but you may get more mileage from the stories of your failures.
Along the path of my magical and teaching career, I’ve learned painting from the spirits, and taught painting to keep children entertained. Drawing, too. Bookbinding. Basic electronics design. Software programming. Geometry. Sewing. Oh my god so much sewing. ( Those whom the gods would destroy, they first give rickety old Singer sewing machines from the late 1970s). Rhetoric. Parliamentary procedure. Debate. Wiki software. Weaving, knitting, and spinning. Woodworking. Basic metalworking. The list goes on.
You will never be ready enough for what comes through your magic, if you wait for the moment when you are 100% ready. Instead, jump in well before you are ready, accept the lack of results as proof that you have to go deeper and practice more, and gradually calibrate to what level of effort you must put in, in order to get the results you want.