After years of lockdown, upended lives, and emotional overwhelm, we can finally go outside—now what? It’s hard to pin down a feeling defined by ambivalence, but Katherine May articulates post-COVID numbness in Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age with precision and forthrightness. Her attention is shallow; her mind is constantly watching for the next threat; her emotions are both overpowering and inaccessible. “Lately I can’t read a whole page of a book,” she says. Sound familiar?

Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age

By Katherine May,
Penguin Random House, February 2023, 223 pp., $26, hardcover

The Maslach Burnout Inventory, a psychological diagnostic tool, says burnout is the result of three factors: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (also referred to as cynicism), and a diminished sense of accomplishment. This isn’t the first time that May, who was diagnosed with autism late in life, has experienced burnout, but it is the first time she’s seen it in so many others. The “pandemic hangover,” as she calls it, is marked by a sense of being “bored, restless, empty-headed, and bodily resistant to changing it.” She wants to write but flicks between social media channels instead. Time has taken on a disturbing quality. “Every night, when I wash my face,” she says, “I feel as though I have been standing at my sink in one continuous moment across several months.”

May wants the magic back. Childlike wonder and ancient reverence call to her. She wants the dam to break, to let loose a moment of catharsis so powerful it shakes off all the cobwebs. She wants to be enchanted again.

Enchantment is small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory. . . . It is the sense that we are joined together in one continuous thread of existence with the elements constituting this earth, and that there is a potency trapped in this interconnection.

The book is divided into the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Each part contains reflections on parenting, her childhood, meditation, and places with histories of enchantment. The elements’ evolving meanings illuminate the central themes of embodiment, interconnection, and hierophany, which she defines as divinity revealing itself to us through ordinary experiences. A being who is tapped into hierophany has “a supernatural key to see wonder in the everyday”—in other words, this is a being for whom everything is bliss. The elements remind us of our own physical material, too, and how that material is ever changing and eternal, personal and cosmic. In her section on water, for example, the sea’s unpredictability mirrors her Ménière’s disease, a condition caused by an excess of fluid in the inner ear. The act of taking off her shoes literally “grounds” her amid existential angst.

Turning to the natural world for answers is nothing new, but May catalogs her investigation with refreshing honesty and grace. Not every walk in the woods summons a Whitman-like transmission. Sometimes, like the rest of us, she shows up at a spiritual landmark and putters around, unsure of what to do, until it’s time to get back in the car.

Although the epiphanies May craves don’t happen automatically, she comes to a more useful truth: no place is inherently magical. You can return to the same woods again and again and find them different each time. May refers to this as experiencing “deep terrain.” The beeping toys and gadgets that her son is drawn to are shallow terrain, like most of the territory a burnout-brain seeks safety in. Deep terrain, on the other hand, is rich with multiplicity, symbolic meaning, and mystery and makes you find fresh understanding each time. It isn’t simple.

The Leonid meteor shower of 1833 is a perfect example. One early morning, an estimated 72,000 streaks of light fell across the sky in magnificent arcs. The witnesses, who at the time didn’t have the scientific knowledge to explain it, had to reckon with the mystery in their own ways, each one coming to their own uncertain conclusion about the nature of the universe. That very plurality of meaning is the magic of deep terrain. It doesn’t offer a straightforward answer. Engaging with its layers of history and life isn’t a means to an end but a practice in and of itself, one that requires curiosity, reverence, and ceremony. Most importantly, you create your own meaning. “We are not the passive recipients of the numinous,” May writes, “but the active constructors of a pantheon.” God is found not in the woods but in the woods’ potential to be anything.

“Enchantment is small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory.”

Just because something has the potential to be enchanting, though, doesn’t mean we can force it to be so. How do we create the causes for magic? One tool May uses is meditation. In stillness, she learns to open herself to the full spectrum of experience. When we scan the news for the next threat (a symptom of COVID burnout, May says), our minds are looking to control our experience. A headline provides an object for our otherwise vague fear. If we define our discomfort well enough, the idea goes, maybe we can get out of feeling it. In meditation, on the other hand, May realizes there is no narrative to pinpoint. The illusion of a definite reality dissolves along with the protective barrier it provided.

Sometimes that hurts. When it does, we can find strength in compassion. At a Zen Peacemakers retreat, she learns that it’s much easier to face hard truths when you’re buoyed by care—by both the care others have for you and the care you have for them. If you can feel into our interconnection, there will always be hands waiting to catch you. Sometimes that means practicing with a physical sangha; sometimes it just means recognizing how many minds have wrestled with the exact same suffering you’re dealing with now. In the presence of that community of searchers, which stretches endlessly back and endlessly forward, uncertainty can become a beautiful mystery.

May unpacks the predicament we’re all in and refuses to give an easy answer—there is no get-enchanted-quick pill. How do we take joy in not knowing? How do we add texture back to a flattened reality? How do we feel magic again? Her lyrical, often funny, earnest guidance is grounded in basic human nature but leaves room for our own unique paths. In the end, it’s just like the woods: we must make meaning ourselves. The effort may be awkward and uncertain, but on the other side is magic. And if you’re looking for a place to start, going for a walk is always a good idea.

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