The work that goes into magic

girl in tub full of cheese puffs by hypnox

I went to a wonderful wedding over the weekend.

It wasn’t wonderful because I got to see a bunch of people I knew again; I knew almost no one, although I enjoyed meeting everyone. It wasn’t wonderful because of the food or the dancing or the setting, although all of these were top-notch (as was the officiant, who outshone my efforts by a country mile).

It wasn’t even wonderful because it was one of those situations where the bride and groom were so perfectly suited to one another that every last person there was cheering on the union. Well, okay, that part was pretty wonderful. But it was magically, specially wonderful because of the how.

The happy couple met via a wise mutual friend who knew them both well, and who served as conduit. Long before she was able to do that, however, each of the two lovely people had done a whole lot of work.

They dated people who weren’t right (in some cases, egregiously so) and learned from their mistakes. (Note: this took a not-inconsiderable length of time.) They accepted the counsel of friends and trusted advisors, then got their own shit straight and their priorities in order. They built lives and homes and friendships that not only sustained themselves, but that they thought would be worthy of the significant other they each dreamed of meeting someday. One of them even made extensive, detailed lists of the exact things they wanted in the other (while continuing to take a fearless moral inventory of themselves, to cop a phrase from the Big Book.)

There was no sitting around eating Cheetos, watching TV, waiting for lightning to strike. There was no putting in some cosmic order with the universe and fluffing things up just enough to pass muster. There was constant, specific, meaningful work with focused intent.

Then, and only then, came the “miracle.”

* * * * *

Here’s what I have learned about envy and idle wishing: they come from a shallow place of not-knowing.

They come from not knowing what the people you’re envious of have gone through to get where they are, nor the full spectrum of what they live with to stay there: how many mountains of shit they’ve shoveled; how grueling and unglamorous the day-to-day maintenance of success can be.1 Occasionally, someone will graciously do us the courtesy of exploding the myth of overnight success or of showing us how scary success can be, but it’s rare to get a peek behind the curtain. (It’s one huge reason why I’m always hammering away at people to read more biography, the other being that they wipe the floor with most self-help books.)

For some of us, envy and idle wishing also come from not knowing yourself, and what you’re capable of, and even what the hell it is you want exactly. It’s far easier to envy someone else their success than to figure out what yours might look like, much less to go after it.

I’ve been guilty of any number of these not-knowings so many times over so many years, it shames me. I feel as though a preponderance of resources have been expended futilely in an effort to get me to K-N-O-W things. I’m like a black hole, a running toilet, an uninsulated shack of not-knowing. I am the most energy-inefficient knower I know when it comes to knowing this.

Then again, it takes you as long as it takes to figure something out. At least when you finally do know something, you get to keep it. You can’t send the knowing back any more than you can un-ring a bell.

What you do with it after that is up to you. My go-to responses have been anxiety, sadness, and (surprise!) more shame. (Shame has racked up an insane number of emotional frequent flyer points in my brain.)

These days, I’m finding action works much better. I would go so far as to say that action can be startlingly effective. It almost doesn’t matter what the action is, just that it’s an action with right intention behind it. Lists are good. Physical activity is really good. Acts of service are outstanding, no matter the size. Seriously. Anything that takes me out of myself breaks the spell, and nothing pushes me and my b.s. to the side faster than an act of service. That, and a 45-minute walk will cure just about anything. Instant perspective.

It’s also useful to have good friends and trusted advisors, like our aforementioned not-so-young lovers. I suspect that kings lose kingdoms because they have no one around them willing to argue against their own fortune in service of the crown’s. It’s really, really easy to eat Cheetos and believe your own press, a lot easier than doing the hard work of change, or the scary work of facing up to things (and working, regardless).

But all of it, work alone, or work facilitated and guided by other people, is work. The magic is the dazzling bit that the world sees, where all the work comes together.

* * * * *

More days than not, I write. I write three college-ruled sheets’ worth of morning pages that no one will ever see. I write in the Wave with Dave Seah. I write a monthly newsletter and a monthly column for actors. I write interviews (which I’m beginning to collect here). Increasingly, I write articles for publication elsewhere. I write comments on the blogs of people you’ve probably never heard of. I write (and rewrite) pages of content on this very site which most people never see but that need to be written, regardless. I write poems. I write songs. I write an unbelievable amount of emails.

More days than not, I’d prefer doing anything to writing. But every minute of every day, I’d rather have written something wonderful. So I write.

This is how I am starting to look at what I write. At choosing the things that I will write, which means choosing the things that I won’t write, and figuring out what I’m supposed to be writing. The very mushy, very vague communicatrix-dot-com has served me well as a means to get me writing, and I may well decide to keep it that way, as an outlet, and nothing more. The public-facing side of my inner work, to share my toys and keep me honest.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling the need for more focus, more specificity, and more writing (or just more something) that supports flesh-and-blood me as much as spiritual me. I’m not sure yet what that looks like, or what that means for this space. Perhaps it’s this whole turning-50 thing, hard to kid myself that I have endless time anymore. While I don’t require a huge stack of money to loll around on in my old age, it’s reasonable to assume I’ll need some, and that while the spirit is willing, eager, even, to work until the bitter end, the flesh may not be able to keep up the necessary pace.

I am doing what I can to get clear on this on my own, and my trusted advisors are helping me with the murky bits. It’s about as much fun as writing every day is guaranteed to be, but like the writing, I seem to be getting better at it the more I do it.

When I am ready, though, I will have no problem asking loudly and clearly for what it is that I want, or for soliciting the assistance of a matchmaker (pro or amateur), or for smiling ear-to-ear when my Specific Thing and I are finally united.

And I will share with anyone the story of how a “miracle” was really nothing more than an assemblage of ordinary parts selected with ordinary concentration and fused together with ordinary labor, and finished off with a tiny dollop of magic.


1Or, in some of your creepier cases, how many dead bodies they have buried in the backyard or what that portrait stowed away in the attic looks like.

Photo © Hypnox, via. (Both NSFW)


  1. This post resulted in my going for a nice evening walk…right to the corner store for a bag of puffed Cheetos!

  2. Hi Colleen:

    Great post…it’s an important reminder that whether we are speaking about a relationship with our “soul mate” or a successful career, we don’t think about the heavy lifting, practice and preparation that goes into these things. These things don’t manifest automatically. They happen for reasons. Thanks for writing this as it hits me at a crossroad in my life.

  3. Colleen,
    When I read your post, I felt like you were reading my mind.
    Absolutely, positively wonderful.

  4. thanks so much for this post! fantastic. inspiring, and eye opening for me. i am truly appreciative. have a great weekend!

  5. Great post indeed!
    I am 52 and that is a significant factor in my urgency to align with my “specific thing”, although I try to be patient. It can’t be forced and I work daily to learn what I can. One thing that helps immensely is sharing, as you do so well! I am a visual artist but I am finding my voice in writing and I believe it is what will make clear this dilemma, of what it is I am here to do. Making art is only the first piece. How lucky are we that we can connect in the ways we can!

    Thanks as always for your inspiring words :-)

    1. Making art is only the first piece.

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, how many pieces can go into figuring out a truth? For me, writing has always been key, but the learning really took off when I started interacting with people outside of my extremely small circle of intimates. And time. Oh, the *time* all of this can take.

      Thanks for pointing this out.

  6. Wow…thank you for this post. Funny – I’ve been boo-hooing quite a bit lately that there seems to be no magic in my life – things have not gone my way, yadayada…

    Um, this post has kind of answered my question of why. I have wanted magic and have not wanted to do any more real work to get it…being 50 something has contributed to my lethargy. I have just wanted something to drop into my lap. It hasn’t so I mope that I have been singled out by the universe for failure….(something like that).

    I don’t respond often but I love your blog. This post was great and you’ve inspired me. Thanks again!

    1. Don’t feel too badly. I think most of us suffer from a touch of Anonymous Limo Syndrome from time to time.

      Good for you, copping to it. If my own experience is any indication, things get better quickly after the copping-to. (Not painlessly, not immediately, but you know. Better. Clearer.)

  7. Well said Colleen. I wouldn’t mind a name like Cookie Carosella.

    The key part that jumps out at me is looking in from outside and thinking you see the whole picture of someone else’s life. We always think someone else’s magic is better than our own magic. But other people look at us and go “wow, she’s so great at x.”

    About working hard, I think that’s true but in a paradoxical way, I also think it’s about not working so hard but just following your heart and your interests, keeping your eyes and ears open, setting fears aside (okay, that’s work), being open.

    But the main thing is, sometimes we have to see the sparkle of our own magic and not think someone else’s is more sparkly. Or cheesy in the case of cheetos.

  8. Fantastic post. I just returned to the dating world after a 10-month hiatus. I realized my continual mistakes weren’t chance and that I needed to hit the books. In the interim I took a class on relationships, attended lectures, listened to podcasts, read books, etc. And while I’ve a lot to learn, it is totally different this time around. What I’ve been learning in my work life is ‘what you put time into will grow,’ and the same is true for romance, but for some reason I think we believe that’s supposed to happen magically, without effort. Thank you for tying this together.

  9. This post is my life. My hubby and I are that couple (figuratively) and I have a family member who is eating Cheetos even as we speak (to my great frustration).

  10. Beautifully written! I am celebrating my 14th wedding anniversary today, and I can vouch for the work that goes in before and during, to make it work. And I absolutely agree that we need more stories out there that illustrate just how much daily effort it takes to make magic.

  11. After making weight for a high school wrestling tournament, I pigged out on Cheetos. Among other things. But the Cheetos were the bit that left the aftertaste when it all came up again. So I mercifully don’t suffer the sitting-around-eating-Cheetos affliction.

    But I hear you. My wife had been on me to write about my current phase in life, and I’ve doing it lately with my Captain Dad blog. I mused aloud that I should start thinking about what to do with it, but my ever wise consul told me just to keep writing and let it take shape, make it ready, before messing with trying to make it acceptable to someone else’s vision.

    So she’s giving me the same advice you’re giving yourself. I’d say that makes you pretty wise yourself.

    Keep it up.

  12. I look so forward to these posts every week, and it always amazes me how your messages resonate with what I’m feeling or going through but can’t quite articulate. Thank you for pulling the curtain back a little and sharing your journey with us.

    You are so right, you can’t eliminate envy and achieve true happiness without defining what it is you really WANT. I’m trying to determine that for myself, and it helps so much to be reminded that this is in fact a PROCESS, not a magical epiphany that strikes like a lightening bolt out of the blue. (At least it clearly isn’t going to happen that way for me. I stagnated for years while I waited for that lightening bolt.)

    Now that I’m finally digging in and doing the hard work to excavate the authentic “me,” your weekly doses of inspiration and insight help more than you will ever know. You rock!

  13. A few years ago I lost 70 pounds. I lost most of it over summer break. When I walked into nursing clinicals that fall, my classmates started congratulating me and telling me how good I looked. One particularly overweight woman looked at me and said, “Lucky you.” I was so startled that I blurted out “I exercised for an hour and a half 7 days a week, push-mowed our 3-acre yard with a manual lawnmower, and ate every meal off a lunch plate. This isn’t luck, it’s damn hard work!” I don’t think she ever forgave me. Oh well.

    1. Ha!

      Well, it’s probably not very sporting of us, but I do relish the story.

      I have a hard time coming up with the zen buddhist response to stuff like this myself, especially when I’m startled and/or my buttons get pushed.

      Next lifetime, maybe.

  14. Oh the pain of not really knowing and working toward something anyway! How wonderfully you worded what it takes to keep doing the work and to trust that it will unfold and make sense in the future. When we get that point when we can look back in retrospect, it will be so apparent how worth it the steady, honest work was. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Thank you for writing this… I read it the other day and it’s stayed on my mind. Extremely helpful!

    Cheetos… yum! :)

  16. This is exactly what I needed to read as I embark on a little soul-searching journey. Thanks for sharing the wisdom. I’m excited to see what’s next in both of our adventures!

  17. Bingo, this!
    …and the “How to get an agent… or not” post you ref’d, too.
    Shanna Mann showed me this amazing word-picture from Catherine Caine, last week.

    (Please don’t ever use it as a “beat-my-self-up for not being that good” stick, but as totally reinforcing your “Do The Work, Dammit!” message!!!)

    …and I hope you can let go of the shame in your not-knowings ~ just as there need be no shame in a 2nd-grader not knowing how to do multiplication, when they simply haven’t learned how to put the pieces together, yet!

    Me, I’m still recognizing tools that I’ve had sitting around since grade school, and figuring out how to use them productively to help ‘support my lifestyle’ -teehee-

    Hugs and Bright Blessings! K

  18. First time visitor…love your honest, straight forward voice. I was a copywriter in ad-ville as well for over 10 years, back to school to learn to draw among other things, working making art and teaching, now adding writing back into the mix. Don’t know how this is going to work out, either. But I do it anyway, then taking my dog for a walk.
    No Cheetos involved.

  19. Another first time visitor. Wow. I really needed to read that stuff about where envy comes from because I’m on the receiving end lately… and it’s really uncomfortable. With the envy is the spoken (by other persons) question of whether my success was worth the cost? And will it last? Oh, and doesn’t this mean that my values are (wrongly) skewed?
    So, thank you for this.

    About work plus magic: Ursula K LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy: the first book. I was going to summarize one of the lessons but you really should read the books.

Comments are closed.