Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Chants, Charms, and Talismans

I'm carrying around a cobalt blue plastic Turkish God's Eye keychain in my purse right now. I'm not Turkish. Or Muslim. I'm a bit alarmed by the kitschy commodification of religion. Still, I keep the God's Eye in my change purse compartment. And I reach in and run my fingers over it every time I feel spooked by the looming specter of another miscarriage.

Modern medicine pretends to be rationally based, empirically sound, and scientifically certain. But the experience of undergoing unexplained recurrent miscarriage can easily lead to a crisis of doubt. When you’ve been through a fathomless series of blood-draws and surgical procedures, medical histories and physical examinations, to check out the possibility of hormonal imbalances, clotting disorders, autoimmune issues, infection factors, genetic abnormalities, and anatomical anomalies, come back negative for everything, and come up with nothing, you can reach a point where making wishes every time a clock shows quadruple digits seems like a sound treatment strategy.

People started offering me “lucky objects” as soon as they heard about my first miscarriage. One girlhood friend of mine packaged up a beaded amber bracelet said to promote fertility through the power of crystal healing. Someone had given it to her after she had a miscarriage; to send it to me she’d had to steal it out of her three-year old’s jewelry box. Clearly the bracelet conferred powerful properties.

I wore it for a single afternoon. Then I decided I couldn’t stand the way it marked me as an infertility convict, sentenced to walk the streets with my prisoner ID bracelet on prominent display. So I took it off and left it on my nightstand, where I could gaze at it respectfully, every now and then.

At the amber bracelet stage I still thought that a couple of quick medical tests would soon set me straight. In the early days of miscarriage your main focus is on solving the problem, moving forward, and forgetting the unfortunate incident as quickly as possible. And I had more than just M.D.s on my side. I had the amazing positive prophesies of everyone I met. Everyone who looked at me just “knew,” just “had a feeling,” that the next pregnancy was going to be a good one.

With the second miscarriage, the magic materials started pouring in. There was the amaryllis bulb my grandmother gave me to force into bloom on a sunny winter windowsill, sure symbol of renewal and the promise of spring. Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France victory loomed large in the popular mind at that time and everyone from my doctor to the guy at the deli counter was sporting those “Live Strong” bracelets. I received three from various well-wishers.

I have to say, though, that I couldn’t quite see the point. The babies were the ones that needed help living strong and frankly those yellow rubber rings were much too big for the average embryo. In fact, they were much too big for me to wear round my petite wrists. So the ‘Live Strong” bracelets (which really look like they could be put to better use binding together a bunch of broccoli) were left to languish beside the amber beads.

After the third miscarriage, most people just began to shake their heads. They seemed to be saying, “the dark death force of your womb is too much for our minor white magic. Go and seek your future elsewhere.”

It’s just at this point that I myself, having pretty well run through the available arsenal of academically approved medical options, began to understand just how hard it is to force a flower to bloom. It gradually began to seem to me that magic might be the best thing to add to my apothecary. Still, it wasn’t until I was out shopping and spied a tiny wooden pair of antique children’s shoe forms (suitable for a cobbler to use in draping leather to shape a miniature boot) that I just couldn’t put down, that it hit me. I realized I had made the leap into the realm of magical thinking. At the time I claimed I was purchasing the shoe forms as a gift for a friend who is a new mother—what a unique and special memento! But, in fact, I couldn’t stop caressing those wooden forms in my hand. I walked through the store rubbing the slightly rough surface of the raised old wood grain against the ticklish part of my palm. And I clutched them all the way home in the car. By then I knew that they were for me. I decided to display them high on a door frame over my head, the symbol of both a goal out reach and of a doorway I’m determined to pass through.

So, when a Turkish friend of my mother’s--master of the mysterious meanings to be found in the swirled dregs of coffee grounds, a woman who claims to have foretold the plane crash that would have killed her sister had she not missed the flight--pressed the keychain into my hand and said with a confident, conspiratorial nod, “take this,” I did. Now more than ever, I’m counting on its wonderous spiritual powers.

Let me hear your stories. What magic materials have people forced on you? What have you found for yourself? Do you discard these things as fast as you get them? Is there one that you'd swear, in spite of good sense, really does work?