As the global pandemic of COVID-19 continues to escalate, I have found myself asking the question: what is the function of witchcraft in this moment when our familiar established systems—many of which were already oppressive and exploitative, in ways we did and did not recognize—are collapsing around us in the face of cohabitation with the invisible? Pandemic or plague, this is a large-scale encounter of troubled coexistence between species, and multi-species coexistence has not been a strength of humanity for quite a long time. We are witnessing the force of the invisible, where the microbial becomes indistinguishable from the emotional, where fear of the virus spreads in waves that move with the virus itself but are also irreducible to it, where care for the living and concern for those most at risk from contact with the virus are shaping our physical realities and social spaces as much if not more than the virus itself. So what I am calling “the invisible” in this moment is both affective and biological, a more-than-human species that is living with and through human bodies as well as the legion of emotions and sensations that are shaping our lived realities as we scramble to respond well to what we cannot see. The virus is biological material but it is also a feeling—or countless feelings—that are attendant to this crisis. In a sense, affectively, we are all already infected with the virus if we consider that its reach is not measured only by confirmed physiological contraction, but also the feeling states that are surging through our systems day by day as reports circulate and events are canceled and spaces are closed indefinitely and social gatherings are prohibited, the feelings of hypervigilance and sensuality as we wash our hands again and again, caressing and stroking or scrubbing the surfaces all around us as we sanitize and disinfect, saturated with both anxiety and compassion. We are all already living our bodies differently because of this invisible virus. This is not to diminish the gravity of those who have been diagnosed with the virus, those undergoing treatment or those who have died. Rather, it is the say that the effects of the invisible are multitudinous, and none of us are the same as we were before this encounter began.
Witchcraft is a sustained and ongoing collaboration with the invisible as well as the visible, the intangible as well as the material. It is the cultivation of relations—sacred and ecological, kinship relations as well as pacts and allegiances with allies and co-conspirators. For some, witchcraft is a practice of communion with the planet, the ongoing development of right-relations with the land, the sky, the waters, and all those living relations to which we already belong. For others, witchcraft is a practice of devotion to deities or demons, summoning spirits and seeking powers from beyond the human realm. It is possible that these are different words describing similar or the same phenomena. Dion Fortune said that magic is the art of changing consciousness at will, and if this is the case, then we do so by working intentionally between the visible and the invisible, the material and the intangible. We generate and sustain felt embodied states of connection and ecstasy, dissolving the boundaries between self and planet, possessed by renegade desires and fallen angels, dancing as air and fire and water and earth, speaking with the voices of Goddesses, drawing the moon down into our bodies, journeying into underworlds, becoming-plant, becoming-animal, becoming-stone. Whatever else witchcraft may do, the transformation of invisible felt states, the capacities to access other ways of sensing and feeling and being when confronted with multi-species realities—even when those realities are threatening or lethal—is what we have been practicing all along. I cannot give you a spell to prevent the microbial from entering your system or to prevent the transmission of this genetic material from one body to another. No doubt there are witches who are allied with plants and minerals capable of enhancing our immunity or supporting our recovery, and perhaps there are sorcerers who can call on spirits to perform the miraculous. But here is how witchcraft is functioning for me today:
Through daily practice of intentional and attentional relating, I am affirming the sacredness of all living and dying things who are held within the relations we call this planet. We are not at war with genetic material that seeks to replicate within our cells. We are currently struggling to rediscover how to live—and to live well—as we live with that which is not exactly living without us. These are troubled relations but they are not war, and it casts a different kind of spell to structure our realities as combat or coexistence. What kind of spell do you want to cast?
Every day I am communing with ancestors—the dead as well as the not yet living—including those in my bloodline but also those ancestors of possibility, the queer and gender-variant, the transcestors who lived before me and make my life possible. I reach out across spacetime to be with them in their lives and to learn from them, because surely these wise-women, these seers, and these healers have wisdom to offer from between the worlds. Every day I set out water in a glass from my grandmother as an offering to these ancestors that they may drink and be well, and each day when I return to pour the remaining water out into the plants with whom I live, some of it is gone. Yes, perhaps evaporated into the atmosphere, but how is this invisible process any different from the ancestors having drank what they needed? This is a practice of communion with the invisible, and it cultivates a different way of being with the invisible, giving and receiving in need and reciprocity, which is very different from living in constant fear of what we cannot see.
Every day I am communing with the elements—air, fire, water, and earth—and offering gratitude for the early springtime rain, the muddy earth, the chilly breeze blowing through the park, the sunlight from beyond the clouds. I hold these elements in my body and honor these tangible, material ways in which I am not separate from the world around me. As we move deeper into practices of social isolation, it becomes even more important to practice knowing and feeling that while I may be socially isolated, I am not separate. I am still connected to a vast more-than-human world in intrinsic and intimate ways.
I am spending sustained time with rocks and stones, sitting in meditation, listening deeply to the subtle qualities of these ancient companions. These rocks have survived millennia. They have remained present for countless deaths and dying processes. They have endured throughout immense loss. Many have undergone substantial transformations of heating and cooling or calcifying or breaking apart. Listening to their wisdom requires slowing down, existing in a different relationship to time, and becoming attentive to the gentle whispers and tremors of contact with significant otherness that I would never perceive if I were moving at the accelerating speed of this world in crisis. It is a kind of spell to slow down and to listen deeply to the subtleties of stone. This is time magic. The stones speak to the minerals within my own body, the parts of me that are billions of years old that have also survived and endured across deep geological time, and as I listen, something surrenders, something softens, and something lets go.
It does not diminish the severity of this crisis to cultivate felt states other than fear, anxiety, panic, grief, scarcity, anger, and rage. We can respond effectively to crisis and also cultivate grounding, tranquility, contentment, abundance, pleasure, and joy. The spells I am casting right now include reaching out into memory or imagination or fantasy and connecting to experiences of abundance, pleasure, and joy, finding or installing those felt sensations within my body, and staying in those states for ten, twenty, thirty minutes—until my system has the opportunity to experience bringing these feelings into the present moment, feeling differently in the context of crisis. This does not make the crisis dissipate, but rather, it conjures a different body for moving with and through this turmoil. Because in the face of this plague, I am not willing to surrender the hard-won pleasures and desires and experiences of well-being that have been given to me by queer and trans communities and ancestors, by wise-women and witches who have dealt in healing magic for centuries or perhaps for thousands of years.
In order to be well with the invisible, we must become practiced at perceiving and responding to what Alkistis Dimech describes as “the occulted body”—which is primarily simply the body, but more specifically the body that we do not see, the body that is hidden. In other words, the parts of one’s own body that are invisible, that cannot be seen, that must be felt—the insides, fluids, fascia, muscles, and bones, but also the images, memories, sensations, social conditioning, and desires that compose this experience we call a body. Engagement with the invisible happens first throughout our own invisibilities, feeling into our own embodied places that we cannot see, and conjuring states of being that are not seen but felt. It is from here, from working with the invisibilities of our own selves, that we can also contour the affective dimensions of the invisible virus that are shaping our social spaces and disintegrating worlds. It is possible that months from now the crisis will have abated and you will emerge seemingly unscathed by the virus, but if you have spent those months holding fear, panic, anxiety, and dread within your body’s system, something will have been lost and you will not have, in fact, emerge unscathed. It is also possible that you or I will become host to this virus, that our temperatures will rise as we cannot catch our breath, and it is possible that some of us will die. How do we want to die—saturated with fear and regret and despair, or cultivating ongoing experiences of peace and pleasure and joy? What would it mean to not only live but also die well? What I am trying to say is that as we crash into these waves of invisible forces—where the content of such waves is both genetic and affective, biological and emotionally embodied—witchcraft and magic offer tools and traditions for shaping our felt experiences, for shifting consciousness at will, for cultivating pleasure and joy throughout the occulted body, so that we might move differently through these uncertain times.
Particular thanks to Sam Johnson, Maree ReMalia, and Norah Zuniga Shaw. Many of these thoughts were shaped in conversations with these loved ones.
While not making direct references, this thinking is in deep entanglement with Donna J. Haraway.