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Making peace with plastic: Thoughts on (perhaps) the least magickal stuff on Earth

Michelle Gruben opinion tools

Plastic fairy with magic wand

I have an old photo of my little sister and me at home, playing witches. I’m about six years old in the picture. My sister is wearing a diaper and peering unsteadily into a big black cauldron. I’m hovering over her in a black pointy hat and tattered dress. It must have been Halloween because the costume and cauldron are new and store-bought. I’m about to go trick-or-treating, or maybe having one last game of dress-up before packing it all away for the year.

Looking at the picture now, I don’t remember much about that Halloween. I can’t really summon the crispness in the air, the rustling piles of Reese’s Pieces and Twizzlers, the taste of the popcorn balls, made by a neighbor, that my nervous parents reluctantly let me eat. No, my most vivid sensory memory is of that big plastic cauldron. How stupid and hollow it sounded when I stirred it with my broom, how its overwhelming vinyl smell contaminated my entire haul of candy.

I’m not alone in hating plastic, apparently. Lots of Witches shun the stuff. Aside from the health and environmental concerns that come with plastic, it just seems so…unmagickal. It’s hard to imagine John Dee bedecked in polyester robes making Enochian tablets out of Perler beads. As for me, if there’s so much as a nylon wick in a candle…forget it. It’s all I can see, or think about.

I’m not an extremist—I don’t actually want to live in a world without cling wrap or PVC pipe or computer screens. Plastic is pretty useful! Just keep it off of my altar, and we’ll have no problems at all.

It’s several years after the October of the Plastic Cauldron. I’m eleven or twelve years old now, obsessively exploring magick through a mix of pure instinct and Usenet posts. I don’t have access to occult shops or supplies, so I decide to make myself a scrying bowl.

The unlikely volunteer is a polyethylene salad bowl in bright purple, bought with my allowance on a weekend shopping trip. I cover the inside and outside with black acrylic paint. (It takes several coats to mask the garish color.) A piece of sandpaper buffs out the paint lines left by the stiff nylon brush. A line of painted silver hieroglyphs—cribbed from a book of mythology in the school library—decorates the rim of bowl. I work on it covertly for several nights, consecrate it in a midnight ritual, then hide it behind my bed.

After a couple of weeks of practicing with the bowl, I dare to show it to my (older, cooler) best friend when she stays over at my house. “I didn’t think it would be plastic,” she says, hefting it with disdain. I’m crushed. I don’t know how to tell her that plastic bowls were all they had at the dollar store, that Mom would notice if I took the good ones out of the pantry. I feel desperate and sad. I’m going to have to wait to be a real Witch after all.

What is it about plastic that clashes with magick, or our ideas of what magick is? Is it because it’s manufactured by humans? Is it because it’s cheap and ugly? Is it because the materials didn’t exist a century ago? All of this is arbitrary, of course—glass was newfangled at some point in history, and so was leather, and so was the carving of wood and stone. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and plenty of folks draw it at plastic. We shouldn’t need brass and silk and bone and beeswax to legitimize our work…but hey. Sometimes it helps.

Since my store’s customers tend to dislike plastic as much as I do, I try to avoid purchasing it. When someone asks, “What is this made of?” I hate answering, “Plastic.” I feel tawdry typing out euphemisms like “laminate,” “resin,” or “polysatin.” Just this week, I dumped a supplier because they replaced their glass scrying mirrors with “non-breakable black acrylic.” Nuh-uh. I’m not showing up to a Pagan event with a stack of plastic scrying mirrors. I just don’t think I’m ready to relive that pain.

There’s a quote on my desktop from Terence McKenna: “Matter is not lacking in magic, matter is magic.” (But surely he doesn’t mean all matter, right?) Buddhists meditate on cow patties and corpses—I think Pagans ought to meditate on plastic. I know that if I could just shrink down to the molecular level, I’d see all the hydrogens and carbons spinning in their little places and be awed by their beauty. I know that it’s just a failure of perspective. But when I look at a plastic altar tool, all I see is something devoid of weight and texture—something that doesn’t stir a bit of magickal inspiration, or ancestral memory, or sense of stewardship.

I whine to my magickal partner about the new plastic mirrors. He reminds me that the mirrors are made from petrochemicals and could be the remains of long-dead dinosaurs. Good point. There is nothing new under the sun—just newer, more permanent ways of lining up atoms.

History suggests that Pagans will one day transcend our collective aversion to plastic. (We’ll probably have to—we’re making megatons of it and the stuff isn’t going anywhere soon.) You’ll be hosting a guided meditation on the sacred geometry of polycarbonate. I’ll roll into the parking lot, a plastic Brigid bouncing benevolently on my dashboard. We’ll wield plastic wands with bionic arms because all the trees will be gone but everything’s groovy because of science. And if all the world falls apart after that…well, it’s not a total loss. At least the alien anthropologists who dig us up will find plenty of Pagan artifacts for their museums.

About the Author

Michelle Gruben is a Tarot nerd, rogue faery, and owner of the online shop Grove and Grotto. She lives in Dallas with just one cat.

This article originally appeared in the Council of Magickal Arts, The Accord (Spring 2017 edition).

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