Thea, my aunt, had started practicing Reiki earlier this year and, after receiving her second certificate, wanted to have a session with me. I was skeptical but open to the idea. I’m not one to believe in something without first experiencing it, so I welcomed this new and strange healing technique—and I knew I could benefit from some mental restoration—though I admit I didn’t expect much. The positioning across from Thea felt daunting. A thirty-minute session sounded like eternity.
I am someone who wants so badly to believe in magic, in another realm, in some greater hidden force that would reveal itself at some point in my life. Who was my hypothetical Hagrid? Who was searching for me far and wide so that they could deliver my letter of acceptance into the school of witchcraft and wizardry? Where was my Gandalf to whisk me away for a dangerous and fantastical adventure? How many antique shops would I have to scour to find the fated wardrobe that might lead me into another realm? And perhaps most importantly, when did I substitute my desperate desire to believe in magic with the disheartening belief that such wonderment and fantasy could only lie within the pages of the hundreds of books piling up on my shelves, behind flatscreen televisions, on center stage, between a storyteller’s lips, rooted in a child’s mind… anywhere but real life? When did that happen? And why?
I wanted magic, I wanted fantasy, even if it meant redefining it for myself in this world. Especially if it meant redefining it for myself in this world.
As Thea twisted shut the blinds at the bedroom window and closed the door to remove any semblance of daylight or outside disturbances from sneaking in, I wondered if I had been so enchanted by those figurative worlds that I filtered out the beauty in my own.
I turned on the night light by the door. There’s something comforting about a subtle yellow glow.
We had set up Yiayia, Thea’s mother and my grandmother, in the living room of my apartment, making her comfortable on the couch by fluffing the red accent pillows, topping off her sparkling water glass, and turning on the big screen television. I had asked what she wanted to watch and we quickly browsed through new movies on HBO.
“Oh, I haven’t seen that one yet,” she said in her thick Cypriot accent, deep and raspy from years of smoking.
Thea smiled crookedly when she saw that the movie title was The Boy Next Door—the new J. Lo thriller.
“Mmm! This movie has some hot sex scenes! I think you’ll like it, Mom. There’s great chemistry and suspense. We’ll just be thirty minutes anyhow.”
And so we started the sexy thriller for Yiayia, and went to the bedroom as the opening credits played across the screen. I bit at my lips.
After we had brought in and set up the chairs in the bedroom, after the lights had been turned off and the blinds had been twisted closed, Thea searched for a meditative playlist on her smartphone. I picked at my fingernails.
I tried to think of something that would help me relax and get into the zone. But that’s the hitch with meditation and me—I think too much. I thought about not thinking. I thought about how to not think, or what to think about to keep me from thinking about the dishes piling up in the sink from the lunch I had just hosted with my relatives, or that I was leaving for a two-week trip to China in less than a month, or what else I could think about for the next thirty minutes while this Reiki session was going on. I thought about how this experience could make or break my magical desires, how I was nervous to try it but even more nervous not to.
So I played devil’s advocate with my own thoughts and tried to recall the last place I had felt calm, zen. That seemed like a good place to start.
* * *
I thought about the Tea House at Harbin Hot Springs and how I went on a retreat there in August 2015. I had gone with my boyfriend’s sister, Simone, and their mom, Evelina, for a relaxing weekend getaway. I remember the heat; it had been the hottest month of the year. I remember the trees, the rolling hills of green, the deer walking by as I sipped hot tea in the mornings, the scent of dew and moss and dirt, the golden sunrises and fiery sunsets.
The air had smelled clean, fresh, full of life. The nights were cool and I remember the soft breeze that wafted through my hair on the second night. My hair had been damp from the shower I had taken after a body scrub treatment. I could still feel the grit on my scalp, but at least it smelled like jasmine. I felt light and airy—like the wind was my guide, telling me that all the magic I needed was right in front of me. On that second night, I believed that that was true.
I wish I could stay in the moments where I felt like I was more than the sum of my parts.
I wish I could remember those days when I used to question what was real.
I wish I could see the glimmer of fantasy in the stark actuality I’ve become accustomed to, and intertwine the theoretical vines of enchantment into the inevitable inertia that comes with truth and routine and comfort.
* * *
A pan flute lured me onto the chair. Thea sat across from me, the playlist she had found reminded me of most yoga classes I had taken over the years.
We sat a few inches apart with our feet on the carpet, each of our hands open upward on each knee, our backs tall. Before we started, she had told me what I was in for. My toes curled into the carpet.
“Reiki is a technique that promotes healing and reduces stress. The practitioner can utilize touch, but it’s not necessary in order to give and receive chi. Some people don’t like to be touched, and that’s okay, because they can still benefit from the energy and can still be affected. Yiayia doesn’t want me to do a session with her yet, but I can do one from across the room, from another city, from another area than the one she’s in. That’s the amazing thing about energy—you don’t have to be in close proximity for it to work.”
I wondered if Thea ever worked on Yiayia without her knowing, and if so, if Yiayia ever felt anything. Perhaps this is one of those it’s-the-thought-that-counts situations. I wondered if Yiayia’s hesitancy would shut down the potential energy, and I wondered if it’s right to practice something on someone who doesn’t want it. I was hearing and listening to Thea, but at the same time, I was someplace else.
I was in the kitchen with the dishes in the sink.
I was in my cabin at Harbin Hot Springs, drinking Moroccan Mint tea on the porch.
I was in my bedroom with Thea, looking at the bed from the left corner of my eye, and thinking of my boyfriend who was away on a business trip for the weekend.
I was here. I was there. I was in Narnia. I wished I knew where I was.
She went on. “When you break down the word, ‘Reiki’ means ‘guided energy.’ ‘Rei’ signifies a higher power and ‘Ki’ means energy. The practice focuses on the giving and receiving of the Chi to promote natural healing and emotional well-being. I could do a session for more than an hour on someone and not feel tired or drained, because I’m not giving my energy away—rather, there is an exchange of energy between the teacher and the recipient. I give to you, you give to me. We feed each other.”
Quick as a flash, I imagined Thea and I feeding each other grapes, and my lips tightened. I gave myself an inward side-eye. The lack of focus wasn’t me not taking this experience seriously so much as that I had just realized I am not good at focusing on anything.
I found myself grape-less and back in my room.
“There will be moments where you might not feel anything, and other moments where you’ll feel a sense of relief or warmth, maybe even pain. You’ll feel my hands get hot as the session goes on. This is the energy flowing through me and being released into you. I’ll focus on certain areas as I get a better sense of what your body is telling me it needs. During the session and after, you might not feel something right away. Or you might feel immediate relief and peacefulness. It’s not uncommon to cry. This is a mind-body-soul experience—let yourself feel it.”
I wanted to feel relieved, I wanted to feel something so I could be more than automatically supportive. I wanted this to be real, because I needed it to be—but I was still under the belief that Reiki was one of those between-the-pages-behind-the-screen type of things. So when I said I was open to the experience, I wasn’t lying, but maybe ‘open’ isn’t the right word. Maybe ‘hopeful’ hits the mark a little better.
Paint me a picture of a world that moves within the canvas and moves the soul.
Sculpt me a figure that can have life breathed into it so that its purpose goes beyond existing for show.
Write me a story where the ending is the beginning and each time I read it the plot changes and the world evolves and I cry because I’m happy and I cry because I’m sad and then it starts over because the story doesn’t really ever end.
* * *
Thea is the mother of two autistic boys. Her marriage is falling apart. The life she’s living is made up of images and heartbreak that she wouldn’t have chosen to endure. She’s had three men in her life, two of which she grew to love and understand and one that couldn’t keep up. She’s searched for years to recreate herself and here she is in front of me, middle-aged and happy with the shards that life dealt her. Once she had accepted her life, she could start living it—on her own terms. No husband dragging her down, no disorders—her own and other people’s—driving her crazier. Just a woman following her bliss and wanting to share it with the world.
She told me that she wants to be a Reiki practitioner part-time. She wants to go to hospitals, treatment facilities, and outpatient centers to heal and help people. Sit with them, talk with them, share her energy with them as she was sharing it with me.
I was back in my room and struggled to keep my right eyelid from flapping open.
Thea worked at a car dealership when she was younger. She’d call out to order parts and the guy on the other end of the line was a flirt. She had called so much that they developed a rapport; they got to know each other. He had told her he was German and she pictured a tall buff blonde. He had pictured her as a buxom redhead. They were connected by more than just a phone line and their assumptions of what the other looked like—there was a chemistry that eventually led them to arrange their own blind date. There he was, tall and lanky with dark brown hair and a goofy grin. There she was, curvy and sassy and not a red hair in sight. Their expectations may have gone unfulfilled but their emotional ties held strong. Though they had little in common, sometimes that’s the best way to begin.
Fall in love.
She told me they used to get high together and have mind-blowing sex.
A few years later, they had married. Not long after that, their first son was born. A few years after that, the doctors said he had autism.
Within two years their second son was born.
Fall in love.
Years later, they stopped cracking jokes. They grew apart instead of together. He lost his job and took up drinking. She searched for a path that gave her strength.
Fall in love, fall apart. Exist together, exist apart.
And so the story goes.
* * *
In line with the music, we began the same way massages and yoga classes do.
“Clear your mind, let go of all the stress that’s been clouding your headspace. This is a safe space. Be present, be here now. Breathe in deeply through your nose, and out slowly through your mouth. Let go, open your heart. Let the calm wash over you, listen to your breathing.”
Don’t think. Let go. But don’t think about letting go.
Breathe. In through the nose and out through the mouth. But don’t think about it.
Push away the stress. Be present. But don’t remember what you’re pushing away in order to be present.
I couldn’t stop thinking, so instead of trying, I focused on controlling my thinking.
I focused on the sound of Thea’s voice, and how it sounded like the kind of voice I’d want to read me bedtime stories. Relaxing, slow, comforting.
I thought about the lunch I just hosted, and how well it went, and that despite my parents’ recent divorce, my mom was finally comfortable around her in-laws again. And I felt good about bringing us together like old times.
My mind wandered back to the dishes in the sink and I could hear the Jennifer Lopez movie playing in the other room. I wondered if Yiayia had gotten to the steamy sex scene yet.
Was I meditating yet? Was I zen? Even if it didn’t do anything, I wanted to respect Thea’s intentions. Even if it didn’t do anything, I wanted to be open to the idea that it could.
Sometimes, there was a touch—light at first, then a slight pressure.
I felt the heat in Thea’s hands that she had told me I might feel. At times, my skin burned in that way that was too hot but simultaneously felt good, like placing a heating pad on an uneasy stomach.
I felt my skepticism slipping away and I tried to cling onto it for comfort’s sake. What could explain the heat? Some people run hot. Had she rubbed her hands together beforehand? No, I would have heard. Maybe it was warm in the apartment, though I found it pretty neutral. Maybe it was the power of suggestion. But I was still skeptical—the power of suggestion doesn’t work if the person is skeptical. Was I skeptical though, or did I just want to be?
Thea made her way around me. My eyes were closed but I could sense when she was beside me and then behind me. I could hear her breathing and it reminded me to keep breathing.
She worked slowly and stayed in certain areas for longer, like she said she would if my body told her what it needed and where it needed it. She lingered by my knees and thighs that were incessantly tired and sore from kung fu training. She stayed by my shoulders, where I carry most of my tension when stressed. I felt warm and light, as though each press drew in an ache and then released it. As she moved, it became easier to focus.
When she had made her way to the crown of my head, I could no longer deny that something felt off. My skepticism had been fading, and I had assumed the warmth and lightness I felt throughout the session was because I was focusing so hard on focusing. But as Thea placed her hands on the top of my head, I fought to control what felt like a ripple making its way up. I jolted, and I wondered if Thea felt it, sensed it.
The longer she held her palms on my head, the more I felt the energy, if that was what it was. A surge crawled up my spine, like a spasm, as her hands made their way to cup my ears, her fingers resting at my temples. I felt the heat and my back arched and confusion set in. I felt like some sort of force was inside of me, writhing in my body, struggling to get free. In the dark bedroom, I felt a rush, a release. A relief. I was simultaneously dismayed and a little embarrassed. Rather than let myself accept that I had had a physical reaction to this Reiki session, I inwardly wracked my mind for excuses. Maybe it was the heat that triggered the jolt. Perhaps it was the way I arched my back while sitting in the chair. Or could it be that I had opened myself to the experience of magic? That I had a figurative door inside of me that I let be opened by someone else in order to show me that a world of wonder can exist?
Hypothetical Hagrid, was that you?
I don’t know what really happened in that session. Thea said she felt the most energy around my legs, neck, and head—the areas where I had felt the most warmth. She commented on the two jolts, and I told her that I hadn’t been able to hold them back. It was like something inside of me had been released and needed help to come out. She had said that was normal, and seemed pleased with herself and the session. I was happy that she was happy, and I did feel relieved that maybe Reiki wasn’t such a sham. Maybe it was real. Maybe what’s more of a joke is what the mind leads us to believe is true: that magic can’t be true, that fantasy can’t exist in the real world, that once we grow up there is no looking back because we’ve experienced hell and heartbreak, and that magic can’t exist if mutiny does.
After Thea and Yiayia left, I thought about the Tea House as I hand-washed the dishes. The hot water burned my hands in a way that wasn’t comforting, and I found myself missing the warmth of Thea’s touch.
As Evelina and Simone cat-napped on the queen-sized bed they had shared, I rested on the sleep mat on the floor and stared out the French-style doors before me, out of the cut-glass squares that separated me from the trees and the heat.
There I was, miles away from a market, a gas station, a Thai restaurant. Technology was not allowed on the resort, and I was having social media withdrawals. I wanted to take pictures of this place; I wanted to share it with others so they could see that the world was made up of so much more than 9-to-5 workdays and social obligations, fender benders, and hearing your neighbors fight from the apartment down the hall. There is a bliss that exists in the world we live in, even if we don’t always see it. A world we may have convinced ourselves into thinking exists only within the pages of the hundreds of books piling up on shelves, behind flatscreen televisions, on the proscenium stage, between a storyteller’s lips, rooted in a child’s mind… anywhere but real life.
I felt comfortable there on my mat on the floor, my wet hair curling from the summer heat. When the mother and daughter awoke, we decided to use what energy we had left to hike the Tea House Trail we had been hearing about. I expected a tiny hut, reminiscent from the secret garden in Howl’s Moving Castle. While the book doesn’t have that scene in it, the movie does: Howl took Sophie there, and she was in awe of the sparkling blue lakes and rolling green hills filled with wildflowers. The bright, clear sky.
At one point in the movie, when they were in the secret garden, there was an air-bombing attack. The perfect place had been discovered, ruined. The magic had dissipated, the safety gone. I thought about how this scene wasn’t in the book, and how enchanting the idea of wonderment can be, and how quickly it can be taken away. Does the scene exist between the lines? Did it get written into the movie because people respond to ideals, and because tainting a dream world is a surefire way to make a statement?
We walked up a rough trail, unsure of which direction the Tea House was in. The trail twisted up a steep hill, and we had to step over knotted tree roots and push aside low-hanging branches to make our way through. I remember thinking: this is how the magical journey in books and movies begins. This was an adventure to me. I was somewhere new, somewhere beautiful, somewhere mysterious.
I didn’t need a Hagrid or a Gandalf or an antique wardrobe. I had this trail and the ever-elusive Tea House pulling me forward. The air was thick with heat and the three of us wondered if we had already passed it.
Just a bit further, I said. We had to be close. I needed us to be close.
And there it was, nestled near the top of the hill behind a tangle of trees. You had to be looking for it in order to find it, just like in the books.
It was small like I had imagined, but that characteristic was the end of what I had predicted this place would be.
At the edge of a precipice, there stood a wooden structure amidst what appeared to be interminable green, endless nature, everlasting magic. I was in awe of the Tea House, with its panoramic windows and pentagonal walls. I wondered at what it would bring me once I entered.
Strings of colorful prayer flags hung from handmade garlands across the cone-shaped vaulted ceiling. We stepped over a number of crates filled with journals. These journals had made a home for messages, poems, and written entries spanning from 20 years ago to earlier that day. Crayons and pens were scattered throughout the cracked and creaking floorboards. We were lucky enough to be the only ones in there at that moment.
Because technology was not allowed on the retreat, I didn’t have my phone or a camera. I hadn’t even brought my own journal. I only have mental snapshots and the photos which others have posted online to remember the Tea House by. My mind had felt clear for the first time in a long time and I told myself that, one day, I would come back to the Tea House. I would come back to visit this place, like it was an old friend that would always have a place for me when I needed it. I would come back with a journal, and maybe a camera if I felt rebellious enough to break the retreat’s rules. I planned to come back, not knowing then that I never would, I never could.
The Tea House burned down last summer in the Valley fire that spread over 76,000 acres in Central California. One month after I had been there and sat in the Tea House, it was gone. Removed from society. It burned and with it, so did my zen place. The one place I could think of during my Reiki session had gone up in flames. My ideal had been tainted like the secret garden in Howl’s Moving Castle, the one that exists only in the movie. Is it better to keep something so perfect protected by writing it out and having it never exist, or to experience its magic while it does, even if it doesn’t last?
We stayed in the Tea House for half an hour or so. I didn’t know for sure without a watch or my phone, and I have yet to learn how to tell time by the position of the sun.
I wrote in one of the journals. I can’t recall now what I said.
* * *
What I wanted most from my Reiki session with Thea was for it to show me something that would last, an experience I could reference in the future in times when I might feel doubtful of magic, of something greater. When I might need reminding that, even if the moment or the magic doesn’t last, it existed at one point.
If I couldn’t have a letter given to me by a hypothetical Hagrid, an adventure guided by a Gandalf, a realm introduced to me by way of an antique piece of furniture, I wanted what I could have in this world. The world where I had to find magic and fantasy and wonderment for myself.
If Sophie couldn’t have her secret garden, and if I could never get back the Tea House, I wanted the memory of what they represented while they were still whole, still a safe place, still alive and thriving and beautiful in all their hypothetical glory.
Give me magic.
Give me wonderment.
Give me the world in a snow globe and watch me shake the stars into suburbia.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicoleta Leontiades is an aspiring author who still makes wishes on shooting stars, dandelions, and fallen eyelashes. She is a magic-seeking, day-and-night-dreaming, donut-loving, book-hoarding culinary enthusiast. Nicoleta works as an Instructional Writer for an online compliance training company and is passionate about educating others on student and employee rights.