Katherine May’s essay collection Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age offers similar meditative pleasures as her previous collection, Wintering—though you don’t need to have read Wintering to enjoy Enchantment. “When I want to describe how I feel right now, the word I reach for the most is discombobulated,” she writes, going on to chart the losses, burnout and anxieties of the COVID-19 pandemic, and of this era. “Time has looped and gathered, and I sometimes worry that I could skip through decades like this, standing in my bathroom, until I am suddenly old.”
In the opening essay, May describes feeling like she had lost some fundamental part of being alive, some elemental human feeling—like she had become disconnected from meaning. Without this missing piece, “the world feels like tap water left overnight, flat and chemical, devoid of life,” she writes. She began to wonder if she could find a solution in enchantment, which she defines as “small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory.” So she set out to find and record such moments, beginning with the places where she found beauty as a child, such as the farmland outside her grandparents’ English village.
Enchantment’s essays are arranged into four sections—Earth, Water, Fire and Air—detailing May’s investigations into each realm. For example, a visit to an ancient healing well goes in the Water section. “There are steps down to a pool of dark water about a foot deep, the heart-shaped petals of the [briar] rose floating on its surface,” she writes about this hidden well. As in the book’s other essays, May doesn’t gloss over her feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy. “It has the air of a place that has waited patiently for a long time for someone to come along and worship, and now it has me standing awkwardly before it, at a loss. It crackles with magic, but I have no template for how to behave around it, no tradition or culture that prepared me for this.”
May details the small disappointments and larger surprises she encountered on her journey, and her sentences, plain yet gorgeous, cast a spell. The essay “Hierophany” opens simply, “Just after lunchtime when I was a child, my grandmother would sit down to eat an orange, and peace would fall over the house.” Enchantment mixes nature writing and bits of history, theology and literature with memoir—scenes from May’s childhood, her failures at meditation, ordinary marital discontents—to form a lucid, restful collection. Though May’s search for enchantment seems perhaps better suited to the English landscape, with its fairy tale-like ancient sites and villages, than to our American suburban sprawl, Enchantment offers a lovely, meditative way to begin another tumultuous year.