A full shelf of the library could be devoted to memoirs about breaking from religious beliefs. Rarer are the memoirs about a slow-burning spiritual awakening and its integration into the author’s life. Such is Letting Magic In: A Memoir of Becoming by Maia Toll.
Letting Magic In is a coming-of-age story about Toll’s connection to the Earth, her intuition and the unseen realm that may surround us all. “I wanted to show the slow ebb and flow of moving from one place to the other, questioning and doubting, stepping forward and back and forward and back,” Toll, an Asheville resident of nine years, tells Xpress.
The memoir begins with Toll in Brooklyn in the late 1990s, working as a teacher at a private school, and her eventual move upstate to Beacon and then Cold Spring, N.Y. It concludes with the author uprooting her life, selling her house and antiques, and relocating to Ireland in 2003 to study under an herbalist and self-described witch. She relied on the eight journals she wrote during the period her memoir covers.
“What exactly is magic?” Toll writes in the introduction. After further deliberation on the page, the author concludes that magic “points to a gnawing craving for a connection that includes, but also stretches beyond, the human realm.”
Letting Magic In is one of several books written by Toll, and it’s the first to turn so personal.
Authorship came as a pleasant surprise for Toll, who tells Xpress she had “long since given up the dream of being an author.” (She also co-owns Herbiary, a shop in downtown Asheville, with her partner, Andrew Celwyn.) “By the time you hit your 40s, you figure it’s not going to happen,” she says of publishing books.
Toll began writing what eventually became Letting Magic In in 2016 at a writing retreat. But a different book sold to a publishing house first: In 2018, she published a guide called The Illustrated Herbiary: Guidance and Rituals from 36 Bewitching Botanicals, which is illustrated by Kate O’Hara.
Subsequent books address rituals with crystals, animals, witchcraft, magic and dream interpretation. Toll also created numerous other merchandise: jigsaw puzzles, oracle card decks, guided journals and a wall calendar inspired by her work.
Toll continued working on a memoir amid the success of her other books. She reread her journals, and “a wall full of sticky notes with scenes that I thought were important” offered guidance, she says. She secured a book deal in 2022.
A spiritual quest
Toll was raised in a Jewish family but came to identify as an atheist. Some of her skepticism of organized religion arose at a family seder when a guest referenced the phrase “never again” in relation to the Holocaust. Vowing that genocide would never again occur did not sit right with Toll, when at the time, America was involved in a war in Kosovo.
She also felt unsatisfied by the recitation of traditional prayers (the Mourner’s Kaddish) after the death of loved ones. Prayer seemed to console others during their grief, but she looked at what she felt was a bigger picture. She experienced loss akin to seasons changing in the natural world surrounding her, and she identified this experience as spiritual.
“I think that we are all on a spiritual quest,” Toll explains to Xpress. “Some of us do it in a more extroverted, outward way. And some of us are doing it in a more inward way. But we’re all wondering why the hell we’re here. What’s our purpose beyond the daily doings of life?” That fundamental question, she says, “is part of the human psyche.”
Toll sought to write her memoir in such a way that readers would identify with her journey. And as a relatable protagonist, she had to demonstrate how her spiritual quest played out in real life.
Letting Magic In encapsulates experiences that will be familiar to many young women: navigating workplace cliques, forging deep friendships, dating and breaking up with men and women, buying and selling her first home, marathon Buffy viewings. One experience became imbued with more political meaning after she penned the memoir: an abortion she had during her 20s.
Toll wants readers to understand how the decision affected her both physically and psychologically. But ending an unwanted pregnancy was “a component in the spiritual journey,” too, she explains.
The abortion also reframed how she experienced her body within the grander scale of life’s seasons, and it also empowered a reliance on her intuition to guide important life choices. She writes of the abortion, “There is something sacred in knowing your own rhythms, understanding which seasons are for creation and which for letting go, and in allowing the necessary dieback that will, after a fallow time, produce healthier life.”
Toll says including her abortion in her memoir was important, especially once she realized the book would be published (June 2023) after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (June 2022). She wanted to show how terminating that pregnancy enabled her to move to Ireland and eventually pursue her writing career.
“On a purely practical level … if I had a baby … I would have lived an entirely different life,” she says.
‘The mundane and the mystic’
Her arc in Letting Magic In, Toll says, is learning to “hold both spaces, the mundane and the mystic, simultaneously.” Recognizing that both of these elements are essential to life is essential for balance.
During her own spiritual journey in Letting the Magic In, she learns to ask questions and be open to answers beyond scientifically proven facts, but also not to lean too far into the mystical interpretation of life. For example, one amusing scene in the book has Toll staring at a candle and half-seriously trying to light its wick using only her mind. (Spoiler alert: She couldn’t.)
Without experiencing any mysticism in life, Toll believes humans develop a void that needs to be filled. “That emptiness can get filled with things that are less fulfilling,” she says. “Ultimately, I think if you live with that emptiness for too long, we start to call that depression.”
So, the mundane and the mystic — together — is her answer. “One is not more real than the other,” she says. “But I don’t think you can have one without the other.”