In conversation with Maia Toll
Author of Letting Magic In
From Maia Toll, the best-selling author of the Wild Wisdom series and The Night School comes the enchanted story of her own magical awakening, a journey from Brooklyn to Ireland that will inspire readers to uncover their own inner magic.
Toll shares the story of her journey to becoming what Forbes called “a real-life Professor Sprout from Harry Potter.” From her early years as a seeker yearning for a life filled with magic, to her apprenticeship in Ireland with an acclaimed herbalist and healer, Toll’s colorful journey inspires readers to embrace the extraordinary that is often overlooked in daily life.
In the following Q&A, Toll shares secrets for living a magical life.
Letting Magic In is your first memoir. What inspired you to write it?
At thirty-three, I made a very abrupt change: I sold my house, quit my teaching job, and trekked off to Ireland to study with an herbalist. And this rather impetuous sequence of decisions became the generative experience that informed everything that came after. I opened an herb shop (then two more!), I taught university-level botanical medicine classes, landed my first book deal, and even met my husband.
I wrote Letting Magic In to share my experience with others. I've always been fascinated by the idea that we can change ourselves – shed our skins and become someone new. And I wanted to leave a breadcrumb trail for those who feel disgruntled or out of step with the culture that surrounds them. Although the journey looks different for each of us, there are common markers that guide us all.
When I initially wrote the book, I thought I would focus on my time in Ireland. But when I sat down to write about that very magical year, I found that none of it made sense–that I, as the protagonist, didn’t make sense–without giving the reader an understanding of the years that came before. Ireland, it turns out, was the finale, not the starting point. It turned out that the real story was the slow work of transforming how I viewed and interacted with the world. And this experience allowed me to become the kind of person who would take a chance on spending a year studying with an herbalist on the Emerald Isle.
In Letting Magic In, I explore these changes. I delve into how I became the person I never intended to be but, perhaps, always was. And I hope this story gives readers both permission and a path into their own inner-knowing, so they can discover missing pieces of themselves.
In the book, you talk about body knowledge or somatic knowing. How do our bodies communicate essential messages to us?
In our modern American culture, we’ve bought into the idea that knowledge happens only in our heads. We can blame Descartes: I think, therefore I am. But how our bodies can discern the world around us is truly amazing. The trick is to convert this subtle wisdom into usable information. Of course, it would be wonderful if we had a handbook that would help us interpret the body's messages, but because we all understand sensations differently, learning how to decipher the body is different for every person.
I suggest that people begin just by noticing - that’s the trailhead for this type of work. Check in with yourself three times a day, observing mental, emotional, and bodily sensations. Also, note what's going on in your life and the world around you. After a few weeks, you'll start to notice your own patterns: perhaps you get a headache when a storm is coming in, or maybe your fingers twitch before you get into an argument with your partner. You'll start to catalog what sensations correlate with various thought patterns, like if you get a belly ache when you think about an event from your past. The body is often a more reliable source of wisdom than the mind, which can get caught up in anxiety or hung up on trying to be logical. Many of the answers we need fall outside the realms of strict rationality.
In your book, you claim that intuition is like a muscle. How can we build it?
You can build your intuition by going through the body instead of the mind. First, lean on the internal check-ins I mentioned to help you observe the information you notice. Your intuition is always there, but training yourself to recognize AND pay attention to it is the most challenging part!
If working through the body's sensations is difficult, also pay attention to the stories your mind tells itself when it's relaxed. For example:
When teaching plant medicine, instead of telling my students the purpose of each plant, I would instruct them to learn from the plants directly. I'd say to them, 'Go out and sit with a plant. Really look at it: where is it growing? What is it growing next to? How do you feel sitting with it? What colors or patterns are you seeing? Are you hearing anything?’
After this exercise, they would come back with all sorts of information. Some people would even feel like the plant spoke to them, while others would have a vision or daydream that helped them understand the plant better.
But without fail, some folks came back stumped. They would tell me that they didn't learn anything. So I always focused first on the people who came back with nothing.
“So what were you doing out there for the last 20 minutes?” I would ask.
“Nothing.” They would say. “Just thinking.”
“What were you thinking about?” I’d ask.
And this is where it would get good. They were always thinking about something related to the plant… they just didn't know it.
My favorite "nothing happened" story involves a guy in his early thirties who worked at a pharmaceutical company. When he came in from the garden, he told me he'd spent the 20 minutes sitting with the plant just thinking. So, I asked my usual question: what were you thinking about? He told a story about racing bikes with his brother on a long, steep hill. He'd flipped his bike, torn up his knees, and had bits of gravel stuck in his skin.
He was shocked to learn that the plant he’d been sitting with was applied topically to draw things out of the skin and was also used for cuts and scrapes.
We are all continuously absorbing information from the world around us, which our brain interprets in ways we are comfortable with and can understand. But part of building your intuition is determining how you interpret this energetic information personally. If you find it challenging to tune in through your body, try noticing the stories you tell yourself when your mind is relaxed.
Can you become “too in tune?”
Although I don’t think you can be too in tune, you do have to know where your controls are! Like anything else, there are moments when you’ll want to tune in and times when you need to focus on day-to-day tasks. Intuition doesn’t clean the house!
You also must choose your filters. There was a time when I was waking up panicked in the morning, having spent the night dreaming of disasters that were happening all over the globe. When this happened, my partner and I would search the news and inevitably find the school shooting on the other side of the country or a small earthquake that leveled so many homes. I call this being tuned to disaster radio. And it did me, and everyone around me, absolutely no good - so I changed the station!
Can you share a few easily doable, potent ways that just about anyone, regardless of their personal beliefs, can create or strengthen their bond with the natural world?
I love a practice that naturalists use called a "sit spot." It's simple, really: return to the same spot every day. Sit. Breathe. Observe. Be sure to pay attention to both the big picture things and the small stuff—the macro and the micro. Explore how to connect with the world around you. Try having a little dialogue in your head with a dandelion or singing to an oak. Play with what's possible.
That’s it! Hone your powers of observation and connection.
What are some unexpected advantages we might experience by living cyclically?
Nature is cyclical: the Earth orbits the sun, creating seasons. The moon goes through its cycles, making months. The Earth rotates, creating day and night. None of these events happen just once: they repeat, over and over. Our lives also have cycles and seasons, times of growth, and times when we feel fallow. And not only is that okay, it's also necessary for our well-being and mental health.
Over the years, as I've embraced my own seasons, I have discovered that cyclical living offers many unexpected gifts. For one, it gives us a chance to try again. With cyclical living, there is permission to repeat, repeat, and repeat, not because you've got it wrong but because repetition is doing it right. Cyclical living also includes built-in time for rest and rejuvenation. The natural world takes a break every year, reminding us to be like the trees and pause. It also allows us to start again. Like the moon, we begin again, not because we’re failures, but because cyclicality means fresh starts are baked right in. But, perhaps the greatest gift of cyclical living is the growing sense that you are part of a more significant pattern. When you find yourself living in sync with the cycles, when your rhythm matches that of the apple tree and the black bear, you feel connected to a larger community and ecosystem.
You feature several excerpts from your past journals in Letting Magic In. Does writing have a role in helping us to discover who we are in the world?
We discover who we are, not once, but repeatedly. When we journal, we track ourselves over time. As a result, patterns emerge that we might not notice when we are in the trenches of daily life. While flipping through the journals I wrote during the years featured in Letting Magic In, I was fascinated to read through my past entries. I could see myself experimenting with different ways of thinking, trying to figure out what was most comfortable for me.
Now, I sometimes use writing to chat with myself. If I feel lost or confused or need to understand my emotions better, I'll write a question at the top of a blank page. Sometimes I'll set a timer and free-write for ten minutes. It’s remarkable how often I find an answer in that free flow. Other times, I’ll pretend someone else is asking me the question and that I know the answer. Then, I'll write the reply like an advice columnist responding to a stranger's question.
What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of being a successful author, and do you have any advice for those seeking to become first-time authors in magical non-fiction and the like?
When I started getting published, one of my goals was to meet other authors. Authors tend to be creative, thoughtful, widely read, and self-motivated, which is how I prefer my humans. I have two pods of authors I gather with regularly. Those get-togethers are essential for my sanity, perspective, and general joie de vivre. Finding my people is one of the most significant rewards of this career path.
Just like any job, there are a myriad of challenges. Most of them are small obstacles, easily overcome. I try to get creative with the more considerable hurdles. Currently, I'm chewing on the way books are categorized. Connecting with the natural world and the seasonal living it inspires and exploring the mystical side of life are essential elements for being a whole human.
This way of looking at life nurtures creativity and helps you understand how to get through rough patches. It's much more universal than niche categories like "occult," which I am often shelved, suggest. But which type should we highlight? Self-help? Nature writing? Spirituality?
It is an ongoing frustration that my books are shelved in a way that may keep people who would enjoy and benefit from them from finding them. And, truthfully, no matter what my opinion is, once the bookstores receive the books, they shelve them wherever they want, so my ruminations are rather pointless.
For first-time authors, my number one piece of advice is to write. Do the work, don't just think about doing it. Writing, like almost everything else in life, is a practice. The only way to get proficient is to put pen to paper. Once you've moved beyond thinking about writing to actually writing, remember that you're writing for someone else to read. Who is your reader, and what's beneficial for them? What do you want them to know, feel, and do? Everything from subject matter to individual sentence structure should be crafted with the reader in mind.
How can we find magic in our daily lives?
Start by adding small rituals that help you find the natural rhythms. For example, make a point to watch the sunrise and the sunset. Follow the phases of the moon. Observe the changing seasons. Then take it one step further: tune into these rhythms within your own body. Once you find your flow, take advantage of how the natural energy moves within you. For example, during the waning moon, you might want to follow the moon's model and see what you need to decrease in your life: clutter in your cabinets, weeds in the flower beds, and toxins in your body. Feeling in sync is its own kind of magic, and there's an ease to tapping into nature's energy patterns and letting them support your own.
How can celebrating summer solstice rejuvenate us?
In Latin, the word solstice comes from two words: sol means "sun" and sistere means "to stand still." During the solstice, the sun appears to stand still on the horizon. I also take this as an invitation to stand still, rest, and pause.
Rest rituals are often underrated: a nap, a bath, a walk in the woods. It doesn't have to be fancy. But, at this time of year, when we have done the work of Spring–whether that's getting ourselves or the kids through the school year, planting the garden, doing the big garage clean-out that marks spring cleaning–it's vital for our well-being to pause. You don't have to go on a silent retreat for a week (sometimes getting yourself to something like that is in itself work). Instead, think of small ways to break your usual patterns and add a moment of rest: a silent meal, a morning meditation, an afternoon lie in the sun. Use this moment when the sun is at its furthest reach, when the energy of growing things is stretched and attenuated, to rest and reflect.
What’s one thing you hope readers will take away from Letting Magic In?
I hope that people can begin to recognize the journey that they themselves are on and that that recognition helps them cope with the ups and downs inherent to life. I also hope that readers will reframe their own oddities and idiosyncrasies, so they feel like doorways instead of stumbling blocks.
Maia Toll is the author of Letting Magic In, which releases just after the summer solstice, 2023, and the award-winning Wild Wisdom Series and The Night School. Maia maps new pathways for seeing our lives, inspiring those who encounter her work to live with more purpose, intention, meaning, and, maybe, even more magic.
Maia Toll is the author of The Wild Wisdom series, including The Illustrated Herbiary, and The Night School. Toll apprenticed with a traditional healer in Ireland, spending extensive time studying the growing cycles of plants, the alchemy of medicine making, and the psycho-spiritual aspects of healing—and studied at The University of Michigan and New York University. She is the co-owner of the retail store Herbiary, with locations in Asheville, NC and Philadelphia, PA. You can find her online at maiatoll.com.