In Witchcraft There Are No Spectators: The Millions Interviews Amanda Yates Garcia

In 2017, I published an essay on The Millions called “How a Witch Cured My Writerly Envy” about receiving guidance from a professional witch named Amanda Yates Garcia (aka the Oracle of Los Angeles) in order to rid myself of professional jealousy. Last month, Garcia’s book, Initiated: Memoir of a Witch, was published by Grand Central. Initiated has received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. I spoke with Garcia about her book, her dedication to social justice, and ways interested readers can begin to develop their own magical practice.

The Millions: I’m thrilled to read Initiated. As you know, I’m fascinated by your work as a professional witch and want to learn more about the path you took to get there. Can you talk a bit about the book, especially for potential readers who aren’t familiar with you, your writing, and your work?

Amanda Yates Garcia: The book describes my process of becoming a professional witch, i.e. someone who works as a witch in service of her community and gets paid for her work. Though I’m a hereditary witch and was brought up practicing witchcraft, I didn’t realize that witchcraft could be my profession. My mother dedicated countless hours to serving people in our community, but like many people performing feminized forms of labor, she was rarely paid for her work. In my late teens and early 20s, I turned away from witchcraft and became a devotee of the arts, thinking that they would help me create the life of freedom and beauty I was searching for. But eventually I found myself trapped in jobs I hated, hardly making any money, and I couldn’t see a way out. It was then that I returned to witchcraft as a means of empowering myself to create the life I wanted.

Each of us is initiated into our life’s purpose through the struggles that we face. As we use our ingenuity to make it out of the underworld, we will return to the upper world knowing our gifts. Our lives initiate us. Each initiation teaches us what our healing powers are, what our magical powers are, what gifts we have to offer the world. We attain these gifts through the challenges we face. When we come through those struggles, we have a kind of light within us that can help guide the way for others as well. I don’t believe we should be grateful for the adversity we face. But we can be grateful to ourselves for the strength we find to make it out of the underworld alive.

Initiated is for anyone who feels like there is more to life than submitting to the imperatives of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, more to life than struggling for money at a job that makes them miserable, yearning for the weekend, hungry for meaning and purpose. It’s for anyone who wants to live in an enchanted, numinous world, where the earth is sacred…where our lives are sacred, where justice is possible. So the book is really about how I found my way to do that in spite of the odds. I also occupy a position of privilege in this culture; it’s important to acknowledge the advantages I had: white, cis, able-bodied, middle class, educational privilege. But because of that privilege, I feel even more responsibility to create a world where a life of freedom and beauty is possible for all beings. As we rise to embrace our own power, and join forces with other witches, we will transform our world. Witches are resistors, and as Alice Walker says, “Resistance is the secret of joy.”

TM: That just makes me think a lot about things that you have taught me during our work together and I just really appreciate you sharing them in that way.

AYG: Tell me what you mean.

TM: It’s great to hear that if we have trauma or struggles, we can come through them. And it doesn’t just mean that we don’t have to be broken by those things—it also can mean that we can then know what our superpowers are and use those powers to help others. That really speaks to me.

AYG: Yeah, and I feel like you’ve really done that. You’ve had a lot of struggle and adversity and you’ve been able to come through that. And part of the way you have done that is through a distinct commitment to kindness and a sense of humor about all of it. One might say that your kindness and your sense of humor are your superpowers that you are using to help heal the world by sharing them through your writing.

TM: I love that that might be the case. Thank you.

AYG: “Might be the case.” Another one of your superpowers is clearly your humility.

TM: [Laughs.] Magic and witchcraft are often about connecting with the earth, the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and even astrology. But much of your magical work and public presence are focused on social justice issues. Can you talk about how and why you find witchcraft and social justice to be so compatible?

AYG: This question is very important. We live in an individualistic society so a lot of my clients come to me with feelings of alienation, of disenchantment, of loneliness and longing for a life of purpose and meaning. They are afraid they are going to lose everything. Or that they’ll never find a way to be happy. They are afraid their lives will spin out of their control. So a lot of time when people come to witches they are coming with a deep sense of anxiety.

But the problem is that our individualistic culture tells us that it’s our own personal behaviors or choices that will allow us to solve those problems. When in fact, most of our problems also have a social or political component. If we are feeling like we are going to be trapped in a meaningless job forever, that is not just because we have made bad choices about the jobs that we want. It’s because we live in a society in which 70 percent to 80 percent of the jobs that are available are “bullshit jobs,” as the anthropologist David Graeber would say. And we are not going to be able to solve these problems alone just by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Community is the source of healing, ecosystem is, which means that we can’t just fight for our own rights, we need to fight on behalf of the kids in cages at the border, of immigrant families, of black and indigenous people of color, of people with disabilities, of our elders, of the water, the air, and of the world. That’s what love is, and protecting what we love is what will heal us.

It’s important to remember that in witchcraft there are no spectators. There is no witness in witchcraft. We are all participants. So part of what is really important is that we all become agents and get active. We are all participating in this culture; each of us has a responsibility to change it. The greater our position of privilege, the greater our responsibility to the most vulnerable in our communities. We need to remember that we are not alone. Working together, we can create the world that we want to find.

Witchcraft is not just a practice you do so that you can find the right lover, or sell your house, or get the job you want. All of those things are important for us to attain stability, but witchcraft goes beyond those things. It’s a deeply spiritual practice. It is a practice of connecting to the Spirit of the Earth. The most fundamental and important aspect of witchcraft is celebrating and honoring the sacredness of the earth. Witchcraft is intimacy with the spirit of the world, with the Anima Mundi. And in order to create that intimacy, we have to recognize all the systems of injustice that are damaging the earth right now. And that very much includes white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, kyriarchy, all of that. The oppression of people of color is intimately bound to the destruction of the earth. Simultaneously, the oppression of women, and women’s rights to control their own bodies, the persecution of queer people, and the assault on indigenous people’s right to inhabit their land, all of these things are bound together. We will feel less powerless and alienated the more we work towards justice.

To be a witch is to recognize your power and your agency. Witches carry the banner for the Spirit of the Earth; we are Her emissaries, working always on behalf of the earth itself, and of the life force that is imminent in nature. As witches, it is our privilege and honor to do this work. If we are not doing it, we are missing out on something deeply beautiful. It would be a huge tragedy for us to deny that beauty in our lives. The practice of witchcraft helps us understand what it means to be a part of this gorgeous living planet, this goddess. We have that connection available to us; witchcraft can help us access it, to our great pleasure.

TM: To take the conversation somewhere a little more worldly—I follow you on Facebook and Instagram and your podcast, Strange Magic. I love that you often share suggestions for simple spells and other magical practices and rituals. Do you have any advice for readers who are interested in practicing magic but don’t know where to start?

AYG: Usually the things I talk about on my social media pages are simple practices that can immediately bring us into deeper intimacy with our lives, which is really the purpose of witchcraft.

Step one. It’s important to create space in your life for your spiritual practice. If you don’t have an altar, it’s a signal that you might not have room in your life for your spiritual practice. So beginners might want to set up a space that they can work in, even if it’s just the top of a dresser or shelf. On your altar you want to have something that represents the four elements—fire, earth, air, water. A candle, a stone, some incense or a feather, a cup of water.

Once you have that, start paying attention to whatever is immediately around you. So maybe you would collect a stone from around your house, or some flowers, or seedpods, or water from a nearby river for your altar. Learn the names of the trees on your street, learn their history, their geology. Where does your water come from? Part of witchcraft is becoming intimate with your nearby environment, getting to know it. That’s what intimacy is: knowledge, listening, paying attention, exchange.

Find the sacred places in your neighborhood, in your city, in the nature that surrounds you. Notice where you feel empowered. You don’t have to go outside of your immediate environment. You can start just by getting to know whatever is around you.

In the morning, I sit at my altar and I call in the spirits of the elements. I say their names. I light my candles, I sing them songs, I read them poetry. I honor them. And I sit with myself. I center myself. And I listen. If you do that you will start to get messages, intuitively, that will help guide you and will help lead you to your next steps.

When you begin to practice witchcraft, essentially you are entering into a relationship with your life as a sacred experience. That is all you really need to do and you will find the teachers you need to go from there.

Author image: Siri Kaur

How a Witch Cured My Writerly Envy

I parked my car in front of the house of a modern-day witch called The Oracle of Los Angeles. I climbed the stairs of the giant, rambling, craftsman-style house to knock on her door. Through the glass I could see a bookshelf loaded with tomes by Salman Rushdie and Joy Williams. This, I thought to myself, was one very well-read witch.

I had arrived at the witch’s house because envy—that most unflattering of emotions—had long been gnawing at my innards. Often it made me feel lightheaded, almost dizzy. I wanted what other people had. In particular, I wanted what many of my friends had, friends whose career success came to them with what looked to me like little effort and mountains of luck while I toiled for years on projects that always seemed to bounce off the rim.

The Oracle (whose real name is Amanda Yates Garcia) opened the door, welcoming me by smudging me from head to toe with burning sage and sweetgrass, ringing a bell up and down the length of my body. She ushered me into the dining room, an open space with a long, low altar covered in tarot cards, candles, a set of animal horns coated in silver glitter, crystals, feathers and other objects.

I gave her cash—the spell would cost the equivalent of 50 minutes at a therapist’s office—and offerings for the goddess: chocolate and a small bottle of whiskey, as well as items I would need for our spell. The witch gave me a delicious cup of tea made from rose petals, and then she asked me why I had come. For an hour we talked. I told her the long history of pain that had brought me there, about the envy I had tried to assuage through various healing modalities. I cried. The Oracle seemed unfazed; she told me that everyone who came to her cried.

The Oracle told me we would no longer use the words “envy” or “jealousy” to describe this emotion that had ahold of me. Envy was a demon that inhabited me and so we would call it a demon, and in the course of the spell we would drive the demon out.

Before we began I went to the bathroom. The witch’s toilet reading included a tattered paperback of mythology, Lorrie Moore’s Self Help and a booklet entitled, “Witch-Hunting, Past and Present, and the Fear of the Power of Women.” I was somehow pleased to see that like my bathroom, the witch’s could use a scrub.

When I returned it was time for the spell to begin. The witch stood up and let out a piercing whistle while fervently shaking a gourd rattle, which I first mistook for a maraca. As she spoke, her voice changed, become low and growling and beautifully theatrical: “Hail Guardians, spirits of the East, watchtowers of the mind, Guardians of intelligence, mighty Guardians of the air. We call you now. Witness our rites. Charge our spell. Be here with us.”

While I felt I should probably close my eyes, I kept them open as she called spirits from all four directions. This performance, done so earnestly, was fun, dramatic, almost campy in its showy playfulness. But it was also poignant and powerful. It alone, I thought, was well worth the price of admission.

These spirits of water, wind, air, and fire called from the north, south, east, and west would join us and help create a sacred, protected space where our spellwork could occur. Did I believe this? I felt it didn’t entirely matter—nothing spiritual I’d done before had ever been so delightful. And while I was watching a witch shake a maraca, was the demon twisting my innards, was I wanting what other people had? No way. I was too busy being entranced, enjoying the strange beauty of the experience.

After the spell, we went to a fire pit in the backyard to burn an image of a demon that I had brought with me. There was something tactile and satisfying about seeing the demon go up in flames, then turn to ash that the witch carefully folded up in a tinfoil packet. When I asked if I should leave the ash with her, the witch shuddered. “I don’t want that bad juju around here,” she said. And then she gave me instructions on how to dispose of it far from her home.

When I arrived at my house late that night, my scientist husband emerged from our bedroom to hear how things had gone.

“What’s that on your face?” he asked, worried.

But even as my hand rose to touch my cheek, I knew. “That’s ash from the demon I burned and then dumped at a crossroads where I will never go again,” I said.

“Ah,” he said, nodding. I think part of the reason he loves me is I don’t bore him.

I went into the bathroom and scrubbed the ash away with a wet washcloth.

Was the demon gone forever after that night? At first I was as envious as before, but when I felt the old twinge I had a new tool. “Go with honor, go with love. Be gone, be gone, be gone, I banish you!” I would say to the demon, just as the witch had taught me to do. (This is a technique remarkably similar to cognitive behavioral tools focused on stopping negative rumination.)

But a few months later, when I saw a kind friend’s project featured in a popular magazine, I texted her with genuine enthusiasm and ran out and bought a hard copy for her. The act of kindness and support felt light, good. Soon after that same friend told me she was suffering from depression. Raising small kids and trying to write was weighing on her; it was hard to find time to even shower, much less exercise. And she was envious of another author whose book was published on the same day as her own and was receiving more attention.

It was after my visit to the Oracle that I realized it: there are stories we tell ourselves about success. That it will heal us. That it will make us happy and whole and self-confident and well. That it will protect us from every disaster and heartbreak and illness and tragedy. And we know none of this is true. Logically, making a list of famous authors who have suffered terribly would disavow these lies. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Anne Sexton. Hunter S. Thompson. David Foster Wallace. Success does not heal.

But certainly for a very few of us, it does grant some sort of immortality. It guarantees we will be remembered. There are writers whose work we recognize in a line or two, and our hearts sing with recognition, even joy. And so they live on in us.

Someone told me once that Jay Leno stopped worrying about his legacy after he mentioned Dick Van Dyke to an intern, who thought he was making a gay joke. Going to see the witch has helped me to accept that no matter what I achieve in this lifetime, in many ways I will forever be like the demon whose likeness I printed on paper and burned. As will the people who materialize before me during my bouts of envy. We will die. We will be turned to ash, chips of bone. Someone who loved us will scatter us, maybe not at a crossroads, but certainly in the wind. And like the demon, we will be gone. Nothing left but a smudge of ash on a forehead. Nothing remaining that a washcloth cannot scrub away.

Image Credit: Pexels/Mac Mullins.