About a week ago I went to my local metaphysical shop for some supplies. I needed a mini cauldron for burnables, some charcoal, and a variety of incense. As I was about to check out, the woman who owns the shop asked if there was anything else I was looking for. “Actually, I’m working on my dissertation, and I’m starting to actually write the thing this weekend. I’m looking for something to help me clear my head, focus, help me sustain long periods of time working…” My voice trailed off. Before I had even finished speaking, the woman grabbed her crystal and started scrying.

“Hmmmm. Uhhh-hummm. Oh! I wouldn’t have thought of that,” she muttered (to herself? to her crystal? to some other entity?). “Camphor.” She directed that at me. “It’s potent, so break off just a sliver, don’t use the whole block, drop it right on the charcoal. Do you like Vicks? That’s what it smells like.” She pointed me back toward the wall of burnables, and I thanked her as I picked up a packet.

Used for purification and to increase personal influence & persuasiveness. Dreams, psychic awareness, and divination

Persuasiveness, huh. Sure, I guess all dissertations involve some element of persuasion. But I find it cosmically poetic this is what’s recommended to me, seeing as my field is rhetoric, the ancient technê (art, craft, practice) of persuasion. What clued her in to my entanglement in rhetoric? Maybe there was something palpable in my aura or energy. Or maybe it was just a coincidence, some dumb luck. I smiled. “This is perfect. Thank you!”

While my work fundamentally forwards an understanding of rhetoric that’s closer to the technê of meaning-making rather than just persuasion, perhaps this moment is a reminder to stay connected to something deeper, something ancient, something at the root, the core, the epicenter of what I do and study. Camphor is defined as a volatile substance. Surely the history of rhetoric is volatile, regularly falling in and out of favor, repeatedly needing to define and redefine, justify and clarify itself. The forces of rhetoric are also volatile: a sudden kairotic moment, an ideological clash, an unpredictable (re)action. Perhaps burning camphor is an invocation of the more volatile forces of rhetoric. A material manifestation of meaning-making that, with heat, becomes an essence, something “in the air” to be breathed into the body. A way to channel the energies needed to be an effective rhetor and rhetorician. A way to attune, connect to where rhetoric has been in order to better see or feel where it should go.

Sunday I sat down for day one of diss writing. I burned camphor as I worked. I wrote four pages. I wrote two more pages on Monday. A couple productive days. Maybe it was the camphor. Or simply the power of suggestion. Or maybe I would have been equally productive sans aromatic enhancements at all. Does it matter, though, if it works?