Reading and Re-Reading Harry Potter

 

I still remember the first time I had learned about Harry Potter and the magical world that has been available to us for 20 years this week. I was an undergrad in college, it was summertime, and I was house sitting for a professor who had two kids. She had been raving about the series all spring. She swore that the books weren’t typical “children’s books” and that I should take a look at the first two in the series that were sitting on her bookshelf while I housesat.

Sure enough, she was right (smart woman!). I gobbled up the first two books right away and then borrowed the next one from her as soon as her family was done with it. Then I waited for the fourth, which came out the year I graduated. I read that as soon as I could get my hands on it…and on it went, until I had finished the final book right after it was published in 2007.

Except that reading this series was not just a process of anticipating the next twist and turn in the story. Every book became a tool and a guidepost for navigating the world around as an early adult in the 2000s.

The years between book 4 and 5 (2000-2003) was a period of tremendous change for me personally. I married that summer of 2000 (yes I married young) and moved with my husband to Washington, DC, where I immediately entered into a masters program in art history. Grad school was formative. I was in a feminist program where we were engaged in the practice of feminist art history. Professors introduced both theory and practical tools to support us as we made our own ways as scholars and adults. Though I had already thought of myself as a feminist, those were the years when I came into my own as such.

At the same time as I was becoming more engaged as a feminist, political events were occurring that would affect my life in different ways. After the Gore v. Bush presidential election, I witnessed the sea change that happens in DC when the party in power shifts, as well as the particular challenges that come with a presidential election as contested as that one. That following fall of 2001, I learned just how much it really truly matters who is is in that office. I was in the thick of grad classes and working part time as an intern for the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) when 9/11 happened. By the time that book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) finally came out in 2003, my thesis had been published and the US involved in two wars. By the time I had read the final two books, I had experienced friends going and returning from the Middle East as enlistees during the Iraq War.

JK Rowling certainly did not know when she began her series series that such traumatic events would occur right before she released the series’ darker, second half. Yet she did have the forethought to include themes that would have long lasting resonance for anyone reading it no matter what was going on the world. In those final books were lessons about governance, corruption, war, and journalism that would serve as guideposts for navigating those heady Bush years. Also, of course, as anyone who reads those books knows well, they also provided the fundamental lessons of the importance of friendship, kindness, justice, and love.

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Flash forward a decade later and here we are in another time of deep uncertainty, and I am reading the Harry Potter series again with my husband and 7-yr-old son. We’ve been making our way through the books for the last couple years and now, finally and momentously, we are in the midst of the final book.  One of the great joys of revisiting this series as a parent is getting to experience them again from my kid’s perspective. There’s such joy in watching him puzzle out all the mysteries and discover connections as we propel ever closer to the end. But there’s also something incredibly profound about reading this books here and the now, with a child in 2017, ten years after I finished the series for myself.

Both then and now, the series provides guidance for understanding national and world events. But now I lean on the books from the position of “parent,” scanning each paragraph as I go for a framework to explain themes that are too common in this world, like cruelty, fear, and prejudice. I draw from Rowling’s characterization of Dolores Umbridge to explain how figures within the government can exploit their roles to unjust ends. We talk about the different facets of the “Death Eaters” to understand how people can follow a leader while also being terrified of him. I also lean on the book for models of resistance and social justice – from Dumbledore’s Army to the numerous times Harry, Hermione, and Ron bend the rules to serve a higher purpose.

I have been fascinated, throughout this process, to watch my own son work through the valences of “good” and “bad,” whether we are talking disobeying professors, the treatment of house elves…or how Draco Malfoy struggles with the position he is put in towards the end of the series. I can see him struggling with how thin the line between good and bad can be when a person is under stress. As often as I can, I try to draw examples from real life to talk about how fear and peer pressure can do insidious work, or how, conversely, people often do the less-than-great because the alternative is worse. I am ever so grateful for a series that provides so many opportunities to ponders these eternal unanswerable questions to prepare my son for the complex moral universe.

I am also grateful, this time around, to Rowling’s deep compassion for parents and caregivers – something I was too young (and perhaps too selfish) to recognize when I read them the first time around. Whether the person is a teacher, a godfather, or adult friend, more often than not they want nothing more than to make the world a better place for the next generation. This may be a challenge for them — torn because of their own desires to live with autonomy and freedom. This is a good lesson for all of us. Adulthood is often the balance between the individual and the community, whether that community is family or society as a whole.

So too is the lesson that parenting and mentorship is tough emotional work. This time around I am far more in tune to the emotional vulnerabilities of so many characters, whether they experienced trauma in their lives, or are vulnerable by way of their love of someone else. (see Mrs. Weasely’s arc, or Dumbledore’s). I find myself choking up in the passages where Rowling tenderly, slowly, reveals the depths of Dumbledore’s love. Unlike my son, of course, my sadness if rooted in the knowledge of the trials that await Harry and his friends (and by extension all young adults) when they no longer have adult mentors to lean on.

Finally, like so many others, during that first reading I had been drawn to Hermione’s character especially, and again find myself rooting for her through to the very end. When I first encountered her as an undergrad, her very existence as a major character in the book seemed worth cheering loudly about. Like those who have watched Wonder Woman recently with a sense of nostalgic melancholy, I spent time wishing that I could go back in time and introduce Hermione to own kid-self. As I continued to read that first time around and got closer to the end of the series, I also became frustrated that the books centered on Harry instead of her. I had had enough of boy-centered narratives. This time, I still feel that frustration, but also have such gratitude that Rowling gave my son a model in Harry and Herminone for deep platonic friendship between a boy and the smartest and best of all the girls.

I’m also grateful that she made Hermione not just for girls to emulate but for boys to see as a role model as well, for she remains my favorite. How can she not? Here is a character who persists even as a rising din of “mudblood” follows her throughout the series until the final book where she is tortured – at least in part – for her very existence as such. And besides, there is no Harry without Hermione, the girl who saves him from doom again and again. Rowling may have made Harry the “chosen one” but she also gave us the girl who repeatedly saves the “chosen one” from certain death.

So thank you, JK Rowling, for giving us a story about bravery and compassion, complicated characters who show kids how difficult to always do good and do right, guidance on issues ranging from governance to prejudice to cruelty, and adult characters who give kids a glimpse of the emotional lives of parents and mentors…and a seriously kickass heroine. And of course, Harry Potter, the boy who loved…and lived.

On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics

I have just returned from Charleston, juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while. It was one of those conferences that attracts both academics and people with a wider range of career experience: I met clergy, museum workers and historic interpreters, archivists, librarians, web developers, K-12 teachers, project managers, both fiction and non-fiction writers, community organizers, and probably more I can’t recall just now. We were all there in our shared interest of the ways in which the history of African-Americans is constructed, presented, preserved, and consumed.

Many things stuck out for me in the duration of this conference as extraordinary. We got to hear from Rex Ellis, one of the curators at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his thoughts on the person who left that noose in the exhibit on segregation last month. We got to attend a welcoming talk at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, whose congregation lost 9 members two years ago this week in a white supremacist domestic terrorist attack. It was humbling beyond belief to see some of their family members greet and welcome us at the door. Afterward, we moved to a reception (catered by one of Charleston’s Top Chef contestants) and participated in a vodun ceremony for the ancestors, and then heard from intrepid park rangers about the ways in which they help Charleston fight the hoopskirts narrative in order to come to terms with its history as America’s largest import-city of enslaved Africans.

The next day, a panel about teaching African-American history in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the current POTUS got incredibly real as black public historians and activists did the emotional labor of sharing some of the most humiliating and painful stories of degradation they had experienced in their careers, and the ways in which they work to support others with the same experiences. The emotional power and conviction of everyone at this conference floored me, because I too am passionate about history specifically because of how it can illuminate the injustices of the past and transform the present.

Something that really struck me in this type of intimate space, was the ways in which attendees approached networking. If you asked them, I doubt anyone would have used that word to describe what was going on. You see, the people at this conference were each passionate beyond belief about finding ways for public history to affirm the humanity of black people, both of the past and in the present. All of the conversations around panels and receptions and plenary talks were held with utmost enthusiasm and the spirit of “What you are doing is so incredibly awesome, how can I help or be part of it?” People forged connections, planned collaborations, and shared skills organically, all coming from the same desire and passion.

So what does that tell me about networking? Continue reading “On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics”

Waiting for Wonder Woman

I don’t remember the first time I met Wonder Woman. I remember her presence in my childhood as a sense of wanting to be her (or Princess Leia, or She-Ra…).  I have vague impressions of Lynda Carter on my television screen, and maybe even my own moments of pretending to be Wonder Woman. It’s hazy, but she was there.

I forgot about her for a long time. This was easy to do, since she went a bit underground after the TV series (or it seemed that way, in my world). My dad, a long-time comics collector and sci-fi fan, helped me grow up with a healthy dose of superheroes and Star Trek, but somewhere along the way, Star Trek overcame the rest. (I never did get into comics myself until I discovered Neil Gaiman’s Sandman while in college.)

Continue reading “Waiting for Wonder Woman”

Nature as Self-Care

We have a tradition of going on an outdoor adventure every Mother’s Day weekend. This year we ended up at the plateau known as Rowena Crest, located about 1.5 hours away from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge. There, on the drier side of Mt Hood, we took a short hike among the bright yellow balsamroots and purple lupines that were then in full bloom, before then heading to a nearby winery. Every spring is a little different, which is part of what makes these mid-May trips outdoors so fun. Last Mother’s Day we were able to hike on Mt Hood while this year that trail is still partially covered with snow.

This trips are one of many I take to the outdoors throughout the seasons – off to the mountains or to a nearby forest for a short hike in the woods.  I have been going on hikes at least once a month since  I was an undergrad in the midwest.

I used to be more secretive about these regular excursions into nature. I’d surreptitiously spend a Saturday afternoon out on a trail before returning to Sunday spent reading and writing on my dissertation. Academic culture conditioned me to feel ashamed about taking breaks from my work. So strong is the culture of constant-work that I worried that I’d be seen as lazy or unfocused if someone discovered my secret retreats outdoors. I came to associate the peace that I felt outside with a taboo pleasure.

Not now. Now I advocate for families to get outdoors as much as they can because I know that my time outdoors is an vital form of self care.

Since starting my business, Super Nature Adventures, I’ve been spending time researching nature’s therapeutic value.

How does nature help with stress? Here are few ways it can work as a form of self-care.

Nature offers perspective. When you are out among the flowers or the forests or the rocks, you are among something larger than yourself. The bees care nothing of you, and why should they? They are busy doing their own important work. This is a remarkable thing when you think about it – that mere fact that there’s a lot going on outside of ourselves.

Nature is humbling when, for example, we stop think about how the bees’ work connects to us. Their work gathering nectar plays a role in a bigger chain of events that ultimately has an effect on the air we breathe and the food we eat. This can also be comforting – to think about ourselves as connected to a world outside of us.

Nature also commands our full sensory attention – the sights, the smells of the earth and plants, the sun or the wind against our skin, or the strain of our bodies as we walk among the rocks. This is important because we live in a world of technology that tends that has been connected dulled sensations, and to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Getting outdoors can be restorative because it re-fires our senses (not just sight, but also sound and touch). This re-firing can have a re-energizing effect.

Getting outdoors is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you are feeling stressed, it doesn’t hurt to consider a bit of time in nature.

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**Parts of this post are re-published from http://www.supernatureadventures.com

 

Writing Structure in the Summer

The semester is over! It’s officially summer!

So many of us smart women writers tend to have more unstructured time in the summers.  I work at a University, so while the undergrads are gone, and my colleagues away to do research in far-flung locales, I find that there’s a bit more downtime and flexibility in my schedule, and I think of it as my writing season.

Continue reading “Writing Structure in the Summer”

The Research Connection

Think back: when did you learn how to do research?

You know, that process of going to the library sometime in your elementary or secondary or college education to learn about some topic so you could write a paper about it. I remember my first research paper ever, in Miss M’s third-grade classroom. She listed all the available topics on one of those clear sheets she could display with the overhead projector, then went around the room allowing us the chance to choose.

elizabeth_i_when_a_princess
Seriously, who wouldn’t want to study someone who dressed like that and had red hair? I wanted red hair and a dress like that.

I reallyreallyreallyreally wanted Elizabeth the First, but either my last name was too late in the alphabet or I wasn’t listening well that day (probably both), so I was out of luck. Fortunately, there was also an Elizabeth II, so my luck hadn’t entirely run out, even if this one didn’t have the neat-looking dresses.

Ironically, the next research process I remember well, the one where I think maybe I started to get the hang of “research,” finally took me back to Elizabeth I, or more accurately to her older half-sister. (It’s almost shocking I didn’t become an early modern British historian, right?)

I’ve spent countless more hours, days, and weeks doing research since then. In grad school, I wrote a lot about my research and note-taking process, but it’s only been in the past year or two that I’ve begun thinking about an even larger question: how do you teach someone to do research?

Continue reading “The Research Connection”

Thoughts on Being a “Mama PhD”

2015-05-15 14.57.59 HDRYesterday morning, Facebook reminded me this week marks the 2-year anniversary of
my doctoral hooding ceremony. That’s right, I’ve been a PhD for 2 years!

While there are many memorable moments from that day, one of my fondest is when I heard my son (then age 5) shout “that’s mommy!” when I walked across the stage. That moment, I quite publicly joined the club that is often called “Mama PhD.”

Not that I wasn’t already a “Mama PhD” in training before that ceremony.  My son was born right at the end of my comprehensive exam period. I had thus spent the entirety of my dissertation period balancing the roles of parent and grad student. By the time I was hooded, he was part of my regular rhythms of life, and, I should note, part of a community of people who kept me buoyed when I needed to be lifted up, and grounded when I need to be brought down. Still, as I was regularly reminded by well-meaning faculty and peers, the odds of finishing your PhD go down when you are a woman-with-kid, so walking across that stage was significant. Continue reading “Thoughts on Being a “Mama PhD””