Rereading Harry Potter

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If you know me, then you already know I’m a Potter Head — a Harry Potter nerd.  I’m a 48-year-old woman who still thinks that the Harry Potter series is the best piece of writing on the planet.  I first picked up the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when I was teaching high school English.  I had heard the book was on a banned book list and was curious.  And turns out, a few chapters in, I was hooked.  For years, I would devour a book, then wait a year or two for the next book to be released.  It was great fun, and my only wish was that my kids had been old enough to celebrate the release of the books with me.  

Back to the point — my rereading of the series. Over the years, I’ve picked up a book or two and reread it or listened to it on CD.  But I’d only gone back to the first few  books.  When asked by students or even by my children which book was my favorite, I’d always say Book 1 or Book 4 because I remembered those the most.  In January, when I was going through a tough period with my daughter’s health, I started listening to the entire series again.  To me, the novels are comfort reading, a wonderful escape from reality.   When I was struggling to be able to sleep worrying about Ally’s health, these books helped take the edge off and let me relax.  

I decided to purchase all the books on Audible, even though we own the whole set of books.  Jim Dale is the narrator, and he does an excellent job making each character really come alive.  I began Book 1, which is probably still my favorite, and let myself get wrapped up in this magical world J.K. Rowling created.  As I’ve been reading, I’ve also been thinking.  And I realized that these books — aside from being a great escape — have a lot to teach us about life.  Here are a few of the lessons I’ve gained from these novels

  1. Love and kindness are more powerful than hate. We find this out especially in Book 6, when Professor Dumbledore is teaching Harry about the horacruxes.    Through the pensive, Dumbledore takes Harry into Voldemort’s past.  Harry and Voldemort have many similarities, but Dumbledore reassures Harry that he is set apart by kindness and ability to love.  Harry had parents who loved him and died to save him.  He was loved by his friends, by the Weasleys, by Hagrid.  It was Harry’s ability to love, ultimately,  that empowered him to take on the task of destroying Voldemort and survive.   
  2. Life is better with friends. This is a critical theme throughout the series.  Friends matter.  Sure, these friends may fight.  They may not talk for days.  But ultimately life is better when Harry and Ron and Hermione (and a myriad of other characters) lean on each other.  In Book 6, when Harry tells Ron and Hermione that he will be going on a quest, they refuse to leave him.  That pretty much sums up their friendship; these three never abandon one another, even during the darkest of times.
  3. We all get to decide what kind of person we become.  Rowling foreshadows a strange connection between Voldemort and Harry throughout the story, beginning in Book 1 when Harry gets his wand.  His wand (remember, “the wand chooses the wizard”) is a companion to Voldemort’s wand.  Voldemort, like Harry, didn’t have the best childhood.  And yet, Harry made decisions to be a decent human; Voldemort, instead, chose power and isolation. Rowling wants us to understand that we all get to decide who we become, even if we were not blessed with an easy beginning.  Harry is the perfect example of this.
  4. It is good to be kind to misfits.  This is one of my favorite things about Harry — that he is kind to misfits.  Now, he may not start kind.  These quirky characters may initially be off putting to him.  But Harry generally comes around.  Harry takes Neville, Luna, Dobby and many other outcasts into his fold, even though he could choose to ignore these characters and their tribulations.  Harry constantly engages with Hagrid, believes Sirius is innocent, and befriends Lupin, a werewolf.  He chooses to accept characters that have been misunderstood or mistreated by others, and I love him for it.  
  5. A mother’s love is the greatest protection.  This, dear readers, is perhaps my favorite theme.  Lily Potter died to save her son.  And he was marked by her love, which offered him a powerful protection.  In Book 7, we learn that this protection expires when he turns 17.  But I disagree.  This protection changes form.  Instead of being a tangible charm that offers physical protection, his mother’s great love for him protects his heart.  Harry refuses to give himself over to evil because he’s had the greatest love there is – the love of his mother.  And Harry’s ability to love is what makes him the one wizard who could defeat Voldemort’s evil.

I am now on Book 7 of my re-reading, and I am sad.  What do I do now once I’ve revisited this series that I love?  Do I immediately start again?  Do I host a Harry Potter movie marathon?  Do I mourn the ending of this amazing series until I find something new to read?  I haven’t figured out my “what next,” but I do know that I will continue to apply these lessons to my own life.  When I teach, when I Interact with friends and family,  I will think of Harry and hope that in some small way, I can emulate his strength of character.  

Letting Go

Last August, I handed my first born over to the U.S. Army.  Joel had just graduated high school, and he decided that he’d like to join the U.S. Army Reserves to serve his country and to help pay for college.  I went with him to talk to the recruitment officer, and Sargeant Jackson sold us both on the plan.  But still, on the day he was to head off to basic training followed by AIT, I broke down  I cried through our entire going away breakfast and finally, I regained my composure as we left him at the recruitment office.  Why was I sad?  Well, if you’re a mama, you probably understand ALL of my worries.  But one thing that struck me was this:  This isn’t what I planned for my life.  I never imagined my baby boy training to defend our country, learning to use high-powered weapons, enduring  drill sergeants yelling at him and actually liking it. 

Upon returning from his Army training in January, Joel spent a semester at a community college near home as he planned to transfer to KSU. This August, we delivered Joel to Manhattan, Kansas with much joy.  Joel has always wanted to go to K-State; he’s basically bled purple since he was in the womb.   This was always the plan — Joel would attend KSU.  So we happily moved him into a musty old dorm room, as his father and I believe that everyone should live in the dorm at least once.  And yet a day later, Joel, new to a KSU fraternity, moved to the frat house when a spot suddenly opened up.  This was definitely not the picture I had in my mind when I was snuggling my newborn son in the middle of the night after a feeding.  My son — in the Army and in a fraternity?  This wasn’t what I planned.

The thing is, I get caught up with pictures in my mind.  These pictures — visions of what my kids should be like, how a family should operate, what parenthood should look like — trip me up.  Instead of enjoying what I do have, these visions sometimes make me crazy.  But the past nineteen years of motherhood has taught me to let go of my preconceived ideas or even societal expectations.  There are many ways to be a good mom.  There are many ways to have a happy family.  There are many ways to grow a son into an amazing man.  For Joel, his way to manhood has been paved by the Army and by his new fraternity.

Before he left for basic training, Joel had a pretty typical 18-year-old cockiness.  Don’t get me wrong — I loved his quick wit and his confidence.  But hiding out behind this confidence was youth and inexperience.  When Joel returned from the Army, the changes were shocking.  Joel came back with real confidence. He had skills. He could shoot military weapons  with accuracy.  He successfully passed PT tests, putting his high school cross country skills to good use.  Joel learned to drive a Humvee and trained in the military police.  He came back with a love of fitness, believing that exercise is an important component to a healthy life.  Basically, Joel returned more of a man and less of a boy.  He came back disciplined and focused.  And though I worry daily about him being deployed, I am glad that he became an Army Reservist.  I think that joining the Army helped Joel understand how to reach his full potential, and I’m not sure this would have happened as quickly if he’d gone to college right after high school.

Another thing that has pushed Joel toward manhood is being a part of a fraternity.  To be fair, Joel’s dad and I were GDI’s (gosh darn independents).  We were not Greek.  I have always had preconceived notions about fraternities, I must admit.  And yes, some of my notions are true.  But a few weeks ago, Rich and I drove to Manhattan for a Covid-safe, outdoor Family Day.  When we got there, Joel was selling beads to raise money for the fraternity.  He was absolutely in his element, socializing and chatting people up.  (Yeah, he’s an extrovert, like his mom.)  I could tell that he enjoyed living in the house with the other guys.  The fraternity has daily study hours, so Joel’s grades are in check.  He has some great friends.  He seemed really happy and healthy and focused.  During our visit, there was a short fraternity ceremony; after hearing about the accomplishments within the fraternity, I realized that I had been wrong about fraternities — or at least this one.  I could see how this experience (even with the typical frat-boy shenanigans) could be beneficial for Joel.  

These past nineteen years of motherhood have taught me so much.  I’ve finally learned to ignore the pictures in my head of what a “proper” child (or family) should look like.  I’ve tried to let my children grow into who they were meant to be.  I can’t force my path on Joel.  I have to let his life be his own, and I have to trust his choices.  There are many ways to grow into manhood, and so far, Joel’s on the right track.  He is happy, healthy, and figuring things out.  That’s all this mama could ask for.

Say the Name, Harry!

If you know me at all, you know one of the great passions in my life is reading.  You should also know that one of my all-time favorite book series — okay, my FAVORITE series — is the Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.   One thing that struck me on my first read was that Harry always called Voldemort (the force of evil in these stories) by his name.  He did not fear saying Voldemort aloud, as the other characters did.  In fact, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore said this to Harry:  “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” 

I’ve taken this advice to heart.  Yes, I know this is a fantasy series, and the characters are not real.  But the characters who reside in the Harry Potter series offer great insight into humanity.  They teach about bravery, love, kindness.  And Harry, most of all, teaches readers how to face the hardest of things in this world with great courage.

The past few years have been hard on my family.  On December 2, 2016, my beloved daughter was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive type of brain cancer.  She was twelve.  Her illness, her brave fight and her death have taught me the  same lesson as in the Harry Potter books:  Say the name — the name of what you’re facing, the name of what you’re feeling.  So here goes.  Here are four words that I refuse to talk around, to use a euphemism for — cancer, grief, love, death.  These are words that I choose to say aloud, even though they sometimes breed discomfort.

When Ally first came home from the hospital after two brain surgeries within one week, we had a new word in our family:  Cancer.  I hate cancer.  I wish we could abolish the word as well as the disease.  However, I immediately felt that if we could say the word cancer aloud it would reduce people’s fear and give the word some normalcy.  Cancer.  Yeah, we’re dealing with cancer, but we are still getting up, living life, trying to be decent humans.  When people asked me what was wrong with Ally, I told them she had cancer.  I didn’t — couldn’t — sugar coat it.  She had cancer, and we were fighting it.  That was the truth, and I didn’t see why I would want to hide it.  

Another word I have come to use regularly is grief.  People don’t really like to talk about grief, but I use this word all of the time because it is true to my life at the moment.  To be fair, I’ve been grieving for nearly four years — for the loss of Ally’s childhood, for our family’s sense of normalcy, and now — for Ally’s death.  Turns out, you’re not exactly the most popular person in social circles when you go around explaining that you are wrestling with grief and that you try to walk through it every day.  This conversation is uncomfortable.  And yet, I think it’s important to let people know that GRIEF is what I’m experiencing.  It’s grief that tries to keep me in bed; it’s grief that makes me cry as I sit in the parking lot preparing to go into work.  I feel like it’s inauthentic to avoid the word.  I am grieving, and I refuse to lie about it.  

My next word is love, and perhaps this is the one bright spot of this piece.  When you go through an unprecedented tragedy in your life, you realize how fleeting life truly is.  You realize the importance of love — love of self, love of others, love of life.   For me, this manifests in how I talk to the people in my life.  I tell pretty much everyone that I love them because…I do.  Tragedy sometimes allows for the strangest of emotions, and when you lose someone you loved, you want to hold on that much harder to the other people in your life.  So I tell my parents, my friends, my co-workers, the guy that carded me at the liquor store that I love them, and I mean it.   I am no longer willing to use this word sparingly.  

Death is another word I use with regularity.  I speak of Ally’s death.  I try not to say “my daughter passed away” unless I’m talking to children because the truth is, my daughter died.  I hate this word, as it is a constant, sad reminder.  But it is true.  And I made a decision a long time ago to speak my truth.   I try to speak of Ally’s death with courage and honestly as it is part of my journey.  It makes no sense to me to try to soften the blow of my loss by saying Ally “passed away.”  She died.  She fought.  She was loved.  And I’m not going to discount her short life by using politically correct terminology.    

Thank you, Harry Potter, for teaching me to be honest, to say the precise word, to look fear in the eye and not cower.  And thank you, Ally Baier, for teaching me the same things.  My life will continue to be better — more honest and truthful and courageous — by your examples.

Girl Power, ANB and RBG

Ally and I believe in girl power.  We believe that girls (and women) can do anything they want to do.  I used to tell Ally:  Girls can do anything boys can do, except pee standing up (which isn’t exactly true, it’s just a bit complicated).  When we lost RBG on Friday, we lost a champion for equality, a champion for women, a role model for all.  I really like thinking that maybe Ally and Ruth are in heaven chatting it up about politics and women’s rights.   Maybe Ally ran to Heaven’s gates and welcomed Ruth, told her that her mom admired her.  Maybe Ally showed Ruth the picture of me dressing up like her for Halloween, and maybe they are both talking about how this is the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote and acknowledging the shame that we’ve only had this right for a short time in our country’s history.  These images bring me comfort   Either way, two of the strongest females on the planet are no longer suffering, and I am reminded of how thankful I am of all the people in my life who have inspired me to live fully –regardless of my gender. 

I’m thankful for my strong mom, who raised me to be an independent thinker.  Although she didn’t go to college herself, she basically put three of us (me, my Dad, my sister) through college, quizzing us and encouraging us, typing my Dad’s papers.  She never complained, and she always worked as long as it took to do  what she had to do.  She stayed up late many nights making homecoming dresses and my sister’s wedding dress. Mom was basically the glue to our family, always loving us and letting us know we were special and loved. She made us feel like we could do anything.  In fact, she still makes us feel like that today.

I’m thankful for my Dad, who never made me feel that girls were second class citizens.  When I was in high school, he tried to talk me into applying to West Point.  I didn’t, but he believed I had that potential. Dad had two girls.  I used to wonder if he wished for boys, but now I know that he didn’t. He was a great girl dad. Dad loved sports, and he loved to coach and work with kids. Growing up, he never once acted like he missed coaching boys.  He worked with us on running, softball, basketball, and he never ever gave my sister and me the impression that women’s sports were inferior.  Thanks, Dad, for showing me that I could do anything I wanted.  And although I’m a teacher, which is historically a more female-dominated career, I chose this career because it is what I wanted to do. And of course, my Dad always encouraged me, even on my hardest of teaching days. 

I’m thankful for Mrs. Teegarden, my elementary librarian.  When I was a kid, I was an avid reader.  Mrs. Teegarden encouraged my love of reading.  She gave me big books, books that were probably too hard for me to read.  She tried to challenge my curiosity and intellect.  She gave me Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Little Women, and other challenging books.  When I wanted to read about famous suffragettes, she helped me find books about them — Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott.  (Yeah, I’ve always been this way.)  Mrs. Teegarden showed me, even at a young age, that a girl could be smart, and that was okay. 

There are countless other people in my life (and in the world) who have encouraged me — people who have made it clear to me that gender is just that — a part of who I am.  But gender does not exclude me from doing what I want to do.  Both Ally and RBG have taught me the importance of girl power, and therefore I will continue to advocate for women as a tribute to  these two amazing humans.  I hope you will, too.

*Note:  ANB is Ally Noel Baier, my beautiful daughter who died on May 3, 2020.  I will write more about her in later blog posts.  She was an amazing kid– smart and funny and kind.  She died too soon, but she will live on in my writing, through the Ally League, and through the many things her family and friends do in her honor.

My Thoughts on Prayer

grayscale photography of praying hands

I read a friend’s post on Facebook the other night, and I was immediately compelled to respond.  He wrote:  “Can you pray for someone without being religious?”  This got me thinking about the nature of prayer and where I stand on this issue.    

The concept of prayer is troubling to me.  I grew up (mostly) in the church, and I grew up praying.  I knew how to recite The Lord’s Prayer when I was five or six.  Back then, my understanding was that you pray to God for forgiveness, or share your sins when you pray. Prayer was like a conversation between you and God, and sometimes God was like your parent more than a friend.

  Many people I know today really, truly believe in the power of prayer — the power, that is, to change the outcome of a difficult situation.  I am not mocking this position.  I wish I could believe this.  I’ve recently gone through a pretty tough life event, thus my thoughts on prayer have changed.  Today, I feel that expecting prayer to magically solve a problem is negating the true power of prayer.

Lately, when I do pray, I don’t talk of sins or forgiveness or any of that.  I figure if there’s a higher power out there, he/she/it knows what I’ve been up to.  He/she/it knows I’m trying to be a decent human and that I also make mistakes.  Instead, I just talk.  I express gratitude.  I ask for help or strength or compassion.  I never ask for things.

I don’t like to throw around the term “I’m praying for you” because it seems insincere — at least when I say it.  I may not “pray” for you in the traditional sense, but I will send you all the love and good vibes I have.  I will come visit you in the hospital.  I’ll text you and see how you’re doing or take you out for coffee.  I’ll bring over a meal.  This is because I think prayer without action is worthless.  Mindless prayers to a God who can’t control the outcome anyway seems pointless.  People who offer “prayers” but can’t even bother to text you to check on your welfare seem inauthentic.   I know that for many Christians or spiritual folks, this seems harsh.  But let me explain.

On May 3, I lost my favorite little person.  I lost my fifteen year old daughter.  I had hundreds of people across the country, people I knew as well as strangers, praying for her.  I prayed.  My church prayed.  Her friends prayed.  But still, cancer would not desist.  Prayers didn’t work — at least not in sparing her life.

During this challenging time, I didn’t always pray in the way that I did as a child.  I didn’t ask for tangible things. But I did pray for strength.  I prayed for her to know she was loved.  I told God or the Universe or the Divine —  whoever is out there — that I was grateful for the love and kindness of people who were supporting us through this challenging time.  I prayed for peace — for my daughter and for our family.  During this time, instead of just praying, people brought food.  They sat with us.  My neighbors walked with me every day for several months.  Friends called and texted and emailed and sent cards.  These kindnesses were all forms of “prayers,” even if these prayers aren’t what we were taught about in Sunday School. 

Prayers are more than just words: prayers are actions.  Prayers are acts of solidarity, support, and empathy — love sent out into the universe on a person’s behalf.  So back to the initial question:  Can you pray and not be religious?  Here’s what I think:  Yes. Absolutely.  Because sometimes even the smallest gesture is a prayer, letting you know that you are loved and you are not alone.

Why Write?

I think I first recognized the power of writing in 3rd grade.  My teacher, Mrs. Erickson, assigned a creative writing assignment — a story starter.  I don’t remember what I wrote about, but she liked it.  And she called me to read my story aloud.  Well, back in 3rd grade, that was tough.  If you know me today, you wouldn’t believe it, but up through high school I was shy — sometimes even painfully so.  My fear of speaking out made reading my piece difficult, but I did  it and enjoyed the accolades as my fellow students laughed at my story.  After that, I was hooked on writing.

Fast forward to 6th grade.  As a pre-teen, I faced the typical girl drama and emotions.  I got mad at friends (okay, usually over boys) and didn’t know how to deal with these feelings.   I don’t remember the specifics of this particular incident,  but I was fighting with my best friend.  To be fair, I wasn’t really fighting.  I was nursing a wound that I hadn’t shared with her.  I was too timid back then to be honest and say, “Hey, you hurt my feelings.”  So I wrote her a note.  I said everything that was in my heart.  I let her have it — said all the silly and irrational and painful things a 6th grader represses.  I folded that note (the way we folded notes back in the 80s) and I saved it.  Later, I ripped it up.  I eventually got over being mad at my friend, but I remembered how cathartic it felt to get out all of my feelings.  The process of writing — getting all my feelings out — helped me.  

As I grew older, I decided to major in English.  I believed what John Keating said in the movie Dead Poet’s Society, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  I still believe this.  I remember sitting in my college dorm room, reading the YA novel Running Loose by Chris Crutcher (still one of my all-time favorite books) with tears running down my cheeks.  Although I had grown up loving books, this was the first time a book touched me in this way.  But I think that the best writing moves you, makes you laugh, makes you think, and inspires.  And for me, writing is the way I understand and process the world.

Today, I use writing in many ways.  My work requires me to write.  I write short social media posts that are meant to be funny.  I share anecdotes about my family to not only vent but to also make my friends understand that they are not alone in their family fails and mishaps.  I write educational blogs because I’m a teacher and I’m extremely passionate about the importance of education and educators.  And I write to work through the deep pain that I’m trudging through every day.  (More of this in later posts.)  Writing has always been like therapy for me.

I started this blog because I feel myself about to burst.  I feel I have words that can no longer just rattle around my head and heart; instead, these words are meant to be shared.  I  have experienced unique joys and hardships in my life, and I hope that I can reach someone out there if I’m brave enough to share these stories.  Thank you for joining me, for checking out Crysta Clear.  I hope that my experiences may resonate with you in some small way.