The Potter in Me

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Hey, my eyes aren’t glistening with the ghosts of my past!

– Harry Potter

It is December 2007, and I’m standing across George IV Bridge from The Elephant House in Edinburgh, one of the several places J.K. Rowling frequented while writing her Harry Potter books.

At the time, I wasn’t nearly the Potter fan I am now. Mind you, I’m still not the Potter fan some people are: I don’t own a Ravenclaw scarf, and I’ve never taken a quiz to find out which Hogwarts house suits me best. But I am a big enough fan to reflect more seriously upon what it means, why it appeals so strongly to young and old alike–and why so many fear its “corrupting influence.”

Simply put, we all live for the moment in which our Hagrid comes for us, the moment we realize we are not Muggles after all, that we are really all magical beings, witches and wizards in the making. The moment we realize the sorcery that is part and parcel of being human: our magic may be metaphorical, but it can still change the world.

The Harry Potter series is about the breaking of chains, both internally and externally imposed. Perhaps one was raised in a severely restrictive household, not unlike the Dursleys’. Or, conversely, perhaps one was, as a child, perceived as “different,” whether through temperament, inclination, or physical limitation, and thereby came to perceive herself as in some way limited or less-than.

These are those of us to whom the Potter books speak, and the reason they speak so universally is that all of us, from the biggest nerd to the biggest jock, from the math club to the cheerleading squad, we all feel our limitations. Each of us in a different way, but each of us, nonetheless.

A good book frees the imagination, and Rowling’s are good books. Will they stand as “great literature”? Who cares? “Great literature” is for eggheads in academia (although I suspect that the eggiest of heads sometimes wishes himself in the rush of a Quidditch match). Rowling’s are great books, books that touch us on a visceral level: we want to be free to be who we really are. We want to feel that our differences, the ways in which we stand out from the crowd, are our strengths. That in the battle between good and evil, we all have a wand to wield.

The Dark Lord is real, and he is legion.

The Dark Lord is embodied in the ways in which society forces upon us prescribed images of “who we’re supposed to be.” Erich Fromm wrote of the “marketing character,” the insidious manner in which the capitalist ethos seeps into our consciousness and compromises our will to authentic self-representation. We are induced, in the name of individualism, to renounce our individuality in favor of the “norm,” to sell ourselves on the stock market of impersonal choice. To become whoever or whatever others want us to be, in the desperate hope that we won’t be left on the shelf, or discarded in favor of a better model.

The message? Go along to get along, so that society can move along. And whatever you do, DO NOT ROCK THE BOAT!

The Dark Lord is systematized within all the nomological structures by which the status quo is enforced on a daily basis, from the Ten Commandments to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” We ascribe to the law of God and of the market protection against that which we fear as humans: that one soul brave enough to stand up and step out of line. Because, as John Hughes taught us, if one gets up, we may all get up. And then where would we be?

In the end, the reason people hate Harry is the same reason people love him: he is the poster child for seeing things differently, for being brave enough to be ourselves, even when the rest of the world doesn’t approve or understand. For allowing our imaginations, rather than our fears, to dictate how far we can take this thing called humanity. In short, in the wizarding world we find the key to being better Muggles.

The truth is, all our eyes are glistening with the ghosts of our past. But such is the magic of life, a magic inherent in each of us, Muggle or no: the magic of transcendence, of unlocking the present in ourselves (Alohomora!) so that we may overcome the past, so that we may learn from it without becoming trapped in it.

This is the gospel according to Harry Potter:

The Firebolt is not a broomstick. It’s a state of mind.

Being Here

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If there is a light you can’t always see
And there is a world we can’t always be
If there is a dark within and without
And there is a light, don’t let it go out

– U2

In 1985, two displaced Romanian families came to Marshfield, Missouri, having defected from the Soviet bloc. At the time, my dad (the guy in the back row with the stripey tie) was minister of music and youth at First Baptist Marshfield. All the teenagers you see crammed into the picture were members of his youth group. Scattered throughout are the Borza family–mother Maria in the back center, son Audie in the second row, and daughter Diana beside me and my Smurf.

That Christmas (which is when this photo was taken), First Baptist decided to pull together gifts and supplies for the newly arrived families, to help them feel more connected to our community. And I had an idea: I raided my toy box. There was this Transformers car (or Go-Bots–I don’t remember which), a little blue convertible number, that I absolutely loved, and I seized on that as the perfect gift. I don’t remember if Mom wrapped it or not; I just remember the feeling of happiness that came with handing it over to my new friend. Strong enough that today, almost thirty years after the fact, it’s still clear as a bell in my mind.

The world is full of so many lonely souls. That moment of connection with the Borza boy was an eight-year-old’s first inkling of the truth of that statement. At the time, I didn’t know from communism or dictatorship or political repression. It would be years before I could formulate a decent definition of the Soviet Union, and by the time I could it didn’t even exist anymore. But here was this kid, not so different from me, a kid who enjoyed Christmas presents and little toy cars every bit as much as I did. A kid who, given other circumstances, might have been me, and I him. And for the briefest of spaces, our lives intertwined, became one. And I learned, albeit unconsciously. As I told my friend upon relating the story, I couldn’t even remember the family’s name, not until I read it off the back of the photo. Couldn’t remember the year. Just the faces. And the feeling. Of connection. Of camaraderie. Of compassion.

Perhaps this explains the fervor with which I approach the ongoing confrontation between fear and human decency that is the Syrian refugee crisis. I have been there and done that. And I would gladly do it again. In a heartbeat. My friendship with the Borza kids (there was even some teasing about a young crush I might or might not have had on Diana) is a foundational memory, one of the basic building blocks of who I am today.

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not about religion or spirituality. The part played in this story by my dad’s church is purely incidental, the conduit whereby I was connected with the Other, who turned out to be not quite as Other as we sometimes expect. Really, this is about recognition: staring into the face of a stranger only to discover it’s your own face in disguise. A refugee by any other name…is Me.

The events of the last few days have yanked this memory back into the forefront of my brain. I’m glad for that: it keeps my humanity alive, in the face of overwhelming odds. It reminds me of the blood that runs, and the hearts that beat alike, in their chests and mine. We are brothers, sisters, prójimos. We are One.

I understand the fear; I understand the hatred, the instinct that begs for the immediate release of violent and fiery retaliation. These voices whisper to me as much as to anyone else. Which is why this is so important: freedom is meaningless until we willingly set it aside for the sake of others. Courage is just a word until we face a threat, and act anyway.

The Borzas call to me from the past, and the Syrians call to me in the present. What is my answer? I am here.

I can’t just urge my governor to reverse his stance on this issue unless I’m willing to step up and reach out. I am here.

These people need friends, shelter, guidance, hands extended in welcome. I am here.

Governor Abbott: Need a sponsor?

I am Here.

Refugee

SYRIA-CONFLICT

(Photo from BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Rationalize me; patronize me;
pat me on the head–here’s a cookie go to bed–
proffer a tent from someone’s garage. I
am not a mirage: this tide never ebbs,
infinite spider, intricate web.

Security councils peddling dreams
become nightmares, garnering blank stares,
raising the hairs on the back of God’s neck.
I am the dreck, the flotsam and jetsam of
a race overrun.

Are you quite done?
Have you even begun?

Stateless, displaced, limbic, replaced–
not a trace of a life vetoed by men
and women of peace after a piece of mine.
Peel the onion; perhaps you will find that
your peace of mind is sight that’s gone blind
to itself. United you stand, dividing us all
into those who may live and those who must crawl:

I am the tired; I am the poor; I
am the huddled mass cast up on your shore.
Before dimming the light and bolting the door,
take just one more moment–an arduous chore–
to look in my face and witness a war
that rages time without end:
the war between neighbors, family, and friends

this globe is never
quite what it pretends

I.M.U.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe lives in wisdom,
who sees himself in all and all in him.

– The Bhagavad Gita

Please listen. Because this isn’t about me; it’s about you. And it’s about me.

I recently said, in an e-mail to a friend, that I was taking some time to rethink my goals for this blog, because the endless cycle of bravado and breakdown was proving unsustainable. It occurs to me, though, that this is what life is: we’re all teetering, all the time, on the brink, poised on the precipice that separates false certainty from overwhelming doubt. It’s a shell game, this search of ours: we move our fears from one place to another, like Sisyphus, up the hill, down the hill, and back again.

Happiness is an elusive animal. Here I let Edwin Arlington Robinson speak for me:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

In one of my latest posts, I commented that I don’t feel like I belong. On reflection, I see how selfish a statement that is. Who am I, that my belonging or not is what really matters? And what of you? Do you, in the dark moments, in the shadow of gathering clouds and pouring rain, feel that you belong? And if not, where does that leave me?

That’s not as self-centered a question as it seems, I think. Whether you be clod or promontory, we stand or fall together, we fade or remain as one. But we have to understand and honor that connection for it truly to bind us…and by binding us, to set us free. Free from ourselves, in order to be each other.

Let me try to explain.

I have walked in some very dark places. I still do, and I always will. Sometimes, the darkness by its nature obscures perception, redefines sight. When you can’t see past the nose on your face, your face seems to be all that there is. And so I forgot something very important, vitally important. I’m not alone, here in the dark night of the soul. You’re here, too. All of you.

For every face in this world, there is a mask hiding it from view. Masks we’re taught to wear by those who’ve worn them before us. We think we are all different, because the masks make us so, but underneath the masks we wear we share the face that matters. The human face, the face we recognize in one another on those rare occasions when pretense is dropped and the masks come down.

Please understand: I say this not by way of claiming a position of gnostic clarity, but as one whose mask is set firmly in place. If I pretend to be wise, it is because in doing so I may momentarily fool myself into believing I have any wisdom to share. If I pontificate on the “real meaning” of friendship, it is because I myself have no idea what that “real meaning” is. If I claim selflessness, it is because I can just glimpse a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m self-involved enough to think that light is me.

Really, the light at the end of my tunnel is you. You are what I cannot live without. All of you.

I will not apologize for my weakness, because my weakness stems from my humanity, and without my humanity I wouldn’t be in such need of yours. It’s like this, see: each of us is a piece of the puzzle, and each of us is a puzzle. We are missing pieces, and pieces are missing from us, at one and the same time. Call it a God-shaped hole; call it a donut hole–whatever its shape, we are each of us incomplete as we stand, and it isn’t more cowbell that we need. What we really need–what I really need–is to see the ways in which we fit together. Buddhists call it “interbeing,” but what you call it doesn’t really matter, so long as you know that it’s real.

Of course I belong. I belong to you.

The Beggar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe approached me
slowly,
cautiously,
eyes downcast, and
in the mirror,
I approached him–

future, present, past colliding
in that moment of
connection,
resurrection and reversal.
All is universal, in the pause between
two heartbeats, when one meets
another, and that other is

oneself. He approached me,
eyes downcast,
and when at last he raised them,
I saw they were my own.

The Human Me

Writers who wish to do more than bear witness to human suffering or add to the overburden of entertainment have a responsibility to advocate for justice, humility, and compassion.

– Alison Hawthorne Deming

Recently, a friend of mine slapped me upside the head. Not literally, of course, and not intentionally; figuratively only, and in a good way, a necessary way. She posted the above quote on her blog’s Facebook page. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I went to bed thinking about it; I got up thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.

There is so much truth in that short little statement that I have no idea how to begin to unpack it. What exactly am I up to here?

As a writer and a human being, I am under a dual obligation, both to tell the truth and to be the truth. And it’s that second one that gets me. It’s so easy to take a bird’s-eye view when I’m sitting at my keyboard, communing with a lifeless monitor; so easy to expound upon the errors of others and lay out a carefully-crafted philosophy for living as a corrective to the world’s ills. But if I put down the message along with the pen, if I follow pontification with prevarication, then my work becomes all plot and no action: my life is, to quote the Bard, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Moreover, to act in the moment as the moment demands (one of my favorite Zen teachings, and one that challenges me every time I attempt to live it) is more difficult, more threatening, than we often imagine. True spontaneity is a rare gift; it is also the essence of authentic living; it is also usually just beyond my grasp. To be truly spontaneous is to respond to the exigencies of the moment simply because they are there, thoughtlessly, not in the sense of acting carelessly, but in the sense that action follows opportunity naturally, as inhalation follows exhalation. And for me, anyway, that sort of open response to unfolding circumstance is much more easily said than done.

I want to know how to marry deed to word. I want to be that finished product, The Compleat Writer, that Alison Hawthorne Deming references in her quote. But how to do such a thing? Will Wheaties-eating do the trick? Is it enough to say what needs to be said and hope to hell someone’s listening? More importantly, am I listening? Am I the same guy, out there in real life, that I am when I’m all crammed into this blog post?

Writing humanity is a difficult task: character development, authentic dialogue, the ability to tap into the core of human emotion–all these things require great skill in the best of writers. But humanity in writing is another thing altogether: I can’t afford to be just another one of my own characters, and my dialogue can’t get by just sounding real. I have to be willing to let others tap those human emotions right out of me; I have to bleed so they can see it; the ink and the sweat must mix.

This is a responsibility I cannot ignore. It is also one I all too often pass over unthinking. So thank you, my friend, for the wake-up call. I needed that…

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