Fun Preview: A Wizard of Their Age

Excerpt from  A Wizard of Their Age, a collection of scholarly essays by college-aged writers about the Harry Potter series, due out within the year. My mother and I wrote the introduction, and these are my sections.

Teaching Them to Love What They Have Loved: Harry Potter Goes to College

The summer I was nine years old, my mom, my little brother and I embarked upon the long and familiar drive from our tidy neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, to the grand, dusty Utah desert. We were going to drive part way with my grandparents, then visit old friends we had left behind in Provo five years earlier; the musty orange tent bouncing in the trunk signaled our plans to camp outside Moab while we were there. For the whole trip, the three of us alternated reading aloud from a new book that my mom’s friend had just finished reading and then recommended for us—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. My brother and I bickered over how long each of us got to read before the other’s turn; he was only six years old and I was a recent third-grade graduate, but we both were eager to practice our quickly blossoming reading skills on an exciting new story of a shy English boy and his motley crew of magical friends.

In Moab, we spent hours huddled together in the tiny tent, reading about Harry as a wild desert summer storm lashed the red dirt outside. When we turned the last page in the car on the way home, we sped toward the next town to pick up the newly released Chamber of Secrets as quickly as our still-sandy vehicle would take us. Reading Harry Potter with my mom and my brother was the first time I ever discussed a book with other people who loved it as much as I did; it was during that road trip that I discovered how much I delight in talking about literature (especially while camping out in southern Utah), something that feels as natural to me now as red sand between my toes.

Not red dirt, not a red train, but a red bus bore me back to Hogwarts, and I learned of my acceptance through an e-mail rather than a letter in green ink. I was twenty-one – ten years late. I cringe a little to put it in those terms; having never quite taken to the Harry Potter movies, few things about being in Oxford annoy me quite so much as the breathless way fellow American students explain to me, “Christ Church’s dining hall is the Great Hall in Harry Potter, did you know that? Did you know Magdalen’s cloisters are where Malfoy got turned into a ferret?” As I write, I am halfway through my year abroad here, and in what little time I have, I prefer to enjoy Oxford as Oxford, my real school, with wonders and charms of its own and no need for fictional embellishment. But my eye rolls aren’t entirely honest, either. I think it must feel strange for all of us who have loved Rowling’s books to enter, as adults, something resembling the most cherished fantasy of our childhood. And even though I wouldn’t say that my love for Harry Potter drove me to Oxford as a means of realizing my younger self’s Ravenclaw aspirations, I do think that I got here because of what I learned from reading those books: falling in love with characters, examining my world through texts, finding the joy in wordplay, and hanging on for the long haul – perhaps my frenzied reading and re-reading of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, my favorite books in the series as well as two of the longest, forecasted my more recent attachments to Ulysses and Moby-Dick.

No matter how many times I combed my program’s website for some little bit of information I may have missed, now it seems that I made all of my most significant preparations for my time here through reading novels. I received images and atmosphere from Harry Potter, culture from the occasional Buck Mulligan jest, and a little bit of geography from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I have had other English students here describe to me what they knew of Oxford before arriving in terms of Brideshead Revisited or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I know that something of my experience with Harry Potter always is bound up in my time in Oxford; through all of my worldly and literary travels, I carry with me the adventure, the intellectual thrill, and maybe even the magic I felt as I held my flashlight aloft (Lumos!) and read those pages like they contained a spell to keep us safe and dry in the storm.

These days, my mom and I argue about the Blooms’ as well as Snape and Dumbledore’s moral ambiguity, and coffee-and-book dates with her are one of the things I have missed most in my time away. But it’s okay – for now, I have a different cafe, different texts to read, different people to discuss them with, and a different world to explore. Before I came here, Oxford was as shrouded in mystery and hopeful, hesitant expectation as Hogwarts once was, and now, as it happened with Harry and his friends, I am starting to feel at home.

It starts with a few swipes of lipstick.

Actually, that’s not true. It usually starts with some other nagging feeling of inactivity, of laziness. I feel a little down on myself, a little out of shape, a little less strong than I want to be. And so after Max has walked out the door and I’ve watched him walk to his car and drive away, I put on a tshirt I love, I do my makeup, I crank some music, and I dance and jump around until I feel better. Sometimes the dancing and jumping is interspersed with more workout-like activities, like squats or lunges or push ups or whatever. But I also spend a lot of time sitting down to take a break, scan Tumblr or Instagram, look up something I just remembered…

Because it’s never so much about actually working out as it is about feeling pretty. Feeling strong and powerful and tough and cool, being vulnerable and parsing my version of “feminine” while asserting myself, while using my body. These are, in a way, some of the only private rituals really available to me through culture – makeup, light exercise, pop music – but somehow embracing them when I’m alone in my own way feels like embracing myself. 

After watching the new documentary about Kathleen Hanna, I feel more strongly than ever (and it’s been growing for a while now) that I need to step outside of the very safe little cocoon I’ve spun for myself over the last few years and be as big as I really feel. My self-imposed reclusiveness and unambitiousness was primarily self-protective; after being hurt and sad and expected to hold up so much for so many other people, all I wanted to do was retreat into a little nest with the one person I know loves me the most, and take some time to reshape my dented armor. 

It’s worked, in a way – my life has been intellectually low-maintenance, with far fewer external demands and expectations from others than I was being crushed by my last year of school. But it’s been its own struggle, too: the ugliness of 20-something job hunting for jobs that I have to do the most impressive carnival program of mental backflips to convince myself I even want or am qualified for, all for the privilege of making less money than I did when I was 18; financial crises one after the other after another after another, seemingly forever, preventing me from traveling or going out or eating or having dignity. And it’s also made me a little too sedentary and a little too unadventurous – actually, I guess that might be the broke-ness more than my own hibernation. 

But! I want to bring more of what I feel when I am alone dancing Beyonce and wearing an adventurous shade of lipcolor out into the world now and then. The private, protected self that I keep tucked away in behind closed curtains on weekday nights, the more confident, less inhibited, girl power loving, maybe even a little bit of a diva self – my better self, probably.

Maybe this will be a Patti Smith and PJ Harvey week. Feeling I’m having.

Compulsory Post

About how I have the most exasperating, exhausting, stubborn adviser whom I love so dearly that all he needs to do to make my day is stop by my table in the coffee shop and, with no introduction, explain that he had a student present a bad poem about “daddy love” and therefore wanted to show her what a good poem about the same thing looks like. It was a verbal, one-week-late response to an email I sent him, saying that I spotted him walking across campus with Sylvia Plath’s Ariel under his arm and wondering what he was doing with it. 

“So what else have I missed?” I asked. “How are you?”
“Not good,” he replied, “But muddling through.”
I managed to squeak out a cautious “Okay? Well enough…” before he slowly turned on his heel, no goodbye, and plodded away and out the door into the cold (with no coat on). 

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I am supposed to be figuring out a short lesson plan for Tuesday on topic sentences and paragraph organization while writing profiles, and find myself perusing old New Yorkers, which brings me inevitably to Janet Flanner, which brings me unavoidably to her story about Picasso in the introduction to Paris Was Yesterday. I don’t know how I can use it for anything related to my internship, but since I’m already crying while reading the story I feel like I just have to post it here:

About fifteen years ago I happened to be in Cannes, where, on the Croisette, I met the young artist son of an old New York friend of mine, who spoke to me and gave me his news. He was married, and newly a father, and as a favor Picasso, whom he knew, had drawn a vague sketch of the young artist’s infant son, which he had promised to sign and dedicate if the father would go to Picasso’s villa, La Californie, that very day at noon. Did I want to drive up with him? I stipulated I would like to take the drive but would not get our of the car. When we arrived at the gate of La Californie, the young father went inside with his invaluable drawing, a moment later emerging to say, “Picasso says to come in,” which I did not wish to do, as an intrusion was the last thing I had intended. When Picasso sent a second pressing demand, I was forced to accept. As I walked into the salon, which was as crowded with vaaried art works as an auction room, Picasso turned to me with his hand outstretched in greeting, and then, with a loud cry of astonishment, shouted, “You! Why didn’t you ever speak to me in the old days at the Flore? For years we saw each other and never spoke, until now. Are you just the same as you were? You look it!” By this time he had his arms around me and was thumping me enthusiastically on the shoulders. “You look fine; not a day older,” and I said, “Nor do you,” and he said, “That’s true; that’s the way you and I are. We don’t get older, we just get riper. Do you still love life the way you used to, and love people the way you did? I watched you and always wanted to know what you were thinking … Tell me, do you still love the human race, especially your best friends? Do you still love love?” “I do,” I said, astonished at the turn the monologue was taking. “And so do I!” he shouted, laughing. “Oh, we’re great ones for that, you and I. Isn’t love the greatest refreshment in life?” And he embraced me with his strong arms, in farewell.

Janet Flanner and Picasso Disturb My Homework Plans

Sometimes it makes me feel boring that I still rely so much on music I found out I love when I was 16

But usually it just makes me feel good about always having had great taste.

A post I wrote almost a year ago, which is weird to acknowledge, and will finish here soon.

Originally saved as draft on March 21st, 2012.

I’ve made it to Dublin! Exactly a year after my first time reading Ulysses, I’m here. It felt like I waited forever, but no; my relationship to this city, however fictional, has been brief, but I am desperately happy to have made it nonetheless.

But first: I don’t know how much I can say right now about my final time in Scotland, since it feels as if there’s too much to justify my writing/your reading on what should be a pretty casual blog. In briefest possible summation, it was beautiful, I loved it, and I was sad to leave. Oban, though tiny and quiet this time of year, was a treat. I was happy to be met with so many opportunities to read and to journal while settling my body into the pebbles on the beach, listening to the sound they make as they get pulled back with the tide; something that I think I can now call a habit, having done it in two different countries. My time in Oban also included what may end up being the most exciting episode of my entire trip: nearly getting trapped in an ancient castle. That’s right! Here’s a photo of the Dunollie Castle ruins just outside of Oban, which I went out to visit on my second sunny day in town:

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More of that story later.

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