The Deathly Hallows

You know that writing this blog is my cheapo version of therapy, that the writing gives me a chance to figure out what is rattling around in my head, that meaningful reflection for me is found in the translation of rattles to fingers to the electronic ink of fonts and characters and words and phrases. Consider, by the time I work through these inadequate attempts to comprehend my apprehensions, I’ve probably spent six to eight hours in deep reflection on whatever topic is making noise. From a therapy point of view, the writing seems like a good deal although this week I am a little more befuddled than usual, and I think it is all because of Harry Potter.

For the past few weeks, HBO has been showing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Whenever I come upon it, mostly through late night channel surfing, I cannot help myself; I stop and watch. I’ll bet in the past two weeks, I’ve seen the last hour of this movie at least 10 times (no groaning please). Beyond the joys of riding the waves of a sleek remote control, wrapped in a reality defined by HD signals crashing through the shorelines of CAT5 cable upon a beach of plasma images and digitally enhanced sound, there is something about this 60 minutes of cinema that really hooks me. Beyond the commercially successful Potter franchise, I cannot help finding this movie to be more than just compelling.

I have loved the Harry Potter books since Ev introduced them to me over 10 years ago. I rationalized this love through statements like, “Anything that gets kids to read these days has some redeeming quality,” or “In my position as a professor in education, I need to know what kids are reading.” I even went so far as to engage in my own Pottermania by accompanying Ev to a B & N release party for the aforementioned Deathly Hallows, so she could celebrate reading with current and former students. As an author, J.K. Rowling feels no compulsion to calcify her characters into the frozen plotlines that accompany the vast majority of literary series. She is fearless in showing the warts, scars and pimples of her most central characters, and each book outlines a new challenge that could be framed in terms of child-to-adult development, while advancing the newest twists in the adventures of a captivating collection of young wizards. I freely admit it; I was hooked on Harry Potter from the first book I read.

In many ways, the movies are just as remarkable. How many casts have held together like this one? To watch the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone is like peering into old photo albums of family vacations long past. Almost every child that started with the Harry Potter movies remained until the very end. Even the main adult characters, except for Dumbledore (poor Richard Harris; we didn’t know how sick he was), stayed constant throughout. So, as an audience, we were able to witness the maturation of numerous child actors, and of course, by the time the last movie was made, there was such a lovely sense of ensemble in the cast, it was more like great live stage than a multimillion dollar blockbuster movie franchise. How often do we witness such a phenomenon? The continuity has been a treat.

We tend to take continuity for granted until some great disruption like ALS comes along. Then, the only continuity one can count on is that you and your loved ones are going to have to continually adapt to the next loss and the next. In reflecting on the week, the continuity of adaptation to loss is indicative. It happened that as I was writing a memo at work, my left hand, which has been threatening me on and off for a while, suddenly and absolutely refused to respond. My ring finger drooped, dragging along the keyboard so that many “s’s” and “d’s” appeared on the screen like some alien being attempting to communicate by taking over the computer. Since then, while I find that rest helps, recovery is less than ideal. My continued discontinuity of physical capacity, now realized in the act of typing, is just another step on a continuous path. In contrast, Harry Potter’s main characters learn from their past and apply it to their present situations; a continuity that is marked by growth not loss. I have to admit that there is very little in my past that applies to my current dis eased situation, so in many ways, the continuity of Harry Potter is a respite from the discontinuity of ALS.

But I think there is more to it than respite and continuity.

In a later scene of Deathly Hallows II, Harry comes upon Severus Snape, lately an ally of Harry’s deadly enemy, the “Dark Lord” Voldemort; yet to be revealed for his true role in the epic drama. He is in the final throes of death as his master has turned upon him, ostensibly to consolidate his greater magic. As Snape’s life seeps from him, Harry gently cradles his head, trying to staunch the mortal wound that will kill him. This story moment is ironic since Harry and Snape are consistent in their hatred for each other throughout all of the past seven books and eight films. But now, we witness Snape’s ebbing life, and in this moment, tears trickle down his cheek that he signals Harry to collect. In these tears are memory and hard truth, information critical to Harry’s understanding of his own fate, what he must do in the battle to come. For Harry, a different Snape—one who loves unrequitedly, who bravely maintains a fiction so as to protect Harry throughout his entire life—is revealed. The scene never fails to touch me. Harry’s sudden understanding, combined with my own history of misjudging people’s intentions, is an epiphany, and this scene is symbolic of the fact.

But the most compelling sequence in this film for me is when Harry makes the decision that he must allow himself to be killed by Voldemort. In this scene, his dead parents, uncle and friends appear. Harry asks his uncle, “Does it hurt? Dying?” The poignancy of the moment is almost too much to bear. Harry asks the question, or at least a variation of the question, that is never far from my own consciousness. He probes the feeling of death. And then, he voices his desires, my own desires, to his dead family and friends: “Stay with me.” God do I get that one. With these ghosts close at hand, he walks into the forest to fulfill destiny—his death at the hands of the dark lord.

The rest of the movie is pretty typical of the epic plot that befits most action movies and great religions. Harry’s final battle with Voldemort is of less interest to me than his ever-developing humanity on the pathway to the moment. After all, in movies and in life, we know the final curtain. What we don’t know is how we will approach it. I return to Harry Potter because I appreciate the ending framework he chooses. He speaks words I would rather not say. When I imagine my last moment, I like to think that those who have gone before me will be there to help me face my own “voldemort.” I like to think that what I have witnessed with others as they have passed—that they seemed to be in communion with their own saints—will come to pass for me.

Nevertheless, I cannot lose the fact that my dis ease is not a movie, a book, a fiction that can be closed because the story got a little harder to take. Unlike the actors in Harry Potter, my family and friends, my colleagues and I cannot just walk away from our roles, closing down for the day and picking it up where we left off the next time we are together. But that is how it should be, and that is probably the most compelling reason for my repeated return to The Deathly Hallows. Because I know they are acting, I can put myself in total empathy with them.

And then maybe, just maybe, I can come back to pick up where I left off…tomorrow.

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The Author

Yesterday, we held our annual children’s literature conference at St. Thomas. I love hearing the authors speak in their own voices. Each approaches writing with such different ideas that I don’t think I could ever tire of hearing from them. Today, I am still filled with the inspired imagination of this year’s two guest authors. Christopher Paul Curtis writes Flint, Michigan into stories of childhood punctuated with assembly line sounds of the rust-belt auto industry and a little big band jazz to keep it honest. Linda Sue Park undulates between the lilt of her parent’s Korea, and the careful steps of a girl that carries water from watering hole to village, eight hours each day in the Sudan. She has that uncanny ability to take a single object, event, idea, and see a whole story spring to life around it. And even their presentations yesterday illustrated the many ways to author a story. Curtis jammed on memories of his mother, alternately reading and dancing the parts as each character delivered lines that made you laugh and cry. Park read carefully crafted sentences, specifically designed to move the mind toward examination of assumptions about how we represent life to our kids. I am not trying to get you to go out and buy their books, although you would not be disappointed with their writing. Like all great writers, they move you to imagine beyond what you already know into a stretched reality that accommodates what you might never have constructed on your own.

With that in mind, as I listened to both these authors speak, I had the strange out of body experience of a different reality, an experience that has come so often in my dis ease journey. Suddenly, it seemed to me that I was not so much an author but authored, not an inscriber but an inscription. Dis Ease is the supreme writer of my life. It has scribed my plot line, given me the characteristics to negotiate the twists and turns of this ALS story, and left me to wonder not so much about the ending, but how I am going to get there. As Mr. Curtis and Ms. Park spoke, the epiphany of my own illiteracy in all things dis ease, and the catch up I feel I am always playing with the crazy roller coaster of my author’s plotline was suddenly obvious to me, and I was both comforted and afraid. I can imagine how this sounds to you—a little nuts, a little too literary, but hear me out. Life-authorship is not that radical an idea.

I have numerous friends who believe that their lives are already written, ordained by God, and that their ultimate responsibility is to stay the path predestined for them by some power greater than themselves. And this isn’t just the Calvinists I know and love. Many in this world believe that the lives they are living now are the result of the lives they lived before, that their current circumstances are the direct result of the life decisions they made in earlier lives. Even those who deny such supranormal controls, atheists and agnostics, still wrestle with deterministic variables in their own spheres of influence. They recognize such determinants as quality of education, poverty, and privilege as authors of the lives of young people, either lifting them up or dooming them to cycles of failure. Each of these phenomena represent a life author, with set plotlines and characters that are almost caricatures of stories long played out. And the greatest fiction – nonfiction tension that they write is that we each control our own destiny. That is where Dis Ease trumps all.

Dis Ease levels all stories so that the only one left standing is the human one, broken or lifted up, by the experience of dis ease. And it is here that I find myself absolutely amazed by my author. She has written my life as if the person I was never existed, and then given me the choice to embrace or reject what I thought I knew. Dis Ease makes it so easy to just give up, to throw up my hands and deny the lessons I thought I was learning when I didn’t discern the author(ship) or author(ity) of Dis Ease. It would be so simple a thing to allow the roaring, unconscious, almost debilitating knowledge of journey’s paths and journey’s end to dictate an unthinking, even panicked response to this horror story visited upon each occupant of this human plane by Dis Ease, the writer of our destinies. And I see it—

If you believe that you will never have enough, Dis Ease is your author. If you believe that real love is always just out of reach and can only be gained by tossing over those for whom love was professed in favor of some idealized lover, Dis Ease is your author. When death steals away the presence of half your soul so that you think the only thing you can do is grasp the remnants of your previous life so tightly that they can only feign living in your presence, Dis Ease is your author. When bodily breakdown frightens you into hiding from your future travails and denying your past capacities, Dis Ease is your author.

I know this author well, for he is present when fear translates into the scraping, caustic, cynical experience of believing that there is nothing better than this. He imagines souls that feed more on prisons and walls and despair, than schools and parkways and hope. Dis Ease is this author.

The temptation is to forget the stories that have always been our center, to believe Dis Ease, that they do not matter anymore and are irrelevant to the souls we are to become. What a flinty, brittle existence it is, to buy Dis Ease’s plots. In that dark space, one’s humanity is always in some inhumane battle, mostly with one’s self, as Dis Ease hovers round pulling this string and that, like the great puppet master it professes to be. And it is tempting—you get to give up responsibility, hope, joy, kindness, human engagement. Just blame it on the author. Blame it on Dis Ease. I get that temptation, but the author doesn’t always get the last call.

Many times, when authors speak about their books, they talk about characters that, to their surprise, take sudden twists and turns that were not planned. Indeed, the best books I know are the ones where the author is almost shoved out of the way because her “creations” have not behaved as she intended. And that is more than a good story, it is great literature. When I want to meet that character, experience that event, know that snippet of knowledge, understand that concept so deeply that it has now become a part of me, then I know that the author’s work is not so much about predetermination, but rather about choices offered. And that is where Dis Ease, so overwhelming, so all consuming, so omnipotent, can seem to forget that his characters can still make the choices that determine the real story. Dis Ease presents the logic of despair, but he cannot write out of the story the choice of human grace, the choice of love over fear. As characters in this great novel, we may need a little help in pushing back, and we will have to find the strength to reach out to each other for support, but we can take the story away from our author. We can choose to live until we die.

How do I know this?

I’m just now reading it in the book, and as always, it’s much better than the movie.