CA.0802.harry.potter.hallows.2.I remember my entrance into the world of Harry Potter: I was in college and babysitting overnight in a house that contained the series-so-far, The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, on its bookcase. Playing nearby on the floor, my charges gloriously ignored me while I dove into the pages of the first book. I was a skeptic: I hadn’t anticipated finding resonance in the story of a male British preteen wizard, and fantasy was not my jam. (Game of Thrones hadn’t even come out to legitimize dragon-possible worlds.) But I could see myself within Harry’s perennial search for identity both through and apart from his own lineage and surroundings, and I quickly became an addict.

That addiction has survived to this day: our own bookcase contains the whole series, including the most recent edition: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which my husband preordered on Amazon because he is A Good Man. I was thrilled to find that I not only still related to Harry, but saw myself in his story more than ever, location of love-inflicted scars notwithstanding (I had two C-sections and a gash in my abdomen to show for them; Harry had maternal protection from Voldemort and a lightning bolt on his forehead to show for it. Still, relatable). Playing nearby on the floor, my toddler occasionally ignored me while I dove into the pages of this last book.

“Albus is different and isn’t that a good thing,” Harry’s wife Ginny tells him, in one of their many discussions over Harry’s difficulty relating to his younger son, who appears to be so different from his father. After (spoiler alert!) Albus is sorted into Slytherin, the gulf between father and son deepens and consequences ensue. The book is, at its heart, a study of the love between parents and their children: fraught, complicated, and enduring. I also count it a provocative entry into the nature-vs-nurture conversation, one that has especially fascinated me since I’ve had kids and grown terrified of screwing them up on a moment-by-moment basis. (Recent example: Am I teaching my toddler to entertain himself when I read a book in his presence, or am I signaling that he’s not important?)

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The Potter stories stand as a delving-into and reflection of some of the greater themes of grace–see Rowling’s comments on the matter, her own faith journey, our dog-eared copies, and my abiding sense that Harry and Dumbledore’s relationship is a mirror for my own flawed and growing picture of God (He’s abandoned me! No he hasn’t! Wait–HAS HE?!). I’ve clung to them during difficult times in my own life for the possibility of magic–and I don’t mean the wizarding kind–within their pages, a bit of sacredness that would elucidate the mystery that is grace’s working in my own life. Reading The Cursed Child was a gift in this season of parenthood for me, as I struggle with guilt over everything from my kids’ unexplained tears to a spectrum diagnosis and find myself with offspring different from the ones I prayed over while expecting them (namely, they aren’t automatons who heed my every command), and who have problems beyond what I’d ever imagined during those sleepless pregnant nights (which you would think might be an edification for me over the ineffectiveness of worry, but alas…).

In short: Harry can’t figure out parenthood. And thank God and J.K. for that, because I can’t either.

“I’m operating without wires here,” Harry says at one point in regard to parenting, and I so feel that. I’m not the only one to encounter relatability and wisdom in the pages of his story and struggles. I recently discovered the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. It’s hosted by a humanist chaplain and a self-described aspiring “minister to non-religious people.” The two of them love the series so much, and have returned to it so faithfully during turbulent and meaningful times in their own lives, that they decided to record their conversations about it, each installment covering a chapter that’s assigned its own overarching theme, and including such features as a thirty-second recap battle, a blessing over specific characters, and a ritual engagement with the text in the form of a spiritual practice like lecto divinia or contemplative imagination.

1476212389682What I’m saying is they take this seriously, y’all. We’ve got a couple of secular humanists here approaching Harry Potter more circumspectly than many Christians do the Bible. While at first the solemn treatment of what could amount to young adult fiction came off as a bit tedious and silly to me, I was quickly drawn into the hosts’ obvious passion for their subject matter and could see the beauty that arose from their approach to the text. A conversation about the sorting hat in particular drew me in with its back-and-forth over whether we are defined more by our own choices and agency, or by what (and who) has come before us, circumstances and genealogy creating the person we were destined to be. Nature vs. nurture.

It all reminded me of another podcast, Invisibiliaone of our favorites around here–and its episode “The Personality Myth,” which covers similar terrain; specifically, whether our personalities are preset and constant over time, or whether we can become, essentially, different people than who we were starting out–the possibility of change being good news for some (criminals, for example) and terrifying for others (like the newlyweds interviewed outside the courthouse who fell in love with one person and would like him/her to remain that person forever, thankyouverymuch).

I think the answer is…yes?

My girlfriends and I have had many a conversation recounting our observations of our own mothers turning into their mothers, with the inevitable conclusion being that we will soon become Mom ourselves (cue mixture of sentimentality and terror). I look at my own sons and see my anxieties playing out early in one, and my husband’s California-bred calm exhibited in the other. I wonder how much is put there by our DNA and left invariable, which is…scary. Then I ask how moldable they are, how my harsh words and mistakes (these are, of course, what I remember most from our interactions) shape them, which is…horrifying. But also hopeful? Because it stands to reason that if I do this right, or even well, I could of my own volition (with a little help from my husband) create two amazing human beings.

Yeah, right,” I think as I buckle under the pressure and fight the urge to follow Thelma and Louise off that cliff.

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My husband has joked that we should create a cupboard under the staircase for the boys to live in because such housing has a record of producing remarkable product, sample size one. Our older son, at four, has been through enough to make a cupboard-as-bedroom look like a beach vacation. I often blame myself for his struggles, independent of rationality or evidence but because this is what parents do, and, in dark moments, I see his challenges only as weaknesses; as hurdles to overcome or even hide, God help me.

Recently, though, he got a haircut that reacquainted me with the scar on the back of his neck from his spinal surgery two years ago. I thought of my own scars, and of Harry’s. And while I love that there are podcasts that ponder meaningful texts and big questions, I know that for me they will always be missing an essential component. I need flesh and blood, skin and bones. I need scars, because I have them and I see them and, God help me again, I inflict them. I need more than my own agency or the DNA that populates my cells. Parenthood, like marriage, kills me. And I need that death to be a beginning, to lead to a resurrection, to be part of a narrative greater than my memoir or genealogy. I need it for me, and I desperately need it for my children.

“You ask me, of all people, how to protect a boy in terrible danger?” Dumbledore asks Harry in The Cursed Child. “We cannot protect the young from harm. Pain must and will come.” Harry asks if this means he should just “stand and watch” the pain, and Dumbledore replies, “No. You’re supposed to teach him how to meet life.” I am crushed by the weight of this advice–I cannot nail it, ever.

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Cue grace.

“I’ve never fought alone, you see. And I never will,” a grown-up Harry says to (spoiler alert, again!) Voldemort’s offspring while defending his own son. None of us do–but beyond our own community or village or bookcase full of advice tomes, we have what turns curses into blessings (see Nouwen on this if you haven’t already). And we have moments that are evidence of that, like when I asked my son recently about a wheelchair-bound boy in his class who, according to his teacher, my boy always accompanies down the hallway. I never told him to do that, you see. And when I asked my son what he likes about this classmate of his, he said, “He rides a motorcycle.”

My children are waiting, like Albus, for me to see them clearly. And grace is the only way I will. But grace is not a principle I can hear and be changed by in one sitting. It’s an adoption story that I need to hear over and over. It’s like when I tell my own boys their birth stories–those moments of pain that felt like an ending but were really the beginning, this narrative of grace that renames not just me, but takes challenges and calls them gifts. That transforms curses into blessings, wheelchairs into motorcycles, and makes all things beautiful.