I am a huge Harry Potter fan. Huge. I read them as a young adult and it was perfect escapism for me. I love magic, I love witches, I love quests. Love all of it. Huge fan.
When I was pregnant with my first son my best friend told me, “You are so lucky, you get to do this all over again with your kids! Imagine what it’ll be like to introduce them to Harry Potter!”
And she was right. Reading Harry Potter to my kids has added a whole new dimension of love for me. My kids notice things I don’t. They ask questions about things I wouldn’t have been interested in. And reading these books as a mother is different. A neglected child living in a cupboard under the stairs takes on a whole new meaning when you have your own warm, little nugget snuggled next to you.
Yesterday, my older son said, “I know why I haven’t gotten my letter to Hogwarts yet. It’s because I am an American. I would get a letter from the American school! Maybe they don’t start sending out their letters until you are 13. We do education later here you know.”
My son is 12 years old. He is growing up, but the shine of kiddom hasn’t worn off yet. He’s in the in between. He was joking, but also kind of not. He was wistful, hopeful. Sure, I know Harry Potter is make-believe, but I would also really love to be wrong. Maybe it is real? I mean, anything is possible, right? We don’t know all the rules of the universe!
This interaction made me think of the difference between growing up with something versus coming into something. When we grow up with something, it becomes a part of our personal narrative. We accept certain “truths” implicitly. We may pull the curtain back at some point, but there is still a part of us that at least remembers what it was like to wholeheartedly believe.
When we learn about something as an adult, we come with our own biases. We grew up with a different set of truths. We always juxtapose this “new” against the backdrop of our own upbringing. The new is compared and judged against what we already know.
This made me think of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. (This is going to get a little academic, but stick with me.)
Hermeneutics, broadly defined, is the study of methods of interpretation. For Gadamer, the limits of human understanding are key to understanding. We cannot escape the fact that we are beings with a past. So, rather than discount the limitation of our understanding, Gadamer embraced it. He believed our limited understanding played a pivotal role in creating new meaning. Our prejudices, however ill-informed, bring us to the table. They are like our assigned seating at the banquet, and the springboard for polite conversation. Our past directs our inquiry. Truth reveals itself through working with alien/foreign concepts. One must first use one’s own preconceived ideas and then, by engaging in interpretation, we rewrite our perceptions. Since this is an ever-evolving process, the barometer is always in flux. Therefore, there is no end to “truth.” Truth becomes an understanding that arises from the work of people communicating with each other.
In order for all of this to work however, each person must be willing to play. Play means a willingness to let go of preconceived notions, to listen, to be desirous of understanding. If one is seeking understanding, one is engaged in the act of play.
When we look at the question of cultural appropriation, we need to remember that anything we study is juxtaposed against the backdrop of our bias. And no matter how we interpret it, there is a whole body of bodies that have grown up knowing a different truth. They grew up reading the books, doing the practices. In order to come to a better understanding, we have to agree to interact appropriately. We have to be willing to listen to each other, to accept that the bias we have is a bias, and maintain an open acceptance of play, a willingness to engage…
“I know why I haven’t gotten my letter to Hogwarts yet. It’s because I am an American. I would get a letter from the American school! Maybe they don’t start sending out their letters until you are 13. We do education later here you know.”
“Yeah, that must be it. I surely hope you do get your letter. I would love to have a wizard in the house!”
We went on to fantasize about what it would be like to go to a school for magic. Then he said, “Some of my friends don’t believe in magic.”
“They don’t? That’s crazy! I think magic is real.”
“I know! I do too! I mean who knows, maybe it is real!”
“Maybe it is. The universe is vast my friend.”
“Yeah, it is. Who knows!”
I think my son was using Harry Potter, the story of the forgotten boy who finds out he’s special, as a way of telling me that he didn’t feel special. That he wants to be special. He wanted me to assure him that there is a place in the world for him. He wanted to know if I believed in his magic.
Which, of course, I do.
But, then again… I don’t actually know what he was trying to tell me. Maybe he was having a rough day. Maybe there was some funky social situation at school and he needed to retreat back into the world of make believe. Maybe he was just feeling wistful. Maybe he was actually wondering if there was an American school of magic.
I don’t know.
But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we were connecting around a shared love. My connection to Harry Potter is different than my son’s. It means something different to me. When we talk about the stories, we don’t relate on a “purist” level because there isn’t one. Engaging in a purposeful life means that we must first work within our own experience, to circumvent our experience, to hopefully yield a better experience. We have to be our own kindergarten teacher, teaching ourselves how to play nice. Our flawed understanding is necessary to learning. It makes no promises for a perfect resolution. It simply extends an open invitation to play and asks that we enter the game with an open mind and a willingness to investigate.
And that my friends, is how we make magic.