Advent week 1: a Christmas post roundup

Considering my interest this year in finding practical ways to observe the rhythms of a healthy Christian life (e.g., giving up checking email on Sundays, taking a quarterly three-hour meditation “retreat”), you might think that I have a great plan to celebrate Advent.  I don’t.  I’m just going to do what I always do, which is to break out my Christmas decorations and music on December 1.  (I actually jumped the gun a little this year–I got my Christmas tea towels out yesterday.  And now for the big confession: I’ve been listening to the Celtic Holidays station on Pandora for weeks.)  But I have decided to write a Christmas post every Monday of the four weeks of Advent.  I have no idea what I’m going to write in most of these posts, but I’ll figure it out as I go.  Some of the posts may be better than others, but won’t that be more exciting than those chocolate Advent calendars that reveal the exact same square of bland chocolate every day?  I think so.

I feel a heavy, but probably totally imaginary, weight of expectation on my proverbial shoulders as I prepare to write these posts because I’ve always made a point of writing excellent Christmas posts ever since I began my blog in 2011, a tradition I’ve kept up even during periods when I’ve largely neglected to post  My first Christmas post , written just days after I started the blog, was short but profound.  Since then, I’ve written about topics as widely varying as A Christmas Carol adaptations, the school shooting that occurred in Newtown, CT, near Christmas in 2012 (a post I didn’t want to write but felt compelled to), Danny Kaye’s socks, a Charles Dickens Christmas story that’s NOT A Christmas Carol, and my bird ornaments.

In college, when I couldn’t figure out how to start a paper, I used to take up a page or more on introducing the topic, telling tangentially related anecdotes, and apologizing for what was to come.  By then, I was already well into my required page count!  I guess I haven’t changed much since then; I basically just did the blog version of that exact thing.  This post won’t be an entire waste of your time, however, if you click on the links in the preceding paragraph.  And I promise not to waste your time in my remaining three Advent posts (and my Boxing Day post!  It’s on a Monday this year).  When I next write to you, I’ll have all my bird ornaments up and will have listened to Harry Connick, Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas (another vintage Penelope post topic) at least once.  See you then.

 

 

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The no-maj question

This is the second and last post I am writing in response to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them–at least until I watch it again. 🙂  Spoilers ahead.

A few weeks ago I wrote on my blog that one of the aspects of the film I was most excited about was the presence of a non-magical person as a major character.  I predicted that this would be significant for fandom because it would give us all hope that we, too, could become part of that world (since we’ve all pretty much given up on receiving that lost-in-the-mail Hogwarts letter).

What I didn’t realize was that there would be so many non-magical characters in the movie and that they would represent such a wide array of roles.  (And yes, let’s get this out of the way: “No-maj” is kind of an annoying term, but it makes sense.  Americans don’t like saying long words if we don’t have to.)  In Harry Potter, we basically just had the bland yet horrible Dursleys, but in Fantastic Beasts we have…

  1. The Second Salem group, an anti-witch society, composed of a cold, abusive woman and her adoptive children of varying ages, that’s scarier in its way than any of the dark magic in this film.  I haven’t read any movie reviews yet, but I have a feeling that people are probably tagging this joyless family as a caricature of religious fundamentalists.  I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, and I also noticed that the Second Salemers receive a moment of sympathy when they are dismissed and mocked by one of the people in this next group.
  2. The newspaper baron and his competing sons.  If I hadn’t known that this movie was the first in a series, I would have said that these characters were completely superfluous to the story (though the murder of the political son makes a lot more sense when you remember who seemed most sensitive to his mockery in the scene I just mentioned), but I have a feeling we’ll see at least one of them later.  The “I’m trying really hard to get Dad to notice me” son could go in a lot of different plot directions, whether or not he’s retained any memories of the magic he’s witnessed.  And speaking of retaining memories…
  3. The aforementioned major character, Jacob Kowalski.  By making Jacob a lower-middle-class, frustrated in his job, affable but not terribly brilliant schlub, J. K. Rowling has gone out of her way to make us believe that if this guy can make friends with wizards and witches (and get kissed by one too), surely anyone can.  (I’m focusing on surface appearances here; I actually do think Jacob is pretty special–see my previous post–but you see my point.)  But then the ending of the movie cruelly wrenches that hope away from us as Jacob is subjected to the same massive memory-wiping charm as the rest of New York City.  If there hadn’t been a little scene at the end to let us know that Jacob has subconscious recollections of his adventure, I really think I would have walked out of the theater devastated.

Whether or not you think that the ending negated–I should say “obliviated”–any strides toward no-maj acceptance that the movie seemed to make, you have to admit that there’s a much wider range of non-magical characters than we’ve ever seen before.  And I have a feeling we’re going to see even more.

 

Fantastic EQ and How to Have It

Well, I couldn’t wait until next week.

I know there are some people who read my blog who love J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world as much as I do, but there are also some readers who aren’t great fans of that world but are interested in the psychology/personal growth topics I often write about.  This post is for all of you.

Last night as I was leaving the theater after seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where I Find Them, I ran into several friends and acquaintances, and as we briefly exchanged expressions of love for the movie, I noticed that I kept putting my hand over my heart, as if I needed to keep it inside my chest.  That’s how the movie made me feel.  I felt like my heart was overflowing.

Another way of saying the same thing: Sharp-eyed viewers (and people who have been on Pottermore recently) will notice that the protagonist, Newt Scamander (whom I loved just as much as I hoped I would), has a Hufflepuff scarf.  I remarked to one friend that even though Newt is the only Hogwarts graduate in the movie, all the inner-circle characters seem like Hufflepuffs to me.  Despite their different personalities, they are all kind, awkward, earnest, and almost painfully empathetic.  And I think that’s why I loved the movie.

Emotional intelligence (EQ), of which empathy is a big part, is a topic that fascinates me, so I can’t help noticing when fictional characters show that they have it–or don’t.  In Fantastic Beasts, I saw the main story as a piece of Newt Scamander’s EQ development journey.  At the beginning of the movie, he doesn’t make eye contact with people (he does with animals, though), he behaves bizarrely in social situations, and–most importantly–he’s very, very guarded about his personal life.  By the end, he hasn’t become a different person, but he’s learned to trust a few people who have earned it, he makes the (for him) difficult admission that a human being is actually his friend, and he seem to take the first tiny steps toward falling in love.

But yes, this is a fantasy, not an introspective drama.  Yet I think the splashier plot, the one involving dark magic and wand duels, also hinges on emotional intelligence.  At the end of the movie, empathy saves New York City.  (How’s that for a superhero movie title?)  Seriously.  Unfortunately, it comes too late to save the lost soul whose personal conflict has been spilling over and wreaking havoc on the city.  As in the Harry Potter series, we see that children who don’t receive love usually (unless they’re special, like Harry) have no love to give others.

There’s also a beautiful metaphor for empathy in this movie.  One character that I didn’t except to love (I forgot that Rowling can write really great female characters, unlike so many authors) was Queenie, who is a Legilimens (for you non-fans, that means she can read minds).  Mind-reading tends to be portrayed as a sinister skill, but in Queenie’s case, it’s a literalized form of empathy: I actually do know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling, but instead of using that against you, I’m going to help you if I can, and just accept you if there’s nothing else I can do.  I think my favorite line in the whole movie was when Queenie said to Newt, talking about a girl that Newt used to be close to, “She’s a taker.  You need a giver.”  Right at that moment, Tina (Queenie’s sister and Newt’s–I think–love interest, and the one whose empathy, along with Newt’s, saves NYC) walked onto the scene, as if on cue.  The next second, so did Jacob, Newt’s new friend–a guy who’s so giving that he wants to open up a bakery and spend the rest of his life feeding people (insert emoji with heart-shaped eyes).  So it was just a whole room full of real and honorary Hufflepuffs–people whom you really, really want to be your friend.

Maybe I’ll write more about Fantastic Beasts next week.  (I haven’t even said anything about the fantastic beasts yet!)  But I just wanted to explain why I’m not just being sappy and fangirlish when I say that I had to rein my heart in after watching this movie.

 

things that made me happy this week

I couldn’t settle on a single topic for this post, so I’m just going to make a list of things that brought me a bit of delight over the past week, in hopes that it may be interesting and useful to others as well.  I guess you could call this my T(t)hanksgiving post, since next week you better believe I’ll be blogging about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

  1. Finding the soundtrack to Fantastic Beasts on Spotify today–there’s nothing like listening to the score to get you excited about a movie (not that I needed it in this case)
  2. The full trailer for Beauty and the Beast, released yesterday.  Besides the fact that this is a remake of one of my very favorite Disney movies, I also love that the anticipation is giving me a way to bond with other fans, including my children’s lit students and some of the women in my family.
  3. Speaking of my students (in all of my classes), they’ve been making me happy all semester.  These groups of students are fun and smart, they seem to like me (teachers, let’s not act like that doesn’t make a huge difference in our personal morale), and they seem to actually be interested in what we’re reading.  And those things aren’t necessarily true every semester.
  4. Finding three Christmas tree ornaments over the weekend: a wooden “Peace on Earth” ornament from The Funky Junk Shop in Forest, VA (where I also found a cozy and flattering shirt that I’m now in love with) and a felt baby chick and a vintage Shiny Brite brand bulb with the solar system on it, from The White Brick House, also in Forest (where I also found a vintage Virginia state bird and state flower glass to replace one from my set that I had broken).
  5. Cooking and baking, for myself and for others.  For myself, I’ve been making some chard-based recipes featured in the December Better Homes and Gardens, and they’ve been delicious so far.  Last night I baked an apple pie for a Thanksgiving dinner being hosted by a friend’s local ministry (and the crust actually looked presentable, which is definitely something to be thankful for), and tonight I’ll be making some treacle fudge for the International Candy Tasting at work tomorrow.  And I’m already looking forward to making sweet potato souffle this weekend for my friends and next week for my family.  (I also made some last week just for me–I’d like to keep up this “one sweet potato souffle a week” trend as long as I can stand it.)
  6. The cardio funk class I attended last night at the YMCA.  When people think of my good qualities, rhythm is not normally near the top of the list (or on it at all), but I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoyed this class so much–I knew I wasn’t going to get the moves exactly right, so I just focused more on the cardio than on the funk and had fun laughing at myself.  Tonight…Zumba.
  7. Volunteering with Safe Families for Children, an organization I’m excited to be involved with as it gets off the ground in Central Virginia.  Saturday morning I got to help with registration for a conference for foster and adoptive families where SFFC had a big presence, and it was so much fun to see all these hospitable, compassionate people showing up eager to learn and be encouraged.  Yesterday and today, I’ve provided transportation for some young single moms, and I’ve enjoyed talking with them and playing with their cute kids.  I know they say that helping other people is a big mood-booster, but more than that, I love getting to know all the many different people that I encounter through these opportunities (and this is coming from an introvert).
  8. The beauty right outside my house as winter approaches.  This week, highlights have included a flock of blue jays in the backyard; a huge and colorful woodpecker that landed on my feeder a few days ago, looked bewildered, and then flew away; the incredibly bright supermoon on Sunday and Monday nights, and the hard frost Saturday night/Sunday morning (the coolest part was in the morning when the sun started melting the frost where there weren’t any shadows–my lawn was half white and half green).

I could keep going, but it’s time to go make a chard stir-fry.  You should seriously consider taking half an hour to write down things that have made you happy this week.  It isn’t hard at all.

Is grit good?

This post is going to be fairly similar to one that I wrote a few weeks ago entitled “Satisfaction is not in my nature.”  Today I’m taking a slightly different approach to an issue, or constellation of issues, that I wrestle with a lot.

If you read a post I wrote about a year ago, “I am not fast,” you know that I’m a little cocky about having a high degree of what is, admittedly, an unglamorous character quality: endurance, persistence, tenacity, grit…whatever you want to call it.  Basically, it takes a lot to make me quit.  That last term, grit, has become a buzzword in psychology and education over the past few years.  Studies are now showing, or at least we’re being told that they are, that grit is a better indicator of success in college than IQ or even high school GPA.  And other studies are corroborating the common-sense conclusion that grit remains a useful characteristic in various areas of one’s life, including career and relationships.

So even though it’s not as exciting as being fast or amazingly creative or highly articulate, having grit has become a bit of a source of pride for me.  It’s closely related to a quality that I’ve often been complimented on since childhood: being disciplined.  With that one, it’s a little easier to see how I could start to become smug and feel morally superior to people who do hit the snooze button at least once before they wake up.

In several of my recent posts, I referred to a book I read recently, The Gift of Being Yourself by David G. Benner.  It’s actually the second book in Benner’s Spiritual Journey trilogy, of which I’m now reading the last book, Desiring God’s Will.  (For no strategic reason, I will be reading the first book, Surrender to Love, last–that’s just the order in which I acquired them.)  Benner has spent the first couple of chapters of Desiring God’s Will shattering my pride in being disciplined.  While he doesn’t completely discount the value of self-control (after all, it’s one of the fruits of the Spirit) he shows, from Scripture and common-sense observation, that discipline can lead to pride and rigidity and–most disturbingly–lead us to believe we don’t need God, and therefore cause us to pass ignorantly by the surprising blessings that God reserves for those who gladly participate in the fulfillment of his kingdom.

Having demolished my pride in being disciplined, Benner goes a step further in the section I read this morning and casts doubt on the unqualified value of grit (though he doesn’t use that word or refer to any of the recent scholarship on the topic).  Heretically (especially to American readers), Benner posits that there are times when it may be not only okay to quit, but even sinfully stubborn not to quit.  I need to go back and read the section again to make sure I really understand, but I think he’s right.  I can think of one situation in my recent life in which I probably should have given up on something a lot sooner than I did.  It makes me cringe to write that, but there it is.

As I’m reading this book, I keep thinking about Perelandra, the second novel in C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, and the Adam and Eve-like characters who lived on a floating island and had absolutely no control over where they went.  They just had to trust their creator.  Could I live like that?