Seeing Thestrals

I found this lovely write-up on Pottermore, when I wanted to find out how to spell thestrals the other day:

Manifesting as black, skeletal, bat-winged horses, but invisible to all who have never been truly touched by death, Thestrals have a somewhat macabre reputation. In centuries past the sight of them was regarded as unlucky; they have been hunted and ill treated for many years, their true nature (which is kindly and gentle) being widely misunderstood. Thestrals are not marks of ill omen, nor (their spooky appearance notwithstanding) are they in any way threatening to humans, always allowing for the fright that the first sight of them tends to give the observer.

Being able to see Thestrals is a sign that the beholder has witnessed death, and gained an emotional understanding of what death means. It is unsurprising that it took a long time for their significance to be properly understood, because the precise moment when such knowledge dawns varies greatly from person to person. Harry Potter was unable to see Thestrals for years after his mother was killed in front of him, because he was barely out of babyhood when the murder happened, and he had been unable to comprehend his own loss. Even after the death of Cedric Diggory, weeks elapsed before the full import of death’s finality was borne upon him. Only at this point did the Thestrals that pull the carriages from Hogsmeade Station to Hogwarts castle become visible to him. On the other hand, Luna Lovegood, who lost her own mother when she was young, saw Thestrals very soon afterwards because she is intuitive, spiritual and unafraid of the afterlife.

We finished the Harry Potter books as a family earlier this fall. It was great, and hats off to Rowling’s tremendous world-building, and to The Historian’s amazing reading aloud talents. A few days later our local bookstore announced that it was having a Harry Potter event. I didn’t know if it would be a big deal, but then I walked in the door to find the store full of little kids in black capes with Griffindor scarves, round glasses, and drawn on lightning scars. We got a free Lego Snitch. It was the cutest thing ever, you guys.

The Thestrals, and the books in general, show us that kids are drawn to darkness. Probably we all are, since it reminds us that we are all so resilient and capable of handling so much. It’s something I wonder about–is it fair to bring so much uncertainty to my children? As a parent, you’re supposed to be a constant source of strength, not a source of weakness and uncertainty. Much as I don’t feel like the best mother in the world, I do my best to be there for the people that I want to take care of, and it is an honor to do so.

I’m still on this kick of thinking of Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour. I grew up in a pedagogy that says that the more critical you are, the smarter you are. I have been trying to fight this my whole life, so let’s push back on this together. The fact that I have anything critical at all to say about Riggs’ beautiful work is astounding to me. There’s this line that people love and respond to. Of her two boys, she wrote, “Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.” Isn’t that an amazing line? And yet. I have a love-hate relationship with that line because Nina was clearly so much more than a mother. It is a beautiful paradox that she saw herself this way. Reducing women to their existence as mothers is one of the modern gender problems that we just haven’t solved yet.

My children got to see me at my most vulnerable, waiting for the paramedics and being hospitalized; and that is probably okay. When I got home from the hospital, I was able to say to each kid separately, “I’m sorry you had to see how unwell I am. I don’t know what it’s like to live with the stress that you live with. But if you want to tell me about it, I want to hear what it’s like.” I’m still waiting.

Before I got so sick I was reading Malignant Metaphors by Alanna Mitchell, a Canadian science journalist who was confronting her own fascination with cancer when her brother-in-law was diagnosed with melanoma. The book was brought to my attention by K, a helpful doctor friend. You know how I’m always looking for metaphors? Well, so is Mitchell. Near the end she writes,

So, cancer as an ecosystem. Cancer as a chemistry experiment. Cancer as a creative cooking recipe, or as a complex video game. I don’t mean this to be comprehensive, but simply the spark to a conversation. The point is that meaphors can evolve. We just need to give them permission.

I wonder what it would feel like if cnacer were a dance, like the example of the argument Lakoff and Johnson write about in their book on metaphor. What would it feel like then? The person with cancer would be a dancer, creating art and maybe beauty and maybe life. Dances take different forms. Some are anarchic. Some dissonant. But they are always radically personal. It’s hard to feel polluted when you dance. Hard to feel as though your very self has been erased.

What’s next for books, you ask? The next family book will be …


because Victorian proto-feminists!

Also, for a recipe, La Neige and I made spaghetti and meatballs last night. It was not at all kosher, since I used some pork and buttermilk in the mix, but it was delicious. I used this easy marinara sauce recipe, and I can and did eat the leftover marinara sauce with a spoon.


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  1. Pingback: It’s Taco Tuesday, y’all. Also, the Instant Pot – Breathing In Breathing Out

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