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Harry Potter & The Power of Stories

15 May


I was driving into work the other day, listening to NPR like I always do on my morning commute, when a segment came on about two of my favorite topics: the power of stories and Harry Potter!

I didn’t think it was possible for me to fall more in love with Harry Potter. I mean, I was 11 when Harry turned 11 in Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. I grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermoine (and I’m still a little bitter I never got my owl invite to Hogwarts). But hearing this NPR segment just made me love the series that much more.

In the segment, Steve Inskeep speaks with social science expert, Shankar Vedantam, who reports that: “New research suggests that school kids who read and identify with Harry Potter display more positive attitudes toward people from disadvantaged groups.”

NPR pulled this research from a study called “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter,” conducted by Loris Vezzali. The study measures the attitudes of elementary, high school, and college students in Italy and Britain before and after they read Harry Potter books or watched Harry Potter movies.

According to the results, exposure to Harry Potter stories changes the attitudes of children toward people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Because Harry and his gang are often portrayed as outsiders, children identify with them and, as a result, form a more positive attitude toward “outsiders” in their own communities, specifically refugees, immigrants, and gay people:

“So it turns out “Harry Potter” may be an effective tool against prejudice,” said Vedantam.

Stories and the Power to Change Minds

This idea – that storytelling has the power to change minds and hearts – is echoed in a recent This American Life episode: “The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind” (what can I say?…I really like NPR). The episode is split into three parts, each chronicling a group that successfully changes someone’s mind on a polarizing issue.

In part I, gay-rights canvassers in Los Angeles take to the streets of communities that voted against gay marriage in a recent election. The canvassers’  goal is to change the residents’ minds on the issue. The amazing thing about this story is that, in large part, the canvassers achieved their goal. Many of the communities that voted against gay marriage in the initial election swung for gay marriage in the next election.

The study found that the canvassers who were successful did two main things that contributed to their success:

  • 1. connected to the voter through a personal story, and
  • 2. listened

They found that the canvassers who used rational rhetoric like statistics or grand moral arguments had lower success in changing people’s minds. However, those who listened to the residents  with no conversation agenda – and asked questions to lead the residents to change their minds on their own had higher conversion rates, not just in the moment, but even a year later.

In addition to listening and drawing out voters’ own stories, the study found that canvassers who told their own personal stories changed voters’ minds at much higher rates than those who didn’t tell personal stories. Canvassers who told stories about their own struggles and relationships were much more likely to change voters’ minds long term, especially when the canvassers themselves were gay.

What Living Literarily Means to Me 

What I love about these real-world studies is they reveal the power stories have, not just to entertain us, but to affect our brains, and our decisions, and our ability to empathize with people.

These studies affirm why I started this blog in the first place. Living Literarily, to me, means letting stories and art and creativity seep into our everyday lives. Letting it change us.

What many see as a silly children’s book series has the power to change real peoples’ minds about real issues. That’s real power. And that’s what I love about stories.

Photo cred: Jordan McQueen 


National Poetry Month: Mary Oliver Invites us to Reflect on our Place in the “Family of Things”

15 Apr


It’s National Poetry Month! I’m not an every day poetry reader, but every April I’m inspired to set aside time to reflect on the powerful words that poke at life’s most challenging questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What does it matter? Where do we belong? What’s the point of art? Of love? How does inequality and injustice affect us all?

I sign up for Knopf’s Poem-a-Day daily email, try to memorize a poem or two, and make an effort to appreciate the power words have to connect people and present the world from new angles.

This year, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Mary Oliver, particularly her collection Dream WorkAfter listening to her moving interview on On Being, “Listening to the World” a few weeks ago I decided to try out a few of her collections.

“Listening to the World” is such an apt title for this interview because being present, alive, and ingrained in the world is what so many of Oliver’s poems are about.

Living in a city, it can be tough to feel part of the natural world. During my daily commute through rush hour traffic I pass what seems like dozens of fried chicken restaurants, litter scattered along the roadsides, piles of snow the color of charcoal, which leaves me craving nature like I’ve never craved it before. Oliver’s poetry has exacerbated those cravings.

I want to briefly discuss two poems from Dream Work that moved me and to which I keep returning, discovering new insights and uncovering new emotions each time I do.

Dogfish: Don’t get caught looking for an easier world

“Dogfish” is the first poem in Dream Work and won my heart over after the first read. And, each proceeding journey through the poem revealed something new. The juxtaposition of the dogfish and the three small fish paired with the speaker’s wandering thoughts about grand themes like her life’s work, love, and struggle, makes it almost seem like the fish are having similar thoughts.

The fish seem to symbolize and reflect for the speaker her own struggles.

“And look! look! look! I think those little fish

better wake up and dash themselves away from the hopeless future that is

bulging toward them.


And probably ,

if they don’t waste time

looking for an easier world,

they can do it.”

There’s so much here. And I’m still not sure what these lines mean. But the fish seem to represent the struggles we all face and emphasize the idea that there is no easier world. We can search for an easier world and get eaten by the dogfish, sucked into the hopeless future that is bulging toward us. Or we can dash ourselves away, and face the past and the vulnerability of love and the knowledge of who we are.

Because “nobody gets out of it, having to/ swim through the fires to stay in/ this world”

Wild Geese: Let yourself belong to the family of things 

“Wild Geese” is one of Oliver’s most famous and popular poems, and I can see why. It’s opening line: “You do not have to be good.” is striking in and of itself. This isn’t your everyday motivational speech.

It goes on: “…You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” We are fragile; we are soft; we are animals, just like any animal, part of the world, whether we are good or not.

We can talk about our despair, “Meanwhile the world goes on.” That notion that we are just another creature, part of something bigger, and the world will go on without us is sobering, but comforting as well. Our despairs are not so big after all. The world isn’t affected by our problems, but we’re called to appreciate its grandeur while we’re here.

But, wait; it gets better. I’ll just share the last five lines. They’re so beautiful!

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

We don’t have to be good to belong to this big, beautiful, mysterious world; we just do, simply by existing and loving what we love. It’s up to us, however, whether to answer the call of the wild geese, and acknowledge our place in “the family of things,” or whether to let it pass us by with our nose in our smart phone, distracted too much by our daily stresses and despairs to notice.

I won’t go as far as Jonathan Franzen in his collection of essays, Farther Away, to say that literature is my religion, but there’s an undeniable spiritual power present in poetry. I agree with Franzen that there’s power in words that can nourish the soul.

It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day: the daily commute, the dirty snow, the hours of screen time, the trials of daily business. What better way to nourish the soul and reimagine our place in the world than through the age-old power of poetic language?

Photo credit: Talia Cohen, UnderSeas Photography

Fresh Start

31 Aug

work station


There’s little I love more than a fresh start. Wiping the slate clean and starting over with renewed motivation and a clear outlook. That’s why I’ve always loved the beginning of a new school year.

The smell of summer changing into fall, the warm, humid days slowly growing shorter and cooler, the sound of referee whistles and marching bands, the rise and fall of cicada music signaling it’s time to get back to work.

Even as a little girl, I loved stepping into the building on the first day of school: new locker, new teacher, new subjects to conquer with the hope and optimism of an empty year yet to be filled, sprawled out before me like a book yet to be written. There’s just something about walking into a classroom, backpack full of new notebooks and gel pens full of ink, that make me feel powerful; like this year is the year I can accomplish anything.

I’ll admit, that feeling of unbridled enthusiasm diminished after about two weeks as the work piled up and the motivation wore off, but I always looked forward to those first few days. Those first impressions with new professors and class periods with exciting projects and the prospect of interesting new books to read.

I no longer  run on an academic schedule, so it’s weird to feel the summer drawing to a close and not be pulling out fresh notebooks and 18th century novels to kick off another school year. I get nostalgic just thinking about syllabus day.

Since I no longer have a fresh start conveniently built into my year with the cycle of academic semesters, I guess  I’ll just have to create my own new beginning. I took the summer off from writing and blogging, but now it’s time to begin again. Fresh.FA5A8285a

In my measly attempt to make excuses, it’s not like I wasn’t doing anything this summer. I got married in June (no big deal), went on a honeymoon to San Francisco (amazing!), and the rest of the summer…well…I’ve just been too busy having fun to do much of anything else (city league volleyball, c-league, silver-bracket champs!).

But even after one of the best summers of my life, I’m still ready for the change of seasons and the signal that it’s time to get back to work. With fresh goals and renewed motivation, I look out the window on this perfect end-of-summer day and tell myself: “This is the year I can accomplish anything.”

Photo Credit: Aleksi Tappura

Llewyn Davis: The Hard Working, Talented, Failed Musician

29 Apr


Greenwich Villiage, 1961. I can hardly think of a more idealized creative space for a starving artist. And I can hardly think of a better starving artist character than Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) in the Coen brother’s most recent film Inside Llewyn Davis. 

Llewyn, while not exactly a likable character, is the sort of character you want to succeed  because of his pure vision of music and art and his “stop at nothing” drive to succeed by pursuing it. When it comes to sticking to your guns and working toward your dreams no matter what sort of unpleasantness you have to go through, he is a stronger person than I. He is poor, essentially homeless, and lives from day to day, moment to moment. You could say he lives only for his craft and because of that possesses more self awareness and courage than most wannabe artists.

On the other hand, you could also say he’s an idealistic asshole who mooches off his friends and family with no concern for anyone or anything but himself.

What makes the film so interesting is Llewyn’s character, which is so fluid you can’t really decide which side you’re on. He’s not likable.  You probably wouldn’t want to be friends with him. But you want him to succeed–maybe because he reminds you of you and your own unfulfilled artistic dreams.

I was watching the movie with my fiancé, Sam, and at one point he turned to me and said, “He’d be the worst sort of friend.” I think part of what was behind Sam’s comment was the fact that neither of us would have the guts to rely on other people for so much. Does that mean we’ve taken the easy road? Or that we’ve been responsible? Maybe both.

Part of what makes Llewyn’s character simultaneously dislikable and admirable is his refusal to conform to anyone’s standards of pure art, even when that means insulting those who aren’t like him or missing out on money making opportunities in the music industry.

For example, in a conversation with Jean (played by Carey Mulligan),  he accuses her and her partner Jim (played by Justin Timberlake) of:

 “trying to blueprint your lives. Move to the suburbs. Have kids.”

“That’s bad?” she responds.

“If music is a way for you to get to that place, then yeah. It’s a little careerist. It’s a little square. And it’s a little sad.”

Llewyn refuses to compromise his vision of pure folk music, even though a little compromise might mean the difference between “making it” and not in the music business. And he looks down on his friends who do conform to industry standards.

Another condescending example of Llewyn’s idealism is during a conversation with his sister. She suggests that he take a break from music and return to the merchant Navy to which he responds “is merely to ‘exist.’

She says: “Exist? Is that what we do outside of show business? It’s not so bad.”

A brilliant response, I think.

The awful truth, which Llewyn shows us, is that people inside show business merely have to exist too. They have to figure out a way to make it while still existing and surviving and living independent and productive lives.

The New York Times review of the film points out a rarely spoken, but commonly experience truth:

“Hard work and talent do not always triumph in the end.”

Sometimes–probably more often than we like to admit–people have the work ethic and the passion and even the talent, but, for whatever reason, they don’t make it. No matter how much they practice and will themselves to succeed, art sometimes just needs that little bit of luck or magic or unspeakable spark that you either have or you don’t.

Whatever it is that separates the artists that make it from the ones that don’t , the Coen brothers pull on the heart strings of every wannabe musician, writer, and artist, and exploit their fear that sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s never going to happen.

The bitterness of this point is driven home at the end of the film when the movie literally comes full circle and we find Llewyn back where he started, and as he walks out to the alley where we all know he’ll get the shit beat out of him, we hear Bob Dylan playing “Farewell” at the Gaslight in the background.


LungLeavin’ Day 2014: Smash your fears

22 Jan

Imagine your life in its prime. You’re in your mid-30s, happily married, great job, and after trying for a few years, you’re finally expecting your first child. You’re ready to take on the world as you find yourself smiling just thinking about the wonderful future and family you have in front of you.

But in the back of your mind, you’re scared. You feel a shallow twinge of fear reminding you that it could all go away.

  • Something could happen to your husband.
  • You could fail on your next big assignment at work.
  • You could lose the fragile baby inside you you’ve been praying for for so long.

Your life seems so perfect now, but just one slip-up could turn it upside down.

Heather Von St. James: A Tale of Fears Overcome 

A little over eight years ago, Heather Von St. James was forced to take on the terrifying reality of a worst fear come to life. She was young with a loving husband and brand new daughter when she was diagnosed with Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma and told she’d have 15 months to live.

I can’t imaging the unending list of fears after hearing that sort of diagnosis. Fear of missing your daughter’s ballet recitals and fear that she’ll grow up without a mom, fear of what’s next, fear of pain, fear of the effect your death will have on those you love. So much fear. Paralyzing fear.

But Heather wasn’t paralyzed. She fought and decided to undergo surgery to remove one of her lungs. Miraculously, the surgery worked, and eight years later, you can find Heather playing with her eight-year-old daughter and enjoying life.

What’s LungLeavin’ Day? 

I think we can all agree that a diagnosis like Heather’s is one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. She and her family knew their lives would never be the same. So to commemorate her survival and celebrate the conquering of fears, Heather and her friends and family celebrate what they call LungLeavin’ Day, which originates from the day Heather’s lung left her body and saved her life…clever!

The idea is so simple and creative it gives me chills. The main purpose of LungLeavin’ Day is to encourage others to face their fears. Each year, Heather’s family and friends gather around a backyard fire, write their biggest fears on a plate, then smash them into the fire. In the words of Heather’s husband, Cameron:

“We celebrate for those who are no longer with us, for those who continue to fight, for those who are currently going through a tough time in their life, and most importantly, we celebrate life!”


You Can Participate!

Take part in this year’s LungLeavin’ Day through Heather and Cameron’s interactive website. Scroll down the screen and watch Heather’s fears smash into the fire. Then do it yourself: write your worst fears on a plate, scroll down, and smash them into the fire as they reach the flames.

What’s inspirational about Heather and her family is not that they don’t have fears, but that they’ve found a way to acknowledge them without letting them debilitate their lives. Celebrate the start of this year by acknowledging your fears, then resolving not to let them take over your life by participating in this year’s LungLeavin’ Day, officially celebrated by Heather and her friends and family February 2.

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