Harry Potter, the Black Dog, and Literary Chocolate

harry potter

[photo courtesy of google image search]

It was recently World Maternal Mental Health Day, so what better time than the present to channel my inner Gryffindor (I’m actually a Hufflepuff, but sometimes you need a little Gryffindor courage) and admit that I’ve been struggling.

I knew I was predisposed to developing postpartum depression/anxiety after the birth of my beautiful daughter in July, but the black dog didn’t bite until this past January.

After months of house hunting with a new baby, getting in bidding wars, and losing on several houses in a hot market, we finally bought our first home and moved an hour away.

The stress of moving combined with sleep deprivation caused by a regressing/teething baby, and long hours of momming due to my husband’s work hours, brought the black dog out of the shadows and I finally had to admit that I wasn’t quite myself.


[photo courtesy of google image search]

I’m in good company. It seems like my social media feed is full of articles written by new moms who struggle to keep their black dogs at bay.

As a hopeful romantic who always dreamed of having children, I thought motherhood would be a breeze. I envisioned blissful days tapping away at my novel with my gently cooing baby content in her bassinet beside me, and then tucking my dozing cherub into her crib at dusk and walking away, perhaps scribbling some enlightened motherly thoughts in my journal and reading a little Jane Austen before settling in for a full night’s sleep.

I thought my maternal nature would enable me to interpret every cry and fulfill all of my daughter’s needs without once questioning my abilities as a mother.

Oh, how naive I was. Motherhood is miraculous, beautiful, and life-changing, yes.

But it’s also hard as shit. 

Add some sleep deprivation to the mix (which is literally torture) and some major life changes and you’ve got some dark days ahead.


[photo courtesy of google image search]

Despite all the Bell Let’s Talk and CAMH initiatives, despite the countless celebrities and high-profile people who have opened up about their postpartum difficulties (and mental health struggles in general), it’s still so incredibly hard for me to talk about.

No matter how many hashtags and coloured shirt days there are, year after year, the stigma remains. If the stigma was truly gone, perhaps I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable and vulnerable right now, like I’ve been wearing an invisibility cloak and have just now decided it’s time to take it off.

So there it is.

The invisibility cloak is off.


[photo courtesy of google image search]

Although these last few months have been difficult, there’s been some light. A local mom group, library activities and outings, meds, prayer, music, daily exercise, and the support of friends and family have all helped alleviate some of the darkness.

I’ve also been learning a lot about the importance of self-care, which is particularly important as a mom when you’re constantly meeting the needs of others. I’ve learned that “me time” isn’t selfish–it’s a means of survival.

My “me time” happens every night after the baby finally goes to bed and I hand over the monitor to my husband so he can keep an eye on her for a few hours. I dive into bed, put my earplugs in, and get lost in a good book before getting some uninterrupted sleep.

Which brings me to Harry Potter.


[photo courtesy of google image search]

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the series before.

Despite being 11 and the target audience when the first book was published, many Christians were leery of the series based on their “glorification of witchcraft and magic” … even though the author herself is a professed Christian.

As I grew up, what prevented me from reading the books was my natural distaste for anything with hype and desire to go against the grain.

Flash forward 20 years and I can say with all sincerity: Harry Potter has saved me. 


[photo courtesy of google image search]

Now I can see why everyone has been trying to get me to read the series for 20 years. Now I understand why, when I told a coworker my intention to read the series on my maternity leave, she said, “Oh Alison … enjoy getting lost in the magic.” Now I know why it’s such an enduring series, and all the hype is well deserved.

And although I wish I had read the books as a kid, I think they came to me at just the right time, when I needed them the most.

In that hour or so just before bedtime, I become completely immersed in a magical world, distracted by a story that has me unreservedly embracing full-fledged fandom.

lupin chocolate

[photo courtesy of google image search]

In Prisoner of Azkaban (my favourite of the series thus far, although I’m only a quarter of the way through Half-Blood Prince), Harry first encounters the Dementors, which are said to be based on Rowling’s own experiences with depression.

Professor Remus Lupin (one of my favourite characters), tells Harry:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.

Harry discovers he’s more susceptible to the evil creatures–he faints when they’re near while his friends Ron and Hermione do not–much like some people struggle with their mental health while others do not. It doesn’t mean you’re broken or weak.

Lupin tells him:

You are not weak, Harry. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

not weak

[photo courtesy of google image search]

The kind professor, who is also stigmatized, gives Harry chocolate after his first experience with the Dementors–the chosen remedy to sweeten sadness. Eat, Lupin says. You’ll feel better. Chocolate won’t prevent the Dementors from coming back. It won’t completely cure Harry from being affected. But it helps.


[photo courtesy of google image search]

The black dog may always be lurking in the shadows, ready to bite. The Dementors may come and go and sometimes you’ll find the strength to ward them off. Sometimes you’ll feel them drain your peace, hope, and happiness.

But you’ll get up again. I promise. You’ll find the things that sweeten your day, that save you, that reveal God’s love to you, however small … be it chocolate, tea, friends, therapy, nature, or the power of a good story.

You’ll find your way home.



[photo courtesy of google image search]

If you’re struggling with postpartum depression, don’t be afraid to get help! There’s some great resources through Life with a Baby (if you’re in Ontario) and Postpartum Progress.


Girl in Shades: A Book Review for ECW Press

Check out the book here.

Allison Baggio’s coming-of-age tale, Girl in Shades, is a fresh and innovative story about a young girl growing up in Saskatoon in the 1980s. Perceptive, sensitive Maya Devine is just an ordinary girl who loves Corey Hart … and can also see auras and read minds. The story spans ten years of Maya’s life in a tough and tender bildungsroman, taking Maya from Saskatoon to Toronto to India as well as back and forth in the events of her fascinating life.

At times, Girl in Shades feels like Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness in that the impressionable protagonist is sharply observant (or some degree of psychic, in Maya’s case) and is shaped by, and ultimately must break from, their dysfunctional families. The novel begins with the death of Maya’s mother Marigold and proceeds to relate the events leading up to and following that moment, from Marigold’s cancer diagnosis, to her refusal to receive treatment and decision to live in a teepee in the backyard and the media circus and disintegration of the family unit that ensues.

Dealing with her mother’s death, her mother’s secrets, and her distant father are heavy subjects but Baggio adds a lighthearted touch in the form of a colourful cast of secondary characters whom Maya observes with humourous candor.

Maya is truly an unforgettable heroine and Girl in Shades a quick and touching read.


photo courtesy of http://www.weheartit.com

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say, “I’m going to take a hot bath.”

I meditate in the bath. The water needs to be very hot, so hot you can barely stand putting your foot in it. Then you lower yourself, inch by inch, till the water’s up to your neck.


I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath.

I lay in that tub on the seventeenth floor of this hotel for-women-only, high up over the jazz and push of New York, for near on to an hour, and I felt myself growing pure again. I don’t believe in baptism or the waters of Jordan or anything like that, but I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water.


The longer I lay there in the clear hot water the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft, white, hotel bath towels I felt pure and sweet as a new baby.

–from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I’m rereading The Bell Jar for Book Club and once again, Sylvia Plath’s poetic brilliance floors me. I sincerely wish she had stuck around to write more novels as darkly enchanting as this one. It really is a shame that so many creative geniuses have to cut their lives short (Plath was 31 when she killed herself), when they could have been so prolific; it’s a shame that brilliance and mental illness have to be so inexorably linked.

When you think about how many talented artists, musicians, authors, poets, and actors who have killed themselves or died at a young age, the list is staggering. What would the artistic world look like if Van Gogh had painted well into old age, if Virginia Woolf hadn’t walked into the River Ouse, if Kurt Cobain had the career longevity of Mick Jagger (not to compare apples to oranges, but you get the point)? Would they have eventually faded into irrelevance and obscurity, or would they continue to produce work that is original and fresh?

In any event, whether these tortured souls would have been prolific into their old age or if they had become recluses, perhaps it is as Don McLean sings, that this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you …  

Sylvia Plath -- poet, tortured soul

Confessions of a Bibliophile

Bibliophile: [bib-lee-uh-fahyl, -fil] –noun a person who loves or collects books, especially as examples of fine or unusual printing, binding, or the like.

and i'm a little bit nerdy

I suppose I’ve been a bibliophile since before I could even read and this is what filled me with an insatiable urge to figure out what the letters on the page meant. I loved the smell of the pages, the feel of the books in my hands, the ability to escape and learn and get absorbed in a story. I won a creative writing contest in grade 3 and spent the $100 prize entirely on new books.

I’ve maintained a lifelong love affair with literature. It’s what I know. It’s my passion. It’s one of the few things at which I excel. Math? No. Science? Heck no. Physical Education? Hopeless … But give me a book and tell me to read it, love it, critique it, dissect it, write papers on various themes and I’m all yours, baby.

Fast forward 10 years or so, and I decided to pursue my love of reading at the university level. Four-and-a-half years of intense reading (with some prerequisite courses thrown in for good measure. Let’s not discuss university chemistry please!) and armfuls, boxes full of new books. My Billy bookshelf sags from the weight.

And then there’s the literary internship. Publishers sending books daily to be reviewed. No time to review them all, so many end up getting shelved. The bright-eyed, bibliophile intern decides to rescue them, take them home like heavy, abandoned puppies.

It’s no surprise then, that years of studying and loving literature have resulted in a bookshelf in this sorry state:

My bookshelf BEFORE spring cleaning

So many books, so disorganized, each one vying for attention, my favourites stacked between ones I never got around to reading. I’d had enough–and I’m Dutch so I cannot deal with clutter and disorganization–so last week I decided to spring clean my bookshelf and undergo the incredibly painful task of deciding which ones to keep, and which to donate to goodwill.

It sounds so silly, but it was an extremely difficult task. I sat on my floor surrounded by all my books, holding each one while I decided its fate. Keep, or donate? My friend and I discussed this recently, and why it was so hard. She too is an English major (that is, we both studied English literature in university and were not associated with the English military) and is in the process of going through her extensive collection also.

We believe it has to do with this dream we have of ourselves that we have to surrender. I’ve always had this idea that I would grow up with an impressive personal library and a house overflowing with books. To be seen as this pretentious bluestocking book snob whose book collection is so gigantic that when people see it they come to the conclusion that I’m just so wickedly clever.

The reality is that books take up a huge amount of space, and there are tons of books on my shelf that I never read or didn’t even like. Take Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for example. Hated the book, not a fan of Steinbeck, but I felt I had to keep it on my shelf just because it makes me look good.

In the end, I decided to get over this dream and only keep the books I would truly treasure and/or read again.

crates full of books to donate to goodwill

I still have an impressive collection, but now it’s much smaller (and alphabetized!):

my bookshelf AFTER spring cleaning

Why hoard books which give me no enjoyment when they can bless and be a treasure to someone else? All I can say is, after receiving the books that both my bibliophile friend and I are donating, goodwill is getting some fine literature!

And I’m still a bibliophile. Just a downsized one.

I’ve Been Reading …


come home in the car you love, brainy brainy brainy

I’ve been reading two different books (one finished, one nearly halfway done) which have impacted me in different yet significant ways.

I recently finished C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity which I bought and read at the perfect time in my life. Clive Staples Lewis has a way of making Christianity so simple and accessible, and the way he words things and illustrates concepts with beautiful and unexpected metaphors made me feel like I was hearing ideas for the very first time (and in many cases, I was). I can say confidently, with no exaggeration, that this book has changed my life and has been an integral part of my “Christian walk.” I love Jack.

The other book I’m currently halfway through, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, is a book I’ve been meaning to read for about a year. There’s only one copy at the local library, and every time I went there since January, it’s been checked out until I got lucky last week! Like The Awakening by Kate Chopin or anything by Virginia Woolf, there are some sentences in it that simply take my breath away.

… But rather than continuing my ecstatic ramble, I’ll let the words of the authors speak for themselves.

they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength

From Mere  Christianity by C.S. Lewis:

[…] many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity–that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride–just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense (pg.125)

[…] for many people […] music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity (pg. 137)

But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step is to try to forget about yourself altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? The same principle holds, you know, for more everyday matters. Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without having noticed it (pg. 226)

first cup of the morning

From The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery:

[…] we are tasting the splendid gift of this unexpected morning as if it were some precious nectar; ordinary gestures have an extraordinary resonance, as we breathe in the fragrance of the tea, savor it, lower our cups, serve more, and sip again: every gesture has the bright aura of rebirth. At moments like this the web of life is revealed by the power of the ritual, and each time we renew our ceremony, the pleasures will be all the greater for our having violated one of its principles. Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls: fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time. Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn–and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb.

So, let us drink a cup of tea.


The tea ritual: such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls morn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed (pg. 90-91)

Dear Lord, I wish I had written that. But I’m also thankful that yesterday afternoon out on the back deck in a rare moment of sunshine, with a delicious polichinka and a cup of tea, I read that paragraph and had to take a break to let the beauty saturate me.

North & South

It’s unhealthy how many times I’ve watched this clip (the last 5 minutes of BBC’s mini-series, North & South) since completing the series last weekend. And I get teary-eyed every single time I watch it. I don’t call myself a romantic for nothing!

The rest of North & South is definitely worth watching too, if only for the brooding handsomeness that is Richard Armitage, who plays the steely Northern mill owner, Mr. Thornton. The film is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel and chronicles the tempestuous relationship between Margaret Hale, from the balmy South of England and John Thornton, a self-made man with a manner rougher than Mr. Rochester’s. It’s a very socially-charged story set in the Industrial Revolution — an era romanticized by Charles Dickens — and deals with such sociopolitical concerns as union strikes, the working class, and the relationship between workers and masters. Aside from the beautiful scene I posted above, it’s quite a dark, gritty, heartbreaking film.

… But getting back to Mr. Thornton, I believe it has been decided. Darcy, Rochester, Knightley and now Thornton have ruined me for real men!

Mr. Knightley in Shining Armour

Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller as Emma and Mr. Knightley

I finally finished watching the 2009 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma on the weekend, so my life can now go back to normal … whatever that means.

Remember how I said Mansfield Park was my favourite Jane Austen novel, yet Persuasion was slowly creeping into number one?  Well, now I think I’ve found a new favourite film adaptation in this Emma.

Emma has always been the Jane Austen novel I kind of forget exists. I don’t know why this is. It’s light, it’s fun, it’s humourous, but for some reason I’ve never been able to identify with Emma Woodhouse herself the way I do Fanny Price or Anne Elliot. I always found her selfish, silly, immature, and spoiled. As much as I like Gwenyth Paltrow, I never felt like she suited the role of Emma in the 1996 film version. She always felt just a little bit too reserved, old, and American for the role.

Talented and underrated actress Romola Garai, however, breathes new life into the latest adaptation. She’s equal parts girlishness and consideration, shallowness and depth, and her wide eyes are just so endearing. I found myself liking Emma Woodhouse for once, rather than shaking my head at her elaborate plans and shenanigans. Jane Austen is recorded as saying that Emma is a heroine only she could like, and up until I saw the BBC film, I agreed. I found her trite, vapid, too rich and proud for her own good, and her meddling in others’ affairs just a game to amuse herself.

This version of Emma gives the heroine more depth. She is completely devoted to her worrying, hypochondriac father (played excellently by Michael Gambon) and is socially intelligent. She is the one who tries to keep the atmosphere light and friendly, the one who can read agitation or distress on another’s face and make everyone friends again. Her intentions are always pure, so you can’t stay angry at her for too long after she messes up someone’s love life. And the knowing looks exchanged between Mr. Knightley and Emma … it’s the stuff that makes me mad for Jane Austen!

Speaking of Mr. Knightley, I think he may be my favourite Jane Austen hero. Although Mr. Darcy, everyone’s fave, is sexy, he’s much too moody for me, too arrogant and proud. Henry Tilney is too boring, Edmund Bertram too moralistic, and Edward Ferras is just a bumbling wimp. As for Captain Wentworth … he’s too unforgiving and I find I hate him for making Anne jealous with the Musgrove sisters.

But Mr. Knightley is perfection. He’s good and kind, stately and wise, and a perfect gentlemen at all times. And let’s be honest — he’s quite rich. While Jonny Lee Miller makes an irresistable Mr. Knightley, I prefered him as Edmund Bertram in the 1999 Patricia Rozema version of Mansfield Park. No one can hold a candle to the devastatingly handsome Jeremy Northam, especially with proposals like this one:

“I rode through the rain … I’d ride through worse than that if I could just hear your voice telling me that I might at least have some chance to win you.”

Yes, Jeremy Northam. I do. One hundred times over, I do!

It’s no wonder the ending of Emma always leaves me in tears.