Balloon magic

yellow balloonYesterday I was driving through Berkeley with my husband and son and we stopped at the light at Shattuck and Haste. To our right, in front of the Dollar Tree store, a man stood with his little daughter. I guessed she was about five years old. She was wearing a pink skirt and a t-shirt and her hair was all done up in colorful plastic barrettes and she and her dad were looking up at something. When I followed their gaze I saw another man, perched in a tree a couple of yards away. He was leaning out from the trunk toward an arching branch, reaching for a yellow smiley-face helium balloon caught in the leaves, its white ribbon trailing.

The three of us watched in fascination as the man in the tree leaned out over empty space, holding on to the trunk but also extending his arm to try to grab the ribbon. The balloon danced just out of range, floating on the current of air he’d created just by moving, and I held my breath. Was the effort worth it? And then just as I started to worry that he’d lose his balance and fall the balloon drifted closer and he grabbed it. He centered himself on the tree again and as the little girl’s father stepped forward he handed the balloon down, rescue complete.

The windows of our car were open and we were in the far right lane and I couldn’t help it — I started clapping and cheering. The father looked up and into the street in surprise, trying to locate where the sound was coming from; he waved in our general direction and gave the balloon to his daughter.

I embarrassed my husband and my son, though. “Okay, Kate,” my husband said with a nervous laugh. “The light’s green, just go,” and I glanced up and he was right, the light had changed and I was holding up traffic. “Mom,” my son said, with that particular corrective inflection only an 11-year-old is capable of. “Go.”

Irritation flashed through me. What was embarrassing about celebrating a small human success on an a beautiful spring afternoon? “You two,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Who cares if I clap?”

Right then I could feel the choice point between letting go of their response – just letting it be part of the texture of the whole thing, rather than its essence – and attaching to it so that the luminous quality of the balloon, the little girl, the man reaching out from the tree would be clouded. For a second I wanted to choose to be hurt, to drop into a story about how I was misunderstood and unsupported and how my husband and son were too uptight. But the moment was so interesting and hopeful, a flash of theater created by a handful of strangers, that I found myself veering toward something different. I was free to clap, they were free to be embarrassed, and the girl got her balloon back. Amen.

Dzhokhar’s Miranda rights

Miranda-RightsHow I feel right now is that I do not want the police to read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights. No, I want them to use whatever means necessary to get information from this kid who (allegedly) helped kill three people and injure 170. And not just a few scratches, badly injured — like, Jeff Bauman had legs on Monday, and now he doesn’t.

I don’t like this feeling — the longing for revenge. It doesn’t feel civilized or reasonable. And it’s dangerous. To not give 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev due process further opens the door to the brutality we condemn in others (although, believe me, I’m not naive — I know we do our share of waterboarding). And that’s the whole American gig, isn’t it? Innocent until proven guilty, right to a fair trial, you don’t have to talk if talking will incriminate you. It’s why people want to come here.

But I am so angry at the hypocrisy of these kinds of (suspected) criminals. Dzhokhar came to the U.S. in 2002, seeking asylum. He received a $2,500 scholarship by the city of Cambridge in 2011. He became a citizen in September 2012. He benefited from the opportunity this country offers. Then he exploded bombs over a bunch of his fellow Americans.

Not cool.

Yet Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should hear his rights. He should be assigned a defense attorney. It’s even right that he’s getting medical care for his wounds — wounds sustained in a firefight with the cops that ended with his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, dead. Dammit, even if in this moment I want us to hurt this kid back, if we do, our American experiment — freedom of the individual — will be further degraded.

It’s hard to stop a violent cycle with oneself — to be an instrument of peace in a time of war, to sow love when hatred grows like a weed. The good and bad news is that what happened last Monday in Boston gives me yet another chance to try to keep my heart soft rather than further hardening it. To feel the grief of lives lost and bodies damaged and the fear of more violence but to somehow also remain open to compassion for this boy, a young person who has acted very, very, very unskillfully. To grieve for him, too.

Zoo, revisited

Last week my kids were on spring break, and on Thursday, just to get outside and away from the various electronic devices scattered around our home, I took them to the zoo.

When they were little, not yet school-age, I used to take them to the zoo probably once a week. We’d meet up with other mom friends of mine with their tiny kids and tour the place together. The zoo soothed all of us, with its meandering paths and out-of-the-way places to sit and have a snack before moving on to the next animal habitat. And it tired the kids out, so that by the time we got in the car to go home they were ready to nap.

My boys are 11 and 13 now, long past the age when the zoo was magical. I didn’t care. I wanted a chance to be with them in a simple way again. And even though their enthusiasm was muted, I pressed on.

“We’re going,” I said firmly, and piled them into the car.

It’s a great zoo, just the right size, with lots of animals and a separate area with kiddie rides and picnic tables. I paid for our tickets and we went in, stepping easily into the same route we used to take: First the flamingos, then the muntjac deer and the sun bears, then down the hill to the white-handed gibbons and macaws. As we walked people eddied and churned around us — packs of school kids holding hands, teachers in tow; clusters of moms pushing strollers; grandparents guiding their young charges through the crowd.

A surge of gratitude shot through me. I was with my boys, watching the animals and the people and exclaiming over the toucans (“Mom! Look at them! Wow, they’re so loud when they fly!” my younger son said) and laughing at the warthogs and counting the giraffes and, as usual, avoiding the camels.

We were together, right now, but I kept getting distracted by all the memories of being at the zoo with them when they were young, my older son’s fine baby hair swirling in the breeze as he ran toward the tortoises, my younger boy clambering up onto the merry-go-round’s big gray eagle, both of them beaming down at me from the cockpits of the red and white airplanes as the ride circled them around and around. And this time it wasn’t just the shadows of the past that mixed in with the moment but intimations of the future — their sooner-rather-than-later launch into the world of adults.

If I live to be 80, my child-rearing years will only constitute a quarter of my life, give or take – and what happens when they’re gone? In the parenting culture I inhabit, children aren’t born into an expectation of helping with the family farm and to caring for their parents in old age. I tend to think that I can’t expect ongoing relationship with them when they’re on their own. Once they’re out of the house, they get to decide how close they will want to be.

And if children aren’t for parents’ use, what’s the point of having them? I wondered, as the boys and I gazed over the lip of the hyena enclosure. (Besides the continuation of the species, of course.)

When I get into this train of thought I come back to the idea of parenting as an opportunity for spiritual growth – a chance to learn to be of service, to live with integrity. To love to the bone. It’s the only “reason” for parenting I can think of that doesn’t make me dependent on my children in a way that could be burdensome. Seeing my relationship with them as a learning lab releases all of us to move forward through life’s phases more freely. But don’t get me wrong — it doesn’t feel comfortable. To be honest, I’m scared of the pain I’ll experience if my longing for continued closeness with my boys isn’t reciprocated.

My older son tugged on my arm. We boarded the roller coaster, each in our own car. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that the more dramatic task of letting go of adult children was not happening now. Come back to the moment, I reminded myself. Set your anxiety about the future down and really look at your boys. Watch them laugh as we sweep around a particularly sharp turn. Look, we’re here right now, together.

What we talk about when we talk about Lance Armstrong

Gettin' hot under the collar, buddy?

Gettin’ hot under the collar, buddy?

The guy bugs me. Really, really, really, really bugs me. And my reaction to him and his so-called confession to Oprah Winfrey is so strong I’ve just got to unpack it a little.

Perfect blog material!

As I’m writing this, here’s the latest headline, from the LA Times: “Lance Armstrong says he’s the fall guy for the sport of cycling.” Wow. Poor baby. The Times article is referencing an interview Armstrong gave to Cyclingnews, posted January 30. He’s calling for the World Anti-Doping Agency to set up a “truth and reconciliation commission” to get to the bottom of all this, since, as he says in the interview, “publicly lynching one man and his team will not solve this problem.” (Nice evocation there, Lance. You and all the African Americans executed by vigilantes, from the Civil War until at least 1968 — brothas from anotha motha. Roger that.)

Here are a few bits from the Cyclingnews interview:

Cyclingnews: Why do you believe that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is the best way forward for cycling?

Armstrong: It’s not the best way, it’s the only way. As much as I’m the eye of the storm this is not about one man, one team, one director. This is about cycling and to be frank it’s about ALL endurance sports. Publicly lynching one man and his team will not solve this problem.

CN: Do you feel like you’re the fall guy for an entire sport/system?

Armstrong: Actually, yes I do. But I understand why. We all make the beds we sleep in.

CN: When you came into the sport, it probably wasn’t to dope, it wasn’t to cheat but at what point, specifically, did you realize that was how cycling worked and that the governing body weren’t dealing with the situation?

Armstrong: My generation was no different than any other. The ‘help’ has evolved over the years but the fact remains that our sport is damn hard, the Tour was invented as a ‘stunt, and very tough mother f**kers have competed for a century and all looked for advantages. From hopping on trains a 100 years ago to EPO now. No generation was exempt or ‘clean’. Not Merckx’s, not Hinault’s, not LeMond‘s, not Coppi’s, not Gimondi’s, not Indurain‘s, not Anquetil’s, not Bartali’s, and not mine.

Folks, there you have it. (Don’t you love the softball Cyclingnews lobs to Armstrong at the end? “When you came into the sport, it probably wasn’t to dope…”) Armstrong isn’t any different from anyone else, so doping and bullying his teammates into doping and lying about it is business as usual. In fact, he’s just another schmuck in a long line of schmucks just tryin’ to get by in the brutal cycling world.

Why am I so incensed? Perhaps because of Lance’s breathtaking sense of entitlement, his grandiosity, his apparent lack of understanding how his actions have affected others. I hate that shit. But to be honest, I hate it because I recognize it in myself. I’ve been to the Land of Denial, too — not as the head of a world-class cycling doping ring, but in my regular old life, my regular old relationships.

From the Oprah interview:

Oprah: Was it a big deal to you [that you were doping], did it feel wrong?

Lance: No. Scary.

Oprah: It did not even feel wrong?

Lance: No. Even scarier.

Oprah: Did you feel bad about it?

Lance: No. The scariest.

Does he believe what he’s saying? Does he hear himself? It is scary, losing touch with reality (which I’m defining here as basic moral premises like “we don’t cheat, we don’t lie”) so thoroughly that you don’t even see that what you’re doing is wrong. What’s even more terrifying is how easy it is to do this.

If it’s possible at all for me to view Lance Armstrong with any kind of compassion, it’s because I understand, on some scale, how effortless it can be to get to a place where the only person who matters is…me. I’ve been there, and what pulled me out was the collision between the grandiose world I’d created and the real one.

This is what’s happening for Lance. Or at least, he’s being given yet another opportunity to see and accept reality. Will he sober up? It’s not looking good, but hey. In any case, even if I recognize something of myself in Lance — really, the classic human tendency to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions — I’m not ready to stop judging the crap out of him. It feels good, righteous. Comforting. I may be twisted, my thinking goes, but at least I’m not as twisted as Lance Armstrong.

A new way to pray

I used to exert myself at prayer. It was exercise, like hoisting kettleballs or something, and the harder I worked, the more chance I had to make God give me what I wanted. Usually I wanted to be different or feel differently than I did, and I thought that through prayer I could demonstrate my sincerity in this (Lord, we both know I’m a mess. Fix me). Or I wanted other people to be healed or encouraged or blessed — in particular ways. That I was trying to influence God wasn’t conscious, exactly: I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do in order to stay in touch.

The prayers were sometimes really specific but more often amorphous:

Please God, let Susie pass her French final so she can get into the study abroad program.

God, I pray that you would end apartheid right now.  

Lord, may Tina come to know you and live according to your will.  

I pray that Jessica would forgive her mother and sister for leaving her in the parking lot of Safeway when she was six and receive your grace.

Please make me better (or kinder, thinner, of more service, nicer, never angry or resentful or mean).

God, I pray that you would remove this thorny issue/person/uncomfortable situation from my life.

It’s not that praying in this way was wrong. God knows there are many people who testify to the linear power of prayer — “I asked, God gave!” (although I have to say I often find it hard to trust this kind of testimony). It was stressful, though. Striving. My prayers were well-intentioned, but they were based on my understanding of what was a “good outcome.” It was as if life was a play, I was directing it, and prayer was one of the tools I could use to keep the production on track. Put Susie there, Lord, so that when Jessica walks on stage left they’ll both be able to see you in your glory.

Then something changed, and I couldn’t pray this way anymore. (Well, for a while I found I couldn’t pray at all, but that’s another story.) What happened was that I encountered enough situations where I felt baffled or disappointed or betrayed by actual outcomes that I lost faith in my ability to know what to pray. A few examples? The spiritual community I had been part of disintegrated. The cohousing group I helped establish found itself dealing with a dishonest contractor and unfinished buildings. I realized I had an eating disorder. I discovered that, after 15 years of marriage, my husband and I needed to renegotiate a few things. It’s not that these experiences are unusual, and I know many people undergo greater suffering. But they were my particular experiences, and they broke open the assumption that I could influence things just by praying hard.

After a while the only prayer that felt real was that I would be willing to see and accept what was actually true. I began to practice letting go of my expectations, letting go of the idea that I knew how God’s grace should manifest, and it was like a lens clicked into place. Instead of blurry attempts to figure out what needed to happen out there in the world or in other people’s lives, I could focus on trusting myself and others to God’s care — and wait for any instructions.

Nowadays, prayer doesn’t tend to feel like exercise. It feels like release, like a muscle unclenching. I’ll notice that I’m tight with expectation, and that’s my cue to relax and take it easy. To stop struggling. Like Denise Levertov writes, in her poem “The Avowal”:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

What a relief, to sink into the prayer that’s already going on, rather than trying to make it all up myself.

Happy blog-o-versary!

A bunch of stuff has happened since this time last year. I’ve lost roughly 365,000 hairs, for example, and my heart has pumped 2,688,000 liters of blood through my veins. I’ve packed about 180 lunches and cooked more than 350 dinners. I’ve rafted down the Deschutes River, strolled the streets of Chicago, wandered Vancouver’s waterfront. I’ve devoured 49 books and I’ve shot a .22 handgun in the Houston outback.

But I’ve also written 70 posts for this blog since I started it in October 2011 (click here to peruse my very first one, “Doin’ the wave at Old Faithful”). And all you lovely people have read them!

How cool is that?

It’s been great practice, in the same way that sitting down regularly and counting one’s breath is good practice, or swimming laps every day is good practice. You sit, you count the breath, you lose track, you remember and go back to counting. Somehow, doing this over and over smooths out the internal kinks.

Writing these blogs has smoothed out my writing muscles. I have less resistance to getting my thoughts from brain to paper. And ideas have been coming more quickly, too, so that what Ann Patchett says in her essay on writing titled “The Getaway Car” makes sense in a way it hasn’t before: “If a person has never given writing a try, he or she assumes that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world.”

Brilliant or not, ideas come with increasing ease when I get into the habit of writing them down (this happens with dreams, too. Try it). I start to notice more. And that’s the reason for practice of any kind — to become skilled at noticing. Noticing how the ball needs to leave your hand in order to curve just right, or how your body feels when you eat too much, or how that particular expression on your beloved’s face means she’s frightened and trying to hide it. When I practice writing, I start to find more and more things that I want to write about (K-pop! Fleet Week! A dog named Ed!), which then opens to the next connection, then the next, and the next — like a set of Russian nesting dolls.

I find that writing can actually be pretty fun, which is not something I have always been able to say. In fact, I love the passage in Annie Dillard‘s The Writing Life, when she’s describing an encounter with a local sheriff, who politely asks her about her writing: “Foolishly, not dreaming I was about to set my own world tumbling down about my ears, I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else. He was amazed. He said, ‘That’s like the guy who works in a factory all day, and hates it.’ Then I was amazed, for so it was.”

I have felt this many, many times, the compulsion to write even when I don’t enjoy it much. One reader commented after I posted “Scratching the itch” in September, a rumination on the point of writing at all: “I don’t understand the itch, the need to write…I can look at a blank page with no anxiety, delight, or burden…[if you’ve got the itch, it’s] probably the signal that what comes into your head needs to be shared.” Maybe he’s right.

So it’s great that writing these blogs has given me more pleasure than pain. Another Patchett quote (this time from her book Truth and Beauty): “Writing is a job, a talent, but it’s also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.”

Share a mug of tea with a friend? That sounds much better than factory work. Let’s clink our cups to another year of practice.

How many food addicts does it take to clean a plate?

I’m in recovery for an eating disorder and I attended a women-only program retreat in Napa this past weekend. I’d been looking forward to it, a chance to get away for a few days and meet some new people on a similar spiritual path. As I drove to the retreat center, the winding roads and golden fall leaves invited me to relax and take it easy for a while.

So it struck me as funny that the retreat’s first group activity, the thing that kicked off the weekend for 35 women who all wrestle somehow with food and weight and body image was…dinner. Don’t be late, the retreat organizers cautioned, because you might miss the meal.

You’ve got to be kidding. Compulsive eaters, late for dinner? Not a chance.

In my personal experience, compulsive people tend to use substances or behavior patterns to avoid feelings. I’ve learned more and more how not to do this — to instead use tools like praying or talking to a friend or reading some piece of calming literature or taking a walk or pounding a pillow — so that I can stay with myself and whatever is going on inside rather than jumping ship. So when I entered the dining hall that first evening and the uncomfortable feelings started sparking in my body I knew I’d have to use some of my coping techniques (not only was I joining a group of strangers, but I was also going to eat in front of them! And try to be outgoing and friendly! Holy crap).

It went fine, really. The retreat staff served us good, healthy food, and of course, since we were all there for the same reason we had quite a bit in common already. But it’s amusing to me that so often the very things that I suffer over are just right there, an unavoidable part of everyday experience. It reminds me of what Tibetan Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön says in her essay, “This Very Moment Is the Perfect Teacher” (part of her book When Things Fall Apart):

“Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news. We don’t have to go hunting for anything. We don’t need to try to create situations in which we reach our limit. They occur all by themselves, with clockwork regularity. Each day, we’re given many opportunities to open up or shut down…This very moment is the perfect teacher and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.”

It’s so true, and it really is good news, even though I don’t always understand that right away. The stuff that challenges us is always there, offering endless opportunities to confront it and, with each iteration, to heal a little bit more. So if I struggle with food and body image, I told myself that first night of the retreat, there’s no better way to recover than to practice eating — with a bunch of other people who struggle, too.

Tosca in London

A friend and I were hanging out at her shop, Ruby’s Garden, the other day, lounging on the big red couch and chatting about whether it’s possible to have too many stylish bags (probably not), the pros and cons of her business being next door to a popular bakery (more pros than cons), and the possibility of refurbishing her basement into a kind of mommy speakeasy (Project Runway, chips and guacamole…mojitos?). A woman came in with her little girl to browse and joined in our chat and because I had my poodles with me, we got to talking about dogs, how poodles are awesome because they don’t shed and how she has two dogs herself, not poodles though, named Zoe and Tosca, which reminded me of the time that I saw a performance of Tosca at the London Coliseum the summer of 1991 after I graduated from college.

My mom and stepdad were living in Richmond, a borough of London. We must have taken the District Line to the Embankment station and walked to the Coliseum from there. I remember the steamy city air on the way to the theater, a cavernous space that boasts 2,359 seats and the widest proscenium arch in London at 55 feet wide and 34 feet high. The three of us got there a little early so we drank some beer and when it was time for the performance to start we found our seats and struggled through the melodrama that is Tosca. In Italian, with English subtitles on these huge Jumbotron screens hanging everywhere.

I hadn’t thought about that particular experience in years and here it was, sparked by a short conversation about that woman’s dog. It pleased me to remember this, seeing Tosca in London in 1991, because the memory was so random and exotic and concrete. And I had forgotten it.

Think about how packed each of us is with memories of everything we’ve ever seen or heard or felt. Seven billion individuals on the planet, each with a kaleidoscope of experiences.  It boggles the mind – the unrecorded beauty and pain, all these “story slices” (as writer and teacher Laurie Wagner calls them) that remain untold. Because not only do I forget my own memories, but I also will never hear more than a fraction of those my family and friends carry around, much less all the strangers.

My mother told me recently about a friend she had when she was about nine. The friend had polio and used leg braces; walking long distances was painful for her. One rainy afternoon after school the two of them had trekked to the friend’s house only to discover that no one was home and my mother’s friend didn’t have the key. So they walked to my mother’s house, her friend getting increasingly tired and uncomfortable, my mother getting more and more worried that it was not the right thing to do and that her own mother would not approve of her bringing a friend home. But when they arrived my grandmother opened the door, helped both girls get dry and gave them a snack. “You did the right thing,” she told my mother later.

It was a story slice. I could feel how it opened a new understanding of my mother and her mother and what it was like to be nine in 1951, in Southern California, and I was grateful.

I guess what I’m really talking about is the mysterious opacity of human history. There’s a real loss in not knowing what the people of Pompeii were doing the day the volcano erupted, or who made the sagebrush bark sandals archeologists found in Oregon in 1938, buried below a layer of Mazama Ash deposited by the explosion that formed Crater Lake. What did Celtic warriors think about when they stained their faces with woad before battle? What actually happened in the 16th century to the “Lost Colony” at Roanoke? And what motivated John Wilkes Booth to assassinate Lincoln? Big events like these and small, daily ones — it’s all so much collective life experience, unnamed. Unless we’re lucky and a memory like hearing Tosca in London flares up, kindled by a chance conversation.

…and we’re done!

Done, that is, with the September Daily Blog Challenge. Thank you all for reading and for your comments. More posts to come — just probably not every day!

What I learned from Harriet the Spy

 

My copy of Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 book Harriet the Spy looked just like this.

Louise Fitzhugh‘s Harriet the Spy was one of my favorite books when I was about the title character’s age – that is, 11. Fitzhugh published the book in 1964; it won the New York Times Outstanding Book Award that year. And it’s had staying power: More than three decades after it was published, Nickelodeon made it into a movie.

The story is about Harriet M. Welsch, aspiring spy, who uses her journal to take down observations of the people around her. The climax of the plot is that her journal is discovered and read by her friends – who then form the “Spy Catcher’s Club” to punish her. After some pain and suffering for all involved things do work out, though. Harriet’s friends lose interest in tormenting her. Then Harriet becomes editor of the class newspaper and uses her new position to make a public apology.

It’s not surprising why her friends are shocked when they read Harriet’s notebook. She doesn’t pull punches. And why should she? She thinks what she’s writing is private.

“WHEN I GROW UP I WILL BE A SPY. I WILL BE THE BEST SPY THERE EVER WAS AND I WILL KNOW EVERYTHING. EVERYTHING.”

“IF THEY HAD A BABY IT WOULD LAUGH ALL THE TIME AT THEM, SO IT’S A GOOD THING THEY DON’T. ALSO IT MIGHT NOT BE PERFECT, AND THEN THEY MIGHT KILL IT. I’M GLAD I’M NOT PERFECT.”

“MY MOTHER IS ALWAYS SAYING PINKY WHITEHEAD’S WHOLE PROBLEM IS HIS MOTHER. DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.”

In 2008 National Public Radio’s Morning Edition did a feature on the book, comparing Harriet with Nancy Drew, the other girl sleuth popular in the 1960s. Nancy was prim and proper, while Harriet was messy and loud – in fact at one point, Harriet finds out that the family’s cook is baking a cake, and deliberately stomps around the kitchen so that the cake falls in the pan.

When I read the book in elementary school, I loved it because I recognized myself in Harriet. Like her, I felt like an observer among my peers, not quite able to fit in; like her I felt compelled to write my observations down, and I didn’t know many other kids who did that. But Harriet had something I didn’t think I had, and that was fearlessness. She wrote exactly what she thought, without editing. She faithfully covered her “spy route” and kitted herself out with detective tools that she wore on a belt around her waist.

And Harriet learns that different kinds of honesty exist – a key lesson for writers everywhere, no matter what age. After her journal has been discovered, Harriet receives a letter from her former nanny, Ole Golly, who tells her that if anyone ever reads her notebook, “You have to do two things, and you don’t like either one of them.  1: You have to apologize.  2: You have to lie. Otherwise you are going to lose a friend.” Ole Golly also tells Harriet that “little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. But to yourself you must tell the truth.”

One may or may not agree with these ideas about truth and lies, but the fact that Fitzhugh explored them through a book that had an 11-year-old girl as its heroine knocks my socks off, even now. What did I learn from Harriet the Spy? Writing the truth isn’t always tidy, or convenient — and it’s necessary to handle one’s writing with care — but it’s crucial to an authentic creative process. Writers need their pens, their paper in order to understand the world, and they need the freedom to write without censorship, internal or external. When Harriet’s parents take her notebook away, she realizes how important writing is to her: “She found that when she didn’t have a notebook it was hard for her to think. The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down.” I could relate to this feeling when I was 11, and I can relate to it now.