Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ronna Bloom

Harriet the Spy; Fitzhugh, Louise

It was Mrs. Boloten at the Cote St. Luc Public Library who told me everything. I have a sense of being plunked sheepishly before her in my pink, horn-rimmed glasses and asking. No, not asking. For as in the old testament story of Passover, I think I was the daughter (son in the story) who didn’t know how to ask. At any rate, plunked there, I hoped someone would direct me. Tell me where I would find what I needed. And Mrs. Boloten did.

Somehow she knew. She steered me toward books and stacks and card catalogues. Showed me how to work this thing called a brain and what I might put it to. Connected me to the world. For years, I went to Mrs. Boloten and, like a pastry chef bringing out one gorgeous dessert after another, she made my eyes widen. She said, ‘Read this,’ and I did. There was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. But at the peak of that fictional croquembouche was Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. I had no idea what I was getting.

I took Harriet home and began what I now consider my strange relationship with novels. I seldom read them, but when I do, I carry them for months and months reading them bits at a time. I read for five minutes in bed, for ten minutes walking home, for a few on the bus (because that makes me motion-sick). I carried that book around making it last.

I was twelve when I got Harriet the Spy out of the library. I had friends. But they changed or I did. Grade six is a treacherous time for girls. My best friend was hated, by me, on alternate days and vice versa. Not much was safe. In my family, my Dad was powerful. He blazed like a ferocious star with us, these small planets, revolving around him. I was bad at sports and did not join teams. My eyes were crossed so baseball was out of the question. On weekends, my friends went to the Cavendish Mall. I went with my family to the Eastern Townships where there were forests and no guides.

There was some relief out in the country. For though I didn’t trust myself to navigate the strange pathless place, it was a reprieve from the agony of grade six, the shifting alliances and betrayals. The trees stood there and I visited them. One day, I took the book for a walk. It was fall, a cool orange-leafed day, and I didn’t go far. I remember sitting at the edge of the road on a tree stump. The peace of no one meant I could come forward a bit within myself. Surface. It is one of those carved-out moments. Sitting there reading about Harriet, how she carried her notebook around, and wrote in it secretly about her friends and family. This is what she did with her aloneness. She wrote everything down! When they discovered what she had written, it was gasp-worthy. The anger. Shocking. Sitting there, I saw I was already that. I had not yet started writing, but I recognized myself.

Thirteen years later, I sat in a full auditorium and Audre Lorde came out onto the stage. I'd never heard of her. A friend had insisted I come. So I went. Audre Lorde looked small in what I think was the elegant Wigmore Hall in London, England, in 1986. She stood alone on an empty stage. All I knew was that she was a feminist, which meant I was supposed to like her, and a poet. I was worried I wouldn’t get it. And that it would have nothing to do with me. In the same way I stood in front of Mrs. Boloten not knowing how to ask, I sat there, dumb.

It was the year her collection, Our Dead Behind Us, came out and she was reading from it. I don’t remember any of the poems. Only her looking out at the audience with a stark clarity and saying, "Know where your power is." I wasn't sure what she meant, yet I felt it ringing in me. All the doubt that came with bad eyes, fear of asking, a bad sense of direction, led to a feeling of no power at all, all the belief that other people had power -- those who were “political,” which I wasn’t or “wealthy,” which I wasn’t or male, which I wasn’t. Only the quiet absorption of every book and friendship and family tension was mine. Silently, internally mine. And perhaps there was a power in it, in me to do something with it. It was all I had. Was it anything?

I was at least thirty before I started to write. I wrote about what I had begun writing about in the diaries I kept in the days of the Cote St. Luc library, diaries any girl keeps about the unfair and the fickle. I was always writing about David Shapiro and Francine Taras, about the Strawberry Girls, the ones who wore strawberry lip gloss and "Love’s Fresh Lemon Cologne". Who dotted their i’s with hearts. And while the writing changed, Harriet the Spy and that quote by Audre Lorde stayed.

I have taken this writing out of my notebooks and typed it into poems and put it in the world. And yes, people got mad at me. I nearly lost some of them for writing things that seemed urgent and needed telling. The telling is not the hornet’s nest, it is the poking of the hornet’s nest. And everyone got stung, me included.

There was a time the telling was more important than any relationship, the need to speak more urgent. Each time, the decision taken meant asking, "Am I willing to risk this? Am I willing to lose this person in order to write this poem?" If the answer was yes, I went on. That process still goes on. It doesn’t feel as terrifying or as risky. But that’s just this week. Who knows what I’ll write tomorrow. And where it might get me or what it might cost me. I only know that with writing there is always a risk that someone will turn away. But in not writing, or not speaking when I need to speak, there is a turning away from myself. And that’s where I started. That’s where Mrs. Boloten came in.

Ronna Bloom has published three books of poetry. Public Works, published by Pedlar Press, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award in 2005. Personal Effects (Pedlar Press, 2000) was acquired and translated by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Ronna is a psychotherapist in private practice and teaches at the University of Toronto. Her poems have been included in anthologies, textbooks and broadcast on CBC radio. Her fourth book, Permiso, will be published by Pedlar Press in the spring of 2009.

Harriet The Spy
Louise Fitzhugh
Published by Delacourte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books
Originally published by Harper and Row, 1964

Our Dead Behind Us
Audre Lorde
Sheba Feminist Publishers, 1986


almeidachristine said...

This is really moving and beautifully told. Ronna, your candor is the first taste sensation, your compassion the aftertaste.

Praise be to Mrs. Boloten and Audre Lorde. I have often thought about people who were significant in my relationship with books. And I've sent up countless thanks to them. Now you've made me want to write about that as a way to deepen the exploration. Thank you.

jill said...

Your piece is inspiring (- and I too loved Harriet the Spy and A Wrinkle in Time! -), and is getting me thinking about what book I'd pick if I were writing an essay for this...

Criteria could vary; one book I think of is Little Black Sambo: the four others in my kindergarten class in a tiny private school in Etobicoke are standing around my desk as I read it to them, proud, I am, that I could read and they couldn't yet. Not-yet-controversial content (ah, blissful sixties' ignorance) notwithstanding.

(The "influential" teachers in question? In kindergarten - tiny private school, remember - it was Nanny, unless we had a substitute, in which case it was Mom. As literary influences they don't count. No offence, Mom or Nanny.)