Harriet The Spy and the Child Flâneur: Finding Optimism in Exploration

 

Who would have thought that Virginia Woolf would be the inspiration behind my most recent attempt to reclaim childhood? As college graduation looms ever closer, I can’t help but feel a growing pressure to choose an identity, decide a path—to decide who I am and commit to it. Woolf articulates a similar sentiment in “Street Haunting,” an essay that explores the allure of life as a flâneur—an itinerant observer who wanders a city without haste or destination in mind. Reflecting on the endless hustle of daily life, Woolf says, “One must, one always must, do something or other; it is not allowed one simply to enjoy oneself.” Woolf uses street haunting to temporarily suspend this expectation, and perhaps even time itself, for the length of her exploration. I wondered how this hobby might be applied to Shamelessly Childish.

“Street Haunting” begins with a pretext. A pencil is a convenient enough excuse to flee the confines of home for the expansive possibilities of the outside world. Woolf seizes on it with alacrity. Though Woolf’s tone is characteristically lively and mischievous as she describes her quest, we glean almost immediately that there is much more at stake here than a pencil. The narrator of “Street Haunting” has escaped the suffocating memories of the domestic sphere, for a moment at least, and perhaps the pencil she haphazardly pursues will be the very instrument that pens her essay. And despite the whimsy and curiosity that saturates each page, a certain degree of anxiety or dissatisfaction is also evident. Woolf describes the memories stimulated by the various objects which surround her at home as restrictive, almost suffocating. They tie her to a single identity, a single life that, comfortable and stimulating though it may be, can never contain the multitudes that surround her on a London street. The anxiety that compels our narrator from her home is one that creeps up on all of us sometimes—the fear that, as we grow older, more and more doors begin to close on experiences and entire worlds that we will never experience in this life.

This theme made me wonder about the construction of the child flâneur and how this figure might fit into Woolf’s conception of street haunting. If street haunting is the ultimate method of exploring and briefly inhabiting lives you might have lived, then the child could be perceived as the ultimate flâneur. In many ways, the child embodies possibility for the adult onlooker. Who hasn’t encountered a precocious child and experienced some brief flare of jealousy as you envision the miles of possibilities stretched out before them? The paths they might take, the people they might encounter, what they might yet see or accomplish, always inspires in me a nonsensical, nostalgic envy. So perhaps, as the child traverses the streets of the city, they see not opportunities missed and roles they will never play, but a dazzling array of possibilities for the future.

Louise Fitzhugh considered the exploratory potential of the child flâneur in her classic children’s book Harriet The Spy. In the novel, Harriet M. Welsch makes a job out of people-watching or what she calls “spying.” Harriet’s fascination with human nature and her compulsion to record her observations makes her an ideal flâneur. Her status as a child flâneur is an instrumental factor in the formation of Harriet’s identity as well. Throughout the novel, Harriet briefly intersects the lives of all sorts of characters that orbit her New York neighborhood, from the batty Miss Berry to the dreamy Mrs. Plumber to the pretentious Robinsons to her housekeeper and companion Ole Golly. Each of these tertiary characters provides a glimpse of the myriad directions her life could turn and the varying degrees of fulfillment she might derive from these turns. While the adult flâneur might coast through the city streets in a cloud of removed fantasy, resigned to the fact their lives are following an inalterable trajectory, their childish counterpart wonders how their observations might change the course of their young lives.

Why should we not, as adults, approach the world in this same way? Are our lives not our own to live and change if we wish to? As we wander the streets of whichever city we find ourselves in, can we intersect the lives of those we encounter not with wistful resignation but with curiosity and hope for the future? As I prepare for graduation, I resolve not to look towards the future fearful of choices that will define and limit me, but approach each day as an opportunity to explore my passions and discover new ones. Just as the adults in Harriet’s life ultimately surprise her with their capacity to change and learn from the past, we too must acknowledge that our identities are changeable. In fact, they change each time we step out of our front doors.

Amelia’s Notebooks (Except for Words and Pictures By Me)

One of the great failures of my young life was my inability to consistently keep a diary. Let us hope that this blog constitutes a break in that pattern.

As a young girl, I bought or begged for innumerable diaries—ones covered in sparkles, stamped with pictures of animals, elegant black and white affairs which came packaged with calligraphy sets or fountain pens. If my mother relented, I would happily skip home in her shadow, clutching my prize and airily dreaming of the literary marvels which would soon bloom amongst the stark black lines of my new journal.

Many writers have spoken of the maddening taunt of a blinking cursor or a blank page, but the swathe of white which immediately confronts a new diary owner once seemed to me the most intimidating spectacle in the world. The weight of expectation hung heavy around me every time I opened a diary, and I was often too afraid to even touch my fancy new pens.

To me, writing in a diary seemed monumental. All of the diaries I had read up to that point had featured historical figures or momentous events—people traversing the country in covered wagons or enduring the upheaval of a war-torn landscape. But my life was not the stuff of history books or epic novels or even made-for-TV movies. I couldn’t stand the thought of future archeologists unearthing the diary of a 21st century girl and immediately collapsing in boredom over its mundane contents. Talk about the definition of self-conscious!

But the wonderful thing about Amelia’s notebooks is that they validate journaling as a valuable pursuit, regardless of the relative banality of its contents. Marissa Moss writes from the perspective of a preteen girl—detailing the daily tragedies and triumphs of youth and its unselfconscious egotism. Amelia has complete confidence in the vitality of her writing and the consequence of her problems—whether they consist of moving to a new state, fighting with her best friend, or saving money to buy a ridiculously cool new pair of shoes. Moss does not patronize her creation or her readers with pat resolutions, but allows Amelia to work through her own problems in ways that prioritize realism over drama.

Amelia’s notebooks are filled with the protagonist’s scribbles and doodles and funny asides—taking the time to delve into the passing thoughts that others would easily discard—depicting her older sister’s bedroom as a layered archeological site or anthropomorphizing socks, rocks, lunchboxes, or stamps with the casual creativity of a child. As a little girl, I delighted in Amelia’s little notes and drawings which bordered every page—even the publication page was crammed with little witticisms! It read like a journal I could write—although I remained too hesitant (and not nearly diligent enough) to create my own.

I will be honest. I wrote the first part of this blog entry without a clear idea about its direction or ultimate purpose. Like this blog in general, I knew what I liked and what I loved to talk about, but I wasn’t sure how to translate it to the page or make it interesting for others. In fact, I have been sitting on this blog entry for months—it’s become disturbingly reminiscent of my old diary days actually.

But then I discovered a practical application for this idea—the concept of reclaiming childhood, of being shamelessly childish in the best possible way. At the moment I am studying abroad in eastern France—it sounds wonderful, as it should be. I am living in a town out of fairytale and being hosted by a woman with all of the hallmarks of a fairy godmother (apart from the incidentals like wings and a wand). I am immensely privileged to be where I am now. But despite all of this, I was a wreck before I left. I was terrified to leave my home and my family, but as I sat at the breakfast table on the morning of my flight, I stepped into Amelia’s world for a moment.

As I ate my cereal I imagined I was getting ready to leave for space camp and scribbling in my marbled notebook in the meantime. Panic became anticipation. Anxiety became excitement. The sadness I felt at the thought of leaving my parents became impatience to conquer this new peak of independence. Through the eyes of a child, what I had begun to see as a terrifying leap into adulthood became a grand adventure.

And it didn’t stop at security, or the gate, or upon arrival at Saint-Exupéry airport. More than 2 weeks into my life in France, I have yet to be struck by the gut-churning homesickness I have long anticipated. And I really do believe that I have Amelia to thank for that.

Reclaiming Childhood

Tonight, for the first time in years, I was genuinely giddy about reading a book.

From the desk of a literature major, this statement could be interpreted as a commentary on the sad state of the American education system (or perhaps an indication that I had a chosen the wrong course of study). But the reality is a bit more complicated.

Some days, I feel that adulthood (or at least my approximation of it) has sapped my enthusiasm for reading. Gone are the days of loitering at the scholastic book fair with my classmates until our teacher lost her patience. Climbing into bed in flannel pajamas to read Jane Eyre under the stark glow of my bedside lamp feels like a memory from a past life. Tucking my knees under my chin as I listened to my Dad read aloud from Moby Dick now sounds like I cribbed the memory from a quaint novel.

Reading has now become a dutiful nightly task. A chore in my ongoing quest for societal validation. I approach reading now as a parishioner might approach the lectern to recite a chosen verse—as a matter of duty rather than a personal pleasure.

As I scroll back through the last few years of my life, I struggle to pinpoint the moment this reversal occurred. I suspect it happened sometime around the age of 14, when I entered high school. I stopped reading for myself, and started reading to craft an image of myself in the minds of others. I perceived myself as an Austenian heroine—literary, witty, and, of course, noticeably superior to every one around me.

I read and spoke and reasoned for my classmates, my friends, my family—with little regard for my own enjoyment or my own interests. I was Pygmalion and Galatea, the sculptor and the sculpted. I strove to be impressive in all things. Or rather, I strove to impress, the substance irrelevant. Look, now! I am doing it again! And yet there is no one here to impress!

Yes, exactly. No one here to impress. I write entirely for myself now. There is no one looking over my shoulder. No wire-rimmed professor gnawing a pen over my prose.

And I’ll tell you (you, the amorphous you, who are you?) why. I finally return to the book that inspired this rumination. The one that made me giddy? You remember.

It was a children’s book. A book that holds no pretentions—that exists purely for the joy of reading. A joy that had become so elusive to me is now in my grasp (it wriggles, but I hold it steady). I am smiling—the pages flip by and I do not count them. I wish there were more, in fact.

This spurred a realization: I am not content to live a life made just for pictures or a social media highlight reel. I want to embrace my passions and interests, regardless of what everyone around me is doing. I don’t want to think in terms of résumé builders or keeping up with the Joneses. I want to recapture the mindset of childhood me. I will regain the flush of discovery, the unselfconscious enjoyment of books and movies made for delighting, not dissecting.

I will be shamelessly childish.