Dark and Quiet with Madeline L'Engle

March 22, 2008
The house is dark and quiet. Yellow light from my bedside lamp falls gently onto the tossed blankets and across the wall, where it stretches and fades into darkness. Crumpled blankets arch from the bed to the floor, their folds creating random but soft shadows. The stiff, fresh pages of a newly-bought novel by Madeline L’Engle glow in the light. How beautiful is every letter and page, how strong and gentle. Yet how finite. How hollow.

What did it mean to never see those words again? What did it mean to die? Who was I, now that my hero and icon had passed?

I was eleven when I read my first Madeline L’Engle book. My parents had just decided to homeschool me, primarily for health reasons (I had a low immune system) but due to social strains as well. An easily affected fourth grader, I felt deeply the already appearing cliques. Kids challenged each other on the playground daily, and I, being the stubborn and sensitive girl I was, would stand between them and try to mediate their quarrels. The result was a strange alienation: I was on good if sometimes awkward terms with everybody, but I never truly belonged to anybody. It was at that time that I read A Wrinkle in Time.

A Wrinkle in Time did not stop me from feeling angry. It did not cure my hurt. But within it were characters I could relate to—stubborn, flawed characters who didn’t quite fit in at school and (in Meg’s case) were as ungracious and angry as I often felt. Yet ultimately the book—somehow, crazily, wonderfully—affirmed life. We do matter, and what we do matters. I didn’t quite understand this beautiful book at the time, but I wanted to read more. Over the next few years I steadily worked through Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quartet, Austin series, O’Keefe series, memoirs, nonfiction reflections, and poetry until Madeline L’Engle had become so entwined with my sense of self that I couldn’t imagine a seeing life through any other lens.

“[Writing] does indeed have something to do with faith,” Madeline L’Engle said, “faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.” She taught me more about life, love, vulnerability, and forgiveness than I could ever say. Her stories affirmed life; story itself, I realized, affirmed life. Stories are “cosmos in chaos”—islands of meaning amid seas of confusion and disarray—and in writing we affirm that our lives have a purpose, a point.

After I realized this deeper meaning of writing, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been an artsy person—I painted, wrote, acted in the theater—but I never took any activity seriously, despite a fair amount of positive feedback. Mostly, I liked the attention I received. But when Madeline L’Engle attached a higher purpose to writing, for the first time in my life I wanted to write—honestly, from my heart, about what mattered to me. What I considered my first “real” piece of writing was, unsurprisingly, a letter to Madeline L’Engle that I submitted for the Letters about Literature competition. I poured out my heart in that letter, understanding only half of what I was trying to say but knowing that what I was trying to say was important. “I thank you, as truly and purely as possible,” I wrote, “for putting your thoughts on paper, for posing the big questions, for revealing the joy and anguish of being human in a way a child can understand during a first encounter.” As it turned out, I won first in the state for my age level.

Despite my newfound significance of writing, over the next few years my zeal for writing flickered unsteadily. I still believed in writing as affirmation; I continued to hold close to my heart those truths I discovered in A Wrinkle in Time. Yet deep down, I knew I would rather have been reading Madeline L’Engle’s stories than writing my own, and that irritated me. I felt that I should want to write. I wanted to want to write. But when I sat down in front of the computer, my mind drew a blank. I tried not to dwell on it, but the fact remained – I would rather have been listening to Madeline L’Engle than speaking out on my own.

When I heard of Madeline L’Engle’s death, I was unavoidably, predictably devastated. My world, so dependent on and entwined with her world, collapsed. I cried all morning; I even cut out her obituary from the New York Times and had it laminated. Yet through the tears I sensed that my reaction was a bit out of proportion with the facts; that, in a sense, it was good this tie had been broken. I walked like an alien in my own house. I felt uncomfortable and out of place wherever I went. I had lost, I realized, not just my icon but my identity as well.

It was later that day that I saw things differently. I looked at my family, my friends, my room, my books, my dreams—my life—a little oddly at first, like when one goes outside on a sunny day after having been in a dark house. A few moments later I realized that I was finally seeing them as mine. Not as an extension of Madeline L’Engle’s life. It was like a dam broke then: realizations I had kept pent up flooded my mind. I knew then that the best way to honor Madeline L’Engle’s life was to live my own. I knew I couldn’t write my own stories because I wasn’t my own person. I knew why my life had felt so empty despite seeming so full.

My house is dark and quiet. I look around; everything is finite, mere wood or fabric or paper, but nothing feels empty or false. My life is empty only when I am empty, as a book is empty when there are no words on the pages. And finally I can fill the pages; I am, at last, writing my own story.

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~EmilyC~ This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Aug. 23, 2010 at 8:27 pm
This is very good. Your sentence "I was on good if sometimes awkward terms with everybody, but I never truly belonged to anybody." describes how I often feel. Madeleine L'Engle is my favorite author and I reread her books again and again. I'm curious to know which is your favorite. By the way, I especially love your last paragraph.
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