Language and Light

“If I’m confused, or upset, or angry, if I can go out and look at the stars I’ll almost always get back a sense of proportion. It’s not that they make me feel insignificant; it’s the very opposite; they make me feel that everything matters, be it ever so small, and that there’s meaning to life even when it seems most meaningless.”

from A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

The Christmas I was sixteen I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle.

Like most people, I encountered L’Engle’s writing first in A Wrinkle In Time and its sequels as a child, but I went on to read almost her entire bibliography of more than fifty books my junior year of high school.

My favorite was A Ring of Endless Light. I considered it the most important book I had ever read; the intensity of my feelings about it defied articulation. I considered it almost another Gospel. It conveyed the essentials of everything I believed to be true about life, death, God, and the soul with beautiful imagery and simple, transparent language. Madeleine L’Engle was the writer I most aspired to emulate, and her characters were the people I most wanted to be like. The first book I published I intended to dedicate to her.

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L’Engle died in 2007, at the age of 88. I was twenty-five; I had just written what I considered to be my first mature, successful piece of fiction, and even though my devotion to L’Engle had grown less singleminded as I matured, I still felt a pang of loss that I hadn’t been able to keep the promise I’d made to her in my letter.

Christmas with my family was a yearly exercise in mortification, and the year I was sixteen it was especially painful. Anxious and bored, surrounded by family members who ranged from abusive to merely uncomprehending, I spent most of the week at my grandmother’s house hiding in the lone spare bedroom, working on my novel and reading books.

I find that I can recall the act of writing the letter, even though the Christmases of my adolescence mostly run together in an undifferentiated blur now. I remember that I wrote it while sitting cross-legged at the end of the bed, facing a small shelf which contained the only books my grandmother owned—medical texts from the early seventies, when she was studying to become a nursing assistant.

I wrote the letter on the yellowing pages of one of my grandmother’s old school notebooks; it seemed more meaningful and more fitting than fine stationery. At my feet was a pile of L’Engle’s novels, including The Small Rain, her first book, published in the forties, and The Severed Wasp, its sequel, which had come out quite recently.

I remember that I had just returned to the room to find the scent of weed heavy in the air. My aunt, a lesbian alcoholic I had once considered to be the only sane person I was related to, had made use of the one private spot in my grandmother’s house to get high and talk on her cell phone to friends in Florida. I was infuriated by what I saw as a violation. My undisputed possession of the guest room was the only thing that made my visits to Kentucky survivable. The fact that my books were covered in ash from the joint my aunt had been smoking didn’t help matters.

I believe that’s why I chose that moment to write the letter, which I had been planning for months. Lonely and miserable in the midst of people whose love for me was an unproven narrative, I reached out to the author who had given life to so many functional, loving families, not just in her novels, but in her autobiographical essays. I was both a fledgling writer seeking affirmation from a role model and an adolescent longing to be claimed by L’Engle as a spiritual daughter.

It’s almost difficult for me now to remember how remote famous people used to be. Like everyone else, I’ve adapted seamlessly to a reality in which I can, if I choose, make a flippant remark to the Pope or the President via Twitter with as little awe and considerably less dread than goes into phoning my credit union. But when I think about the effort it used to require to communicate with celebrities, I’m amazed I ever undertook it.

I got online for the first time in 1995, when I was thirteen, using a modem so slow it couldn’t process images, only text. By 1998, I was familiar with practically everything the internet of the day had to offer. All it could tell me about Madeleine L’Engle was her address at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, where she was Writer-In-Residence.

Letter-writing was at that time already a bit of a lost art, supplanted by email, but people like L’Engle rarely had public email addresses. The effort it took to find L’Engle’s mailing address, write two double sided sheets of paper in my best handwriting, stamp it, place it in the mail, and then await a response—I can’t imagine doing that now. The fact that I went to so much effort is as revealing to me now as the contents of the letter itself. I’m more cautious of exposing my vulnerabilities these days.

“I’ve read so much about your family that I’ve come to love them almost as if they were mine,” I remember writing. It was the sort of naive, overly-sincere declaration that many a devotee has made to the object of their infatuation. I would have heaped blistering scorn on a similar sentiment directed by a girl my age to, say, Leonardo Dicaprio or James Van Der Beek, but I was sure that my desire to form a connection with Madeleine L’Engle was born of something loftier and purer.

I didn’t realize yet that my desire to cast strangers in the roles so inadequately filled by my parents stemmed from a hunger that was far more raw and unrefined than the wistfulness that fueled my classmates’ romantic fantasies of real life meet-cutes with hot actors. For one thing, my classmates probably outgrew those fantasies, whereas I’ve never quite shaken the desire to be parented by kindly strangers.

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Madeleine L’Engle wrote back to me in February of 1999. I had hoped for a reply, but I hadn’t really expected one. I was so eager to open the letter when I got it that I tore the envelope to shreds. Her handwritten reply was short, scribbled across the back of what appeared to be a kind of family newsletter, containing updates about the births of children, health concerns, and other minutiae that meant little to me. I was glad to get it anyway; I suppose it was L’Engle’s way of making me feel a bit included in the family I had expressed such ardent affection for.

In my letter, I had written about the challenges of reconciling faith with intellect—I was still a devoted, if questioning, born-again Christian at that age, and I derived a lot of comfort from L’Engle’s famous statement, “I don’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously.” She suggested that I might like to read her book Walking On Water, one of the few writings by her I hadn’t been able to get hold of yet. When I finally did find a copy, in a tiny bookstore in Asheville about a year later, I felt every soothing reflection and observation on spiritual life as if it were advice she had passed directly to me.

After high school, I thought less about Madeleine L’Engle as I acquired flesh-and-blood mentors who could offer me more than one-sided guidance from between the covers of a book. In 2003, one of those mentors passed along an issue of the New Yorker which contained a profile of L’Engle based on interviews with her family—people whose names I knew from L’Engle’s personal essays, names as familiar to me as that of Vicky Austin, the main character of A Ring of Endless Light. I read this profile with a sense of growing dismay and disappointment that, in retrospect, reveals how much of a child I still was, even at the advanced age of 21.

I didn’t want to know that L’Engle’s daughters considered her essays about their family to be “pure fiction” and “a lovely fairy tale.” I didn’t want to know that her husband was unfaithful, or that her son, the model for Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle In Time, had died of the effects of alcoholism. Yet I couldn’t not read; I still craved that insider information about the life of the woman I had idealized as part of the complicated survival mechanism that enabled me to make it through adolescence.

By the time I heard the news of L’Engle’s death in 2007, I had grown up a little more, enough to have lost any sense of personal betrayal. After all, she was a writer; her job was to make stories, and all good stories are true in their own way. Memoirs are journals of self-perception, not courtroom depositions. And it wouldn’t have helped me a bit, at 16 and 17, to know that L’Engle’s truth was uglier than her fiction. I knew all I needed to know about ugliness already. Beauty and love, on the other hand, had much to teach me, then as now.

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