Friday, April 19, 2013

Madeleine L'Engle

"The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been."

There is a scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall when, while standing in a theater queue arguing with another film-goer about Marshall McLuhan, Allen is able to pull McLuhan himself from off-camera to support his argument.  I recall Allen observing that he wished life, instead of just fantasy, could sometimes be like that.  While I don't have a story that strictly corresponds to that scene, I do have an experience that left me just as satisfied.

In the 6th Grade I was scolded by my teacher for being disharmonious during a classroom discussion.  I  remind the reader that when I was in 6th Grade the elementary school world was somewhat different than it is today.  There were no such things as "participation trophies", what is now called "bullying" was, in those days, called "school"; corporal punishment was common, and classroom deportment was held to a rigid standard. According to a poll conducted by a teachers' organization in 1967, the most troubling school offense was chewing gum in class.  To be labeled as "disharmonious" by the teacher meant that I had committed a transgression that was mighty in both intention and deed.

What had happened is that I had noted a religious element in a book that our class had just read and had mentioned my observation in our discussion.  The teacher, whom I seem to recall was a "free-thinker", did not believe that Christianity should be mentioned in the classroom.  This was at a time when such "mentions" were becoming controversial and our teacher, highly anxious to be promoted to a comfy sinecure in an administrative office somewhere, wanted nothing controversial to thwart that ambition. So, I was roundly eliminated from any further class discussion and had to have a note about my transgression taken home to be signed by my parents.  This was a pity as we were reading A Wrinkle in Time and it was the first book assigned in a classroom that I actually enjoyed reading.  That wouldn't happen again until I was a sophomore in college.

For those unfamiliar with this Newbery Award-winning classic in children's literature, Wrinkle is about girl who, along with her athletic twin brothers and their genius youngest brother, attempts to find her father, a brilliant scientist who has gone missing while working on a mysterious device known as the "tesseract".  Need I say more?  You should really read it, as should your children or grandchildren.  Trust me, when you're eleven-years-old and a big fan of Jonny Quest [maybe I'll need to write about him one day], this kind of science-fiction adventure was a welcome respite from stories about islands of blue dolphins and crickets in Times Square.

As in C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, the Christian message is unmistakable, albeit presented through  fantasy characters designed to appeal to a child's imagination.  This is no surprise since the author, Madeleine L'Engle, was a devout Episcopalian who would one day be the writer-in-residence at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine and a familiar speaker and lay preacher throughout the Episcopal Church.

I'm appreciative of the author for two reasons.  The first is that she showed me, at that impressionable age, how Christian theology could be presented even through a science fiction-styled children's story,  leading me as I matured to an appreciation of the uses of archetype in literature and art.  I remember  first reading Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and noting the repeated, and often unsuspected, references to Gospel tropes in the story of "bull goose loony" McMurphy and his twelve fellow lunatics.  [That was the novel that I read as a sophomore in college that I enjoyed as much as I had L'Engle's novel in 6th Grade].  This was the first awareness of the depth that marks art from...well...the rest.

The second reason is even better.  Nearly 35 years after being not-so-gently steered away from any discussion of Christian archetype by my 6th Grade teacher, I was seated next to Madeleine L'Engle herself at my dining room table.  Over the course of the years, I would wind up having as a seminary professor her son-in-law and coming to know her daughter and grand-children, living as they did in the same town.  One evening, with the pleasant chaos of young people running about the house, and her daughter with my wife intensely involved in the kitchen with the preparation of an elaborate dessert, with the just the two of us left in the dining room I told Madeleine of that day from long ago.

"She should have let you speak.  You were right.  Clearly, she was an idiot."

Aces to Madeleine; snubs to you, Mrs. Suscheck.

Madeleine died in 2007, leaving a formidable body of work.  She wrote a number of fiction and non-fiction books, including two sequels to Wrinkle [one of which won a National Book Award]; most of her works are still in print. A complete bibliography may be found at this link.

As she once wrote, "With each book I write, I become more and more convinced that the books have a life of their own, quite apart from me."  Certainly, as with our spiritual being, her books continue  to live.