Madeleine L’Engle: She tessered well

In a previous life (the closeted one), I went to seminary, where I rediscovered one of my favorite writers from youth, Madeleine L’Engle. Last week, L’Engle died at age 88.

I was surprised at how deeply news of her death affected me. After all, several members of my list of amazing women have died in the past few years: Ann Richards, Molly Ivins — and my mom. Maybe the fact that L’Engle’s influence was in the spiritual realm of my life is what has caused me to feel such loss.

If Madeleine L’Engle’s name doesn’t ring a bell, I’m sure her most famous book will: A Wrinkle in Time. The children’s classic won the John Newberry Medal in 1963 and had sold more than 6 million copies by 2004. In some ways, Wrinkle was a precursor to Harry Potter. Not just because it ventures into the world of fantasy and good vs. evil, but because it is simultaneously one of the most beloved and most banned children’s books of all time.

In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg Murry, her brother Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin O’Keefe rescue Meg’s father from the evil planet Camazotz with the help of the mysterious Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. I say “mysterious” because we’re not certain at first whether the ladies are angels, guardians or, as the book-banners claim, witches. (They turn out to be none of the above, but finding that out requires actually reading the book.) The wise women teach the kids to “tesser,” a way of bending time in order to travel vast distances in a fraction of the time. Help also comes in the form of a psychic named the Happy Medium. (L’Engle is at least partially to blame for my love of puns.) This, of course, was another source of consternation for Fundamentalists, whom Madeleine called “the Fundalets.” I couldn’t have cared less about all of that. I just wanted to be Meg.

In seminary, I was taking a class on the book of Genesis when I saw one of L’Engle’s books, And It Was Good, on the reading list. The book is beautifully written and brilliant — and to this day, I suspect the professor hadn’t read it before putting it on the list. In any case, reading And It Was Good began my personal journey out of Fundamentalism. For years, I carried around this quote:

“Anyone embracing Christianity for the sake of safety is going to distort the broken body (of Christ). The desire for safety at any expense ultimately leads to death. It is the desire for safety which has made some people take refuge in religions which provide all the answers, make their members feel more saved than people who don’t belong to their group, and promise freedom from danger.”

Amazing how apropos that thought is still.

Around that same time, I was thrilled to learn that L’Engle was doing a book signing in the area. Immediately after class that day, I hopped into my trusty Beetle and drove to the next town, arriving after L’Engle’s session. Fortunately, she was still there, talking to a few women, apparently friends. I hung back and listened, totally starstruck, waiting for a chance to ask her to sign my copy of A Wrinkle in Time. Finally I did, promptly forgetting all the brilliant and insightful questions I had planned to ask her. Instead, I said something like, “How did you write so many stories about the same characters?” She smiled and said, “I introduced myself and got to know them. Then I just wrote down what they did.”

This weekend, I pulled out my copy of Wrinkle to reread. There, on the title page, was her signature: “Tesser well — Madeleine L’Engle.” I hope in my old age I am able to look back and know I have tessered well. I know she did. Rest in peace, Madeleine.

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