Rediscovering Madeleine L’Engle

I can’t remember when I wasn’t an introverted bookworm. Can’t remember a time I didn’t love books.

Once I discovered libraries, it was always a joy to find a new author, a new set of books to read and love.

Discovering Madeleine L’Engle’s Fiction 

I didn’t discover Madeleine L’Engle at a library but at a friend’s house. I was spending a week with friends in Sacramento and happened upon A Wrinkle in Time. I sped through it. My friend had a big family and some cousins visiting at the same time. It was easier to bury my introverted self in a book than to interact with so many people in that household. 

I loved the tale of introverted Meg Murry and her little brother, Charles Wallace, whose name always seemed too big for him. Of Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit and Meg’s fantastic journey that took her to the end of herself where all she had left was love, and it was enough.

That same week, I also read the next book in Madeleine L’Engle’s classic Time Quintet: A Wind in the DoorAt the time, some aspects of the story went over my head as I fell headfirst into the microscopic yet immense world of quantum physics merged with supernaturalism. 

My friends didn’t have a copy of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, but I found that one at our local library after returning home. After reading it, I began scouring the library for everything written by Madeleine L’Engle.

I found And Both Were Young, a coming-of-age story about a girl at a Swiss boarding school who falls in love with a French boy and begins a secret relationship with him. I loved the character Flip, an introverted girl who never quite fit in with her classmates and preferred wandering among nature and sketching the sights of the great Swiss outdoors.

Then I read The Young Unicorns, which I found slightly confusing. Although I was familiar with the way that Madeleine L’Engle merged normal-seeming characters with supernatural events, something unnerved me about the darkness of this story. It has been over 20 years since I read it and I remember little (a sign that I should read it again) but I still remember the way I felt when I learned about the source of a young girl’s blindness … as though my own life could easily suffer that same upheaval, as though I could easily face that same darkness.

Much later I realized that The Young Unicorns was the third book in a series written by Madeleine L’Engle: The Austin Family Series. No wonder I felt like I was jumping into the middle of something I didn’t quite understand; I hadn’t read books one and two.

Discovering Madeleine L’Engle’s Nonfiction

The next book of Madeleine L’Engle’s I found at the library was The Summer of the Great Grandmother. I also found this confusing, but for a different reason: all I had read so far by Madeleine L’Engle was her fiction. And not just Madeleine L’Engle; fiction was pretty much all I read up to that point, period.

I didn’t know what to think of this work of nonfiction. I can’t even remember if I finished the book, though I must have. My life revolved around books as an introverted tween.

A decade passed. Possibly two. I revisited Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, but not her nonfiction.

Then at a used book sale, I happened upon several of her Crosswicks Journals, including The Summer of the Great Grandmother. Of course, I picked them up. 

During this 40-Day journey toward healthier living, I decided to begin reading the book once more. I wanted to immerse myself in good literature and refamiliarize myself with this introverted female author with whom I felt a kinship since I was a child.

The book chronicles her summer caring for her aging mother who was suffering from dementia, and also journals other aspects of that summer, including a scare that her husband might have a brain tumor (it turned out to be diabetes). 

Discovering Madeleine L’Engle’s Introversion

This introverted author journals with such care and precision, following philosophical tangents and reflecting on matters weighted with truth and meaning. She writes:

I used to feel guilty about spending morning hours working on a book: about fleeing to the brook in the afternoon. It took several summers of being totally frazzled by September to make me realize that this was a false guilt. I’m much more use to family and friends when I’m not physically and spiritually depleted than when I spend my energies as though they were unlimited.

The observation felt so true, especially at this time when I’m seeking out healthier living amidst the stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s easy to spend and spend and spend, to pour out into family and work, forgetting that we have limited resources.

Part of healthy living comprises carving out time for oneself, especially when we have jobs or situations where much is expected of us – emotionally, mentally, or physically. 

For years, I worked at a job that exhausted me – mentally more than anything else. It wasn’t a good fit but because the job opening came through a friend, I felt guilty at the thought of letting go of the position.

Finally, after weeks of insomnia and numerous occasions of heading home in tears at the end of a challenging day, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. I just didn’t have what it took to keep that job over the long term; it took me far longer to let go of the guilt of quitting the job. 

I feared that I would be thought of as “too weak” and “too sensitive.” It took a while to recognize that this job was simply a bad fit for me due to the kind of person I was: a highly sensitive person who thrives in other environments. 

Madeleine L’Engle observes this about guilt:

When I try to be the perfect daughter, to be in control of the situation, I become impaled on false guilt and become overtired and irritable. 

I intimately know this overtiredness and irritability. I think many introverts and HSPs do. But when we let go of this guilt by embracing who we are and not allowing ourselves to be ashamed by it, we can find freedom.

Madeleine L’Engle found freedom as a mother, wife, daughter, grandmother, and introverted author by allowing herself those times to disconnect from everything else as she wandered among peaceful, quiet places in the woods near Crosswicks. 

While dealing with the stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, my task is to discover and embrace what is healthy living for me as an HSP and introvert.

Perhaps something like this is your task too in your own journey toward healthier and mindful living.

J. K. Rowling Is Not a Single Tweet (And Neither Are Any of Us)

Several days ago, J. K. Rowling commented on an article, with largely negative backlash from many former fans of the Harry Potter series. A New York Times article set up the story by providing a one-sided back story and added the negative response of several Harry Potter fans – those agreed in calling her reaction transphobic.

J. K. Rowling wrote an essay in response to the backlash she received, which explores many angles of the issue and provides history. Unfortunately, I believe that the only part of her essay many people saw were the portions retweeted or shared on other sites.

I encourage, no, urge you to read J. K. Rowling’s whole essay, especially if you have read the Harry Potter series and are unsure of what to think of her as a person now due to the vast majority of negative, hateful things appearing online about her.

As a highly sensitive person and an avid bookworm (book dragon), I have taken refuge in the world of Hogwarts time and again. Recently (re)rereading the series as an adult, I am in awe of the research, care, and passion J. K. Rowling put in creating the world of Harry Potter.

I feel grieved at the harsh attention she is currently receiving, including death threats and calls to boycott all things Rowling.

More than this, though, I feel a deep concern as to what this severe reaction reveals of our society. In this era, we tend to believe that we know everything about a person and their views after reading a single tweet or perusing one article about them. We fail to take the time to truly understand people, especially when they happen to fall outside the line of our own views.

I will not grow as an individual if all I ever do is surround myself with people who agree with my views – whether religious, political, or societal. J. K. Rowling is not a single tweet or post or essay, just as none of us are. Each of us, I believe, could fill up a thousand books with our thoughts and stories, our hurts and our fears, with those things that have made us who we are.

By doing this, we are only hurting ourselves.

When we reduce another person to nothing more than a label, such as transphobic, we only reduce ourselves as well. If we believe that someone is nothing more than a single word or phrase or label, that means that we ourselves can also be reduced to a label. This is harmful because each of us is so much more than a single label or name or title.

As a highly sensitive person, I am both blessed and I might say cursed with depth of processing. I think on things deeply, and on people too. Because of this, I know that we are comprised of far more than can be easily described or labeled in a single article or tweet or Facebook post.

And we are, each of us, worthy of love and respect.

We are, each of us, in the words of a song I love, Glorious.

Finally, a word on the New York Times article title: “Harry Potter Fans Reimagine Their World without Its Creator.” Something about this type of reimagining sounds familiar. Reimagining a world without a creator.

An author might have no power over how a story and its characters are seen after publication. A gathering such as the Harry Potter Fandom might result. So many views and beliefs and fellowships might result outside the direct oversight of the author.

This does not change the fact that the author did write the story, create the characters, build the world. And when an imaginative world such as that in which Harry Potter lives – or an enduring world like Narnia or Middle Earth – is created, we might do well to think a little more deeply on the story’s author.

Because worlds do not appear out of thin air, and the more complex and nuanced the story, and the characters in it, the more complex and nuanced the author of that story. I believe J. K. Rowling deserves more than an across-the-board dismissal, a haughty declaration that, “We’ll keep the story but we don’t need the author.”

We’re adept at removing authors from the stories they have written.

But I would hope to believe that, in this world where we now live, we know enough … understand enough, to realize that we are each a combination of so many stories, so many experiences, so many hurts and unrealized dreams … oh, so much.

And when we encounter another person full of so much of the same, I would hope that we’d respond with grace, with acceptance, with kindness and love.

HSPs in Literature – J Alfred Prufrock

Let us go then, you and I …

The famous opening line of what is possibly T.S. Elliot’s most well-known poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

The speaker of the poem, J. Alfred Prufrock, can be nothing but a highly sensitive person.

He remarks on his keen observations, things that only a highly sensitive person would tend to notice:

… Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
He even likens the streets of London to an argument … a tedious argument at that, which is what every highly sensitive person thinks of an argument – tedious and undesirable.
… In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo …
Few things tire a highly sensitive person more than draining conversations about nothing in particular, a.k.a. small talk.
… There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet …
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions …
How carefully do we HSPs sometimes have to “prepare a face” to meet the outside world?
How many decisions run through the mind of a highly sensitive person every day?
And how often do we envision dozens of possibilities, real and imagined, revising them, fretting over them, and wondering what will come to pass?
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”) …
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”) …
Yes, these questions of a highly sensitive person … these concerns of what people are thinking and saying behind our backs.
… Do I dare
Disturb the universe? …
Sometimes we HSPs even worry our place disturbs the universe at large.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
               So how should I presume?
Sometimes a highly sensitive person feels like an old soul. Like they have somehow been around the block of feelings and knowledge and deep emotions more than their young years can prove, just like J. Alfred Prufrock.
… I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas …
And what HSP hasn’t wished, at some random moment, to be a creature of the ocean, beneath undulating waves, so far from the harsh rays of sun and sound?
To simply flow with the ocean’s endless tides.
… But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid …
As HSPs, we fear many things, yet somehow garner the courage to pursue and continue on in the face of our fears.
… Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball …
If one, settling a pillow by her head
               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
               That is not it, at all.” …
The things we say are often not the things we mean, but it is so difficult to express all we feel and sense as a highly sensitive person.
… Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each …
Amidst the trying questions of what we dare and dare not do, again, this HSP speaker longs for the peace of the ocean’s depths.
… I do not think that they will sing to me …
Our fear, however, is that the voices and the peace they represent are not for us.
… I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown …
As highly sensitive people, we might feel as though we are drowning among the human voices that surround us.
We picture with a sense of peace and joy the idea of the mermaids heading toward the sea, lingering peacefully among the waves and weeds of the ocean.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” ends suddenly, as if his thoughts are cut short by those human voices cutting in on his reflective moments of peace and contemplation.
But the words of the speaker, and of the poet, T. S. Eliot, remain verses that endure and speak deeply to readers, poets, students … and of course HSPs.
Photo of peach on Foter.com