I never imagined I would have the opportunity to meet and work with the writer who had the biggest influence upon me as a child. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Madeleine L’Engle wrote one of the most famous children’s science fiction books in the 21st century, the Newberry Award-winning classic “A Wrinkle in Time”. A prolific author, she also wrote adult fiction and non-fiction; her catalogue comprises of at least eighty works that I know of. A passionate Christian, L’Engle was noted for her Christian-themed books as well. In her later years she was the librarian at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, often accompanied by one of her beloved Irish Setters.
As a teenager, I sent her an unabashed fan letter. As a result, my name was placed on L’Engle’s mailing list for a periodical newsletter that was sent to her fans, which she affectionately referred to as her “Ones”. She made every attempt to sign these photocopied letters, and sometimes she added a personal note. I’ve kept every single copy. I remained on her mailing list for many years, and in the late 1990’s I read that L’Engle would be teaching a weekend writing workshop at the Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. I was attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, majoring in English and American literature, and I was within driving distance of workshop. The cost was reasonable, so I took that as a sign that I should seriously consider signing up. I excitedly contacted one of my closest friends, a fellow L’Engle enthusiast, and she agreed to attend the seminar with me.
This all took place long before my bipolar diagnosis in 2007, but back then I believe that I had dysthymia, a serious state of chronic depression. I also was highly anxious from growing up around violence, but neither of those afflictions would prevent me from seizing the chance to be with this spectacular writer. Despite the fact that I was insecure and had often had trouble looking people in the eye, I forced myself out of my comfort zone to make this trip. I am so glad that I did it.
I am not one of those people blessed with a strong memory. I’ve always felt envious of those who can recollect many details of their lives. I had a poor memory before my first round of unilateral ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), which is a treatment for severe depression with a notorious side effect of memory loss. (I’ve heard different opinions of whether or not the memory loss is permanent, but that’s a subject for a separate post!)
I wish with all my heart that I could remember numerous moments of the Madeleine L’Engle seminar. Instead, I just recall a handful of events. Two of these experiences are not positive, although they are kind of humorous when I view them objectively.
The first interaction occurred in a hallway. I found myself walking towards L’Engle alone and I couldn’t help but gush to her, “You’re my idol!” This was about the worst thing I could possibly say to her aside from a true expletive. Plus I should have known better, because L’Engle had written specifically about how she found this particular word distasteful and I knew that. “Idol” is defined as “an image or other material object representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed. She couldn’t stand heroine worship, and I basically blew it. I’ve blocked out whatever her withering retort was, and maybe that’s ultimately a blessing. She did admonish me with something along the lines of “Don’t call me that!”.
I do remember thinking “Oh, whoops. Shit.”
She didn’t hold my faux pas against me. Later on I sat next to her at lunch. The seminar had twenty-five chatty participants, all L’Engle devotees, and the room in which we dined was cavernous. The noise level was lousy for comprehending what our dining companions were saying. To make the situation even more dicey, L’Engle was in her later years and she had an acute hearing loss. Although I was sitting a mere ten inches away from her, I couldn’t understand hardly anything she said, and I’m sure she didn’t hear much of the table’s conversation either.
My friend and I were the youngest attendees and also we were the only Jewish women in the group. I wasn’t a religious person, but I identified myself as a “cultural Jew”. After arriving there we learned that everyone else was Christian. Our religious differences didn’t create an impasse with anyone, as general writing was our primary focus, but I felt like a bit of an outsider.
Fortunately, I recall some wonderful highlights at the monastery workshop. During an afternoon writing exercise L’Engle instructed us to write a sonnet. I’m loathe to admit this, but I’ve never been a poetry lover. At least a sonnet was only fourteen lines long, but I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of writing one. L’Engle added that each of us had to read our poem aloud to the group. We didn’t have much time to complete this assignment, so in a panic I deliberated what kind of wool I could pull over eveyone’s eyes. The subject came to me in a flash: dolphins! It was well-known throughout her writing that L’Engle loved dolphins, and I did too. I scribbled about dolphins and stood up in front of twenty-four students and the imposing L’Engle. My hands were sweaty, my heart beat rapidly, and my voice was thin and shaky. Come to think of it, I don’t know how much L’Engle could truly hear me given her hearing loss.
To my relief and delight, she said she liked it! Again, I don’t recollect the precise words she used, but it seemed that she was sincere. Over the years, during multiple moves to assorted houses, I lost many sentimental papers, and my sonnet was among them. But I’ll never forget L’Engle’s positive reaction to my ode to dolphins.
Other highlights of the seminar were more superficial, but enjoyable all the same. Each day the monks made delectable chocolate chip cookies, and they made these yummy treats easily accessible. Being a major chocolate fiend, I gorged on them. I probably gained ten pounds in two days from inhaling cookies right, left and sideways. Another bonus of the weekend was being in the perfect setting for such a class. The monastery had a view of the majestic beauty of the Santa Barbara hills, and overlooked the sparkling Pacific Ocean. The weather was sunny and warm.
I wish I could go back in time and repeat the workshop with Madeleine L’Engle, not as a twenty-something unmarried, childless college student, but as the woman I’ve become. (Warts and all!) At least I had the opportunity to brush shoulders with greatness, and I learned that those we worship are human…as far as we know. 😉