The Summer of the Great Grandmother

Summer of the Great Grandmother tells the story of Madeleine L’Engle’s last summer with her mother. It’s the second of L’Engle’s four “Crosswicks Journals,” but since I read them out of order it was the last one that remained for me.

L’Engle is usually classed as a Christian writer, but she is the type of Christian who is often questioning and struggling and acknowledging the mysteries. She’s not someone I read to be instructed, especially. She’s the kind of author who comes alongside and affirms the real experience of living with its griefs and joys and its refusal, in the midst of it, to resolve into a neat inspirational narrative.

Her mother, in this story, has ceased to remember most of who she is. She is more child than mother, and she comes to spend the summer as usual with L’Engle’s family at their 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse, Crosswicks. Despite having a houseful of helpful, loving people, it’s a difficult summer that finds L’Engle filling her journal with questions and conflicting emotions. She feels strongly that it’s important for her mother to be among family rather than at a nursing home, and one of her recurring struggles is with a society in which more and more of the elderly suffer from dimentia, yet there is less and less of a humane culture to support or value them. “Obviously, nursing homes have not caused senility in the elderly,” she writes,

but when grandmother or great grandmother continued to live with the larger family, to be given meaning because she could at least stir the soup or rock the baby, the climate for growing old and dying was more healthy than it is today. I cannot reproduce that climate for Mother… All I can do is try not to isolate her; is to hold her when she is afraid; is to accept her as she is, as part of this family, without whom we would be less complete.

She spends a lot of time remembering, trying to get at who her mother really was. There is plenty of delving into the deep past of her family’s history, some of which interested me and some of which didn’t. It did make me realize how little I know of my own family’s past. And it provides an opportunity to think in a sustained way about some of the issues many of us are bound to face as parents age.

While reading, I got curious. What had happened to L’Engle since the accounts in the Crosswicks Journals? My brief tour of the internet made me a little sad. When she died in 2007, this woman so passionate about keeping her own mother out of a nursing home was living in one. Her husband, as I already knew from Two-Part Invention, had died of cancer. Her son had died at age 47 for reasons not spelled out anywhere very clearly. Her daughter and husband had divorced.

I’m not sure how to make sense of the contrast between these facts and the impression I had of a rather idealized family life in all four Crosswicks Journals. All I know is that L’Engle herself affirmed over and over that the most difficult experience takes place within a sphere of purposeful, loving divine activity. Nothing within or beyond her own published record prompted her to revise this view.

The Love Letters

Madeleine L’Engle’s The Love Letters (1967) weaves together two stories: one from today, and one from yesterday. Charlotte Napier, fleeing to her mentor (and mother-in-law) in Portugal to rethink her troubled marriage, comes upon a book that relates the inner turmoil of a woman in similar straits centuries earlier. In reading The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, Charlotte Napier meets Mariana Alcoforado, a 17th-century nun seduced by a French soldier whose spiritual journey sheds light on Charlotte’s crisis.

Those familiar with L’Engle will feel at home in the thematic territory of The Love Letters. Life hurts but the pain can be redeemed through love. We are bound together in the human experience. God’s ways are mysterious and unexpected, but ultimately trustworthy. The making of art brings order to experience, but it has integrity only if the artist balances between discipline and inspiration. There are some common character types and plot details, too.

I was interested enough to stay engaged in this novel all the way to the last page. L’Engle keeps us in suspense about the details of Charlotte’s personal struggle until close to the end, and she manages the counterpoint between present and past points of view smoothly. But I don’t think this will go on my favorites list. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t strike me as substantially different from The Small Rain or A Severed Wasp.

Walking on Water

Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art is an extended meditation on the nature of the creative process, the purpose of art, and the significance of an artist’s faith. The short answer is that the artistic process is essentially careful listening, the purpose of art is to tell the truth, and an artist’s faith is what enables him to transcend the boundaries of conscious control and get a glimpse of a larger reality.

L’Engle uses Leonard Bernstein’s definition of art as “cosmos in chaos” as a reference point throughout her discussion. An artist is a world-maker, one who acknowledges the fractures and confusion of a fallen world but highlights order and meaning by creating a microcosm where these aspects of experience are more clear. L’Engle’s is a romantic notion of art totally within the boundaries outlined by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Coleridge spoke of the imagination as a power that breaks down sense experience and enables the poet to tap into a reality beyond; Wordsworth spoke of “seeing into the life of things,” and of a poem as a plant that grows organically. In neither case does the artist create out of nothing; his role is to listen carefully, and “look steadily at his subject” as Wordsworth put it, describing what he sees with his greater power of vision and imagination.

L’Engle’s view of art and the artist is essentially the same. But she is a Christian who believes not just in an impersonal creative force, but in a personal God who cares about us to the point of numbering the hairs on our head. This charges the artistic process with a relational quality missing from the romantics. Faith for L’Engle is not merely “willing suspension of disbelief” as it is for Coleridge; it is positive belief that, in words L’Engle quotes from Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This means not necessarily that every book will have a happy ending, but that art will manifest a vision where even pain and loss reflect a loving purpose.

What I liked about this book is the way it puts to rest the notion that an artist can’t be concerned with issues of literary criticism. There’s a myth out there that literary creation has nothing to do with the literary analysis practiced in English departments. But this book is permeated with the questions of literary criticism: what is art? what is a poem? how is it generated? how do we take its measure? While it’s true that when taken to an extreme, analytical thought can “murder to dissect” (Wordsworth), I believe any artist serious about their craft grapples with these questions.

There is a good balance between discipline and inspiration throughout. Inspiration is vital, but an artist can’t just sit all day waiting for a thunderbolt of vision to strike. The daily discipline of writing even when the Muse seems absent (or doing finger exercises at the piano, or praying when it seems dry, or…) is equally essential for L’Engle.

I also liked the way she discusses faith, specifically her use of Anglican theologian H.A. Williams’ idea that “the opposite of sin can only be faith, and never virtue.” Think about that. The fall consisted of breaking faith with God; it was a rupture in humanity’s dependence on God for life of the spirit and the body, and a striking out on our own to create our own private world. There is no virtue apart from God. But we can — and in art certainly the Christian artist can — seek to live by faith, and in this way re-connect with the original unity between Creator and creation.

At the personal level this is an important insight. It’s not by seeking to control ourselves and manifest a life of virtue that we can be reunited with God, because, as L’Engle points out, we can only control the part of ourselves that we know. God knows the whole unconscious iceberg. It’s in entrusting ourselves to him by faith that the possibility of virtue, and of a cooperative engagement in a purpose larger than we can perceive ourselves, becomes possible. For an artist — and to read L’Engle is to think of all humans as artists — this means the possibility of seeing “cosmos in chaos.”

This is the second time I’ve read this book. Much of the content here repeats what L’Engle says in The Irrational Season, which I really loved. I’m not sure why I could appreciate this material more in that context. Maybe it’s because I’m still not comfortable with the organization of Walking on Water. The Irrational Season followed the cycle of the church year; I think Walking on Water proceeds in a spiral fashion, which I should feel at home with since I’ve been told I do it as well. Maybe I wasn’t reading attentively enough, or maybe L’Engle needed to provide more signals to indicate the relationships between her ideas, because I couldn’t really see where all of this was headed until I was nearing the end.

Healing and Hiding

This morning, I read a story that’s always intrigued me: the woman with the hemorrhage who came through the pressing crowds and touched Jesus’ robes. I’m using a harmony of the gospels these days, but the account in Mark 5 serves for a reference.

What I noticed today was the way that Jesus asked who had touched him. Surely he knew — ? This man who had known when he was dissed behind his back for being a Nazarene? This man who immediately after this episode indicates that he knows even before he sees Jairus’ daughter that she is “not dead but is asleep“? If we tried we could make a long list of incidents that show Jesus’ clairvoyance.

The commentary I have assumes that Jesus asked who touched him because he didn’t know. But I have a hard time believing that’s the case. There are times in the gospels when Jesus makes it clear that he is offering a demonstration for the benefit of those around him, not because he himself requires it. (Healing the paralytic, for instance, “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Or raising Lazarus: “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I knew that You always hear me; but because of the people standing around I said it…”)

I wonder if Jesus’ request of the crowd in this case — “Who touched my robe?” — was for the benefit of the woman herself. It’s because I’m (still) reading Hiding from Love that this occurs to me. Just yesterday I pondered these words, in the context of a discussion about denial:

Reality perception is primarily relational. That’s why Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). He was showing us that truth is more than an amassing of facts; it is enclosed in a connection to Him.

We learn reality primarily from our attachments. Learning it from books and propositional statements is a secondary process that occurs after our fundamental relational abilities are established inside…

We learn reality from relationship, especially in the impressionable and formative years of childhood. Here we learn to affirm those parts of us that keep us in relationship, and to deny those parts that isolate us.

Could it be that Jesus was offering the woman, whose actions had been understandably furtive, an opportunity to come out of hiding and be healed within as well as without? She was considered perpetually unclean, and was healed in secret, but Jesus invited her to acknowledge it publicly. Coming forward took the healing beyond a medical intervention, into a connection with God. It also clarified that her superstitious belief in power emitted through Jesus’ clothing wasn’t what healed her; it was her faith that released his healing.

In The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle wrote a poem about this woman. It too focuses on the personal dimensions of the story, imagining the relationship that was forged in that moment of healing:

When I pushed through the crowd,
jostled, bumped, elbowed by the curious
who wanted to see what everyone else
was so excited about,
all I could think of was my pain
and that perhaps if I could touch him,
this man who worked miracles,
cured diseases,
even those as foul as mine,
I might find relief.
I was tired from hurting,
exhausted, revolted by my body,
unfit for any man, and yet not let loose
from desire and need. I wanted to rest,
to sleep without pain or filthiness or torment.
I don’t really know why
I thought he could help me
when all the doctors
with all their knowledge
had left me still drained
and bereft of all that makes
a woman’s life worth living.
Well: I’d seen him with some children
and his laughter was quick and merry
and reminded me of when I was young and well,
though he looked tired; and he was as old as I am.
Then there was that leper,
but lepers have been cured before –

No, it wasn’t the leper,
or the man cured of palsy,
or any of the other stories of miracles,
or at any rate that was the least of it;
I had been promised miracles too often.
I saw him ahead of me in the crowd
and there was something in his glance
and in the way his hand rested briefly
on the matted head of a small boy
who was getting in everybody’s way,
and I knew that if only I could get to him,
not to bother him, you understand,
not to interrupt, or to ask him for anything,
not even his attention,
just to get to him and touch him…

I didn’t think he’d mind, and he needn’t even know.
I pushed through the crowd
and it seemed that they were deliberately
trying to keep me from him.
I stumbled and fell and someone stepped
on my hand and I cried out
and nobody heard. I crawled to my feet
and pushed on and at last I was close,
so close I could reach out
and touch with my fingers
the hem of his garment.

Have you ever been near
when lightning struck?
I was, once, when I was very small
and a summer storm came without warning
and lightning split the tree
under which I had been playing
and I was flung right across the courtyard.
That’s how it was.
Only this time I was not the child
but the tree
and the lightning filled me.
He asked, “Who touched me?”
and people dragged me away, roughly,
and the men around him were angry at me.

“Who touched me?” he asked.
I said, “I did, Lord.”
So that he might have the lightning back
which I had taken from him when I touched
his garment’s hem.
He looked at me and I knew then
that only he and I knew about the lightning.
He was tired and emptied
but he was not angry.
He looked at me
and the lightning returned to him again,
though not from me, and he smiled at me
and I knew that I was healed.
Then the crowd came between us
and he moved on, taking the lightning with him,
perhaps to strike again.

Trailing Clouds of Glory

This week, browsing through the children’s section at the library, I saw Madeleine L’Engle’s name on this book I’d never heard of. Having just finished A Circle of Quiet, I was ready to dive right into Trailing Clouds of Glory.

As the subtitle indicates, this book’s central concern is with “spiritual values in children’s books.” I suppose its focus on children’s literature is what lands it in the children’s section, but other than that it seems like it would be more at home on the shelves for adult readers. One of L’Engle’s concerns that surfaces repeatedly in her other works is her discontent with labelling some books “for children” or “for adults.” Though she’s using the label “children’s books” here, part of the point the book ends up making is that the subjects and themes of literature are universal regardless of the age at which it’s aimed. She’d probably be glad to find that I had a hard time “classifying” it!

Based on the premise that even so-called “secular” books can body forth spiritual realities, the title, taken from Wordsworth’s ode, has a double significance. For one thing, it connotes Wordsworth’s Platonic view of children as “trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home.” The books discussed on these pages are written for children, who, L’Engle appears to agree with Wordsworth, are astute theologians. It also intimates the confidence L’Engle, with her Christian worldview, has that there is nothing truly secular in a world — even an artistic world — spoken into existence and redeemed by a loving Creator.

Trailing Clouds of Glory is organized by theme: courage, surviving failure, spiritual intuition, fallenness, naming, and blessing are just a few of the subjects taken up and traced through a variety of children’s books. Apparently Madeleine L’Engle wrote the analysis, and Avery Brooke helped choose the books. Not picture books, but mostly middle grade and young adult fiction, is selected for inclusion: Bridge to Terabithia, Harriett the Spy, The Wizard of Earthsea, Ballet Shoes, The Once and Future King… Quite a feast is laid out on these pages.

I’ll probably return to it when my daughters are older. It struck me as a great resource for recommending good books and for getting a finger on the pulse of a younger reader. What disappointed me was that there simply wasn’t much commentary. It read like a string of summaries and excerpts, and L’Engle’s analysis didn’t really govern the presentation. This bothered me not because the themes she wanted to direct our attention to were not discernible in the excerpts given, but because I love L’Engle. I would have liked to hear more from this writer who never fails to engage me.

It’s a curious, interesting little book — a good (and in my case timely) companion to A Circle of Quiet, which references a number of archetypal children’s stories. Trailing Clouds of Glory provides an anthology of excerpts to further develop some of L’Engle’s convictions regarding the significance of a thriving imaginative life.

A Circle of Quiet

A Circle of Quiet is one of Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals. It’s the third one I’ve read; the others are Two-Part Invention and The Irrational Season. I found this one to be an enjoyable read, but harder to get my mind around. I came away with a sense of Madeleine L’Engle’s thought life during a particular season (always a worthwhile thing), but not as clear an understanding of the book’s main “statement” or topic. Of course I’m never sure whether that’s because of where I am as a reader, or because of the book.

Basically, this book is a series of reflections on the subject of “ontology”:

The burning bush… burned, was alive with flame and was not consumed. Why? Isn’t it because, as a bush, it was perfect? It was exactly as a bush is meant to be. A bush certainly doesn’t have the opportunity for prideful and selfish choices, for self-destruction, that we human beings do. It is. It is a pure example of ontology… the word about the essence of things; the word about being.

The “circle of quiet” in the title is the physical place L’Engle goes to beside the brook at Crosswicks to regain a sense of proportion. “Every so often I need OUT,” she writes,

My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings… [There] I move slowly into a kind of peace that is indeed marvelous, ‘annihilating all that’s made to a green thought in a green shade.’

L’Engle takes this idea of a place where she’s restored to her true essence, so to speak, and plays with it in a variety of subjects: writing, art, faith, community. How do these things lose their “realness” under layers of fad or self-consciousness or market considerations or stodginess, and how do you get back to the truth — the unconscious, non-rational being — of them?

Now that I’m writing about the book, I guess I did get a sense of its overall direction. One of the virtues of writing — better focus! Which brings me to one of the things I value about the book: it has convinced me to journal again. Since blogging, I haven’t really kept a journal. I use up my quota of words here every day. But in some ways blogging just scratches the surface. It gives me the easy catharsis of words without the needed confrontation of the truly personal struggles going on underneath. That’s what journalling (for a writer) and prayer (for anyone) are for. L’Engle draws most of her material for the Crosswicks Journals — and, I suspect,  a majority of her other writings — directly from her personal journals, where she records her thoughts and feelings and observations and reading. I’m going to get back to that discipline.

Another aspect of the book that I enjoyed was L’Engle’s musing on the subject of children, whose ontology/being is often less cluttered and more natural. I liked this passage especially:

The creative impulse, like love, can be killed, but it cannot be taught. What a teacher or librarian or parent can do, in working with children, is to give the flame enough oxygen so that it can burn. As far as I’m concerned, this providing of oxygen is one of the noblest of all vocations.

Good words for me, the frustrated housekeeper of a home where the “creative impulse” is alive and well — and strides through the place hurling legos, half-written books, clay creatures, pictures and the like everywhere. Kids need structure and discipline too, but without squelching that creative flame. (I’m thinking of scrawling “noblest of all vocations” on my vacuum cleaner.)

Throughout A Circle of Quiet L’Engle warns against taking things too seriously. Laughter is frequently mentioned and praised as a gift that returns us to sanity, and L’Engle laughs at herself often in these pages. There are more self-deprecating references to her own height or clumsiness or passionate nature than I remember in the other Crosswicks Journals I’ve read.

Overall I came away liking this writer even more. I’ve enjoyed a growing list of her books, and have admired her for her versatility and wisdom and imaginative reach. After reading this book, I realized how likable she must have been as a person.

The Irrational Season

I picked up The Irrational Season on a whim off the library shelf, and it’s been a wonderful read for me. In fact, I’m going to have to purchase a copy so that I can underline and asterisk to my heart’s content (even though my husband is making jokes about me reading books on how to be irrational…).

This is the third book of Madeleine L’Engle’s 4-part autobiography, The Crosswicks Journals. I’ve only read the fourth one before, so it seems I’m moving backwards through them. In this one, L’Engle works her way reflectively through the liturgical year, exploring the connections between inner and outer spiritual seasons. She confronts some tough questions — about suffering, disillusionment with the institutional church, confusion and difficulty in understanding scripture or knowing God, sexuality and marriage, and even bouts of atheism, which she describes as “a virulent virus, put into the world by the Evil One for our destruction, and I come down with it as on occasion I come down with the flu.” (That’s just one example of an honesty that I trusted and needed.) Her poetry is woven in throughout the book, and I found many gems. Here’s one example (warning, by the way — this is a long post):

Sometimes in this groping dark of knowing my not-knowing
I am exhausted with the struggle to believe in you, O God.
Your ways are not our ways. You sent evil angels to the Egyptians
and killed countless babies in order that Pharoah –
whose heart was hardened by you (that worries me, Lord)
might be slow to let the Hebrew children go.
You turned back the waters of the Red Sea
and your Chosen People went through on dry land
and the Egyptians were drowned, men with wives and children,
young men with mothers and fathers (your ways are not our ways),
and there was much rejoicing, and the angels laughed and sang
and you stopped them, saying, “How can you laugh
when my children are drowning?”

When your people reached Mount Sinai you warned Moses
not to let any of them near you lest you break forth and kill them.
You are love — if you are God — and you command us to love,
yet you yourself turn men to evil, and you wipe out nations
with one sweep of the hand — the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites –
gone, gone, all gone. Sometimes it seems that any means will do.
And yet — all these things are but stories told about you by fallen man,
and they are part of the story — for your ways are not our ways –
but they are not the whole story. You are our author,
and we try to listen and set down what you say, but we all suffer
from faulty hearing and we get the words wrong.

One small enormous thing: you came to us as one of us
and lived with us and died for us and descended into hell for us
and burst out into life for us — :
and now do you hold Pharoah in your arms?

(She doesn’t give titles of her poems, but the ones I’ve been able to track down reveal that she quotes only excerpts. I’m assuming this is a fragment too and therefore okay to quote here.)

There were several aspects of the book that particularly spoke to me. I very much like her way of talking about marriage without stereotyping roles. I appreciated her willingness to struggle, and to be honest about her struggles (which invariably get her somewhere, and don’t stall out in self-pity). I liked her discussions of community, of art, of her own writing life, of the different ways of knowing. She writes in the 1970’s, but much of what she observes about the idolization of rationality and the breakdown of community have come to full fruition.

But I think that what I needed most to read was her insistence that we need to be whole people. She compares us to Mercury with its extremes of hot and cold, its “sunside and nightside.” We have our conscious, rational minds, and we have our unconscious. She writes,

The unconscious aspect of the personality is anything but inert, and this is why it is so fearsome… When we limit ourselves to our ego-consciousness, then we close off that part of us which is capable of true prayer, poetry, painting, music. When we embrace the monster it may indeed devour us, and this is the genuine risk. It may also turn out to be the handsome prince or the beautiful princess for whom we have been waiting all these years.

It is only when we recognize and call by name all that we have relegated to the dark side of Mercury, to the deep black waters of the subconscious mind, that we have any hope of wholeness.

There are times in this book that L’Engle sounds like a universalist. Lewis was accused of universalism, and at times when I was reading Buechner back in the fall I felt uneasy about the same thing. All I can conclude is that brilliant minds trying to give full consideration to God’s grace are going to sound like universalists at times — and maybe God himself is less exclusive than our “sunside” will recognize when we see him face to face.

Art Lesson

I’m really enjoying Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season, and trying not to read it too quickly. Today I read her commentary on some works of art.

L’Engle writes, “Christian graphic art has often tended to make my affirmation of Jesus Christ as Lord almost impossible, for far too often he is depicted as a tubercular goy, effeminate and self-pitying.” (She doesn’t mince words, does she?) But she goes on to describe a visit to the Church of the Chora in Istanbul that excited her because its art offered an alternative. It made me curious.

Here’s the Church of the Chora. It was converted into a mosque in the 16th century by the Ottoman rulers (about whom we’re learning in history right now), but it’s been a museum since 1948:

She describes her experience of stepping over the threshold and being immediately confronted by

a slightly more than life-size mosaic of the head of Christ, looking at us with a gaze of indescribable power. It was a fierce face, nothing weak about it, and I knew that if this man had turned such a look on me and told me to take up my bed and walk, I would not have dared not to obey. And whatever he told me to do, I would have been able to do.


But the scene she’d gone expressly to see was the fresco over the altar. Here’s her commentary:

I stood there, trembling with joy, as I looked at this magnificent painting of the harrowing of hell. In the center is the figure of Jesus striding through hell, a figure of immense virility and power. With one strong hand he is grasping Adam, with the other, Eve, and wresting them out of the power of hell. The gates to hell, which he has trampled down and destroyed forever, are in cross form, the same cross on which he died.

I don’t know much about iconic art (right term?), and as a lifelong Protestant I don’t have any experience of the role it plays in worship. But I can imagine that sitting among ancient pictures like these regularly must be a powerful experience.

First, they’re ancient… They give a true sense of antiquity, of the generations that have lived and worshiped before. This church was built originally in the early 5th century, rebuilt around 1080, then modified for the last time two centuries later. The artwork inside (there’s plenty more) was created between 1315 and 1321.

Second, the painstaking work involved in the creation of works like this testifies to the great worthiness of their subjects. Frescos are made by painting on wet plaster, mosaics by affixing tiny fragments of stone or glass. To create the kind of detail in these pictures, their artists worked long and patiently, guided by a vision of the final product that only they could see.

Last, these pictures have an effect similar to hymns. Both forms involve packing a great deal of theology into a fairly rigid, condensed form. Accordingly, they pack a punch! They remind me of Daniel’s dreams in the Bible, or some of the prophetic visions, in which layers of meaning speak from a single visual idea. I feel thankful for this book that raised my curiosity.

Sarah

This week I read the story of Abraham and Isaac and was confronted with its difficulty again. Sometimes poetry finds a dwelling place in the midst of a tangle, so I’ve looked around for an Abraham and Isaac poem.

I liked this poem from Abraham’s perspective, by Fr. Kilian McDonnell, though it violates the limits of the story by giving Abraham knowledge of Christ’s future sacrifice. This one by Wilfred Owen converts the story into a poem about war.

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Cry Like a Bell includes four poems about the story, one each from the perspectives of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and the ram caught in the bushes. I choose the one about Sarah to offer today. Sarah is such an important figure in some episodes, but she’s not included in this one. This poem imagines how she might have felt.

Sarah: before Mount Moriah

Like a small mouse
I am being played with.
Pushed around, sent from home,
passed off as a sister,
free to be the sport of others
(nobody asked me).
Nobody asked if I wanted
to leave home and all my friends
(the cat never asks the mouse).
Would my womb have filled
if we had stayed where we were
instead of following strange promises?
My maid, giving my husband a child for me,
then made mock of me.
So when the angel came
announcing — promising –
a child in my womb long dry
what could I do but laugh?
And then warmth came again, and fullness,
and my child was born,
my laughter, my joy.

Are you laughing at my pain
as I watch the child and his father
climb the mountain?
Am I no more than a mouse
to be played with?

I am a woman.
You — father-God –
have yet to learn
what it is to be a mother,

and so, perhaps, have I.
And if you give me back my laughter again,
then, together we can learn
and I will say — oh, I will sing! –
that you have regarded the lowliness
of your handmaiden.

The poem is no longer available online, but you can read it in its entirety in A Cry Like a Bell. Does it project a 20th-century mindset on Sarah? I’m not sure.

What I like:

  • cat and mouse motif
  • she tries to bargain with the Almighty — as many in these stories do
  • the last lines look forward to Mary (”handmaiden”) but without giving Sarah that knowledge
  • hope: she doesn’t despair
  • “and so, perhaps, have I” of the last stanza — both humble and profound.

Certain Women

Sometimes I like books without any idea why. Madeleine L’Engle’s Certain Women is about an actress who returns to attend to her dying father, a stage actor who reviews his life through the lens of a role he longed to play, but never did — that of the biblical King David. If you ask me to tell you what I think about this novel, I’ll say:

  • It’s pretentious
  • The characters are flat and unconvincing
  • The play about King David constantly percolating in discussions among the main characters seems like an interruption rather than an enhancement of the plot
  • The characters are fascinated with King David, yet the basic plot of his story is something they’re just learning… so why were they fascinated to begin with?
  • The pseudo-theological discussions irritate me
  • The book’s conclusions about life and faith are ambiguous

YET… I read it. I finished it. I enjoyed the experience.

Perhaps I’m just a massive hypocrite. Perhaps the book makes sense at a level not yet accessible to my plot-charting analytical side. Perhaps L’Engle’s strengths — strong, rhythmic writing, willingness to deal with hard things in family relationships, a perspective that embraces faith without making her works into thinly-veiled sermons (most of the time) – are enough to outweigh the irritations.

This is kind of a strange book review, isn’t it? But it’s all I have to say about this book.