Miss L'Engle and I

In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at last either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done—or very, very nearly done—in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.

—C.S. Lewis, “On Stories”

My muse is a doll. Not just any doll—and not just any muse. It’s a five-inch Madeleine L’Engle doll I found on Etsy while I was searching for Emily Dickinson. Sounds like a movie. Searching for

Miss L'Engle at home.
Miss L’Engle at home.

Emily Dickinson starring Jennifer Connelly (sans make-up and with very unglamorous eyebrows). Ah Emily— “Hope is the thing with feathers—That perches in the soul—” Sorry. Momentary poetic synapsing. Back to Madeleine. Like I said, it all began with a search for Emily Dickinson via Google . . .

Picture this: A class full of AP Literature seniors restlessly trying to grapple with Dickinson’s random use of Capital letters—love of Dashes—and seeming obsession with Death. In other words—they were Bored.

English teachers are known for being a tad quirky. Just a tad. And my students were used to my poetic ramblings and erratic bear dances (don’t ask) and the occasional spontaneous rap performance. So when I suggested that we look at Emily via Google and try to get a handle on her, they weren’t surprised. I lit up the SmartBoard and plugged “Emily Dickinson” into Google and we watched the screen fire up. Important sidebar about teenagers—they are a tad obsessed with “looks.” Appearance. Style. They are the ones that keep Aeropostale in business. So when they all begged to look at “Images” in order to actually visualize Miss Emily,  I was game.

And there she was over and over again. The same solemn picture repeated in black and white, sepia, oval-shaped frame, no frame, pixellated, high resolution. Dark hair parted in the middle and pulled back tightly over small ears. A pale oval face with heavy brows, dark eyes, awkward nose, and beautifully pudgy lips. Her stare—a sort of 19th century “madwoman-in-the-attic” stare—kind of creeped out my seniors—who are easily creeped out for some reason. Strange given their propensity to find Pharrell and his Smoky-the-Bear hat, “chill.”

As we moved through the photos giggling and chortling like kids looking at their parents’ wedding pictures, we saw Miss Emily in various sepia-toned frozen poses. Blah. Nothing too exciting…until BAM. Something different. A doll. A truly creepy, look-a-like Emily Dickinson doll available for purchase on Etsy. I was in love. All of a sudden I could picture the shelves in the back of my classroom lined with literary dolls. A cluster or cloister or herd or salon (what do you call a flock of authors?) of literary giants. I shared my vision. My kids rolled their eyes at my enthusiasm, but I was not deterred.

At lunch I got back on Etsy and found Miss Emily with a whole host of compadres equal in stature and priced around $40 each. So much for my Shelf ‘O Authors. BUT I could buy one. My greed for weird literary objects kept me searching through UneekDollDesigns. (Ok. The store name could be much better.) I was obsessed. Everyone was there. Chekov, Tolstoy, Dickens, Brontë (all of them), Austen, Steinbeck, Dahl, Dostoevsky…and then. There she was. My literary icon. A Madeleine L’Engle doll wearing a pink corduroy jacket and striped britches holding  (glued) a copy of A Wrinkle in Time.

Confession: I have a very slight—virtually normal—obsession with Miss L’Engle. 

Flashback. A white-headed ten-year-old girl, gawky, taller than other girls so always standing in the back of school pictures with the boys. Shy. Introverted. Devoted Bookmobile Lover and Closet-Sitting Reader of All Books. Besides The Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Wrinkle in Time was my go-to book. I actually owned copies of these two books bought through the Scholastic Reader order forms handed out by elementary school teachers everywhere in the late 60s and early 70s.

I was Meg Murray. I adored Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit, though Mrs. Which scared me a bit. Later in life, I loved Miss L’Engle’s non-fiction writing—The Crosswicks Journals. Elegant, simple, quiet prose that made the ordinary moments extraordinary.

Harrumphing while guarding her works.
Harrumphing while guarding her works.

So I bought her. Despite a sort of voodoo doll aura, I adore her. Her cropped gray hair that always defied trends, the sassy eyebrows, her large maternal bosom perched on slender legs. She reminds me to write even though I’m 56 and not even a blip on the literary timeline. I look at her and know it doesn’t matter that I’m not a blip. She reminds me that the ordinary moments are sacred gifts to be cherished and memorialized. She reminds me that even if I’m a newly retired English teacher whose quirks are now more subdued and whose voice rarely raps or quotes random literary nonsense, I still have something to say even if it’s only between me and God (my best reader).

Miss L’Engle is not standing alone on the shelf in my “library” anymore. She has a companion…a gloomy, black-clad Russian clutching Crime and Punishment. A gift from a young woman—former student— full of poetry. They stand together—an odd couple of geniuses whose works shaped my world. But it’s Madeleine who harrumphs and glares at me like any good muse must glare and harrumph.

The doll maker has about 187 author dolls. I have my eye on Flannery O’Conner—a southern writer who loved God, irony, and peacocks. She had a farm with lots of peacocks. She was a tad quirky. She’ll fit in perfectly.

This is my submission for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Object.