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.

meandering moments and lots of digressing

A magnet–student made one year. Still have it. Still like it.

I have been doing quite a bit of reading lately. Some fiction (Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane–Oh my goodness. Such beauty). Some Bible. Some more fiction (currently Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende and Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman). I have grown very picky about fiction. It has to be more than a story. It needs to vibrate with beauty even in the violence. Cormac McCarthy does this well. I was tutoring a girl last week and we were reading a John Updike poem, “Ex-Basketball Player.” At the end of the second or third stanza there was a simple simile that stayed with me because of its beauty: “His hands were like wild birds.” I had to read it over and over again and just let it seep in like poetry does sometimes. Of course, my student thought I was nuts, but she agreed it was lovely.


 A Non Sequitur (I tend to digress…)

I feel a bit guilty for not updating Goodreads. Does anyone else feel badly about not updating their “progress” on Goodreads? I neglect to enter the books I pick up and put down and pick up again later. Like Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. I am pretty sure this is the book that will help me move from short stories to novels. Right now, I am a short story writer. One major conflict. A few characters. Lovely details. Climax and a quick resolution. Done. Freytag’s Pyramid at work. I’m studying the short stories of the magnificent Barbara Kingsolver. She drives me nuts. Just one sentence from Homeland’s story, “Blueprints,” and I am dashed and tortured by insecurity. “As she pads around the cabin in wool socks and skirt and down vest, Lydia develops a bizarre fantasy that they are part of some severe religious order gone into mourning, observing the silence of monks.” One sentence.

 –excuse me–need to switch laundry to dryer. Life. And more life. I had to make the bed. The bathroom and shower needed attention. Which begs the question: how does something you jump in to get clean, get so dirty? If I were a gardener or a farmer or painter, I could see how there might be some significant dirt in the shower. But I am not. I am a tutor. A former public high school English teacher. But I think I would like to be a farmer except for the non-stop work. Sometimes the dream is infinitely more appealing than the reality. My father grew up on a farm. I have heard stories all my life. It is a really hard, dirty, hot job. So maybe raising alpacas in the foothills of the Rockies? How come the Pioneer Woman ( http://thepioneerwoman.com) makes it look so easy? Drat her and her French Silk Pie.

I digress again…the dryer is dinging so time to unload…

I had to speak to the dryer. When it starts dinging to tell me the clothes are dry and ready to be retrieved and folded, I tell it that “I am coming…I hear you…” as if to placate the machine so it won’t spew lint everywhere if I don’t respond to the dinging! My dryer is a dictator. Or Dr. Pavlov and I am the drooling, salivating beast.

Meditation Notes: now to the eternal stuff

I choose mornings for Bible reading since I do not have to be at the tutoring center until 9. I can start at 6-ish with my coffee and relax a bit. On my door desk (see previous blogs) I have a journal, my NIV Bible, the Phillip’s translation of the New Testament, the ESV Bible, my very worn copy of My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers translated into modern language by James Reimann. (This devotional guide is marked-up from years of revelations. Again and again, it pushes me to scripture.) I treat my journal like it is a conversation with God and I begin with prayer requests. I get pretty intense and focused on these. That’s all I’ll say. My Abba knows.

I move on to Chambers and see what he says for the day. Today’s devotional was based on Luke 9:57. The cost of following Jesus. No excuses. My notes say “I must be solely guided by my relationship with Christ.” And “My first loyalty is to Jesus.”

Then on to Matthew. I’ve been reading through Matthew as a study, looking at his voice as a writer, what he did differently than Mark, Luke and John. How the Holy Spirit used Matthew’s perspective as a former tax collector to present the life and words and works of his Rabbi and savior. I have also been examining just the words of Jesus–not out of context–but what he is saying in his parables. It has taken me months and months to reach Matthew 21, but it has changed me. Don’t get me wrong here…I’m still the flawed, hyper-sensitive, somewhat agoraphobic, introspective, sometimes gloomy 55-year-old woman I’ve always been, but I’ve learned some things. I’m still learning. I figure it will take a lifetime to learn His Word.

I type little “meditation notes” from my readings pretty often–specially if something hits me right in the gut and I want to ignore it and run away to my safe and selfish little cave. They help me remember what God taught me. Here’s one from this week. It started with a verse study that led to commentary on another verse in the ESV Bible. Clear as mud, right?

“From Matthew 20:16 commentary from ESV Bible”

A disciple of Jesus should not measure her worth by comparing it with the accomplishments of others, but should focus on serving from a heart of gratitude in response to God’s grace. (I added “her” because I get tired of “him”)

My giant sheet of steel magnetic board! All things inspiring and fun.

Really spoke to me and continues to. If you have a meditation note you’d like to share, please do. Now it’s time for my mid-morning snack. I can have raw nuts. I’d rather have ginger snaps. Life is hard; God is good (and so are ginger snaps!)

John Updike, “Ex-Basketball Player” from Collected Poems 1953-1993. Copyright © 1993 by John Updike. Reprinted with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
Source: Collected Poems 1953-1993 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993)