There are many writers who have influenced me over the years, for sure. I could talk about Barbara Kingsolver, or Sue Monk Kidd, or others, but they would be more recent companions. Madeleine L'Engle was who I read in the years in which I was becoming my adult self, a process which probably took the bulk of my twenties.
I often thought about writing her, to tell her the difference her work made to me (especially her journals), but it just felt too cheezy--as if there was no way I could do it justice with my words. I would sound too sincere, like maybe I was a little crazy or a budding stalker. It felt like the only way for that conversation to work would be if we were face-to-face and she could look in my eyes and see that I was not exaggerating a bit, and that I looked to be perfectly sane at the same time. I was trying not to be a crazy fan, because being a "fan" at all is so cliche. I didn't feel like a "fan". I felt mentored by her work, and that is a very different thing. Living in Colorado, the face-to-face, read-the-God-honest-truth-in-my-eyes meeting with her was not going to happen.
Then shortly after I moved to Brooklyn, Madeleine L'Engle passed away. There was an event to celebrate L'Engle and her work at Books of Wonder, the oldest independent children's book store in the city, and a shop to which she gave her loyal support. I went, not at all intending to speak. I would sit quietly in the back with my sorrow, and we would acknowledge the loss which was all of ours, together.
One of her granddaughters, Lena, was there, and she walked to the front to speak first. I had read about Lena and her sister, Charlotte, in L'Engle's journals. I had read about all kinds of things--the way L'Engle woke in the middle of the night to write when her children were young, the summer her mother died, the story of her marriage and her husband's death. I had read about where she slipped away to, when her house was full and she needed to clear her mind.
Lena began to describe a memory. She talked about her grandmother's bedroom at Crosswicks, and how they called it the portrait room because of the large family portraits hanging on all the walls, and she listed each of the relatives represented there. She told about the way she and her sister would sit on the large poster bead with their grandmother and drink hot cocoa while they read together, and how when they were seven years old, she decided they were ready for Shakespeare. Lena spoke about what it meant to her, during a time in which her parents were busy with their own lives, to have the presence and attention her grandmother gave them.
I sat in my chair and listened, and I could hardly breathe. You see, as Lena spoke, I realized that I already knew this story. Everything about it--from the portraits to the cocoa, to the reading in the covers. I had read it in L'Engle's journals. That moment I was completely present to the profound generosity it is--to take a piece of one's life, even one so intimate that it would be your loved one's fondest memory of you--and put it in a book, and share it with a stranger. That you would invite a young girl half a country away, whom you would never meet, to see your world and know your thoughts, that it would change her to the core in ways in which you would never even hear of--that is generosity. And not just to me, but to the vast ocean of readers that have found her work, or will find it in the endless years to come.
That moment transformed me.
There, in that chair, Madeleine gave me my last lesson. She showed me what's possible when we're willing to do the work that wants to be done through us diligently, what's possible when we're willing to be vulnerable and to be seen, what's possible when we commit words to the page and then share them. We can give comfort and companionship. We can offer the guidance of our own experiences and convictions. We can participate in the growth of each another.
The sharing went a little downhill after Lena. Earnest people told stories that were more about themselves than about L'Engle, and I started feeling like it was a disaster. I could hear the words that were missing so loudly in my ears. But I wasn't going to speak, I reminded myself. Who am I to say anything? We never even met. But in the light of her generosity to me, it suddenly seemed like so little to ask in return--saying what wasn't being said--that I walked to the front.
I don't mind speaking in public, but I very much mind crying while I'm trying to speak in public. There was no way I was getting to say these things without the tears, without having to hold my voice tightly as if I were gripping the reins on a runaway horse. That part was painful for me. But I got to look into Lena's eyes and tell her the difference her grandmother made to me, an unknown girl across the country. The things she taught me, long before I needed to know them, about being a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a writer and a friend. How she wrote about faith in a way that made me think there could be a seat at that table for me.
That day I learned that my voice is not for me alone, and that if I don't stand up and say the missing things, perhaps no one will, and something will be lost forever.
My favorite authors whisper to me through their words, "You are not alone." Writers like L'Engle have mentored me as profoundly as the women I have known in real life. I am who I am, in part, because of them. On occasion I am tempted to look away from the page by one of those reasons why I almost don't do what I do. But it is with terror that I consider the possibility that someone else--someone like Madeleine, who changed me forever--might have been stopped by one of her "reasons why not". So I turn back to the page, as an act of gratitude for all I have been given, and I keep writing. When the work is passing from my hands, I remember that I have been changed by generosity, and that it has become who I am. Madeleine L'Engle taught me that we all serve the work, whether our offerings are a humble stream or a great river, all feeding into the same pool. And so I do as I have been taught.