We were sitting in the old wicker chairs, having tea on the screened-in porch at Crosswicks Cottage, Madeleine L'Engle's home in Connecticut. It was a warm summer day in 2002, with the Litchfield Hills carving a silhouette against the late afternoon sky. Our conversation had slowed, become desultory, in the kind of relaxed manner of friends who know from long experience how to be together, what the other person is thinking, and for whom silence is comfortable, even comforting. I was knitting. Madeleine seemed preoccupied.
Suddenly she looked up and asked, "Is your journal there in your knitting bag?"
"Yes," I answered, rescuing my battered notebook from a tangle of yarn.
"Write this down for me, will you?"
Madeleine dictated this poem, speaking slowly enough for me to scribble it onto a blank page, but without a break in thought or rhythm.
Smudges the spill of light from the late day sun.
The ink will run if I cannot remember
To keep the darkness newso easily forgot.
The night provides more light than blatant day.
What can I write that keeps the morning fresh
That hid the young cat in the row of wheat?
The reaper lacks the eyes to hold him back;
Unseeing, his sharp blade carves the damning cut
That kills without a conscious, caring thought.
He does not hear the harsh cry of the cat;
And spurting blood, and life gone like the wind.
The event of the poem was clearly a vivid memory, one that had long been at work in Madeleine's subconscious, ever-fruitful mind. It was as if the image finally found an outlet, and a place on a page.
Re-reading this poem later in The Ordering of Love: New & Selected Poems, I kept discovering things." Like its human author, a good poem is layered, not revealed all at once.
For instance, the need to keep memory fresh and re-freshened by writing it down: "The ink will run/if I cannot remember to keep the darkness new." Madeleine's personal journal and daybook, in which she wrote daily for most of her adult life, helped her to "keep the darkness new," and "the morning fresh" and guarded her ideas, and their sharp particularities, from blurring into mere abstractions. The long-ago stunning moment in its beauty and terror inform the poem as if it had just happened. The detail of "the young cat in the row of wheat" is stark and simple enough to paint a picture and prepare us for the violent conclusion of the second stanza.
The contrast between light and darkness, and the paradoxical power of darkness to clarify the truth, to inform even through anguish and suffering, reminds us of the phrase Madeleine often quoted about "the deep but dazzling darkness" of God and of supernatural reality that we struggle to understand and enter.
The vast importance for Madeleine of clear vision, and of sight and insight, utterly absent in "the reaper" who "lacks the eyes to hold him back" from bloodshed, and because of indifference and lack of awareness, is unable to avoid snuffing out a life.
And "life gone like the wind"; in the age bracket where, of late, Madeleine and I found ourselves, our mortality and the diminishment that comes with aging must be faced. All of us who were close to Madeleine in the past months are painfully aware that her life seemed to be passing like the wind.
Madeleine has always had a powerful, instinctive sense of rhythm and rhyme. Read some of her sonnets and note the flow of words and unforced, easy rhymes and rhythms sound as if that was exactly what they were always meant to be read aloud, these poems, some deeply moving, some full of humor, come to life as if they had somewhere always existed in their present form and only needed a mind and a mouthpiece and a page to bring them to our attention.
Our partnership in words is of long-standing. Madeleine and I met as speakers at a writer's conference at Wheaton College over forty years ago. Her reputation as a novelist and essayist was legendary, even then. A Wrinkle in Time had received the Newbery Medal, and the Crosswicks journals had just been published. We exchanged books and began a correspondence. Her first book of poetry, Lines Scribbled on an Envelope, had recently gone out of print, and since my husband Harold and I had just started our publishing house, I asked her, "Why don't we reprint the volume in a new edition, along with some of your more recent poems?" Madeleine jumped at the idea. The next year, The Weather of the Heart was released, and later, A Cry Like a Bell. Madeleine welcomed my suggestions for minor revisions to her poems, and, tit for tat, was always ready to comment constructively on mine. One of the last things she asked in a phone conversation last January was, "Why haven't you sent me your new poems?"
Of course, there were disagreements. We never actually fought, but we regularly entered into vigorous differences of opinion. We both considered this one of the great advantages of our friendship, growing as it did out of a working editorial bond. We learned astonishing things from being honest and forthright with each other ("as iron sharpens iron "). Coming as we did from opposite ends of the Christian spectrum, we nearly always met in the middle, benefiting from rich interchanges and discussions. "Book talk and God talk" formed continuing themes in our letters, phone conversations, manuscript revisions, and face-to-face dialogue.
As we all know, Madeleine loved to jolt her readers out of their conventional ruts. They didn't always agree with her, but her fresh ideas set us all thinking in new and fruitful ways, opening up new horizons.
Walking on Water, Madeleine's best-selling work on the complex, mysterious connections between faith and art, came about early in our relationship. I had asked her to write about her philosophy of creativity, and months later she handed me an untidy pile of typescript, saying rather dismissively, "Can you do something to make this work? Right now it has no shape!" For several weeks I cut and pasted (on my living room floorthis was pre-computer), making piles of pages with ideas that seemed related, then recombining them into what I hoped was a coherent sequence, the kind of statement that would reflect what Madeleine believed and practiced about God and writing in her life. Both she and Hugh were pleased with the result, and the trust between us deepened as we continued to work together to bring more of her nonfiction books to publication.
We shared much more than manuscripts. Our friendship blossomed way beyond the writer-editor relationship. We gave mutual support in times of crisis, such as the year both our husbands died of cancer, and when I was depressed enough to be near-suicidal and Madeleine talked me down, like talking the pilot of a failed plane to a safe landing. After a serious car accident, I was able to be with her in San Diego for a week of telling jokes and singing hymns and telling bedtime stories as she healed. There were visits back and forth between East and West Coasts. Travels by car in the U. K. and Canada, lectures together at Regent College, Calvin College, and at Oxford and Cambridge. Parties at "924," her home in Manhattan, her famous roast leg-of-lamb dinners, proofreading sessions on her dining room table, supervised by Terrible and Kelly, the literary cats. Sunday worship at the Church of All Angels, where I remember her, one Advent, suddenly standing up to a commanding height, like the angel of the Annunciation, and declaring "Fear not!" Visits to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for noon Eucharist. Saying Compline together at the end of a day.
Then there were the Ping-Pong games at Laity Lodge in Texas. Madeleine won by intimidation, bearing down on any helpless opponent like a ship under full sail. Star-filled nights in the hill country. I wanted to title our book on friendship The Table of Friendship, celebrating Madeleine's dinner table, the Lord's table, the editorial desk, and the Pong table. Madeleine thought that sounded too much like the multiplication table, to which we were both averse. So it ended up as Friends for the Journey.
Friendships for Madeleine were not just "relationships" or networking opportunities, but companionships of heart and mind and spirit. That's what we can still celebrate today, all of us together in loving and each other, and each remembering the luminous moments with our loving, faithful friend. We've been grieving for months, years, as she was slipping from us into another sphere. Now we keep her alive in our hearts, our God-friend as she is now "knowing as she was known," by her heavenly Father.
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Christianity Today interviewed her in 1979. Other articles include:
The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals | Madeline L'Engle and D. James Kennedy both made our list. (October 6, 2006)
Supernatural Sagas of Good and Evil | The foolish things of Madeleine L'Engle. (June 8, 1979)
Reviews of Luci Shaw's books and articles she wrote for Christianity Today include:
Welcoming Resurrection | A volume of new poems from Luci Shaw. (July 8, 2006)
"Ears to Hear, Eyes to See" | Luci Shaw's poetry helps us pay attention to God's world. (December 9, 2002)
Yes to Shame and Glory | Mary is a model of openness to the power of God. (December 12, 1986)