Monday, September 10, 2007

On Madeleine L'Engle

I was twelve years old and in sixth grade when my friend and classmate (Tani Bocaya, I still remember her name: she was dark and cheeky, lived in Marikina, and was also a fan of books and Broadway - specifically Miss Saigon and Les Miserables) introduced me to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I couldn't pronounce her last name, but the book was easy enough to understand.

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I remember devouring the book in one night: it was one of those stories that simply lifted you up, spun you around, and stayed with you for the rest of your life. I remember that I memorized the table of elements because of that book, and learned what the concept of pi was, and the four dimensions, the idea of a tesseract, and that a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points. Everything was magic for me - and of course, I saw myself painfully, clearly through Meg Murry. Like her, I felt plain and bespectacled, with weird hair and a brother who outshone everything I did. There was a kindred spirit in her, even though she was just a character in a book, that I could almost sense how helpless she felt in the face of The Dark Thing, of saving her father and her brother. She was almost palpable, real; she could have been in the next room.

I didn't know that A Wrinkle in Time belonged to a collection known as The Time Quartet until I was in high school. Of course, when I bought my set, I devoured the entire thing altogether, only rising from the bed to eat and got to the toilet. My friends and I gushed over Meg's first kiss with Calvin (and I swear, it still sends goosebumps up and down my arms), and wondered how cute the twins were in Many Waters, and of course I wanted a mom like Mrs. Murry, who would cook stew over a Bunsen burner (though I had no idea what a Bunsen burner looked like back then). Of course, the fact that my friends and I gush over characters from books says a lot about the kind of friends I had back in high school, but that belongs to a different story altogether.

Academics and critics have tried to place L'Engle's stories into nice boxes, pigeonholes, labeled shelves. She is an children's book writer, science fiction, fantasy, everything in this world and everything beyond this world. I think she put it succintly enough when she divided her work into kairos and chronos - stories that belonged to pure time and clockwork time. It still amazes me that this small, porcelain woman who belives in God and in the power of the universe seems so different from our idea of what an artist should be like, what a writer should say and do and appear in this culture. She simply looks like this sweet old woman who simply told stories to anyone who would listen.

When I read about her death - she passed away quietly at the age of 89, her body whittled by age and osteoporosis - it felt like one of my childhood memories had disappeared. Hers was one of the first novels I remember reading that affected me in such a profound way, that actually marked my reading habits from childhood to something more mature, beyond the way I was taught to think in grade school. I come back to the novels at least once a year to pay homage to the woman who opened my eyes to the magic outside the boundaries of this world, who taught me that science and fantasy can exist in one world. She taught me the meaning of words, of names, of the act of naming.

And I think, for that, I am forever grateful.

Rest in peace, Madeleine L'Engle. You are now the shooting star, the flying horse, the hope that redeems us from all that is dark.

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