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March 13, 2019

A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle

“Why all of this, my Lord and my God? Either bring the world to an end or remedy these evils! No heart can support this any longer.” Vicky Austin is reading to her beloved Grandfather, who is dying of leukaemia, and is startled when he bursts out with this utterance. And he explains, “Teresa of Avila said that, in the sixteenth century. It should comfort me that there have always been outrages to the Divine Majesty. But it doesn’t.” He points to the headline in a nearby newspaper: “The headline was a plane crash, a big one, with everybody killed.” What is particularly outrageous about the story is that after the people were killed, others had ransacked the wreckage and the bodies for money and valuables—but this is not my point here. Instead I want to talk about the uncanny way that Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin books have been speaking to the moment I’ve been reading them, even decades after they were written.

Because a big plane crash that killed everybody on board was also top of the news yesterday, 18 Canadians among those who perished on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed on Sunday. And Vicky Austin talks to her grandfather about how she’s been avoiding the news that summer—it’s been a heady time with her grandfather’s illness and the death of a family friend. And Vicky considers, “But not reading the paper only kept me from not knowing things; it didn’t keep them from happening.”

Grandfather, anticipating Twitter in 1980 (when the book was published), says to Vicky, “Maybe instant information isn’t good for us. We can’t absorb it.” Oh, Grandfather. You have no idea.

These books relationship to time continues to fascinate me, seemingly linear and more straightforward than the Wrinkle In Time series. And yet there is more going on than is immediately apparent—first of all, Vicky Austin’s father and another character in this book have all been involved with the research of Dr. Calvin O’Keefe, who is Meg’s companion (and eventually husband) in the Wrinkle series. Which is to say that they inhabit the same universe. But time also unfolds at a different pace than the Wrinkle books do. This book is also written more than a decade after The Young Unicorns, and yet set just a handful of months later. And finally, there is the incredible sense I have that I’m meant to be reading this books right here in 2019, and the reading experiences I’m having are so visceral. I made a chicken dish the other night that was the same dinner I made when I was reading The Young Unicorns, and I was full of Young Unicorns nostalgia. I’d only read it two weeks before, but still. I’ve found all these books so utterly absorbing.

This one is set the summer following the big road trip in The Moon By Night, after the year in New York that was depicted in Unicorns. The Austins have returned to Grandfather’s island to be with him at the end of his life, but focus is shifted when the family’s good friend dies of a heart attack during a sea rescue. The sea rescue turns out to be for Zachary Gray, who was attempting suicide after the death of his mother (who was cryogenically frozen!). And yes, Zach’s back, and as obnoxious as ever, but Vicky is a year older and able to call out his bullshit in a way she wasn’t strong enough to do before. Meanwhile, she’s found out that she has dolphin ESP and is participating in experiments with Adam Eddington at the marine biology station—not that he ever offers to compensate her for her labour, of course, though the station is a pretty bare bones operation.

Which brings me to gender and the Austins, which has shifted a bit since 1968 when the previous novel was published. I’m not saying that Mother wears pants now (because as we learned in The Moon By Night, Daddy doesn’t like women in pants). But none of her children call her “nothing” in this book for her absence of a profession, and she even contemplates doing something with her life when the time comes that the children are grown and gone. She also mentions “inverse sexism” twice, which is kind of terrible. Advising her daughter Suzy that it would only be “inverse sexism” that cheated her out of her understanding her deserved place in the definition of “mankind,” and also calling it when it’s implied that her choice to leave her musical career for marriage was somehow unprogressive. But that sexism is mentioned at all is a kind of progress, I suppose. Vicky is also much less passive in her relations with the young men who are courting her (three of them!). It’s really clear though in reading these books that Madeleine L’Engle was a decidedly unfeminist writer, never mind Meg Murry’s fierce intelligence and strength of will (and remember that Meg in subsequent books becomes just “Mrs. O’Keefe,” wife of the brilliant biologist).

(It is worth noting that Suzy Austin remains unconvinced about her mother’s explanation for “mankind.” I like that L’Engle leaves the space, the possibility, the question there.)

I would like to know more about L’Engle in relation to feminism, and I wondered if she considered it a dogma worth resisting. All the books in the series so far have been about resisting dogma in the context of religion, even as the books themselves are so religious and concerned with issues of morality and mortality. The underlying message in each book seems to be about the danger of thinking we understand everything, about God and the universe in particular. (A thing Meg Murry’s mother once told her is, “But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”) Vicky recalls her grandfather telling her, “As St. Augustine says: If you think you understand it, it isn’t God.” Not knowing seems to be fundamental to understanding, which to a religious person is the definition of faith, but this idea is applicable for those of us who don’t have a religion too (or those of us who are trying to figure out feminism). Just as darkness goes with light, life with death, all of it bound together, this miraculous world and universe.

February 19, 2019

The Young Unicorns, by Madeleine L’Engle

My Madeleine L’Engle/Austins project continued this weekend when I read The Young Unicorns, the third book in the Austins series. A series that is all-over-the-place in the most interesting way, in terms of genre in particular. Because this book (whose narrative does not, in fact, include a single unicorn, in case you were curious) is a dark and plot-driven mystery, very different from the previous two novels which were episodic. It’s also narrated in the third-person and comprises points of view from the entire Austin family. And I don’t remember if I ever picked this book up when I was a child, but I can understand why the Austin series as a whole confused me. Each book is a very different creature, this one set in a gritty and crime-ridden New York City where gang violence and corruption are endemic, where the Austin family has recently relocated to while Dr. Austin, a country doctor, takes up the opportunity to study surgical lasers at a prestigious research lab.

A surprising detail I learned while reading posts and other articles on this book (this one in particular!) was that not only did L’Engle write her books in set two different systems of time (chronos and kairos), but some of the series themselves were written out of sequence. So that The Arm of the Starfish (which I’ve never read) about Meg Murry’s daughter Polly was published in 1965, before either of the two books that immediately followed A Wrinkle In Time sequentially—which surely posed narrative challenges for their author. As I’ve been reading the Austin books I’ve also found it really illuminating to consider each novel in its own historical context—The Moon By Night (1963) informed by the Cuban Missile Crisis and fears of a nuclear holocaust, and now The Young Unicorns, which was published in 1968 and certainly informed by race riots and social unrest of the late-1960s, which is directly referenced in the text—although in her author’s note, L’Engle explains that her story takes place “not in the present but in that time in the future when many changes only projected today may have become actualities.”

Which is significant, because of how timely so many of historical concerns of The Young Unicorns seem for a reader in 2019, just as the previous book’s did. (When I was young, I thought it would be cool to live through the 1960s. Having now lived through the 1960s redux, I’ve changed my mind.) This novel is asking questions about responding to social unrest, about who to trust, whether we can trust anyone, or if trust itself is a fool’s game. It’s also an exploration of the nature of freedom, in particular to how it pertains to religion. Is obedience freedom? Is disobeying freedom, and when isn’t it? What does it mean to have peace if freedom is undermined to achieve it? (And this is where the title comes in, in reference to a quotation about unicorns that cannot be caught by the hunter but instead “can only be tamed of his own free will.”)

One could say the following of all of L’Engle’s books, but it’s especially relevant here: It’s so weird. Country Doctor Austin has been transformed into a scientist (basically Meg Murry’s dad), and Rob Austin is Charles-Wallace reborn, innocent and purely good, and they even have a reliable hound with uncanny awareness of the presence of evil. The Austins have rented the upper floors of an old mansion on Riverside Drive whose lower levels belong to a scholar and his musical prodigy daughter, Emily, who has been blind since a mysterious attack a few years before. Emily takes piano lessons from the eccentric Dr. Theo, and is helped in her studies and all around by Josiah “Dave” Davidson, a former gang member who was even more formerly than that a chorister at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which looms large in this novel, its catacombs leading through tunnels to abandoned subway stations and there is even a genie who mysteriously appears when the Austin children rub a lamp in an antique shop.

Dave is Black, and we meet him in the novel’s first sentence, and it’s significant, I think, that nowhere in the novel is his race explicitly stated, but we’re meant to infer it because he’s an “ex-hood” who lives in a Harlem tenement. (Race is stated a few times elsewhere in the book—the Cathedral’s Dean is Puerto Rican, and also an “ex-hood;” also, the two scientists who performed Dr. Austin’s job before him are Chinese and Indian, and a character makes a racist statement about their Asian-ness, at one point, but this character is also literally an arch-villain, so this might be the point.)

That race is otherwise absent from the novel is significant though, especially based on its 1968 publication year and its references to riots, mobs run amok. But this was also the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, and to remove race from the story of rioting and social unrest in northern American cities in 1968 is disingenuous. There is a suggestion too that the rioting and violence is thoughtless and rootless, violence for the sake of violence. But maybe this is what happens when you’re the type of person who doesn’t see colour or write colour, and the definition of progressivism in 1968 for many is that the Austin family regularly had a Black boy sit with them at their table, never mind that his Blackness is never delineated.

While a compelling and gripping read, I also found the novel a bit difficult and disorienting. Part of that is the nature of a book that is all about puzzles, tricks, and mystery, but I’m not sure that was it entirely. There is a dinner party scene where Dr. Austin is discussing his work with the Micro-Ray laser with the visiting Canon Tallis, and then the children leave the table, conversation shifts, and then two pages later, Canon Tallis asks, “Just what is your work, Doctor?” And Dr. Austin replies, “I design and make a small surgical instrument known as the Micro-Ray.” “This is on the principle of the laser?” Canon Tallis asks, and I want to yell at him, “Weren’t you even listening when you were talking about this two pages ago????”

So was it a mistake? But then strange to find a mistake in a brand new edition of the book first published fifty years ago, no? Elsewhere, there is also a reference to the revolutionary work of Dr. Calvin O’Keefe on starfish regeneration, which wonderfully blurs the lines between L’Engle’s series, but then in the previous Austin book, set just six months before, Vicky Austin had referenced A Wrinkle in Time as a literary work as she wishes her family could “tesser” across America just like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry. An inconsistency too or something more interesting than that, and I do love the idea that the Austin’s realism is not quite what it seems.

Calvin O’Keefe’s starfish work is from 1965’s The Arm of the Starfish (ostensibly the sixth book after Wrinkle…), which this reviewer found similar to The Young Unicorns but more problematic and less compelling. And in her review she also lays out the problem of Meg Murry, fierce and brave heroine of A Wrinkle In Time, but one who is forever playing second fiddle to a brilliant male character, whether it be her husband or her brother. I have always loved A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in the series, and I’d always hoped that the reason Meg Murry O’Keefe is sitting in her parents’ kitchen while her husband is out saving the world from nuclear annihilation is because she’s nine-months-pregnant with their first child. But if Starfish is any indication, Meg Murry retired from being a feminist icon as soon as she comes of age: Always called Mrs. O’Keefe, she is calm, reassuring, intent, focused on mothering her children, a near clone of Mrs. Austin in the Austin books, serene and capable. And all wrong for Meg Murry.”

As with the line, “Daddy doesn’t like women who wear pants,” in The Moon By Night, Mrs. Austin in The Young Unicorns is happy enough to uphold the patriarchal status quo. As her daughter Suzy explains of how Mrs. Austin gave up a fledging music career to become a doctor’s wife, “Well, she’s just Mother. She decided she didn’t want to be something, didn’t she?” And it’s interesting that we see L’Engle seemingly unable to write a woman character who balances her creative passions (whether they be art or science) with marriage and family life, especially since she herself managed to do so. Although one could speculate how successful L’Engle actually felt she was in this balancing seeing as she wrote these idealized self-denying maternal figures over and over again.

“I think the closest we ever come in this naughty world to realizing unity in diversity is around a family table,” Canon Tallis comments after spending time with the Austin family, and questions of family, connection ,and disconnection recur throughout the text. For the first time, the Austin family themselves feel estranged from each other, and there are also questions of how they can possibly imagine themselves as an island of peace and calm in a world so dangerous and broken. In their own small town, it was easier to suppose it, but living in the city it becomes undeniable that all things are connected. “And it’s all about what Grandfather’s always saying, how we can’t love each other if we separate ourselves from anybody, anybody at all, and how anything that happens to anybody in the world really happens to everybody.”

January 31, 2019

On Meeting the Austins

Like many bookish people, A Wrinkle in Time played a big role in my literary foundation, although it was the third book in Madeleine L’Engle’s series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, that I was really passionate about, and have reread many times since. Because although …Planet is fantastical and concerned with time travel and parallel universes, it is very much of this world, which has always been what I’m interested in most. My favourite parts of A Wrinkle in Time were the scenes set in Meg Murry’s kitchen, the meals her mother cooked on her bunsen burner. Likewise, in …Planet we’re back in that same place as the Murry family (Meg pregnant with her first child) awaits perilous news in global politics, a ruthless dictator with his finger on the nuclear button…and Meg’s brother, Charles-Wallace, travels back through time with a unicorn, to mend the brokenness through history that led to the current crisis, brokenness that has always been rooted in family connections or lack thereof. I love this book, and it has brought me tremendous peace and comfort many times.

As a child, I had the fourth and fifth books in L’Engle’s “Time Quintet,” which Wrinkle begins, though I never had strong feelings about them and it’s possible I never actually finished reading An Acceptable Time. I also had some of the books in L’Engle’s other well-known series about the Austin family, but I remember finding them kind of strange and disorienting, which is odd because they are wholly set on this planet and do not feature centaurs. They’re mostly set in kitchens. You’d think they’d be straightforward—more on this in a moment. I have also long been intrigued by the idea that L’Engle consciously had set her books in two difference universes—The Time Quintet is set in a time she calls kairos (“real time, pure numbers with no measurement”) while the Austin series is chronos (“ordinary wrist-watch, alarm-clock time”). And that there are characters who move between the two is so fascinating. So when I saw the first three Austin books in beautiful recent paperback editions at the library, I signed them all out, and began to embark upon a new reading project, which was discovering Madeleine L’Engle from a different point of view.

Reading Meet the Austins was curious, because it was all very familiar. There were several sentences that I came upon and realize they’d been long ago made indelible upon my mind. I remembered the story from the book’s opening, when Meggy Hamilton comes to live with the Austin family after her pilot father is killed in a plane crash (which also killed his co-pilot, a friend of the Austin family, and his wife was made Meggy’s guardian but she’s a concert pianist who tours the world, so would not be able to provide a stable home life for the child). Possibly the story confused me as a child because it did not go according to trope—Meggy, the orphan, was not remotely plucky. Her presence is a hardship upon the family. Vicky Austin, the book’s narrator, is struggling with questions she’s having trouble answering, and thinking about her place within her family and her family’s place in the wider world. The family is idyllic. The parents are wise and cultured and are interested in their children’s ideas about the state of the world. Their dynamic is similar to the Murry’s, except that Vicky’s father is a family doctor and not an astrophysicist, and hasn’t been trapped inside another dimension. But the conversations they have as a family are the same, as the questions Vicky is grappling with similar to Meg Murry’s. Looking up at the stars and wondering what is our place in the cosmos—except that Vicky is doing so from the vantage point of a comfortable spot on a grassy hill.

I loved Meet the Austins. I found it intelligent and comforting, and I knew that Harriet (age 9.5) would love it too. There is not a plot exactly, instead episodes as the characters move in and out of weeks and days. I loved the way that Vicky understood that her family was a kind of cocoon and the questions she was asking about the world outside it, and her apprehensions were the kind that so many children have (and that I have never entirely been able to abandon). It’s a novel that respects its reader, and I enjoyed reading it so much that for days after I lamented that I did not have those few hours to go through again, when I had sat down with this book and been so thoroughly satisfied.

Meet the Austins was published in 1960. In 1962, L’Engle would publish her most famous work, A Wrinkle In Time, which must have meant that by the following year, when The Moon By Night (the next Austin book) was published, her world was a very different place. The world in general was a different place, however, and The Moon By Night is wholly infused with that ominousness, post-Cuban Missile Crisis and the imminent possibility of a nuclear strike. Also, Vicky Austin is 14, which is never a great age, and the world as she knows it has, in fact, already ended—her family are leaving their small town for a new life in New York City, but first, they’re about to drive across the country, a summer vacation never to be forgotten.

It’s a long journey, and on page 83, Vicky’s sister asks her older brother, ‘Hey, John, couldn’t you just tesser us there?’ and Vicky thinks, “It would have been nice if he could have, like Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, but that as Kipling would say, is another story.” Which is the first place L’Engle’s two universes intersect—I love the idea that Vicky Austin has read A Wrinkle in Time too.

The Moon by Night is remarkable for introducing the most irritating character in all of literature, Zachary Grey, certified beatnik, Holden Caulfield redux, as he’s been kicked out of prep school and calls everyone phoneys. He’s travelling across America with his own parents, who are disinterested and self-absorbed (although you might be too if Zachary Grey was your son). It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Zachary Grey feels fine, and he’s blasé about nuclear annihilation, and patronizes Vicky for her religious leanings. He is an appalling fuckwit, who latches onto Vicky as soon as they meet and calls her Vicky-O, and none of the other Austins can stand him, but Vicky finds him interesting which makes me concerned she’s going to spend her whole life attracted to damaged men who need fixing. He’s also a chauvinist, but who’s not in this novel. When Harriet read Meet the Austins, she was furious about the ways that Vicky is subservient to her brilliant older brother, and the gender dynamics are far more overt in the second book—”Daddy doesn’t like women in pants…” Oh, please. Vicky spends the entire book a passive agent as she’s passed from one jerky boy to the other. Her dad also uses judo kicks to take down a gang of “hoods” attacking their campsite. There’s a prowling bear, deadly floods, and at one point Zachary hides for hours so Vicky will worry come find him, that manipulative bastard, and there is a landslide and they’re trapped for hours, and she doesn’t even let the fact he’s put her life in jeopardy make her consider that she should never ever speak to him ever again.

Does it sound like I didn’t like this book? Not so. Weird ‘sixties slang and other factors aside, I still really loved it. And that I loved it in spite of all the reasons it was terribly annoying is a testament to its value. It’s a novel for a much older reader than Meet the Austins, maybe ideally one who is 39.5 years old and is worried about the state of our world. There is a line in it about Vicky and Zachary’s being the first generation who’s not assured of there being a future, and not the last then, I supposed, and there is some comfort in that, that our world has known peril before. Vicky thinks about her uncle, who was killed in the plane crash in the first book, and the genocide against Native Americans across the country they’re travelling (and it’s remarkable that L’Engle was using the term “genocide” in 1963), and Anne Frank in the Holocaust, and as they travel back east through Canada, she learns about the landslide in Frank, BC, and it haunts her just as much as everything does.

How do you live your life, how can you have faith any, knowing it could all just end at any moment for absolutely no reason? How do you love a world that is home to so much that is just awful? Questions I’m thinking about all the time, so The Moon By Night moved me, decades later. I appreciate too that L’Engle’s religious themes have a universality about them so that the answers apply to those of us who are not Christian, and further that her Christianity is underlined by such largesse, generosity, such grace.

Zachary Grey is one of the characters who appears in subsequent books featuring the Murry/O’Keefes. (Fingers crossed it’s just repeated scenes in which his eyeballs are pecked out by crows.) I want to read them now and see who he is in that other universe, and I look forward to the next Austin book now too, which apparently has its realism shaken a bit with the appearance of aliens. I can’t even… The Young Unicorns is next. I will keep you abreast of my progress.

March 22, 2018

“But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.”

I wrote about abortion again. Boring, I know, but every time I write about abortion, it seems to more and more politically imperative to do so. And this piece is one of the best essays I’ve ever written, I think. I’m really proud of it and feel good having those words, this story, out in the world. It’s such a common story, but for so many reasons, it’s not one we read about or hear about very often. Though I’m writing it not just for myself and so many women like me whose uncomplicated, ordinary, straightforward stories of abortion are that it was a good thing, a blessing, and simultaneously not a big deal but also such an important part of our lives. I’m writing it also with the hope of reaching someone who sees abortion as killing a baby, and cannot fathom how it could ever be ordinary, let alone a blessing. Not even to change their mind, but to have them entertain the notion of considering a different point of view. “I understand where you’re coming from,” I want to tell them, because I do, “but for a moment just consider my story.”

Which makes me think of a idea that keeps recurring in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which I’m reading aloud to my family at the moment. Uttered first in a line by Meg Murry’s mother, who tells her, “But you see, Meg, just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.” Just because someone doesn’t understand my story doesn’t mean my story isn’t true. My story is, no matter how much that complicates your worldview. I’ve written before about being grateful for my abortion, for what it’s taught me about in-betweenness and grey areas, and about the value of listening to people and believing them when they tell you about their experiences. Even if you can’t identify, even if you can’t understand. Because it’s possible that the limits of your understanding are also the limits of your point of view, and I want my ideas to be able to travel further than that. And I hope that other people might see the benefits of such open-mindedness as well.

April 21, 2016

Light and darkness, dancing together

IMG_20160421_091515This morning I dropped Iris off at playschool, and noticed pussy willows in a jar on the counter, which took me back to a scary time we went through through just over three years ago now. It was a time in which I learned that it was possible to navigate life even in the presence of one’s deepest fears, and also that doing so sometimes required errands such as an excursion with shopping list consisting only of a bouquet of pussy willows and a tub of chocolate ice cream. I remember that with the pussy willows, I finally began to feel better, and I think I was thinking of A Swiftly Tilting Planet at the time, but I didn’t pick it off the shelf to get the reference.

IMG_20160421_100107But yesterday morning I was walking to school with my seven-year-old neighbour who’s currently in the middle of  A Wrinkle in Time and has the other books in the series before her, and I told her how much A Swiftly Tilting Planet still means to me as an adult. It was the book I picked up in September 2001, after two planes flew into buildings and we wondered if the world as we knew it was entirely gone. I remember the comfort it brought me, the comfort it always has.

Mrs. Murry said, “I remember my mother telling me about one spring, many years ago now, when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were so tense that all the experts predicted nuclear war before the summer was over. They weren’t alarmists or pessimists it was a considered, sober judgement. And Mother said that she walked along the lane wondering if the pussy willows would ever bud again. After that, she waited each spring for the pussy willows, remembering and never took their budding for granted again. 

I took it down off the shelf this morning to find the pussy willows paragraph, and realize that I absolutely have to reread this book again. And I considered how fundamental it might have been in cementing my understanding of the cosmos, the world.

Darkness was, and darkness was good. As was light. Light and darkness dancing together, born together, born of each other, neither preceding, neither following, both fully being in joyful rhythm.

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