Friday, February 17, 2012

All of Our Acceptable Times

“How extraordinary to be looking at a star in this present moment and seeing it millions of years ago.” Madeleine L’Engle, An Acceptable Time

There is a moment in A Wrinkle in Time, when Mrs. Whatsit is trying to explain to Meg Murray what a tesseract is. She has Mrs. Who hold out her skirt, making a straight path of the fabric, to illustrate how we would normally travel in time. Then, the tesseract: Mrs. Who brings her hands together so that the two edges of her skirt touch. A folding of time and space, bringing things impossibly far and long apart together, to touch.

“… by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

It was such a magical sentence to me when I first read it, and even now, it makes my hair stand on end. I love the idea that there is this impossible thing that allows us to step across time and space, one place to the next.

I might, of course, say that such a thing is not impossible at all. I might call such a thing a book.

In An Acceptable Time, a time gate opens, allowing people from the present (including Meg Murray’s daughter, Polly) to step three thousand years into the past. The loops of time are temporarily interwoven because of (as these things so often are in L’Engle’s writing) great need, need which can be healed by love, by compassion. I think of the things that can interweave the rings of time, and allow a voice to speak across them, and I think that I might also call those things books.

Perhaps it is my own experience with L’Engle’s works that makes me feel this, to feel that books are tesseracts, are time gates that open at our need. I can think of no writer I turned to more, across the time and space of my own life, for inspiration, for compassion, for healing. And indeed, for understanding, such as when Mrs. Whatsit’s explanation of a tesseract suddenly made clear to me the writings of a fourteenth century anchorite. (And this is why my dissertation, on the writings of medieval mystics, is dedicated to a twentieth-century science fiction writer.)

But then I think about the ways in which a book speaks to us differently when we read it as a child, and then read it again as an adult. I remember hearing people say how they found certain books at a time when they really needed to read the words contained within them, and I think that time matters to books as much as it mattered to L’Engle. And for all that it was not one of her more obvious preoccupations as a writer, like faith and love and science and reason and the idea that all of those concepts could coexist, time mattered deeply in L’Engle’s writing. Not just chronos, clock time, artificial time, hardly that at all, but kairos, the acceptable time in which things happen when they are meant to, when time gates open up, when it is possible to tesser.

Madeleine L’Engle died in 2007, before I published anything, before I even thought seriously about writing. So I never got the chance to write to her and tell her a truth that I recognize every day when I open up my notebook: that she wrote with grace, with beauty, with truth, and that those are things I very much want to find in my own writing. That because her writing engaged with the numinous, it gives me the courage to do the same.

But I went, on the day that I had my first reading, the day that a book first came out that had my name on the cover, on a pilgrimage. I went to the church where Madeleine L’Engle spent so much of her time, where she had been the librarian, where she had been memorialized, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I sat in the church and I told her thank you. I hope that she heard me.

There is such a thing as a tesseract. It was an acceptable time.