Madeleine L’Engle wrote what I once heard called the “Charles Wallace” books. A Wrinkle In Time, The Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet were my late childhood favorites. Magnetic and all-encompassing, reading was as effortless and breathless as falling into a well, its gullet not consuming, the soft outsides pulling in tight as a light shone into the words and the world they made.
What subconscious urging led me to look up her Wikipedia page I can’t know. Her modest entry stared back with an ease unimaginable to my middle and high school research efforts, hopefully accurate information assembled out of the kindness of strangers. She passed away in 2007, age 88. She won many prizes for her work, but was unable to accept the National Humanities Medal due to poor health. She was the sort of giving, non-judging Christian I wish I would meet more of, her God based in forgiveness and love apparent to me only later, with reflection.
I loved the world of these books, rendered in ink beneath the watercolor. The characters were real, connected in families as close and loving as the white New England houses they lived in were in rattling and drafty. That solid reality–identical to my reality in my grandmother’s Pennsylvania farmhouse–was no less real than her fantastic, metaphorical worlds within mitochondria, on other planets, in shadow dimensions. Charles Wallace was the strange, quiet child who could move between the worlds, carrying his sister Meg with him.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet has what I remember as a scene where a character looks out over a golden field. Times are dark and even worse are coming. Foreboding drifted out of the woods where the field ended, that world as solid as the dusky shadows in my sixth grade bedroom.
A few weeks ago that field appeared to me.
It’s been a rough three, now four months. While nights no longer find me clinging the phone’s glowing face next to my cheek in hopes this surrogate breast will deliver words of comfort, my glass is cracking still. I don’t take the panic pills because we all know that’s the road to perdition, and it’s too early, and I don’t want to travel that road as much as I need it, this instant, right now.
It is Friday night. I’ve noticed Fridays have been bad for months. The sense of adventure and tentative belonging I had before last fall has been gone since then. There’s plenty on offer this night, but choices overwhelm me: a movie, improv, Shakespeare in the park. All are exciting and I want them all, and all the other things I don’t know about, all the things I wanted to do in college and my twenties and thirties and didn’t. But I am vibrating inside my house, inside my skin. Not anxiety, not depression, but deep sadness immobilizes me. This is different, an unwelcome newness.
I want somebody, not the crisis line. I call my parents and talk to them about nothing: the weather there, plans for their August visit. How are you? I take my father literally and tell him, as much as I feel like a dirty sock sliding across his face: just sad, Dad. I just don’t know what to do, about my life, about anything. My father is in the backyard of the house bought new in 1978, grilling by the pool showing its age, the trees full of the time that has grown them big. I hear sizzle, imagine the smoke in the summer dark, crickets, stars fat with heat. Well, what do you want to do? The question is so plain, from a different world. I have no answer.
When I was little Dad would read me a story in bed, sometimes still in his suit, a red tie straight over his still-crisp shirt. I had a blue bedspread, a white lamp squat like a cookie jar. He was a giant then, returned from The World. He would finish the story and turn out the light, and the TV light glowed through the bedroom doorway. Even if I was scared of a spelling test or bullies or nuclear war, after the story I was absolutely not. It was all excised, and I slept and dreamed.
Now I don’t own a TV. It’s too easy to disappear into it, confusing it for home.
I connect with a friend by text, the one that doesn’t like talking on the phone. I type out words and she types them back, which seems laborious, like a Ouija board. Twenty years ago this could be a horror story plot: disembodied messages appearing on a strange device. She is watching movies with her son, getting him interested in Arthurian legend, and doesn’t want to interrupt that. I understand. The sun is setting. I clench my hands.
Anxiety and depression both rob us of decision-making power. It’s hard enough in the best of mindsets, the last gasp industrial cornucopia inundating us with three dozen types of toothpaste and electronic fireflies that are all so pretty. But too many is too many. I text: I’m going for a run. She types back: That’s a good plan. She doesn’t say you’ll like it because it’s free, but I know she thinks it. At least it is a decision, and something to do.
Free of the sharp angles of my house, there is the summer evening sky, the light as orange as from a world of riches, leaves in the park shimmering, people bouncing basketballs. I run up through oaks sighing out their green darkness to kids on the swings, up the sidewalk, thinking I can run all this way without stopping now, turning at the street, and then stopping at the confluence of worlds.
No forest walls off the fields men have cleared; there are no barns. It’s a city street in Seattle under the high-voltage tower right-of-way with the grass overgrown. But that is easy to forget when close to it, the western sun beaming its gold. I am not that out of breath, sweaty, heart pumping, and the grass and the light conjure the scene from A Swiftly Tilting Planet I must have read over thirty years ago.
How often do we turn a corner and allow the moment to be us? Ego blows away like the dust it is, letting something shine into us that has always been there. We are too distracted to see most magic. But today I am lucky and see what is always there.
At times I have felt time shift, the me of now breaking away and simplifying to someone that existed a long time ago. In the year before my divorce I would stand in the open grass across from our townhouse, looking over an overgrown ravine where a stream burbled, rising to apartment homes and trees and high-tension towers. Morning clouds churned, catching violet, and–once or twice–I was very young, the world cartoons and worksheets and Star Trek after piano lessons and Lipton instant chicken soup with Mom when Dad was on the road. I was not remembering elementary school–I am that child, pure in the life of fear and wonder undiluted. A minute was the longest I stayed in that alternate universe, staring up into the clouds no different from the ones above a long-ago playground, distant buses groaning. Neurons activated by stress or light, something that happens with age, a random cosmic ray: I have no interest in explanations. The experience was as real as anything we experience. Ultimately everything happening inside our heads.
So here now is something similar. Sadness doesn’t lift but this light is here too. Questions would ruin it; I only recognize that now, for a little while, the light has brought out an old child me.
I run my hands through it and remember the vast field next to my grandmother’s farmhouse golden with hay like this, or maybe the late summer field by my childhood house before the hay was mowed. Sundays my father, the dog and I would slide around the last fencepost and walk through it, the dog popping up like an antelope looking for bunnies. Other memories, other fields, all golden and high like this, blurred and defocused and at once too sharp and present to bear: the experience of a child.
For a few minutes I am the sixth grade kid enraptured by books and 8-bit video games, amazed by the stars but confused about eternity in an open, happy way. Sun streams out golden filaments thick enough to walk on, up into the sky and into that world where we must somewhere still be, when the pool is new and the trees are sticks and summer spreads its wondrous boring comfort to us all.
For a while I am there in it, marveling. The sun is setting into the mountains and shining off the Sound, the glow changing and the child deepening. I realize this is a moment that will never come again and am here in it, as long as anyone can be in a moment.
Then I run–against sadness, against now, against whatever loss and failure rains out of the ether. It’s easy and hard, taking the air in and stepping lightly past the houses I have come to know, music drifting out from Friday night, kids playing in Friday night, everyone happy and easy in Friday night but me. I am running for the camera, and drive back to have the most time with the light. It’s still there and I stay with it a while, but I am occupied now. The camera captures very little for what it takes away.
The light makes its own golden age, and I sit with it, still. Angles shift it to brown, and everything straight is stark.
At home I text my friend I am back. I tell her the sadness is still there, with me as I make dinner. Tell it to fuck off. What did you make for dinner? I tell her I took pictures.
I forgot about Madeleine L’Engle, Charles Wallace and his books, the magic crossing of dimensions by my sixth grade self to my early forties now. The weekend creaked along, holding together until Monday, when I saw a shrink. Take more, she said, the same advice my doctor gave me months ago, but now I listen. Why didn’t I listen before? You had concerns, you made a choice. That Willy mistreated you doesn’t mean you made the wrong one.
In high school, when I learned L’Engle had a Christian viewpoint, I mentally reviewed the books that had so captivated me. Yes, there it was, clear as anything. I was staunchly anti-Christian then, and felt betrayed and confused on how I could be taken in. By then I had lost interest in Charles Wallace and his world, and I looked at the books in my shelf as things from another time.
Now I am kind to them again and glad for what they taught me, the wondrous imagination they showed and encouraged. There is nothing wrong with a little faith in a power of ultimate kindness. I am embarrassed it has taken me so long to learn this, but we all beat our heads against the wall before learning to go around. I am forgiving myself, right now.
I have not reread the books. The star that shone then is a different one than broke over my sadness on a Friday night, lighting a field in gold.