"In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars."
This quote from Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art was the theme of a conference I recently attended in New York City where we discussed how art brings us outside ourselves, to abilities and identities we could not access through other means. But I noticed another, unofficial L’Engle-inspired theme emerging, too. More than one speaker mentioned that L’Engle and her husband, Hugh Franklin, moved to rural Connecticut in 1952 because of the looming threat of nuclear war. This sense of imminent, worldwide disaster and degeneration infuses many of L’Engle’s books, perhaps most famously A Wrinkle in Time, where the earth is said to be under a shadow of a great evil known as IT.
Though the inaugural Madeleine L’Engle conference felt like a safe haven as we gathered in the cozy glow of art, and fellowship, we were all still very aware of a similar sense of imminent evil in our country and the world at large. We are no longer in the Cold War, but the uncertainty of the impeachment hearings, of uncontrollable wildfires at home and abroad, of the refugee crisis and the hardening of hearts at the borders hang over us daily. Just as is often asked these days about Fred Rogers, we at the conference found ourselves murmuring, “What would Madeleine L’Engle think? What would she do?”
L’Engle died 12 years ago, at the age of 88. Last year, therefore, I was quite surprised when she followed me on Twitter. When her granddaughter, Charlotte Jones Voiklis, followed me a minute later I realized that it was she running both Twitter accounts. Voiklis, who is the executor of L’Engle’s estate and, I learned in New York, an excellent hugger, sticks mainly to Madeleine L’Engle news and quotes on her grandmother’s social media accounts, but she will often post those quotes in response to the day’s political news. Last week, for example, she posted a quote from A Swiftly Tilting Planet. In it, Gaudior, a unicorn sent to help Charles Wallace time travel to restore healing in the world, explains that,
“I’ve never been sent to your planet before. It’s considered a hardship assignment.” He looked down in apology.
That same week she more pointedly posted one of her favorite A Wrinkle in Time quotes (which she has had made into buttons) with the hashtag #FionaHillTestimony:
“Stay angry, little Meg,” Mrs Whatsit whispered. “You will need all your anger now.”
Some of those buttons were available at the conference, though I sadly lost mine somewhere in Penn Station in the middle of the night, amidst the bleary-eyed commuters and the weary homeless people trying to find some place to rest before the city became loud again. I was angry, then — livid — at the benches scored every two feet with barriers so that none of those exhausted souls could lie down. Staying angry, and using that anger to fight for truth and justice, is certainly one thing we can learn from L’Engle about, as the Bible puts it, “this present darkness.”
But besides anger and, of course, the love for each other that helps Meg overcome IT and save her father and brother, L’Engle brings us back, again, to art. “All your great artists,” as Mrs Whatsit said to Charles Wallace, “They’ve been lights for us to see by.”
Myself, I’ve found that since the last presidential election it has become harder and harder for me to write persuasive essays, either political, religious, or philosophical. In 2015 I wrote an essay that got some traction about why Christians should bake cakes for gay weddings. These days I find it hard to rally the energy to continue to try to persuade the unpersuadable. Instead, when I become overwhelmed, frustrated, despairing, I find release of my thoughts and feelings through poetry.
There is something about the act of making art — of writing a poem, painting, making music, or crafting a sculpture, that even as it expresses our very specific personality and personhood, brings us out of ourselves and into the universal. And it is just that universal language that is needed right now, when dialogue has broken down in our country to a degree almost equal to the Tower of Babel. Art digs a deeper word out of us, and speaks that word to a deeper place in another’s person’s spirit.
But what about those of us who aren’t artists? Personally, I believe there is something creative in each of us. Every attempt to describe what we feel, what we see, however clumsy, is art. Every time we strive to see things from another’s perspective — that’s imagination, creativity, creation. It is not only the great artists that can speak to the angels that call us. Every time we decide to be quiet and listen we create, as Mary Oliver says in her poem “Praying,’ “a silence in which another voice may speak.” And that, too, is art.