I recently read A Circle of Quiet, by Madeleine L’Engle, first published in 1972. I don’t think I’d read it before, although I certainly saw it around the house growing up, when my mother was reading L’Engle’s nonfiction. I was a devotee of her fiction, A Wrinkle in Time, particularly, and when I reread Wrinkle a couple of years ago I was happy to find that it still held both the magic and the menace I remembered from childhood reading.
This book seemed to call out for a lot of underlining, so I decided to type up my underlined passages and share them here—some seemed true for me as well, others less true but still thought-provoking. Circle meditates on the writing life, on being a woman and a writer, on teaching, on faith, and on the times. Some of the passages most tuned to the early seventies can sound a bit dated, but the rest struck me as fresh and relevant. Skim through, and see if one strikes you.
from A Circle of Quiet, by Madeleine L’Engle:
“It’s all been said better before. If I thought I had to say it better than anybody else, I’d never start. Better or worse is immaterial. The thing is that it has to be said; by me; ontologically. We each have to say it, to say it our own way. Not of our own will, but as it comes out through us. Good or bad, great or little: that isn’t what human creation is about. It is that we have to try; to put it down in pigment, or words, or musical notations, or we die.” (p. 28)
“I try to be careful whom I use as a mirror . . . . But we aren’t always careful of our mirrors. . . . I’ve looked for an image in someone else’s mirror, and so have avoided seeing myself.” (p. 30)
“An infinite question is often destroyed by finite answers.” (p. 30)
“And I think, too, and possibly most important, that there is a faith simply in the validity of art; when we talk about ourselves as being part of the company of such people as Mozart or van Gogh or Dostoevsky, it has nothing to do with comparisons, or pitting talent against talent; it has everything to do with a way of looking at the universe. . . . Dostoevsky is a giant; I look up to him; I sit at his feet; perhaps I will be able to learn something from him. But we do face the same direction, no matter how giant his stride, how small mine.” (p. 38)
“We can no longer pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. . . . Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don’t look, evil will go away, but to give them weapons against it.
One of the greatest weapons of all is laughter, a gift for fun, a sense of play which is sadly missing from the grownup world. . . .
Paradox again: to take ourselves seriously enough to take ourselves lightly.” (p. 99)
“We turn to stories and pictures and music because they show us who and what and why we are, and what our relationship is to life and death, and what is essential, and what, despite the arbitrariness of falling beams, will not burn.” (p. 120)
“I do not think that it is naïve to think that it is the tiny, particular acts of love and joy which are going to swing the balance, rather than general, impersonal charities. These acts are spontaneous, unself-conscious, realized only late if at all.” (p. 124)
“And I was totally back in joy. I didn’t realize that I had been out of it, caught in small problems and disappointments and frustrations, until it came surging back.” (p. 125)
“We all need heroes, and here again we can learn from the child’s acceptance of the fact that he needs someone beyond himself to look up to.
. . . mankind has progressed only when an uncommon man has done the improbable, and often the impossible, has had the courage to go into the darkness, and has been willing, out of the nettle, danger, to pluck the flower, safety.
. . . I can’t do it myself. I need a hero. Sometimes I have chosen pretty shoddy ones, as I have chosen faulty mirrors in which to see myself. But a hero I must have. A hero shows me what fallible man, despite and even with his faults, can do: I cannot do it myself; and yet I can do anything: not as much of a paradox as it might seem.” (pp. 179-180)
“All teachers must face the fact that they are potential points of reference. The greatest challenge a teacher has to accept is the courage to be; if we are, we make mistakes; we say too much where we should have said nothing; we do not speak where a word might have made all the difference. If we are, we will make terrible errors. But we still have to have the courage to struggle on, trusting in our own points of reference to show us the way.” (p. 181)
“Compassion is nothing one feels with the intellect alone. Compassion is particular; it is never general.” (p. 193)
“It is still taught in some seminaries that it is a heresy to think that God can suffer with us. But what does the incarnation show us but the ultimate act of particularity? This is what compassion is all about.” (p. 193)
“ . . . the language of parable and poetry, of storytelling, moves from the imprisoned language of the provable into the freed language of what I must, for lack of another word, continue to call faith. For me this involves trust not in ‘the gods’ but in God. But if the word God has understandably become offensive to many, then the language of poetry and story involves faith in the unknown potential in the human being, faith in courage and honor and nobility, faith in love, our love of each other, and our dependence on each other. And it involves for me a constantly renewed awareness of the fact that if I am a human being who writes, and who sends my stories out into the world for people to read, then I must have the courage to make a commitment to the unknown and unknowable (in the sense of intellectual proof), the world of love and particularity which gives light to the darkness.” (p. 194)
“To say that you won’t write for teenagers any more because they have changed makes no more sense than to say that you won’t write for adults any more, because today’s world is so different from the pre-bomb world. It also implies that you write differently when you write for teenagers than when you write for adults.
If you are a responsible writer, you don’t.” (p. 196)
“When I am feeling unsure about my writing, it is not because I am worried about the difference between adult and juvenile fiction, but because I am worrying that I am neglecting other responsibilities, and so misusing my freedom; I’ve gone through periods of confusion and downright stupidity. It was our eldest child, with her remarkable ability to see and accept what is, who said to me a good many years ago, ‘Mother, you’ve been getting cross and edgy with us, and you haven’t been doing much writing. We wish you’d get back to the typewriter.” (p. 199)
“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. Because I was once a rebellious college student, there is and always will be in me the student crying out for reform.
This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages, the perpetual student, the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide; my past is part of what makes the present Madeleine and must not be denied or rejected or forgotten.
. . . if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be a grownup.” (pp. 199-200)
“There is a lovely Talmudic story that when the Children of Israel reached the Red Sea, and Moses struck his staff on the shore, the waters of the sea did not part to let them through. The Israelites stood there at the edge of the water and nothing happened until one of the men plunged in. Then the waters rolled back.” (p. 201)
“ . . . a great work of the imagination is one of the highest forms of communication of truth that mankind has reached. But a great piece of literature does not try to coerce you to believe it or to agree with it. A great piece of literature simply is.” (p. 201)
“To balance the precarious triangle of wife-mother-writer: it was, is, a problem.” (p. 220)
“I wish we didn’t try to turn real lions into imaginary ones. The lions are not imaginary. They are real. I have experienced a lot of lions in my lifetime, and these encounters are what I write about, and why I write as a storyteller: it’s the best way to make the lions visible. But the lions must be those of my own experience. Our projecting from the tangible present into the ‘what if’ of the imagination must be within the boundaries of our own journeying.” (p. 232)