R.I.P. Madeleine L’Engle


I almost didn’t read Madeleine L’Engle.

I was in the backyard with my brother, who was blowing bubbles made from homemade bubble soap. I didn’t really know what to say, so as usual I echoed someone else, in this case a common sentence-starter combined with a phrase I’d heard on TV. Which came out, “How ’bout mousy-blah hair.”

My brother said, “Have you been reading A Wrinkle In Time?”

Instant terror. I had never read A Wrinkle In Time. I knew nothing about it except that I had a copy of it, a yellow paperback, in a precise location in my room. But I felt weirdly invaded by the whole exchange.

(My brother wasn’t cross with me about the mousy-blah hair comment. He got more cross when I repeated word-for-word in front of our parents what he’d said about the bubbles he was blowing looking like someone blew their nose.)

As such, I tried to avoid even looking at my copy of the book. I certainly didn’t read it. I tried not to touch it.

But eventually I did read it, and found among other things Mrs. Who, a character who found language uncomfortable and had to speak in quotations. I would later quote about Mrs. Who in an attempt to explain my approach to language to someone who has become a lifelong friend.

So Madeleine L’Engle allowed me to see for the first time a representation outside myself of the sort of functional echolalia I tried to use to get by, and in a non-clinical context being used by a strong character at that. And yet I almost never read Madeleine L’Engle because of a response to my echolalia.

She and her books came to mean a great deal more than that to me. But Anne of Existence is Wonderful put it better than I can. Go read her memorial post.

About Mel Baggs

I am a highly sensing person. I am a child of earth and water, I was born into a redwood forest and I left the forest but it never left me. I'm 34 as I wrote this. If I had an alignment like in role-playing games and MUDs, I'd be chaotic good all the way: I don't think it's possible to fill ethics into a moral code, the world is far too complex for that. I let the world be complex and chaotic and try to respond situation by situation from a small number of principles of right and wrong. My responses may seem to contradict each other, but that will be because either the situation has changed, or I have changed. I am a poet who is trying to practice more every day, hence the poetry blog. I am a cat lover and live with a wonderful elderly cat. I am a painter when I have the time, energy, and resources. I have multiple cognitive, physical, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities, and my health is not usually stable. Put all together, I'd be considered severely disabled. I get a lot of assistance throughout the day. I am a real living cyborg, part human part machine: I have a GJ feeding tube to feed me through one tube and drain my stomach through the other,, an InterStim implant for urinary retention, and a port (a permanent central IV line). I love life. I think Love (not the sentimental emotion, but the property of the world) is the most important thing that human beings can offer each other. Being near death enough times has taught me that, and has also taught me that I have no time for bullies or pettiness. I'm involved in disabilty rights and other causes that people these days would call 'social justice', but I don't consider myself part of the 'SJ community' or the 'anti-SJ community' because of that thing I said about pettiness -- they're more about one-upmanship than fixing the world. I wish they had not taken over the words 'social justice', which used to mean something else. I love talking to just ordinary people about fixing the world, they have far more realistic ideas and more likelihood of putting them into practice. I'm a Hufflepuff to the core, with some Gryffindor tendencies and even a little bit of Ravenclaw. I admire some Slytherins but I don't have much ambition or cunning at all. I still think the Slytherin common room is second best, with Hufflepuff coming first. My favorite color is brown, especially when combined with a bit of yellow or blue. My favorite music is country, and my favorite country artists are Kathy Mattea, Lacy J. Dalton, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn. I don't like most new country but i occasionally hear something on the radio I like. At an early age, my family listened to country almost exclusively to the point where I thought all the different types of country were all the different types of music! I couldn't put Lacy J. Dalton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson in the same category. Although now that I've grown up I can hear that they are all country, but as a kid my ear was trained more for minute differences in country styles, than for recognizing country from other types of music. Country isn't all I like. Some other bands and artists I like: The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Rasputina, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, Rich Mullins (I'm not Christian but some Christian music is amazing), ), The Raventones/T.R. Kelley, Planet P Project/Tony Carey, Sinead Lohan, Donna Williams, Suzanne Vega, Phideaux, and Jethro Tull, to name a few. I love the Cocteau Twins in particular because they are everything being sensing is about: Words are chosen for their sound, not their meaning, the voice becomes yet another instrument rather than a conveyor of words, raw emotion pours out of them, there are layers upon layers, and they were around for long enough there's lots of their music in a variety of different styles -- including their later stuff where the words have more meaning than just sounds. Each period in their music has its benefits and drawbacks but I love them all, or nearly so. Their music comes as close as any music can come to conveying how I experience the world, as what Donna Williams calls 'pattern, form, and feel'. And Elizabeth Fraser has a beautiful voice, I once had a teenage crush on her. As I type this, I have a cat sitting on my shoulder, cheek to cheek with me, peering around and occasionally rubbing me. My relationship to her goes back 15 years to when she was six months old, and we've rarely been parted since. It's been an honor to watch her grow into a wise but crotchety old lady cat. She knows she's technically older than me and tells me so sometimes, especially during arguments. She has trouble with the fact that there are parts of the human world I know better than she does. She sees me as her big, dumb kitten who needs protecting, and is beside herself with worry if I end up in the hospital (which seems to happen frequently these days). I don't experience myself as having a gender identity, I call it being genderless. You'll sometimes see the pronouns sie and hir in my work, they are gender-neutral pronouns pronounced 'see' and 'hear'. I was raised female, which gives me both disadvantages (outside the trans community) and advantages (inside the trans community). You don't have to remember my pronouns, lots of people have trouble with gender-neutral pronouns. I won't be upset with you. People make mistakes, and some people just can't get the hang of new words, and that's okay. I have vocabulary problems myself (mostly comprehension), I'm not going to penalize other people for having vocabulary problems of their own. Right now my father is dying of cancer that's metastatized so many places they can't figure out where it started, my mother has severe myasthenia gravis that can land her in the ICU (and she's my father's primary caretaker), my "second mother" (who took over when I grew up and my family didn't know how to prepare me for the world) has endometrial cancer, and my cat is getting old. All of this is bringing death to the forefront of my mind and my poetry. In fact I think I've been able to write more poetry because of all the feelings about so many people dying or with precarious health. It was easier to handle when it was me that was going to die (averted by diagnosis and treatment of severe adrenal insufficiency that'd been going on for years). It's harder when it's someone else, someone you love. My other hobby is crocheting, and a lot of the time if I'm not writing, it'll be hard to find me without a crochet hook or occasional knitting needles in my hands. I love to be able to make things. I have been making hats and scarves with spare yarn (which I have a lot of), and putting them in City Hall Park wrapped in plastic, with notes saying "If you're cold, take this." I know what it's like to be cold in the winter, and if anyone takes them and stays warm I'd be overjoyed. You may have noticed I'm long-winded. This is actually the result of a language disability that makes it difficult for me to leave out details, to see two almost-identical things as perhaps something that doesn't need repeating, and to summarize or condense down my writing. I know this is a flaw in my writing, and it even prevents me from reading it sometimes, but I've found no solutions. Sometimes on my longer posts I'll put a "TL;DR" ("too long; didn''t read") summary at the end in bold letters for people to skip down to.. But even those don't feel adequate, even when I can do theme, which is not always. I think I'm getting better though. Learning haiku and other short poetry forms helps me condense my words better. Anyway, I hope that gives you enough idea of who I am. At my most basic, I care about Love more than anything (whenever I come near enough to death, I feel like I get asked the question "Did you Love, and did you express that Love properly?"), but like everyone I get sidetracked into things that are much less important. I try to make my writing an expression of Love. Sometimes I succeed.

11 responses »

  1. Thank you for posting this. Madeleine L’Engle’s books are some of my favourites, particularly A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, though I’ve read nearly everything she wrote and own a bunch of them. As soon as I get the money, I plan on getting Wrinkle, Wind, and Planet on audiobook from Amazon, both because of my progressively worsening eyesight and because Madeleine L’Engle read the books for the CDs. I look forward to listening to them.

  2. I remember coming across the phrase “mousy-blah hair” in a Peanuts cartoon — Peppermint Patty was worried about her hair being “mousy-blah” for a skating competition, IIRC. I used to have an audio tape of that particular cartoon that came with a book (they had these books in the 80s with little plastic pockets in them in which cassette tapes were stored), and I remember thinking that was a really weird phrase to describe hair.

    Thanks for linking to my post. I don’t think there’s any way I could express exactly what I’d like to in actual words, but I managed to get some of it across…

  3. I had not heard of Madeleine L’Engle until you mentioned “A Wrinkle in Time” in a blog post. I so want to read that book, and the other books by her. I’m glad that she and her books came to mean so much to you.

  4. I don’t remember the books with the cassettes in them, but I do remember books with little flimsy plastic records in them. And these days I’ve seen books with audio CDs or computer CD-ROMs in them.

    And you’re right, that must’ve been from Peanuts. I now remember my mom repeating that phrase because she found it odd, and that’s how it stuck in my head.

  5. You know, when i read that she had died, it occurred to me that I remember A Wrinkle in Time more vividly than almost any other book I read when I was a child. (Although I actually idenitified with Charles Wallace more than Meg, somehow.) I think I’m going to have to get all of those books for my son, although maybe they are considered more “girl” books…

  6. Madeleine L’Engle said one reason why “A Wrinkle in Time” took so long to find a publisher is that it was assumed that children would not be able to understand its sophisticated way of looking at time, or not understand Einstein’s theories. But nothing is too hard for children as long as it is part of a story.

    The book was rejected by Simon and Schuster because they considered it too difficult for children.

  7. Oh, I loved Ms. L’Engle’s works – still do. I saw her speak as a child (my 5th grade teacher’s reward to the few kids who had read most of her books), and will always remember her books as my first experience with “life-altering” literature. There were many authors that followed, of course, whose works spoke to me and changed me, but Ms. L’Engle was the first. I am very sad to hear of her passing.

  8. A Wrinkle in Time was the first scifi bok I ever read, and it really motivated me to read and watch science fiction. I really love the way atypical people, that may very well have disabilities, are also heroes and strong characters. I also love the concept of kything, not sure I’m spelling that right but it’s always been a dream of mine to be able to connect with soeone in such a deep and telepathic way as kything. I’ve only read tha R.I.T. series, but reading this post makes me want to read more books by the same author as well, and reread the series.

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