I had intended to grow up and become Madeleine L’Engle.
That is: I would be a very serious artist. I would be an artist like a monk or nun is a monk or nun. She said that’s how it was. I planned to be poor and have everything serve that. I planned to meet a brilliant man and run things with him.
Her memoir of her marriage I reread so many times, “like a homing pigeon, I returned to New York.” She lived on 10th Street in the Village. She lived in “a walk-up, a cold-water flat,” went to Broadway plays, then acted in them (very small parts). She was a serious Christian also, the first serious Christian I knew about who was also a serious, well-educated writer. That was a category I didn’t know existed.
Her writing about her life was mournful, but controlled. So controlled. She made her world the way she wanted it: books, music, church, stars, house.
If I had known before today that she drank brandy, I might not have ordered so many whiskeys
I went to St John the Divine because I knew she lived near there, worked there. I had coffee at the place across the street. This was 1998. She did have coffee at that place. She could have been there that day.
Past my twenties, I realized I would not have such an organized life. Meet the husband, have the kids, raise the kids, live in the city, then live in the country, it all sounded right to me, but I did not meet the husband, and New York was not, for me, an easy move, to a place where I had grown up, where my parents had friends who were artists and editors.
Her time of struggling for work and recognition and enough money to get by was about fifteen minutes. Short enough to be romantic.
I tried to move to New York three times before I made it stick.
It turned out I was also much less controlled. Although we are similarly limited in our affections, I wanted to dance and get drunk and I was political and I was a teacher, not just for money, but by birth.
And she was a performer, she had those small parts on Broadway. I am not.
There was quite an expose about L’Engle in a magazine, revealing her family life had messes, a fact she certainly left out of her memoirs. She had a right to put in what she wanted. I respect that she didn’t tell other people’s stories, and she didn’t need to have everything in there, all her sorrows, to tell a true story of what sorrows are like.
In a wonderful John Irving novel, there is a dog named Sorrow. I live next door to a dog named Mercy.
There is some mantle of Being An Artist you probably want when you realize this is your thing, being an artist, and she was mine. I snubbed drunks and junkies and people who didn’t vote and didn’t properly care for children. So my role models were limited.
I didn’t think it was fair that I should have the hard time of making things, and the hard time of having a shitty life because I was so neurotic. That was the ultimate self-indulgence, actually, see, to want to enjoy all your drinks over a long life instead of dying at 30. Especially at age 38 you can see the wisdom in this.
I have been reading Listening to Madeleine. Reviews complain that it is merely a whole lot of interviews typed up. Person after person, what they had to say about L’Engle. It’s hardly a book. I think this is true. It’s all right with me, though.
Walking into church yesterday, I asked the woman setting up, “Do we have a priest today?”
“I think you’re doing it,” she said. “I have a schedule, you’re on it.”
“That’s what I thought, I was just checking,” I said. I lit the candles, I sat in the front pew and opened a prayer book.
I also became Episcopalian because L’Engle was, she explained what a good church it was for writers.
I flipped through the book for Evening Prayer, I worried about if I was supposed to read the gospel, not being a priest, there are rules. And were we having communion? Was I allowed to do that?
I decided I would go ahead and read the gospel, I vaguely remembered other laypeople doing that, and asked about communion.
“Yes, it’s already consecrated.”
I stood up and read, decided in unison or responsively on the Psalm, our little group of six went along with me. Last week we didn’t have church at all because someone forgot to leave the door unlocked, so at least we were getting churched.
It wasn’t a big thing for me, that was why I had agreed, I am so used to standing in front of people and reading, and the audience at church is nothing when you are used to tenth graders.
We all stumbled over “remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel.” Holpen? (Past participle of help, archaic.)
I walked up, bowed, felt my dress was too short, went to the gold door where the bread and wine was kept, then saw some sitting out on the other side of the church, was that it?
Unceremoniously, a congregant called out, “It’s behind the gold door.”
I opened it, accidentally brushing the key out of the lock. The gold door has a lamb and a staff on it. I set everything on the altar we were using, opened the bread thing, counted out enough for us as I had seen the priests do. Poured some wine. There was no hand-washing, no words, because the priest does the words, and I am not a priest.
I nodded at everyone to come up. I wasn’t sure how to handle both the bread and wine, someone volunteered to take the other. I forgot to give it to myself until the end, though that is how the clergy did it where I was raised, and I think that is better. I know you should put on your own oxygen mask, but more so, I think the last shall be first.
I went and ordered coffee and wrote for two hours, the way I always do on Saturdays from six to eight.
Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Matsumura Goshun, A Garden of Pictures, 1814