A Circle of Quiet

A Circle of Quiet

by Madeleine L'Engle

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Overview

The beloved author of A Wrinkle in Time takes an introspective look at her life and muses on creativity in this memoir, the first of her Crosswicks Journals.

Every so often I need OUT. . . . My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings. . . . I sit there, dangling my legs and looking through the foliage at the sky reflected in the water, and things slowly come back into perspective.
 
Set against the lush backdrop of Crosswicks, her family’s farmhouse in rural Connecticut, this deeply personal memoir details Madeleine L’Engle’s journey to find balance between her career as a Newbery Medal–winning author and her responsibilities as a wife, mother, teacher, and Christian.
 
As she considers the roles that creativity, family, citizenship, and faith play in her life, L’Engle reveals the complexities behind the author whose works—honored with the National Book Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and countless other prizes—have long been cherished by children and adults alike. Written in simple, profound, and often humorous prose, A Circle of Quiet is an insightful woman’s elegant search for the meaning and purpose of her life.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504064460
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 08/11/2020
Series: The Crosswicks Journals , #1
Pages: 254
Sales rank: 506,141
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Madeleine L’Engle (1918–2007) was an American author of more than sixty books, including novels for children and adults, poetry, and religious meditations. Her best-known work, A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most beloved young adult books of the twentieth century and a Newbery Medal winner, has sold more than fourteen million copies since its publication in 1962. Her other novels include A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Ring of Endless Light. Born in New York City, L’Engle graduated from Smith College and worked in theater, where she met her husband, actor Hugh Franklin. L’Engle documented her marriage and family life in the four-book autobiographical series, the Crosswicks Journals. She also served as librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan for more than thirty years.
 

Date of Birth:

January 12, 1918

Date of Death:

September 6, 2007

Place of Birth:

New York, NY

Place of Death:

Litchfield, CT

Education:

Smith College, 1941

Read an Excerpt

A Circle of Quiet


By Madeleine L'Engle

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 1972 Madeleine L'Engle Franklin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4125-6


CHAPTER 1

1


We are four generations under one roof this summer, from infant Charlotte to almost-ninety Great-grandmother. This is a situation which is getting rarer and rarer in this day and age when families are divided by large distances and small dwellings. Josephine and Alan and the babies come from England; Great-grandmother from the Deep South; Hugh and I and our younger children from New York; and our assorted "adopted" children from as far afield as Mexico and as close as across the road; all to be together in Crosswicks, our big, old-fashioned New England farmhouse. It's an ancient house by American standards — well over two hundred years old. It still seems old to me, although Josephine and Alan, in Lincoln, live close by the oldest inhabited house in Europe, built in the eleven-hundreds.

When our children were little and we lived in Crosswicks year round, they liked to count things. They started to count the books, but stopped after they got to three thousand. They also counted beds, and figured that as long as all the double beds held two people, we could sleep twenty-one; that, of course, included the attic. We are using the attic this summer, though we haven't yet slept twenty-one. A lot of the time it is twelve, and even more to feed. Cooking is the only part of housekeeping I manage with any grace; it's something like writing a book: you look in the refrigerator and see what's there, choose all the ingredients you need, and a few your husband thinks you don't need, and put them all together to concoct a dish. Vacuum cleaners are simply something more for me to trip over; and a kitchen floor, no matter how grubby, looks better before I wax it. The sight of a meal's worth of dirty dishes, pots, and pans makes me want to run in the other direction. Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody — away from all these people I love most in the world — in order to regain a sense of proportion.

I like hanging sheets on lines strung under the apple trees — the birds like it, too. I enjoy going out to the incinerator after dark and watching the flames; my bad feelings burn away with the trash. But the house is still visible, and I can hear the sounds from within; often I need to get away completely, if only for a few minutes. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings. There's a natural stone bridge over the brook, and I sit there, dangling my legs and looking through the foliage at the sky reflected in the water, and things slowly come back into perspective. If the insects are biting me — and they usually are; no place is quite perfect — I use the pliable branch of a shadblow tree as a fan. The brook wanders through a tunnel of foliage, and the birds sing more sweetly there than anywhere else; or perhaps it is just that when I am at the brook I have time to be aware of them, and I move slowly into a kind of peace that is marvelous, "annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade." If I sit for a while, then my impatience, crossness, frustration, are indeed annihilated, and my sense of humor returns.

It's a ten-minute walk to the brook. I cross the lawn and go through the willow tree which splashes its fountain of green down onto the grass so that it's almost impossible to mow around it. If it's raining and I really need the brook badly, I go in my grandfather's old leather hunting coat and a strange yellow knitted hat from Ireland (one of my children, seeing me set off, asked, "Who do you think you are, Mother? Mrs Whatsit?"); it's amazing what passing the half-century mark does to free one to be eccentric. When my hair gets wet I look like a drowned ostrich, and I much prefer resembling an amiable, myopic giraffe as I wade through the wet clover of the large pasture. It's already been hayed twice this summer: does the neighboring farmer, who uses our pastures in addition to his own, hay clover? I was born in the middle of the asphalt island of Manhattan, and even nearly a decade of living in Crosswicks all year round has not made me conversant with bucolic terms. When Hugh and I bought the house the spring after we were married (we walked into a run-down place that hadn't been loved for years, and it opened its arms to us) and I saw cows in the pasture, they didn't look like cows to me. My idea of cows was from illustrations in children's books.

After the pasture is traversed, I walk through a smaller pasture which has been let go to seed because of all the rocks, and is now filled with thistles. Then there is a stone wall to be climbed; the only poison ivy around here grows on and by the stones of this wall, and I'm trying to kill it by smothering it with wet Sunday Times; my children have made me very aware of the danger of using chemical sprays. Perhaps I've discovered a new use for The New York Times? (We also use it for the cats.) I think the poison ivy is less flourishing than it was; at any rate The New York Times is not going to unbalance the ecology. I love the ology words; ology: the word about. Eco, man's dwelling place. The word about where man lives.

Once I'm over the stone wall, the terrain changes. I step into a large field full of rocks left from glacial deposits; there are many ancient apple trees which, this summer, are laden with fruit. From the stone wall to the brook takes two balls of twine. Unreliable eyes make my vision variable, and there are days when my string path is extremely helpful, although, as my husband remarks, "All anybody who wants to find your secret hideout needs to do is climb the stone wall and follow the string."

That's all right. All secret places need to be shared occasionally. So the string guides me across a high ridge where there are large outcroppings of glacial stone, including our special star-watching rock. Then the path becomes full of tussocks and hummocks; my legs are etched by the thorns of blackberry brambles and wild roses. Earlier this summer the laurel burst from snow into fire, and a few weeks later we found a field of sweet wild strawberries. And then there are blueberry bushes, not very many, but a few, taller than I am and, to me, infinitely beautiful.

The burning bush: somehow I visualize it as much like one of these blueberry bushes. The bush burned, was alive with flame and was not consumed. Why? Isn't it because, as a bush, it was perfect? It was exactly as a bush is meant to be. A bush certainly doesn't have the opportunity for prideful and selfish choices, for self-destruction, that we human beings do. It is. It is a pure example of ontology. Ecology — ontology — the words fascinate me. Ontology is one of my son-in-law's favorite words, and I'm apt to get drunk on words, to go on jags; ontology is my jag for this summer, and I'm grateful to Alan for it — as for so much else. Ontology: the word about the essence of things; the word about being.

I go to the brook because I get out of being, out of the essential. So I'm not like the bush, then. I put all my prickliness, selfishness, in-turnedness, onto my isness; we all tend to, and when we burn, this part of us is consumed. When I go past the tallest blueberry bush, where my twine is tied to one of the branches, I think that the part of us that has to be burned away is something like the deadwood on the bush; it has to go, to be burned in the terrible fire of reality, until there is nothing left but our ontological selves; what we are meant to be.

I go to the brook and my tensions and frustrations are lost as I spend a happy hour sitting right in the water and trying to clear it of the clogging debris left by a fallen tree.


2


Still damp, with fingernails broken and dirty, and a few extra scratches on my legs, I return to the house and go up to my Private Workroom. When Hugh and I bought Crosswicks, this room, which is over the garage, was used for chickens. The garage is even older than the house, having originally been the first trading post on the old Indian Trail. It was turned into a garage about ten years before we came. There were still strips of wallpaper downstairs with the car and upstairs with the chicken coops. When we moved in, the chickens were gone but the floor was covered with hay and chicken droppings — marvelous for Hugh's garden, and we shoveled this organic fertilizer out the window.

It was almost fifteen years before we were able to turn it into my study, and it was supposed to be Absolutely Private. Nobody was allowed up without special invitation. The children called it the Ivory Tower, and it is still called the Tower, though it is neither ivory nor private nor, in fact, tower.

This summer Alan has taken it over for his doctoral thesis. I am privileged to have him read me the first draft, and to offer occasional suggestions as to syntax and construction. I tell him about the blueberry bush and my thoughts about the burning bush, and he turns to his thesis where he reads me a quotation from Sartre about the isness of an oak tree; but Sartre felt depressed and threatened by this; the idea that the oak tree simply is seemed to diminish him. I suppose the perfect isness of anything would be frightening without the hope of God. An oak tree is, and it doesn't matter to it — at least Sartre thinks it doesn't; it is not a thinking oak. Man is; it matters to him; this is terrifying unless it matters to God, too, because this is the only possible reason we can matter to ourselves: not because we are sufficient unto ourselves — I am not: my husband, my family, my friends give me my meaning and, in a sense, my being, so that I know that I, like the burning bush, or the oak tree, am ontological: essential: real.


3

For the last two weeks of July this summer I abandoned the family, the kitchen stove, the brook, and flew out to Ohio State University to be Writer in Residence for a special program of Reading Fellows. It was a completely different world from the community of Crosswicks, and yet it too was community, and there were many aspects of each which overlapped and intertwined.

I learned, a good many years ago, that it is impossible for me to have a seminar in writing practices without coming to care deeply about my students. I may, and do, remain objective about their writing, but I am committed to them as persons. And I learn from them probably more than they learn from me. During those two tight-packed weeks at O.S.U. I lived, worked, ate with about twenty-five young men and women from all over the United States, who had already had teaching experience and who had been together for a full year of intensive reading and study. I was with them for their final two weeks. The first night, Dr. Charlotte Huck and Dr. Martha King took me out to dinner. They had never had a Writer in Residence before. I had never been a Writer in Residence before. We sat in an elegant roof-top restaurant which looked out over all of Columbus, and I, hoping to be able to relax and enjoy my dinner, asked, "Just exactly what do you want me to do, these two weeks?"

Martha took a calm sip of her Old-fashioned. "I was hoping it would emerge."

It did. I had brought a lot of notes, and the morning session was a general lecture and discussion, while the afternoon session was a sort of crash course in writing practices, with specific daily writing assignments. I had expected, during the question periods after both morning and afternoon sessions, that I would get questions about writing, and teaching children something about the arts; mostly I got questions about the nature of the universe. Perhaps the questions weren't as direct as those I get from high-school or grade-school students, because these men and women were experienced and sophisticated; but their queries were aimed in the same direction.

In the beginning we were all a little tentative with each other, as though we were going into a cold lake, and testing the water first. I knew that these students, most with master's degrees, and many on their way to Ph.D.'s — or, as Alan rather casually says, Phids — knew far more about theories of education than I do, and yet I had been asked to talk to them about creativity, and teaching creativity to children. The first morning I decided that we'd never get anywhere if I worried about getting my feet wet.

They were a varied group, as varied as our Crosswicks community. Their age ranged from early twenties to late forties. They were black, white, yellow; there were Roman Catholic nuns, a lay preacher from the Christian Church, Southern Baptists, agnostics, atheists. Therefore, there was a certain difference in our vocabulary; I wanted to be very careful that when we used a word everybody would understand it in the same way, and this meant that we did a lot of stopping to define. Often I would use a word which I hoped did not already have a preconditioned meaning for them. Ontology, for instance. It was a legitimate excuse to use my word-for-the-summer, and it's a word that has a lot to do with creativity and teaching.

It was the first time that I'd been forced to think consciously about creativity in connection with little children, rather than the older ones for whom I often write. I was trying to think out loud about the concentration essential for all artists, and in the very little child I found the perfect example. The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing. A child playing a game, building a sand castle, painting a picture, is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.

I had just witnessed this in Crosswicks, observing an eighteen-month-old lying on her stomach on the grass watching a colony of ants, watching with total, spontaneous concentration. And I had played ring-around-a-rosy with her; we skipped around in a circle, grandparents, parents, assorted teenagers, wholly outside ourselves, holding hands, falling in abandon onto the lawn, joining in the child's shrieks of delighted laughter.

And with her we were outside self and outside time.

When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves.

The Greeks had a word for ultimate self-consciousness which I find illuminating: hubris: pride: pride in the sense of putting oneself in the center of the universe. The strange and terrible thing is that this kind of total self-consciousness invariably ends in self-annihilation. The great tragedians have always understood this, from Sophocles to Shakespeare. We witness it in history in such people as Tiberius, Eva Perón, Hider.

I was timid about putting forth most of these thoughts, but this kind of timidity is itself a form of pride. The moment that humility becomes self-conscious, it becomes hubris. One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time. Therefore, the act of creating — painting a picture, singing a song, writing a story — is a humble act? This was a new thought to me. Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.

I remember learning to skip rope. It's not too difficult when you hold the rope yourself. But then there's learning to jump into a rope swung by two other children, learning to jump in without breaking the rhythm and tripping over the rope. It can't be done unless you have that special kind of creative courage which is unself-conscious: the moment you wonder whether or not you can do it, you can't.

So, talking to that diverse group of students in July, I jumped in, as I had finally learned to jump into the rhythm of the curving rope.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle. Copyright © 1972 Madeleine L'Engle Franklin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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