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Madeleine, the tesseract, and me

Madeleine L’Engle (1918 – 2007)

Life is so strange. Just after I published that post about the [50th anniversary of On the Road] last week, I was standing in the kitchen making a cup of coffee and thinking about Jack Kerouac’s sadly foreshortened life and comparing him to a long-lived and prolific writer like Madeleine L’Engle — a writer I’ve loved and admired most of my life — and I wondered if she was still alive and hoped that she was. Then, on Friday, came the announcement in the papers that she had died the day before at the age of 88.

Like many, I became a fan after reading the classic A Wrinkle in Time as a child. The book had a profound effect on me. L’Engle’s deft amalgamation of science fiction, mysticism and (I would learn years later) Christian symbolism awakened an intense fascination with cosmology and science in general and a near obsession with the nature of time that lasts to this day. Her death struck personally because I had the pleasure of meeting her when I was a sophomore at Columbia. In what could only be called extraordinary serendipity, I learned that she was the writer-in-residence and librarian at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine right across the street from campus. On a winter day not long after learning this, I stood before her and her goddaughter in her office and solemnly intoned (with the drama that only a college sophomore can muster), “Miss L’Engle, I am here on a Christmas mission that only you can help me complete.”

“Well…” she said, “I’ll certainly help if I can.” The “Christmas mission” involved an inscribed hardcover edition of A Wrinkle in Time for a friend who loved the book as much as I did — the problem was that I couldn’t find a hardcover edition anywhere. With true Christian charity, Madeleine settled at her desk, hauled out the Manhattan yellow pages and proceeded to call bookstores all over the West Side of Manhattan hunting down a hardcover edition. Finally, we succeeded with a small shop in the 60’s and I lit out for it. When I returned with the prize a cheer went up from her and her goddaughter. She wrote a beautiful note to my friend on the flyleaf about the value of friendship and I departed feeling nothing short of adoration. As I wrote in my journal at the time, “sometimes fulfillment exceeds expectation.” My friend loved her Christmas gift, and the story of how it came about.

One of the most compelling things about A Wrinkle in Time was the description of higher dimensions and how one might skip through space and time by way of a tesseract — a folding of space in on itself. Heady stuff for a ten-year-old. I recently came across this video that aims to illustrate the higher dimensions. Can’t speak to the accuracy of the science, but it’s the closest thing I’ve found that stimulates the kind of imaginative wonder I first felt upon reading the book. I think Madeleine would have loved it.

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