It was 1989, and I had just acquired a completely useless B.A. in Psychology, as well as the resulting crippling debt. To celebrate, I decided to take my big hair, my pet rat Vivien, and my mom’s Buick Century for a month-long wander through the Northeast.
I was as free as a bird except for two commitments. The first was to show up in Pennsylvania and carry a Bo-Peep basket of flowers while wearing a fuchsia bridesmaid’s dress. The second was to get back to Alabama in time to prepare for my own wedding, three months later. (No fuchsia or baskets, but frosted melon-colored nail varnish was required for all nine bridesmaids. Oh, yeah.)
I bought a map, and resolved to look at it only if I got extremely lost. And then I drove from Chicago, through Detroit, over the bridge into Windsor, Canada, and was on my way.
I did everything you would imagine a 21-year-old fresh out of university would do. I read Camus and Machiavelli in front of my tent on the banks of Lake Ontario. I exposed rolls and rolls of meaningful and deeply-felt black-and-white photos on my second-hand Olympus. I wrote long entries in my journal that I would never ever have even the slightest desire to glance at afterward. I listened to Kate Bush. And I slept with a baseball bat next to my pillow.
As I meandered, I checked my goals off my list. A pig-out at Ben & Jerry’s factory in Vermont. Eating lobster while sitting outside a Maine harbor. Taking photos next to every “Welcome to” state sign. (I’m still missing Alaska.) And finally I arrived at the site of my most daring venture: New York City. I parked my car near a campsite in New Jersey and took the train in with nothing but some cash and a bag sheltering Vivien in her travel-cage. Once in Manhattan, I headed northwards towards Columbia University.
My senior year, I had taken a literature class that had inspired me. It was entitled “Modern Myth” and was taught by the late Joe McClatchey. The syllabus included Thomas Mann, Frederick Buechner, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walker Percy, Charles Williams, George Macdonald, and others, as well as the author who was the object of my current quest. Dr. McClatchey had just happened to mention during a lecture the singular location where this particular author chose to write: the library of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. I decided to find her.
As I walked through Spanish Harlem, more than a bit lost as I watched some rough-and-tumble low-key street quarrels spark up and then fade around me, I relocated Vivien from her cage to my shoulder. Her presence had an immediate effect: catcalls turned into expressions of disgust and I was left alone. Once at the library, I returned her to her cage and entered.
A librarian approached and asked me if I needed help. I told her who I was looking for. She turned and pointed at a woman writing in a notebook on a table. And there she was in the flesh: Madeleine l’Engle.
She was famous. She traveled the world for speaking engagements. And she lived part-time in her Connecticut country home. Why I ever imagined that I would find her there, on that certain day, at the very moment I happened to stop by, I can’t tell you.
I’ll chalk it up to youth, innocence and the unwavering conviction that it was the only possible ending to the story of my quest. Life for me was one big myth, and I was the seeker in search of knowledge. Why wouldn’t my oracle be sitting right there where I expected her to be, on her stool smack-dab in the middle of Delphi Temple, waiting to bestow me with the magic words I needed to become a writer?
I was so star-struck that I don’t quite remember what happened next. Did the librarian go ask for an audience for me, or did I just walk up and say, “Hi”? I do remember the illustrious writer asking me what was in my bag, and me pulling out a sopping wet Vivien, whose water bottle had sprung a leak. I remember her getting some Kleenex for me to dry Vivien off with. I remember telling her that I had studied her books with Dr. McClatchey. I told her I wanted to be a writer. And when she asked what my plans were, I responded that I was getting married, and she wondered aloud if I wasn’t a bit young.*
I don’t recall what all we talked about, but in the end she asked me where I was staying and I told her I was camping in New Jersey. She tut-tutted and said, “You could sleep at my house, but my granddaughters are staying so there’s no room. But let me call my assistant.” And that night I slept in her assistant’s tiny apartment on a fold-out cot. I sent them both pots of honey from North Carolina and later wrote a letter that I don’t think was ever answered, and that was that.
Whenever Madeleine L’Engle’s name came up in the news afterward, I thought of her almost possessively, as my own special mentor, though we hadn’t spent more than twenty minutes together. How many writers help their fans dry off their rats and then find a place for them to stay for the night? And when I read of her death, I was busy at work on my first book, and wished that I could tell her that I was finally doing what we had talked about almost twenty years before.
L’Engle’s book on writing, “Walking on Water”, contains an image which impressed me enough that I still remember it twenty years later. She quotes Jean Rhys as saying:
“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
I wish I could tell Madeleine L’Engle now that after all of these years, I’m finally doing it. I’m feeding the lake. And she was one of the people who gave me the courage to do it.
* Why, oh why, didn’t I listen? Oh yeah, young and stupid. Right.