#28 Luci Shaw and L'Engle Sisters
Lifelong Writer Relationships, October 31, 2018
To celebrate the legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Luci Shaw—writer, editor, and lifelong friend of L’Engle—shares her story with the perennial question of “Why?” Two of L’Engle’s granddaughters interview Shaw and reflect on a writer’s role of stewardship and sustaining friendships.
- Madeleine L’Engle
- Lines Scribbled on an Envelope
- The Weather of the Heart
- Cry Like a Bell
- The Ordering of Love
- Walking on Water
- The Arm of the Starfish
- Luci Shaw and Madeleine L’Engle
- Friends for the Journey
- Prayers for Spiritual Friends
Aliel Cunningham (host): [00:00:00] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
The lasting effect of friendship—across the generations. Luci Shaw remembers Madeleine L’Engle with Madeleine’s granddaughters on this episode of Rewrite Radio.
I’m Aliel Cunningham, and I teach in the English department at Calvin College.
As an editor, mentor, and friend, Luci Shaw has enjoyed deep creative partnerships with many writers, perhaps none so special as her relationship with the late Madeleine L’Engle. Despite differences, the two animated each other’s work in important ways. They coauthored three books—WinterSong, Friends for the Journey, and A Prayer Book for Spiritual Friends—and Luci suggested and then edited Madeleine’s seminal treatise on faith and writing, Walking on Water. Madeleine’s granddaughters, Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy, have known Luci for years as a close friend of their family. Here they interview her about the role of community in the life of a writer and what it takes to forge and sustain friends for the long haul.
Luci Shaw is a prolific poet and essayist. Her latest book of verse is Sea Glass: New and Collected Poems, and her latest prose nonfiction book is Thumbprints in the Clay: Divine Marks of Beauty, Order, and Grace. Shaw’s other titles include Accompanied by Angels, God in the Dark, and Polishing the Petoskey Stone. Her work has been widely anthologized. The co-founder of Harold Shaw Publishers, later becoming its president, Shaw is also poetry editor and a contributing editor of Radix and poetry and fiction editor of Crux, an academic journal published quarterly by Regent College. Born in London, England, Shaw has lived in Australia, the United States, and Canada, where Regent College named her its writer-in-residence in 1988. She graduated from Wheaton College and has lectured throughout North America on art and spirituality, journaling, poetry, and the Christian imagination.
Léna Roy and Charlotte Jones Voiklis are granddaughters of Madeleine L’Engle and authors together of the biography Becoming Madeleine: A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Her Granddaughters. Roy runs branches of Writopia Lab, a non-proﬁt whose mission is to instill joy, literacy, and critical thinking through creative writing to all kids and teens. Jones Voiklis acts as the literary executor of the L’Engle estate. She also handles L’Engle's online presence, including the daunting task of tweeting to Madeleine’s fans.
From 2018, Luci Shaw speaking about friendship with Léna Roy and Charlotte Jones Voiklis.
Léna Roy: [00:03:53] Let's start the questioning.
Charlotte Jones Voilklis: Yeah, we're not going to give too much background because I'm sure so many background stories are going to come out of this, but I wanted to start just by asking you how you met Madeleine L'Engle.
Luci Shaw: I met Madeleine L'Engle at Wheaton College where we were both speakers at a language and literature conference. I had heard of her, of course, but I hadn't met her until then, but we instantly bonded. [laughs] It was like, "Okay she loves to play Bach, I love to play Bach, she loves the color green, I love the color green," and then she told me, after the conference is over, that a book of her poetry called Lines Scribbled on an Envelope had just gone out of print, and my husband Harold and I had just, you know, we had a young and flourishing book publishing business at that point, and I said, "Would you like us to reprint your poems?"
She was thrilled. So we did two books of her poems. One was called The Weather of the Heart and one was called Cry Like a Bell, I think. Anyway, so once we got on good terms with Madeleine it wasn't hard. Oh, and by the way, that was the first time I heard about Léna, because Léna had evidently been in a bad car accident and Madeleine was very worried about you, and she was feeling bad that there she was in Wheaton, and you were back there on the East Coast, badly injured. So we went to—I don't know if any of you know the Wheaton campus—we went to a place called the lagoon, which is a lovely, quiet place. It's sort of like a park. And we sat on a bench and we prayed for Lena. And here she is! [laughs]
So that was the beginning, and once those two books of poetry had been republished, I asked Madeleine—and of course I'd been reading her work—I asked her to write a book about her faith and art, and how the two are companions and help each other. You know, faith helps our art, and art helps our faith. And so she wrote this . . . she spent about six or eight months writing this, and she handed me this big, sort of typed script. You know, it wasn't computers in those days. Everything was typed out by hand. And she said, "Here, take this. It has no shape." [laughter] So I was challenged. [laughter]
Léna: Just what every editor wants to hear, right. [laughter]
Charlotte: And I didn't realize that the first time you met her was the same year that Léna was in that accident.
Léna: July '77.
Charlotte: And so that your sort of friendship was forged in prayer and in crisis.
Luci: Exactly, yes. And, you know, that was sort of the way many of our lives were moving along anyway: in prayer and crisis. [laughter]
Charlotte: So, you were talking about Walking on Water and the origin story of Walking on Water, but in Walking on Water, she says you asked her to write a book about being a Christian artist.
Charlotte: And she said . . . [pausing]
Léna: What did she say? [laughter]
Luci: She said, "I just want to write about . . .” I don't know . . . Do you know what she said?
Charlotte: Well, my understanding is that she was very resistant to that idea, because she wasn't a Christian artist, she said. She said she was an artist who was a Christian. And that that was also part of your conversations and how you challenged each other as well. Can you talk a little bit about . . .
Luci: Well, Madeleine, you know, was not backward about speaking her mind. [laughter] She had strong opinions, and I did too. So [laughs] we did a lot of work together. She was writing books for us. She wrote eleven books for our publisher, Harold Shaw Publishers, so I edited them. And, you know, that whole process of working together on a work of art in faith—it just drew us together in a remarkable way. We came from very different backgrounds, as you know. I was from an extremely conservative evangelical background, where Madeleine was from, you know, the New York Episcopalian mindset. [laughter]
Charlotte: That's a nice way of putting it. [laughter]
Luci: So, working together, we had to listen to each other and reach a consensus of some kind as we were making these books work. Very often Madeleine would say something shocking in a manuscript, and I'd say, "Madeleine, you can't say that. People are going to really be upset." She said, "That's exactly why I'm saying it." [laughter]
[00:10:03] And she gave me this manuscript, and I was puzzled as to how to shape it for her. She said it had no shape. Anyway, I took various themes from the manuscript and laid out piles of paper all over my living room floor and sort of said, "Well, this could go first, and then we could put this, yeah . . . " and so I sort of reordered the whole thing and gave it back to her. And her husband, Hugh, who was a wonderful actor and a good critic, and he really liked it, so that gave her confidence, so that was the beginning of our publishing relationship—publishing and writing.
Léna: I'm curious about and inspired by your different points of view on faith and art, and, especially in these polarizing times, I think this is such a wonderful example to explore, and for you to give insight on how we talk to each other. I'm sure you changed each other. I'm sure you both had open hearts and willingness to discuss and willingness to come to a third new kind of thing. Can you speak about that?
Luci: That's a wonderful way of putting it, Léna. We both had open hearts. I think we were both very committed to finding things that were true, that stood the test of time, that were very elemental in our human lives, and that included, of course, what we believed to be true. What are the values in life that we want to focus on? So we found that as we . . . you know, years and years we were working together to sort of shape and express what we believed in Madeleine's books, and we fought a lot. We had these really quite contentious discussions about what was true. But in the end we always came to a unified conclusion. I remember one time we were at a table in her dining room in New York City, and at the end of our editing session, we both stood up spontaneously and sang the Doxology. [laughter]
And, you know, it was that sort of . . . I think we both affected each other in what we believe and how we write. Madeleine was a very good critic, too. She wrote sonnets almost effortlessly. They would just flow out of her. So we had a good sense, together, of what poetry was about, what it was meant to be like. And I would hand her a new poem of mine and say, "What do you think?" and she'd say, "Cut out the last two lines." And she was so right. [laughs]
It was wonderful to have a friend who was a critic and someone who . . . we really loved each other. We were on almost different sides of the continent. She was on the East Coast, and I was on the West Coast, so we had to sort of keep in touch by phone or letter, and I did a lot of visiting back and forth and staying with Madeleine at 924 [laughs] West End Avenue. And she had this marvelous . . . apartment, you know, with all kinds of family portraits and paintings and a beautiful piano.
[00:14:36] And one of the things that we loved to do—almost every day when I was there we would walk from her apartment up Amsterdam Avenue to the cathedral of St. John the Divine and go to noon prayer there. That was a holy moment for both of us, when we would just sit in silence for a while, and just listen. And you could even hear—I wrote a poem about this—you could hear the rain spitting on the stained glass window right next to us. And that time of silence was very holy. And then the priest would come in and lead noon prayer, and one time he came in wearing the wrong robe. [laughter] At least Madeleine said it was the wrong robe, so I put that in the poem, too. [laughter]
Charlotte: [to Luci] Here, this is your water.
Luci: Oh, thank you.
Charlotte: I sensed that she might need a sip of something. [laughter] So you met in '77, and she died in 2007, so that's however many years—I'm bad at math—and one of the things about my grandmother and friendship, and also this interview is that chronology doesn't mean all that much, I think. But that's a long time of friendship, and so I wonder how it ebbed and flowed. It's almost like a marriage in some ways, too. Perhaps you feel at one point close, at one point far; and how do you find your way back to each other when you realize something needs some work?
Luci: Yes, it had an ebb and flow to it, exactly. And between times—you know, I was a busy publisher, I was the vice president of our publishing company and I was doing a lot of the editing and assigning books to be edited by some of our staff—so we both had extremely busy lives, in our own circle. One of the wonderful places that Madeleine and I would go is up to Crosswicks which was her home in Goshen, Connecticut. And Madeleine didn't drive. She was able to drive. She had her driver's license, but no one ever wanted her to drive. [laughter]
Léna: This is true.
Luci: Yes. So we would drive up from Manhattan up to Goshen, and it's a fascinating drive. We go through an old covered bridge along the way.
Her home, Crosswicks, was an ancient . . . not an ancient, but it was a beautiful old home. And it had been part of the Underground Railway, I believe, for slaves trying to reach a place of freedom. And they would be able to stay in this home called Crosswicks.
Charlotte: Yes, it's a beautiful old house.
Luci: It's right out in the country. And that's where Madeleine and Hugh moved at some point in their lives so that their children could be raised, I think, in a more healthy atmosphere—I don't know, this is just my . . .
Charlotte: It was the 1950s. It was the decade of the 50s, and, yeah, that was the original impulse. [Luci laughs]
Luci: But then they ran the country store right there in Goshen. And her house is just a few blocks away from that intersection. And she was also very active in the congregational church there. She called it "the congo church." [laughter] Actually, I believe after her death there's a bench or some memorial marker in the graveyard.
Charlotte: You know what, I don't know if that's true or not, actually. [laugher] Do you—I have another question that you look like you . . .
Luci: Go ahead.
Charlotte: Okay. [laughs] Because I want to ask you about poetry. You had mentioned that Madeleine could write sonnets—that was her sort of preferred form of poetry in many ways. I remember her being so fed by a trip that you and she and your good friend Barbara Braver took to the British Isles. And I'm wondering if—that was very generative for her, and she wrote lots of sonnets that trip. And I wonder if you could say what that trip . . .
Luci: [00:20:15] It was a very interesting trip. Madeleine was speaking at a conference in Dublin on children's literature. And Katherine Paterson was there and, you know, it was a wonderful opportunity for us to go to Ireland, and then after the conference was over, we rented a car and we drove to County Wicklow, and some of the places of interest.
We went to Newgrange, which is one of the most ancient . . . it's sort of like Stonehenge in the sense that it's arranged so that at a certain time of year the sun penetrates at a particular angle. And it was discovered when some farmers were plowing and they came upon these stones which they recognized as part of a building. And it was excavated. And we found that a profoundly interesting and wonderful place to be.
And a lot of the Celtic spirituality that is prevalent in Ireland and in Wales and Scotland—that was very profound and meaningful to us. You know, the love of the earth, the love of nature; the songs, the bardic songs that had come down over the centuries as a way of telling stories. I think Madeleine was a kind of bard. I know we would be driving along and all of a sudden she would be—we'd notice—she was silent. She wasn't saying anything. And I realized she'd had an idea [laughs] in her head. And she didn't want to disturb that idea until she had a moment to take out her notebook and actually jot it down. We did a lot of that fun driving together.
Charlotte: Yesterday morning you described how ideas come to you, and I think you said that there's like a bird flying in your face and then makes a nest in your head. [laughter] Which I thought was a lovely image. And then you just describe Madeleine as just getting very quiet. Do you think you had different ways of nurturing the thoughts in your heads?
Luci: There was this sense that we didn't have to be talking all the time. And very often when I would visit her at Crosswicks we would spend the morning just writing. Then in the afternoon we'd sit on her deck and at one point she said—I was a great knitter; and I had my knitting there—and she said, "Do you have your knitting bag? Is your journal in there?" And I said, "Yeah." So she proceeded to recite a poem that was just coming into her head. And I was able to write it down. It was about a cat that was caught in the mower in a wheat harvesting field. And the horror of the cat, you know, being killed in that way. So we wrote that down. And that's included in the book of her poems, The Ordering of Love, which is a lovely collection of many of the works that she had published before plus some new ones.
Charlotte: Those sonnets that she wrote on the road trip with you and Barbara are in that.
Luci: Yeah. One of the things that joined Madeleine and me in friendship was that both our husbands died in the same year. Both of them of cancer. And Madeleine had this story that she and Hugh were on this freighter—they loved to travel the oceans on freighters [laughs] because they could just be on their own and just go slowly and enjoy the wind and the weather, I guess.
Charlotte: [00:25:05] And the stars at night.
Luci: Yes, right. Times of silence. But anyway, one day she had this strong, strong sense that something had happened to my husband. And here she was, out in the middle of the Atlantic, and when she was back on land, we talked, and that was the day that my husband Harold had died. So she had this connection, this . . . I don't know what you call it—emotional, spiritual connection—that we were close enough in our lives that the things that really mattered to us mattered to the other one—the other friend, the other side of the friendship.
Charlotte: So I had said earlier that prayer and crisis brought you together. And there were lots of moments like that in your friendship. One of them [starts to tear up] . . . I'm a big crier, folks, so if I cry when I talk about this . . . was the fact that you were able to be there with her when her son died.
Charlotte: Could you talk about that a little bit?
Luci: Madeleine has a son named Bion, and he was a very gifted, very intelligent guy. But he never really made much of a life for himself. And I think it was painful for her to see Bion not really developing his gifts. He was pretty addicted to alcohol and he died because of failing liver function. And he was in a . . . what do they call it? hospice in Torrington, near Goshen, and Madeleine and Barbara and I were both with him the moment he died. I think I was the last one to lift a straw to his lips so he could have a sip of water.
And you know what? He looked like Jesus. He looked as if Jesus had just died in that bed. And, you know, it was so hard for Madeleine because she said, "Mothers shouldn't bury their sons." It was a moment of great disappointment and great . . . a real blow that I don't know that she ever really got over.
Charlotte: Yeah, I don't think she really recovered from that, and I think one of the things that becomes more important to me as I get older is to talk about those real moments of disappointment, of failure, I think, when someone's beloved . . . they're often not given permission to change or grow or fail, again, themselves. So talking about it [laughs] feels important to me, but also just in honor of the friendship that you two had. Just how many significant moments in each others' lives you were there for. Including—you and John danced at my wedding.
Charlotte: You and John danced at my wedding.
Luci: That's right.
Charlotte: So there were happy occasions. [laughing]
Luci: Oh, I have to tell you this. I was in Madeleine's living room when Charlotte and John showed up and said, "We're going to get married." So I was there to hear that just when Madeleine heard it, so I just felt like, "Oh boy, I really am part of this family!" [laughter] And, you know, it was such fun watching you and John, and then [to Léna] I didn't know your husband well, Léna, but [laughs] I remember your little boy when he was born, yeah.
Léna: [00:29:52] There are so many things to share in a life, and then also what we're doing right now is bringing her [Madeleine] into the room with us, too. I'm grateful for that and very grateful for your deep friendship with Madeleine. Because I think it was hard for her to be intimate with people. Do you have insight into that?
Luci: So many people, you know, worshiped her work, and wherever she went, and she would speak and then do a book signing, you know, people lined up around the block to get her to sign a book of theirs. And I remember her signing once for two hours straight and her hand started to bleed. But she wouldn't give up, she wouldn't stop, you know. She wanted to meet and have contact with every person in that lineup. People really loved her. She had so many ardent followers and readers and scholars and people in the scientific world.
I think there were, when she wrote A Wrinkle in Time . . . she instinctively understood some of the mysteries of physics. [to audience] I don't know how many of you know A Wrinkle in Time, but there's a lot of interesting . . . like the word "mitochondria"—many people would not know what that was, or a "tesseract," which is an actual term for a wrinkle in time. [laughs]
Her intellect was really broad and she loved getting new information and then writing about it. She had a spirit of inquiry. That really fed her creativity. Many people loved her so much, but she said, "I'm glad I'm being loved. I don't want to be adored." I think that kind of level of adoration that many people wanted to express to her was . . . it just felt too much, you know. It was too demanding on her, emotionally, to have that kind of adoration. Everybody had her on a pedestal. They didn't know what a real, wonderful . . . [laughs] antsy . . . she could get really angry, too. [laughs]
In her later years, you know, she was taking a lot of medication, and as her friends we were always told, "Don't let her drink wine," because of these medications. And she, [laughs] we would go take her out to dinner at a restaurant and she'd immediately [laughs] order wine. And eventually we got to insisting that she just use seltzer water with cranberry juice, and it sort of looked like wine. [laughter]
Charlotte: One of my favorite memories of her at a restaurant when she was older and insisted it was . . . just, you know, she had no patience for foolishness. She got less patient with that. It was when you could still smoke in restaurants, [laughter] and we went to a local restaurant, and she started throwing ice at a guy smoking. [laughter] And then making a face. [laughter] That was definitely her.
Luci: And whenever we traveled together we had to make sure we got non-smoking accommodations in motels. And that was not for economy, at that point, you know. Smoking was so prevalent everywhere.
Léna: Our grandfather smoked.
Luci: Really. I didn't know that.
Charlotte: Well, he quit when we were little, because we were enlisted to go find his cigarettes and either throw them away [laughter] or go find them and say, "Please, Gum," (we called him Gum), "Don't smoke." [laughter]
Léna: [00:35:02] That was short for grumpy old grandpa. [laughter] That was all I could say was "Gum." So Gum stuck.
Charlotte: I want to hear more about Luci and about your writing and creativity and moving back and forth in between writing your own material and working with others. Madeleine, our grandmother, would work on a book of fiction and a book of nonfiction, and I think moving between genres and modes was good for her. And I wonder if it was the same for you.
Luci: I think it was. I've always written poetry just because it sort of arrived in my head and I had to do something with it. But writing essays or writing creative nonfiction of any kind takes much more planning, much more time, much more care. Poems can be kind of floaty. [laughs] Airy. Imaginative. Not always easily penetrated or understood. But when you're writing an essay, you've got to write for clarity. It's a different discipline. And I loved to do that because I was fascinated . . .
We published so many wonderful poets and we tried—our publishing house—we called it "tools for thoughtful Christians." And we tried to write . . . we had a series of literary biographies of people like Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, writers like that, writers of faith. You know, people wanted to know more about them, so we really loved to publish books like that. It broadened people's . . .
You know, in a very conservative community, there were very few people who were reading poetry when I was writing poetry. It was not a medium that appealed to people. It was okay if it rhymed, [laughter] it was okay if it was a hymn. [laughs] But, you know, if you were writing free verse, what are you supposed to do with it? I had the benefit of some editor friends who are editors of magazines, and they would let me publish some of my poetry in those magazines, but it was a difficult thing to publish poetry within the context that I lived in.
Charlotte: And you are still writing poetry, really beautiful poetry, some of which you shared yesterday.
Luci: Yeah. I mean, it's beautiful to me too. [laughs] I hope it's beautiful. I hope what it does is it releases our minds from merely intellectual probing of life and truth and bring it to a place of the spirit and the emotions and the imagination and just frees us from the more pedestrian ways of understanding life.
Léna: Now, and you and Madeleine wrote a few books together, Friends for the Journey and . . .
Luci: We did.
Léna: So what was that . . . Charlotte and I wrote a book together, too. [laughs]
Luci: Yeah! Please tell us about your . . . [laughing]
Léna: Oh! [laughing]
Luci: Yeah, we did. And we did several books together. We did a book called . . . well, Friends for the Journey was a book about . . . what was it about? I'm forgetting. [laughs]
Léna: Friends for the journey? [laughter] Your friendship?
Charlotte: It was about you spiritual friendship.
Luci: About our friendship. And, you know, I wanted it called The Table of Friendship because we, you know, we shared the Communion table together, she was a great ping-pong player . . . [laughter]
Charlotte: Um, vicious, would be the word I would use. [laughter]
Luci: [00:40:01] You know, watching Madeleine play ping-pong, she would sort of draw herself up like a ship in full sail [laughter] and advance upon the . . . she was magnificent. She had a very strong forehand. [laughter] There was that table, and then there's the . . . we would sometimes pick up sandwiches somewhere in Manhattan and then just eat them in her apartment at a little table by her window which overlooked the Hudson. And those were three of the tables that we enjoyed. Madeleine was also a wonderful cook. She would make a leg of lamb and pierce it all over with cloves of garlic and have wonderful gatherings of friends over for dinner. And then fortunately, she had someone come to do the dishes. [laughter]
Charlotte: But back to Friends for the Journey, was it the publisher who wanted that title, and not Table . . .
Luci: I think we made those decisions . . . yeah. It's a fun little book. Our friend Barbara Braver, who was really . . . we were sort of a trinitarian friendship. [laughs] Barbara and Madeleine and I did a lot of things together. Madeleine had a beautiful guest room that Barbara lived in for a number of years as her house guest, and Barbara worked for the Diocese of New York, for the Episcopal Diocese, so it was handy for her to be able to be in New York City. She actually lived in Gloucester on the weekends, but she stayed with Madeleine during the week. That's how I got to meet her.
Madeleine also went to a church called the Church of All Angels, which was on Broadway . . . I'm trying to remember; it was near Zabar's.
Charlotte: Yeah, 81st or 82nd.
Luci: And it was an old building that had been a hall . . . anyway, it was turned into a church. And Madeleine went there, and I think she was on the vestry there, but she also loved to be there because all kinds of artists and creative people, actors, and street people, would gather there for church services, and she just loved to be in company that was as diverse as that, all worshiping God together.
I preached there a number of times at their invitation. The rector there, Colin Goode, became a very close friend of ours. And he would come over with his wife and some friends, and we would have communion at Madeleine's dining room table. The holy mysteries. [chuckles]
Charlotte: Another table. [pause] So you were her friend, her editor, her co-writer . . .
Luci: And co-traveler.
Charlotte: And co-traveler. I'm going to ask you—I'm going to go light for this next question—I want to know like a favorite memory. When you want to conjure Madeleine for you, and it might not be . . . you're a poet, so it might not be a story. It might be a smell, or an image.
Luci: Well, I think that ping-pong table [laughs] is something I would never forget. And Madeleine and I also went to a place in Texas called Laity Lodge. [to audience] Do some of you know about Laity Lodge? It's a marvelous retreat center. They put on conferences for various groups, and you have to drive along the river to get there. And Madeleine loved that, driving in the riverbed until you get to the actual retreat center. Because it's so cut off from civilization, it feels so remote and safe. It's safe because you feel like [laughs] there's no one going to attack you or do any damage because of its remoteness.
[00:45:23] The other wonderful thing about that was that it was so far from any city so there was no ambient light. And I remember—this is one of my favorite memories of Madeleine: going up to the top of the hill and just looking at the stars because you could see every star. It was like you could see a map, but it was a three-dimensional map. You could see the near stars and the far stars in a way that I've hardly ever seen like that. And we just felt so attuned with creation in that kind of moment.
Charlotte: We're happy to keep going with our questions, but I want to know if we need to leave any time for questions from you guys? No, we're good?
Léna: We're gonna keep going. [laughs] Did you ever . . . I know that you inspired each other's writing, but did you ever write a poem about Madeleine?
Luci: [pause] I, you know, I can't think of one. I probably did. [pause] Probably not. [laughs] Yes, I did write a poem about Madeleine, and this is very important to me. In her final weeks of life, Madeleine had lost a lot of her cognition and she was in a hospice. Barbara Braver and I flew out to the East Coast to visit her. It wasn't Torrington, where was it?
Léna: Was it Litchfield?
Luci: Litchfield. And Madeleine didn't recognize us. We took along some photographs to leave with her so she would know we had been there if she became awake enough to recognize them. She was always very polite. She would say, "Thank you, thank you," to anybody who asked her a question or said anything.
She would just say, "Thank you," with her eyes closed. The only thing that would wake her was that we started singing a hymn. [sings] "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." Something like that. She would join in, even though she couldn't talk and couldn’t recognize us.
I did go to the woman at the front desk, the receptionist, and said that if Madeleine wakes up and is able to talk and able to recognize anything, could you call me out on the West Coast, and I would love to talk to her again. And it happened. I got this call. I picked it up and I called back to the hospice house, and there was Madeleine! And we talked lucidly for about half an hour, about just about everything. She said, "Why haven't you come to play Scrabble with me?" [laughter]
So it was a moment of pure grace that we were able to talk together, and very shortly after that she did die. I flew out and spent time . . . there were three funerals for Madeleine. There was one for the family, and then there was one at the congregational church, and Barbara and I both spoke at that one, and then there was one at the cathedral. It was a wonderful service. The wonderful thing for me was that Madeleine's daughter Josephine read from Walking on Water. That was one of the readings. And that just blessed me very much.
Charlotte: [00:50:05] So you wrote one poem about her . . .
Luci: I did.
Charlotte: . . . From that time when you had visited . . .
Luci: Yeah. I think I wrote a poem called "To the Edge," and it was like Madeleine had reached the edge of a large ocean and she was just about to embark on it and leave us behind. But she was like a pioneer for many people, exploring the intricacies of faith and love and power and literature and imagination.
Madeleine, at the end of her life, some of the characters in her books I think were more real to her than the actual family and friends. You know, there was a kind of linkage where it was all . . . do you want to say something about that, Léna or Charlotte?
Charlotte: Yeah, I'm looking, actually, for a quote, and I'll probably tear up again, [laughs] from Walking on Water, and I found this recently and posted it on Madeleine's social media because it's about Easter and resurrection. She says, "We are not meant to be as separated as we have become from those who have gone before us and those who will come after. Here we are on the border of the tremendous Christian mystery: time is no longer a barrier." So time is no longer a barrier. I feel closer to her now, than [tearing up] than I ever have, writing the book I did with my sister, but also talking so much about her recently with the A Wrinkle in Time movie. That has become so true for me: that she's not, she's not gone!
Léna: She's not gone. She's here. She's in the room with us now. I feel like I have a different relationship with her and with death, with the mysteries. Because when we wrote the book about her, we included her journals . . . her voice is present.
Luci: She kept two journals. She kept what she called her day book, remember? And she would just jot things and then she kept a very personal journal, which I think she didn't show to anyone. It was where she could really write about what she was feeling, or angry, or something like that, and she didn't want other people to be part of that.
She was a wonderful journal writer. Her handwriting was . . . I just loved her handwriting. And she would sign peoples' books, and she would say, "Tesser well." [laughs] That was one of her little greetings.
Léna: But you also said about your poem and about the time there, that towards the end, her characters and her books were becoming even more real to her. Is that what you were saying?
Léna: And then, I mean, all along her characters were so real to her. They were part of her. Part of it, I think, was just writing what she wanted, too. Writing the idealized version of what the Austins . . . of writing the family that she wanted everybody to have, that she wanted to have.
Luci: You know, she would say, I remember, in her book The Arm of the Starfish, she would talk about how the magic of if a starfish is injured and loses one of its tentacles, it grows back. She applied that in . . . the other thing she would say often is, when she's writing a novel, "These characters just showed up!" And she had to do something with them. She wasn't inventing them; her imagination was so inviting, it invited new people, new characters, new plots. I don't think she ever planned a book ahead of time, from beginning to end.
Charlotte: [00:54:58] No. [laughter] And J.K. Rowling, I think, famously plotted out all seven Harry Potter books on a napkin in one afternoon. But she [Madeleine] certainly never did that. It was part of her process of listening to the work, of serving the work.
Léna: But she was also so incredibly disciplined. I never met, and I don't think I ever will meet, someone so disciplined. So, she had this amazing toolbox that she was always practicing. She was putting in, you know, more than 10,000 hours, that she was ready when she was called.
Luci: She had a . . . she spoke French because in her youth she had been in a school, was it in Switzerland? or France?
Léna: Yeah, so it was an English boarding school in Switzerland.
Luci: But she knew words, she knew language. She had right in her bedroom an etymological dictionary. I love words too, I love going back and finding the derivation of words, where they've come from, what the original language was and how it's changed and why. And we talked words, and she'd reach up and she'd pick up this book, and we'd research where a word originated and how it had changed, and how the meaning sometimes was the same, but that the meaning morphed into something different. So it's the fluidity of language that I think was fascinating to both of us, and it made us . . . I think, all our writings—and my writing, you know, is very small compared to her oeuvres, which was amazing. She produced a new book, what, like almost every year? for . . . oh, what's her publisher . . .
Léna: For forty years. FSG . . .
Luci: FSG, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux. And what they were just waiting on every year was her new book. They [aughs] were her publisher and they really did a good job of marketing her books.
Charlotte: So we're coming to the end of our time together, but I want to ask one more question and tell one more story about what I remember about how important you were and are to her and to us as a family and to her growth as a writer and a person.
One of my great memories of an argument . . . maybe not an argument you had, but a difference that confused her, but that also made her grow was, I think you were going to go speak together at Vancouver School of Theology, or maybe it wasn't that . . .
Luci: Yeah, VIT, yeah, Vancouver School of Theology, right.
Charlotte: Someplace where they wanted her to sign a statement of faith, and she was outraged [laughs] by some of the terms in that, and I don't remember specifically, it was probably something about atonement and Jesus was crucified to, you know . . .
Luci: I think the atonement was a problem for her.
Charlotte: And I remember her looking at this piece of paper just with anger and sadness and confusion in a way that was jarring to me, because she was in her seventies, [laughs] and she seems so vulnerable to this, and I know that you guys had a long conversation about that. I don't know if that's something that you recall or remember or can speak about and how if that challenged you in ways, or how you helped each other with those issues.
Luci: [00:59:40] Well, I think it was, you know, we prayed together, we talked things through. We never came at an idea or concept with an ironclad sense that we [laughs] understood things. And so, being able to converse—and I love that word—converse: it's going back and forth between . . . it's like a reversal and a conversal where you're both involved in a discussion or conversation. What was the question? [laughs] What was your . . . I'm sorry. [laughs]
Charlotte: I think it was just . . . because, to me, part of what has made your friendship so important and valuable to her was the way that you guys did challenge each other and talk and talk through things. I was sort of remembering that one instance where she felt that she really needed you.
Léna: That she was able to . . . she trusted you, you were one of the only people in the world she could unpack those questions with. So, she was outraged by having to sign a testament of faith.
Charlotte: Well, she didn't, and they let her get away with that.
Luci: Okay, so she didn't, okay. [laughter]
Léna: So I guess it was more just asking if you recall that, and Charlotte's saying that we appreciate that relationship so much, that she was able to do that. Because if she did it with us, we were like, [goofily] "Oh, yeah, okay. You know, don't sign it!"
Luci: She would say what she wanted to say. I mean, she could be shocking and outspoken, but people . . . I have to tell one story about A Wrinkle in Time, and I know talking about the film could be a whole 'nother topic, and we don't have time for that, but my young daughter, who was in elementary school when we were living in west Chicago, the elementary school was just across the fence from our house, and they were reading A Wrinkle in Time in their class, and Kris stood up and said, "Oh, yeah, there's Madeleine." She was walking down our front path. [laughter]
So, you know, she was very much a part of our family. My daughter Kris particularly loved Madeleine. We loved visiting her and just being around her. The marvel, the magic of the telephone, where we could actually pray together over the phone.
We wrote a book called Prayers for Spiritual Friends, and it sort of talked about common subjects for prayer, like praying for a friend who was dying, or praying for a particular financial need, or something like that. And then there was sort of a dialogue for prayer in the book. I think the book is still in print, at John Knox Press. But that was a book that we worked on together. That's one of the ways that we connected the most deeply, was these prayers over the phone. [laughs]
Charlotte: We love you, Luci, and we just thank you so much for everything, for the deep friendship, for being here, for being in our lives.
Luci: [whispers] Love you.
Charlotte: [whispers] Love you.
Luci: Thank you all.
Léna: Thank you all for coming. Thank you. [applause]
Aliel: [01:04:03] We’re so grateful we got to host this conversation by Luci Shaw, Léna Roy, and Charlotte Jones Voiklis at the last Festival. Our profound thanks to them. We’re excited to have Charlotte Jones Voiklis return to Calvin on November 30th to celebrate help us commemorate her grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle’s, centenary year. Check out our website for full details.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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