Madeleine L’Engle, also a Poet

Madeleine L'Engle and

With the release of the new move, “A Wrinkle in Time,” writer Madeleine L’Engle has come back into the cultural consciousness. Her Newbery award-winning book was first published when I was at an impressionable age, and helped fuel both my imagination and love of reading.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that despite a strong cast headed by Oprah Winfrey, it is not doing particularly well at the box office. As I write this it has a long way to go to earn back the more than $100 million it took to produce.

L’Engle’s book was criticized for its liberal treatment of religious themes back in the 1960s. Ironically, this year’s movie has been criticized for not sticking closely enough to the book and watering it down its Christian references even further.

But I digress.

Today, in one of my used bookstore haunts, I was intrigued to discover a slender book of verse by L’Engle, entitled “The Weather of the Heart.” I hadn’t realized she also had written poetry.

And what a discovery! Chock full of verse about wonder and love and death and faith.

But the one that really jumped out at me was all too human, and startling in its honesty. Written to her husband while they were apart, it recounted an affair averted. It’s hard to say just how close she came, but because the poem is so honest, it results in a reaffirmation and celebration of fidelity.

It helps to understand the poem to know that L’Engle’s husband, Hugh Franklin, was a stage and television actor.

L’Engle’s poem doesn’t seem to be published on the internet, so I will set it down for you here. It is inspiring on many levels.

Lovers Apart

In what, love, does fidelity consist?
I will be true to you of course.
My body’s needs I can resist,
Come back to you without remorse.

And you, behind the footlight’s lure,
Kissing an actress on the stage,
Will leave her presence there, I’m sure,
As I my people on the page.

And yet–I love you, darling, yet
I sat with someone at a table
And gloried in our minds that met
As sometimes stranger’ minds are able

To leap the bound of times and spaces
And find, in sharing wine and bread
And light in one another’s faces
And in the words that each has said

An intercourse so intimate
It shook me deeply, to the core,
I said good-night, for it was late,
We parted at my hotel door

And I went in, turned down the bed
And took my bath and thought of you
Leaving the theatre with light tread
And going off, as you should do,

To rest, relax, and eat and talk–
And I lie there and wonder who
Will wander with you as you walk
and what you both will say and do …

We may not love in emptiness,
We married in a peopled place;
The vows we made enrich and bless
The smile on every stranger’s face.

And all the years that we have spent
Give the job that makes me able
To love and laugh with sacrament
Across a strange and distant table.

No matter where I am, you are,
We two are one and bread is broken
And laughter shared both near and far
Deepens the promises once spoken

And strengthens our fidelity
Although I cannot tell you how,
But I rejoice in mystery
And rest upon our marriage vows.

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Good Father, a Tanka

Raymond Ball gave me a good example of fatherhood
My father with one of his grandsons

 Father, all I ask —
unbutton your coat, and warm
my toes on your skin.

This weary world is so cold,
and I am a trembling reed.


Notes on the form:

Tanka is a type of Japanese short poetry that some believe predates haiku.  Rather than the three line 5/7/5 haiku for, tanka adds two more seven syllable lines to form a 5/7/5 7/7 pattern.

From what I can determine, the content tanka tends to be more personal than haiku.  Some are even love notes passed between lovers.  But many also express an appreciation of nature.

I chose the tanka form for this poem inspired by my own father, and written as a prayer.

Notes on the content:  The example of a good father

I had the most excellent good fortune to have been blessed with a wonderful dad.  Because of his example, I found it easy to comprehend the idea of God as a good and loving father.

One of my earliest memories goes back to a winter day when I must have been no more than 3 years old.  Word came to our farmhouse on the party phone line that something strange had been found in a tree a couple of miles from our place.

We all bundled up and went to the scene.  It seems that a large weather balloon had fallen back to earth and gotten snagged high up in the tree.  It seemed to me that it took forever for the local high school-age farm lads to determine how best to climb the tree and free the object from its captor.

As the proceedings dragged on and on, I got colder and colder, and my feet were freezing.  When I  complained to my dad, he scooped me up, took off my socks and shoes, and stuck my tiny feet inside his coat and inside his shirt to warm them up.

A bit about my dad

He was a provider.  He worked hard all his life to provide for his family the best way he knew how.  In his youth during the Great Depression, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day (and glad to get it!)  Then, after saving up, he bought his own 80 acre dirt farm, which he operated for many years.

I came along as a late child, as Mom and Dad were facing middle age.  When I was young, he sold the farm, made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, and bought a Ford Tractor dealership with a couple of partners.  When that business ultimately failed, Dad kept one working, this time as a mechanic.  Through hard times and disappointments, he just kept chopping wood, and doing the best he could.

He possessed a merry disposition, quick with a story or a quaint country expression.  But he was capable of administering effective corporal punishment when required.  His boys learned early on that he was not afraid to use his belt to emphasize a disciplinary point.  I must say his spankings, while no fun, were short, undamaging, and few.

He was honest to a fault, even refusing to charge mark-ups on the parts he bought to use in repairing cars, trucks, and farm implements.  Even though that was standard practice in auto and farm repair shops everywhere, it just didn’t seem right, he said, to take that money for nothing.   It was known throughout the county that if Ray Ball couldn’t fix it, it couldn’t be fixed.

And in those rare cases when he could not get the  tractor to run or the corn picker to pick, Dad wouldn’t charge the farmer anything at all.

An example as a husband

Dad was faithful to our mother throughout his life, and he clearly adored her.  And when she declined in health past the point where he could care for her at home, he visited her in the nursing home every day, personally spoon feeding lunch to her.

Finally, Dad did his best to expose his four sons to faith and to the love of God as he had come to know it.  He had seen his own father undergo a dramatic adult conversion, which resulted in a softening and sweetening in the disposition of my grandfather.  This must have had  an effect on my own father, because he was always a gentle and kind man.

Although my brothers and I all initially rejected the faith of our parents, at least some of us eventually came around.  Dad passed away in 2000, but I would like to think that Dad would appreciate this little poem, if he were around to read it.