The fog was so thick on the ride into New Haven this morning I felt like I was on a ghost train. Between Guilford and Branford, the train runs through the marshes and right along the coastline. Most mornings, I can look out across Long Island Sound; today, our carriage was wrapped in the soft white blanket that left us with little to do but trust the tracks. My eyes turned from the fog to the book that has been my traveling companion this week: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle.
I have been reading Madeleine L’Engle books since I was in fourth grade, beginning with A Wrinkle in Time and continuing on through most of her catalog. A good many of them I have read more than once. She is the person who first got me fascinated with time, so I perked up again when I returned to passages, both familiar and forgotten, that talked about we mark our days and how we think about what has both preceded us and what will follow. I came home with four passages that hung with me all day.
As Ginger and I both approach another Christmas without our fathers, and I think of how many other people I know whose parents have died in the last year, I stopped and read this next paragraph three or four times.
We are not as meant to be as separated as we have become from those who have gone before us and those who will come after. I learned to know and understand my father far more after his death than during his life. Here were are on the border of a tremendous Christian mystery: time is no longer a barrier. (80)
We are taught to think of time as a line, where we walk farther and farther from where we began. In some cultures, they think of it as a circle, where things keep coming round again and again. L’Engle thinks in layers, as though all of the ages we are, have been, and will be somehow stack up on each other. Her images have helped me grasp the Celtic concept of a thin place, where whatever barrier there might be between layers, between us and God, between earth and heaven, become permeable and palpable.
And as I set down the word mediate, I realized that it is part of the word immediate, that place of now, where past and future come together. (84)
As many times as I have seen the word immediate and as many times as I have read Walking on Water, I missed that mediate makes up most of the word, save a prefix. I love her understanding of what that means for immediate, and for our definition of the present tense.
She went on to tell a story of a village who lost track of time when their clockmaker died. Since no one was there to repair the clocks, most abandoned their timepieces. When a new clock maker finally came to town some time later, he announced he could only repair the clocks that had continued to be wound because they were the only ones that remembered how to keep time. L’Engle continues,
So we must daily keep things wound: that is, we must pray when prayer seems dry as dust; we must write when we are physically tired, when our hearts are heave, when our bodies are in pain. . . . We may not be able to make our “clock” run correctly, but at least we can keep it wound, so that it will not forget. (96)
Maybe it was her word play with immediate that let me see it, but I realized the word wound means one thing when it’s connected to clocks and another when it describes how we hurt in these days. The daily rituals that keep our clocks wound come out of the wounds with which we live on a daily basis. The grief that has played out over the last two and a half years since Dad died has happened one day at a time. Tomorrow I will mark the end of my fifty-ninth year on the planet and every one of those years happened in days, even in moments, that have stacked up on themselves to create a lifetime—which is not yet over, by the way.
As I sit here tonight, I can think of a number of people whom I love dearly who are hurting deeply. Some have walked wounded for many years. Some have lost traveling companions—spouses, parents, friends, siblings. Some are reeling from pain so fresh that they are hard to reach. I look up and beyond those close to me to find concentric circles of hurt and hopelessness that reach around the globe, and with all of them in mind I offer the last quote, which was one of the first things I read this morning:
We are tempted to try to avoid not only our own suffering, but that of our fellow human beings, the suffering of the world, which is part of our own suffering. But if we draw back from it (and we are free to do so), Kafka remind us that “it may be that this very holding back is the one evil we could have avoided.” (63)
It was dark for the train ride home. Most people sat quietly. One man did chin-ups on the luggage rack from his seat. Another talked on the phone as if he were sitting in his own living room. I read until I got to Branford, then I shut my book and looked out into the night, where the fog had once been, grateful for the love I know that will not let me go.