thanking an old friend


    “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    So goes the opening sentence to Snoopy’s always-in-process novel back in the Peanuts days. He sat at his typewriter, ready to be the next great American novelist and that was the best he could do.

    “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    George Bulwer-Lytton used the sentence to open his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford:

    It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

    Scott Rice, a professor at San Jose State University, was inspired by the heinous nature of the sentence to begin a contest to find the best worst opening line in fiction that has been going now for twenty-five years. Liane Hansen talked to him this morning on NPR. Though Bulwer-Lytton wrote some impressive books of history, his legacy lives on as a bad beginner of fiction, thanks to those who enter the contest. Here are some of the past winners:

    As the fading light of a dying day filtered through the window blinds, Roger stood over his victim with a smoking .45, surprised at the serenity that filled him after pumping six slugs into the bloodless tyrant that mocked him day after day, and then he shuffled out of the office with one last look back at the shattered computer terminal lying there like a silicon armadillo left to rot on the information superhighway.
    Larry Brill, Austin, Texas (1994 Winner)

    On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
    Rephah Berg, Oakland CA (2002 Winner)

    They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn’t taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently.
    Mariann Simms, Wetumpka, AL (2003 Winner)

    Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you’ve had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.
    Jim GuigliCarmichael, CA (2006 Winner)

    “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    So begins one of the books that has shaped my life: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

    When I was a fourth grader at the Lusaka International School, Mrs. Reedy motivated us by promising a story at the end of the day – if we got our work finished. A Wrinkle In Time was the book she read to us. We surprised her with our work ethic because we loved the story so much. The book grabbed me in those days and has never let go. The next two books in the series came out when I was in high school, the third my senior year in college, and the last two in the late eighties. I’ve read them all more than once, but I still keep coming back to that dark and stormy night.

    L’Engle will turn eighty-nine this year and is still writing.

    About the time the fourth book came out, I sat down one day and wrote her a letter that began something like, “Dear Madeleine, you’ve been my friend for a long time even though we have never met.” I told her about Mrs. Reedy and all that her writing had meant to me and I sent it to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux without much expectation of it ever finding her. A month or so later, I got a handwritten response that sounded like a letter from an old friend. We wrote back and forth for a short while. Once, when I was thought I was going to New York, I wrote and asked to meet her and she sent me her home phone number. I didn’t get to make the trip. When her husband Hugh died (he used to be Dr. Tyler on All My Children); I received a form letter that marked his passing and that was the last time we corresponded. Even in that letter, I learned from her: it was my introduction to the power of keeping time by the church year.

    “He got sick just after Epiphany,” she said, “and he was gone by Pentecost.”

    Her words were full of holy and heavier things than to say, “He got sick in January and died in May.” She is also someone who relishes belonging to an untamed God. In an MSNBC interview, she was asked, “So to you, faith is not a comfort?” and she answered:

    “Good heavens, no. It’s a challenge: I dare you to believe in God. I dare you to think [our existence] wasn’t an accident.”

    In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, she said,

    Very few children have any problem with the world of the imagination; it’s their own world, the world of their daily life, and it’s our loss that so many of us grow out of it. Probably this group here tonight is the least grown-out-of-it group that could be gathered together in one place, simply by the nature of our work. We, too, can understand how Alice could walk through the mirror into the country on the other side; how often have our children almost done this themselves? And we all understand princesses, of course. Haven’t we all been badly bruised by peas? And what about the princess who spat forth toads and snakes whenever she opened her mouth to speak, and the other whose lips issued forth pieces of pure gold? We all have had days when everything we’ve said has seemed to turn to toads. The days of gold, alas, don’t come nearly as often.

    What a child doesn’t realize until he is grown is that in responding to fantasy, fairly tale, and myth he is responding to what Erich Fromm calls the one universal language, the one and only language in the world that cuts across all barriers of time, place, race, and culture.

    (As you can tell, her writing runs in more directions than fantasy. Walking on Water, A Circle of Quiet, and That Irrational Season are all worth reading and re-reading.)

    On this bright and sunny day, an old friend came to mind thanks to a dark and stormy night. We have yet to meet, but my life – particularly my writing life – has her fingerprints all over it.

    Thank you, Madeleine.



    1. Hi there, Milton!

      We’ve been friends for awhile, though we’ve never met. 🙂 I’ve been lurking since “lenten reduction,” and have passed on your link to several friends. Your writing is spiritual food for me, so thank you.

      Ya got me today–Madeleine has also been a formative influence for me! In grad school, I started (but never finished) a cantata based on her wonderful poetry. Do you know “Irrational Season?”

      This is the irrational season
      when love blooms bright and wild;
      had Mary been filled with reason
      there’d have been no room for the child.

      Maybe my favorite approach to Advent, EVER. 🙂

      Peace, friend. Thank you for your wonderful writing.

    2. I have to add my recommendation for L’Engle’s book _Two-Part Invention: the Story of a Marriage_
      It sits on my shelf right next to the Wrinkle in Time books, and I have read them all multiple times.
      They are a comfort on dark and stormy nights.

    3. I loved a Wrinkle in Time. One of my favorite books. I read it when I was a teenager, and my older brother read it as well. we all loved it.

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