Sunday, January 24, 2010

re-reading L'Engle, pondering middle life

Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet is a favorite book of mine. I re-read it every couple of years, along with the other volumes of her Crosswicks Journal series.

This time the re-reading happened on impulse. I was doing some cleaning in our book loft and for some reason this was lying on top of a bookshelf. I picked it up as I headed down the stairs and put it by my bed. That night, it pulled me away from the novel I'm reading, and I haven't been able to stop.

Mid-way the book I came across a page where I had turned down the corner. Curious as to what I'd wanted to mark, I read quickly and then stopped short at this passage:

Jung disagreed with Freud that the decisive period in our lives is the first years. Instead, Jung felt that the decisive period is that in which my husband and I are now, the period of our middle years, when we have passed through childhood with its dependency on our parents; when we've weathered the storms of adolescence and the first probings into the ultimate questions; when we've gone through early adulthood with its problems of career and marriage and bringing up our babies; and for the first time in our lives find ourselves alone before the crucial problem of who, after all these years, we are. All the protective covering of the first three stages is gone, and we are suddenly alone with ourselves and have to look directly at the great and unique problem of the meaning of our own particular existence in this particular universe.

I suspect I marked this passage when I last read it out of wonder. Would I agree with it when I got there?

I'm close enough to this stage to realize the truth of what L'Engle was getting at. Like L'Engle at Crosswick, I've ended up in the country for this stage of my life, where the pondering can be done while doing chores, or in the company of horses and donkeys, cats and Corgis, or even standing inside the house looking out at the mostly quiet landscape.

There is pasture and forest, paths that lead to clearings, and although I can't sit with my feet hanging in the stream as L'Engle did, I often find myself filling water troughs with the hose in hand, just listening to the water, letting it soothe my mind.

There is a busyness to the first three life stages. In childhood we seem driven from within to master basic skills: self-constancy, the notion that we exist separately from our mothers; sitting, crawling, standing, walking - the ability to move about; and of course numerous other milestones.

In adolescence there is the energy of growth and maturation, of separation and individuation from parent figures, of peer relationships and the beginnings of sorting out who we are, separate from our parents and family. Who we are in our own essence.

Young adulthood brings partnering and career and childbirth.

And then middle life comes. And it is quiet. I know for many people the quiet is difficult and there can be a sense of loss and confusion. Who am I can be a terrifying question when one is no longer the child of parents (who may be dead), no longer focused so intently on career, and no longer needed quite so particularly as a parent to one's child.

For me, the quiet is a return to something I always needed and gave up for awhile to pursue the other things. And I'm thinking of it as a time to create the kind of life I always wanted, to find joy in the moment and let that ripple out, because I think it does. I think it matters.

I read on and reached one more page that had its corner turned down:

I am naive again, perhaps, in thinking that the love and laughter of Crosswicks is, in its own way, the kind of responsibility Mann was talking about. I do not think it is naive to think that it is the tiny, particular acts of love and joy which are going to swing the balance, rather than general, impersonal charities. These acts are spontaneous, unself-conscious, realized only late if at all. They may be as quiet as pulling a blanket up over a sleeping baby. Or as noisy as the night of trumpets and stars.

She describes a night at Crosswicks, watching the stars with toy trumpets in hand, heralding the arrival of each star with a "wild bray" of the trumpet.

And I was totally back in joy. I didn't realize I had been out of it, caught in small problems and disappointments and frustration, until it came surging back. It was as radiant as the rock, and I lay there, listening to the girls trumpeting, and occasionally being handed one of the trumpets so that I could make a loud blast myself, and I half expected to hear a herd of elephants come thundering across the far pastures in answer to our call.

And joy is always a promise.


Grey Horse Matters said...

A very profound post. As I go through my middle life, I think the days are easier because I do know who I am and what I want from the second half of my life. I savor the quiet moments because I don't have too many of them. There are so many things to do with my grown children, which I am thankful for, but also with my three grandchildren. They are still babies and I find such pleasure in being with them. And always there are the horses and the farm. My life is full. I feel sorry for people who can't come to grips with aging and having their children leave home because if you simply look around there are so many things to be done and amazed by everyday and we should all enjoy our moments in this life no matter what they bring.

Barbee' said...

I enjoyed this post very much - thank you.

billie said...

Arlene, there is a scene in this book where L'Engle describes going in to lie down with the babies, and it made me think about the particular joy that I imagine will come as a grandparent, being totally content to miss the "party" in order to watch grandchildren sleep and comfort them if they wake.

billie said...

Barbee, thanks for stopping by. I just read your post about Gwen and imagining doing something like THAT in middle life!