Sunday, August 1, 2010

In the footsteps of Madeleine L'Engle

I walked past a silver-haired woman this week, and she looked very much like my favorite author, Madeleine L'Engle.  Madeleine passed away four years ago after a grand and long life, but her work and spirit live on in many people's hearts, including my own.

I was first introduced to her books through A Wrinkle In Time, a novel for young adults.  I must have been 10 years old or so.  I liked it, but didn't immediately become hooked.  The title that truly enthralled me was A Ring of Endless Light, one of a series about the Austin Family.  I became obsessed, and read every L'Engle title I could get my hands on, including the ones intended for adults.  I loved her heroines, all of whom were smart and principled and from strong families and a little outside the 'popular' circle.  Her writing had a profound influence on me, and fostered my confidence that I could also be outside the popular circle and still be okay.  Apart from my parents and extended family, L'Engle had more influence on how I viewed the world than any other individual.

When I saw the silver-haired woman, I remembered that L'Engle had lived in New York City, with a second home, a farmhouse, in Connecticut.  The Connecticut home sounded idyllic to me, and I had never understood why she would also be so attached to NYC.  I understand now, of course, and decided I would track down her NYC home and wander around her neighborhood.  With a little luck, I found her old address:

It is a nice but not overly fancy building on the Upper West Side.  There's a sweet and tiny park just north of her street:

Today they were filming a movie just adjacent to the park:

I had done some research on the neighborhood before traveling there, and decided to stop at the Nicholas Roerich Museum, located in a townhouse on West 107th.  Nicholas Roerich was a Russian artist who lived from 1874-1947.  I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of him, and had never seen images of his art.  I immediately fell in love with his paintings, and came away incredibly impressed with his life story (he spent time in India, the Himalayas) and accomplishments. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  For more, see:
Nicholas Roerich Museum and Wiki entry for Nicholas Roerich

There weren't more than 10 people in the museum when I was there.  It's open every day except Monday from 2-5pm.  If you are in NYC and looking to do something that is unique and inspiring, I highly recommend a visit.  Here are a few photos (taken with permission):

I *love* stumbling across things that are totally new to me.  Had I just seen this one museum, I would have felt utterly satisfied.  But wait, there's more...

Madeleine wrote often about the nearby St John The Divine Cathedral, where she was a volunteer librarian and writer-in residence.  I walked north to find it.  It's enormous-- here is the facade:

It's so freaking big I couldn't back up enough to get the whole thing.  Apparently the ceilings are so high that the Statue of Liberty could fit comforably inside.  Really.
I arrived just before 4pm, serendipitous timing as Evensong was about to start.  A choir from St. Andrews in London was the featured guest.  I sat in one of the available seats in the choir stalls, and immediately regretted it.  It was unbearably hot, so much so that I had to concentrate on my breathing so as to not faint.  My discomfort vanished the moment I heard gorgeous voices, floating through the air.  I couldn't see the choir-- they were out of sight in the ambulatory, opening the service with their sound but not their visual presence.  It was electrifying.  I thought of the countless times that Madeleine L'Engle had attended such a service and the solace she found in this magnificent place, and felt blessed to be there in her memory 


  1. I love her books, too, and became hooked pretty much the same way you did. What a great day spent!

  2. So lovely. Did you know that my Maddie is named for Madeleine L'Engle?

  3. So wonderful to see both of your comments. Snick, I didn't know-- what a wonderful legacy for your daughter!

  4. Once again you have brought another facet of the larger world to me and I am grateful. XO

  5. I've often wondered what the Cathedral looks like. Thanks!


  6. That park is a memorial to Isidor and Ida Straus, who both died in the Titanic sinking, and whose home was located a block away. Isidor was the founder of Macy's, and the sculpture was funded by store employees.

    Ida, though offered a place on a lifeboat, declined, saying to her husband, "Where you go, I go." They were portrayed in the eponymous movie as laying on their bed as the water rushed in. (Though in reality, they were last seen both sitting calmly on deck chairs).

  7. Wow! Thanks for the history, Peter. Such a touching story. Though it completely shifts the energy of the little park for me- !

  8. I loved all of her books and like you, loved the smart little girls in them! Another great adventure.

  9. Lovely. I am learning so much through you. I have been to NY several times, (heck! I spent 13 years in CT) and have only seen a handful of the things you mention in your blog. I feel ashamed to have overlooked so much, regretful that I never researched deeper to find the hidden treasures you stumble upon. I am anxious to visit again, with your blog as my guide book to see myself these magical treasures you speak of, write about with such poetic beauty. Thank you so much for all that you share with us of the city...

  10. Thank you for your lovely note, Alexandra. When you are next in NYC, you'll have to let me know so I can take you out for tea!