Madeleine L’Engle Taught Me the Universe Has Meaning

The Wrinkle in Time author shaped my ideas on nearly everything, from family to illness

Animation of Shooting Stars Coming off Blue Woman's Face
Animation by Sean Lewis

In her 2004 profile of the American novelist Madeleine L’Engle in The New Yorker, poet Cynthia Zarin recalled a friend once telling her in college, “There are really two kinds of girls. Those who read Madeleine L’Engle when they were small, and those who didn’t.”

I was among those who did. And, like so many others, I absorbed the world the Wrinkle in Time author created on the page. In the late author’s 1962 classic, a lonely teen embarks on an interplanetary journey to rescue her scientist father from a dark being. The book creates a realm of lyrical prose, magical child heroes, mystical spirituality, ancient archetypes and myths, and reverence for nature, science, art, and literature. A world of epic battles between good and evil, where nothing less than the future of humanity hung in the balance.

It appealed to imaginative girls like me, girls who were forever in search of meaning. And it shaped our views on the world around us. So much so that, now, decades later, we are all flocking to theatres to see the story hit the silver screen.

When I was a child, all I wanted was for my life to be like a Madeleine L’Engle novel. I related to the heroines in her books, girls who longed for adventure and felt perpetually out of place. They were sensitive and awkward and in search of something. Wondrous things happened to these girls. They went on intergalactic voyages; they met brooding boys who fell in love with them; they made friends who helped illuminate the meaning of life; they went to boarding schools in Switzerland; they cooked enormous pots of spaghetti, which they ate with their loud, affectionate families. They glimpsed a great reality.

My life was, in comparison, if not dull, at least a little bleak. My parents were bright people who talked about books and exposed me to art and culture. But our family was small and, after my parents’ divorce when I was thirteen, decidedly lonely. The low-income housing complex in Vancouver where my mother, brother, and I lived was neither gracious nor welcoming. We did not travel nor did we associate with many people, certainly not the Manhattan concert pianists and Episcopalian canons that peopled the novels I adored.

But here’s the thing: there is something to the power of imagination. If you can envision it, you can create it. L’Engle radically expanded my vision for my life. When I was younger, her books shaped my ideas on nearly everything: from what a close marriage looks like (the Austin family series) to family life (the Austins, plus the O’Keefe family series and the Time Quintet), social justice (The Other Side of the Sun), and the trauma of the human condition (A Severed Wasp). L’Engle’s female protagonists were not beautiful, and they were not always likeable. As with the temperamental Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, they were often deeply flawed. But they were loved.

In L’Engle’s books, I discovered a world of deep connection—to others, to nature, to the magic of the universe. I yearned for the world contained there.

I started reading A Ring of Endless Light when I was fourteen years old. The 1980 YA novel follows Vicky Austin, an ill-at-ease teen spending the summer on Seven Bay Island and coming to terms with her grandfather’s terminal leukemia. Gathered together to nurse him, her family reads Henry Vaughan poetry (“I saw Eternity the other night, / Like a great ring of pure and endless light”), listens to Brahms and Bach, debates theology, and contemplates the cosmos over dinner. Meanwhile, Vicky befriends a young man named Adam, who is a marine biology student researching the local dolphin population. Adam shows Vicky how dolphins communicate—telepathically, it turns out—and Vicky learns to call them. Out in the ocean, the dolphins swim with her, their joyful bodies pressed against her side, silently letting her know that she is cared for, that she will survive the loss of her grandfather and the confusion of youth. That she is going to be all right.

Near the end of the novel, at the hospital where her grandfather is finally admitted, an epileptic child dies in Vicky’s arms. Vicky is flooded with despair. In her moment of crisis, she calls out telepathically, this time to Adam. He hears her, somehow, and arrives to take her back to the sea. There, the dolphins surround her, affirming all that is good in the world. Hope and faith are restored. Despair is banished.

The moment offers a mystical way of thinking through the grief of being human. Vicky must accept that she lives in a world where children sometimes die in emergency rooms. She must accept, too, that her grandfather will die. And, perhaps most significantly, she must accept her own darkness, the anguish that threatens to pull her under. As in all of L’Engle’s books, however, she does not have to do any of this alone. She has the friendship of the universe—in this case, the dolphins—to give her comfort and courage.

At the time I read this, I happened to be in the midst of my own crisis, as my father walked away from our family, shattering my sense of trust. Famously, A Wrinkle in Time featured an absent father and the void that creates. The reality, of course, is not always so enchanting. My mother struggled to fill both roles, juggling parenting with low-wage work cleaning houses, clerking at department stores, and entertaining children as a clown. She eventually went back to school, earning first a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and, finally, a PhD, and became a professor.

By the time I entered high school, I was desperate for some pocket of the universe to pay attention to me. And, just like in one of L’Engle’s novels, discovering it felt like a form of magic. When I joined the Environmental Youth Alliance at age fourteen, it had a broadly focused international scope. The first meeting I attended was held at the second-floor office of Oxfam Canada and was chaired by a bearded twentysomething named Doug. I have no idea why I went. I had no background in environmental issues. I knew the joys of nature, but I had no lasting connection to the wilderness at large. But, sitting around that conference table, my opinion suddenly counted for something. And so I went back again the next week.

Being a leader of the environmental movement felt like something Vicky Austin might do. It brought me closer to L’Engle’s vision of a spiritual universe, a creative life, awe-inspiring wilderness—and the satisfying symbiosis between those things. Who knew where it would lead? I might find myself living the kind of big, expansive life that L’Engle’s characters did. I craved a life filled with art and travel, fascinating conversations with famous scientists, dinners with anthropologists who forged links to ancient cultures.

As it turns out, all of this came to pass. And more.

On October 14, 1990, just six months after I joined the Environmental Youth Alliance, several dozen of us stood at the international arrivals gate in Vancouver, awaiting a flight from Australia, as news cameras looked on. We held handmade signs with phrases in the Penan language. We were there to welcome tribesmen from the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, which belonged to one of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes on the planet. Andy Mutang Urud, a Kelabit activist, and Penan tribesmen Unga Paren and Mutang Tu’o, all of whom were on the Voices for the Borneo Rainforest world tour, were visiting thirteen countries to protest the twenty-four-hour-a-day logging of their ancestral lands. Huge swaths of the 160-million-year-old jungle were being cleared; at conservative estimates, 1,000 hectares disappeared daily—the fastest rate of deforestation in the world, according to the Voices for the Borneo Rainforest 1990 World Tour Report.

When I first met him, Mutang Tu’o was in his early twenties. He walked into the cold airport terminal in a loincloth and traditional headgear, carrying a single flower. From the start, Mutang and I shared a feeling of close kinship. He taught me to play the nose flute and made me elaborately carved bamboo bracelets. I was drawn to his bright mind, his sense of fun, the stillness that he carried with him, and the reverence with which he talked of his homeland. The way he spoke had a familiar poetry to it; it reminded me of L’Engle.

“Whatever happens next I am only putting my confidence in those who are out there in the world, because we are in their hands,” he said in a statement during the tour. “Let us be married in spirit, loving each other so that our friendship be strong and eternal. Let the indigenous people and the people of the world be together like the moon and the stars that shine in the darkness.” He believed in the power of human connection. He trusted in our interconnectedness and the sense of purpose that came with it.

During a second visit, the next year, we both joined a delegation of young environmentalists on a trip to Galiano Island, located in the Southern Gulf Islands archipelago, between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. During the retreat, we played games in the forest, greeted the wind, water, air, and earth in song, and ate elaborate meals cooked over campfires. We combed the shoreline, taking photos of the sandstone formations, all of us marvelling at the purple starfish, the eagles overhead, the silence.

Early on, we were each encouraged to find a “spirit spot,” a quiet place where we could sit and contemplate life. During these daily meditation times, I would hike off to my spot—a rugged, mossy bluff—and sit staring out at the ocean. The ritual reminded me of a passage in A Ring of Endless Light in which Vicky ponders her own need to retreat to her thoughts on the beach. Her best times there are when she feels “part of everything, part of the rock and the sky and the sea and the wind and the rain and the sun and the stars.” And, even better, the times when “it’s as though I’m out on the other side of myself—I’m not in the way.” This is what I felt out on the bluff—connection to the universe around me and, in the fullness of that connection, a gentle reprieve from my own complicated humanity.

Toward the end of the retreat, each of us went on a “vision quest” intended to help us find inner courage. Plied with food and fire (a potato and a match), we were sent off in the afternoon, sleeping bags in hand, not to return until morning. I hiked along the rocky shoreline, up steep cliffs and then down into dark, foreboding bays. Eventually, I found a friendly feeling bluff, near a lighthouse, and settled in. I could not start my fire and ate part of my potato raw. After several long hours, dusk fell and I became afraid. I listened to the forest behind me, aware of each crinkling leaf, every snapping branch. Were there animals out there? Humans? Was I safe? I sat up, stricken, most of the night.

But, at some point before dawn, a peace settled over me. In that moment, the world no longer seemed like a hostile place. I understood that I was looked after. There was something, some presence, with me. It communicated to me through the stars and the rustle of the trees and the fullness of the moon hanging over the glittering ocean. This quiet harmony reached back, to the past, to my childhood, to the world I’d connected to in L’Engle’s books. And it reached far into the future, to a life I did not yet live, and an understanding of the world I did not yet grasp.

Back at the campfire circle, where Mutang was waiting, I told the others what I’d experienced. The Penan often speak in parables, and I learned about the wide-eyed bekiké, or slow loris, which finds green rattan fruit in the forest and carries it around until it ripens. That vision quest at fifteen was my rattan fruit; it took years to fully ripen, but I held it close. At the end of Mutang’s visit, I promised him that I would one day visit him in Borneo. Back at home, I placed a framed photo of us on a side table in my room, with an eagle feather I had found on Galiano Island and a bracelet Mutang had made for me. I looked at this strange little altar every day, and at my lowest points, I would say a sort of prayer, reaching out to him across the ocean, across time zones and continents and cultures, envisioning Mutang sitting in the longhouse. I would imagine that he answered me.

That year, I had a dream. I was in Borneo, in a boat on the river, paddling toward Long Iman, Mutang’s village. The jungle canopy hung low and lush overhead. I was being drawn, pulled by some powerful force. I woke up and wrote down the details of my dream. I knew that I must go there one day. That I would, in fact, go there one day. This feeling never faded, even as the years progressed and our paths diverged further and further. The dream never left me.

A decade later, at twenty-four years old, my life felt, in many ways, like the L’Engle novels I had so wanted to emulate. I had followed my love of books into grad school to soak up the heady atmosphere of academia, and I planned to become a professor. I still read and reread her books. Still dreamt the dreams I found there. Still sought the world of close connection, and purpose, and justice outlined in their pages.

The start of grad school was euphoric for me. I’d moved into an apartment in a heritage house in a neighbourhood that seemed, to me, to be filled with writers. I was making new friends. Having fascinating conversations over strong coffees. Buying books. Starting to write one of my own. But I had been feeling unwell for months, and finally, a specialist ordered tests.

Two weeks into classes, I went for the first of many colonoscopies. I remember lying on a hospital table, in a pastel gown. Young nurses gathered around the table, and one of them told me she was going to a bachelorette party after work. They’d ordered a cake shaped like a penis. In my drugged state, I watched the screen as a scope probed my colon. And then I heard the doctor say, “Oh my God.” There was pain—deep, aching pain. The doctor held something up to the light. It looked like a large, bleeding raspberry. I wanted to touch it. I reached out. He fumbled and dropped it in my lap.

Sitting in an abandoned waiting room afterwards, the doctor made a drawing of where the polyp had been located and how he’d removed it. He told me I would have to wait several business days to find out if it was cancer. That week, driving around in a car with friends, I felt raw, fragile. Like precious glass. I wanted normal back. But I knew I couldn’t have it. I knew when I heard the message from my doctor’s receptionist, asking me to come back in. When I double-parked my car in the lane behind his office. When I was shown to a treatment room right away. There, my doctor told me gruffly that the tumour was cancerous. “This is not a death sentence,” he said. “We caught it early.”

He released me into the bright afternoon. I drove to my mother’s apartment building and sat on the steps in the sunshine in a leather jacket, unable to remove it, waiting for her to come home. In the following days, friends and family flooded my tiny apartment, arriving with bags overflowing with food. Roasted chickens, whole lasagnas, homemade cookies and muffins, salads and soups. The threat of death, it seemed, made people hungry.

I was extremely lucky. In time, I underwent a successful colon resection and discovered the cancer had not spread. After the surgery, it took a week to be able to walk down the stairs from my attic apartment and another week to get to the end of the block. Longer still to regain my emotional equilibrium. After it was clear I’d need no further treatment, the deluge of visits stopped. My friends and family returned to their lives. My fridge emptied out. Those lonely weeks proved the hardest. I could not contain my grief. I stayed in bed for days, phone unplugged. Being with people was painful. I felt like I had a glaring new difference—a tinge of death that clung to me. Being alone was worse. I worried my darkness frightened people away.

And so the sorrow leaked out of me, perpetually spilling over. I did not trust. Not in my body, not in those around me, not in the universe. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to heal, I had to accept I could not go back in time. I could not go back to those first few optimistic weeks of grad school. I could not go back to a time when I never thought about whether I had control over life or death. And, if I could not go backward, I would have to find a way to go forward. A plan slowly formed. I would take the following semester off school and go travelling. When I had been sick, I had regretted that I hadn’t seen more of the world. I could remedy that. I could walk out into the arms of adventure, the wider world L’Engle had so lovingly portrayed, and see what I found there.

I thought about my dream from all those years ago. About the moments of serenity and peace I’d found on Galiano Island. About my promise to visit Mutang.

I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to go to Borneo. The jungles of Sarawak seemed remote, impossibly dangerous, filled with lethal insects and parasites, and, moreover, rough loggers and corrupt government officials. (Reports at the time bore these fears out.) But I could head in that general direction, couldn’t I? I could go to Southeast Asia. I could hope the courage materialized to carry me further. I couldn’t fathom going alone—as in L’Engle’s narratives, a quest is rarely taken solo—but I had a close friend, Ian, who said he’d come. A few months later, in February 2001, we found ourselves walking through the airport terminal in Bangkok, without any real plan, hit by a wall of heat and humidity, breathing in a foreign scent, difficult to place, some combination of rotting garbage and jasmine blooms.

But, even in this heady atmosphere—even after coming so far—I knew I had not gone far enough. I thought, again and again, of the lush jungles of Sarawak, of my friend. I knew that I had to go all the way. I knew the time had come to make the journey to Borneo.

Illness makes you question everything. It forces you to go deep within, to face your greatest fears. To ask yourself the most important question in life: Will I give in to the darkness or will I choose the light? I had chosen the light. And that choice opened me up—not only to myself and to the world around me but to those I loved. At home and here, many miles away, bound for one of the world’s most remote jungles.

In the week we spent in Thailand getting our bearings, and the ensuing days of gruelling travel to Borneo, I thought a lot about my life. I thought about the vision L’Engle had given me—one of connection, of purpose, of love. I thought about Mutang and how his battle to save Borneo’s ancient rainforests symbolized all that was good and true in the world. About how much I wanted to be a part of that fight—the fight, essentially, for the future of humanity. About how much I wanted to live.

After long bus rides from Thailand to Malaysia and a flight across the ocean from Kuala Lumpur to the oil town Miri, Ian and I boarded a twenty-seat plane bound for Mulu National Park, located near Mutang’s village. The flight was intoxicating. I stared out the tiny windows at the lush forest below, at the mist rising off the trees, as I somehow always knew it would.

We landed at noon on the equator and hired a boat to take us up river. Our driver was a teenage boy; he nodded when we asked if he knew Mutang. As we made our way, the canopy dripping low above us, I felt a shock of recognition. The lush forest overhead. The shrill calls of birds. The buzz of the cicadas. The look of the landscape on the river’s edge, the feeling of the moment—it all was identical to my dream from a decade before. The moment reminded me, too, of L’Engle. “We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not knowing quite what or where home is,” she wrote in The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth. “We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.”

I don’t know how that boat trip in Borneo felt like a homecoming. But it did.

I had not tried to send a letter ahead of my arrival. Once we docked in Mutang’s village, Long Iman, we were shown to the home of the boat driver’s father, a wooden longhouse in the centre of the village. Someone left to run to the rice fields, where Mutang was apparently farming. It was only then, after finally making the trek, that I began to wonder: Would he remember me? It had been a decade since I’d seen him. Suddenly, Mutang was there, standing in front of me. He was the same: open face, mischievous smile, kind eyes. “Tara!” he exclaimed. It was clear, immediately, that our friendship had been as important to him as it had been to me. That I had been right to come.

Mutang welcomed Ian and me into his immaculately clean longhouse, where we slept on the floor at night on woven mats. The walls were decorated with advertisements from magazines, old greeting cards, hand-drawn pictures, official documents from his travels, letters he’d received from abroad. Rain often rumbled overhead, bombarding the roof. During downpours, we sat in the longhouse, talking, remembering. Mutang pulled out photos of us from all those years before. He played the guitar and the nose flute as an audience of rapt children crept into the room. He shared his handwritten Penan/English dictionary with me and encouraged me to copy it out. Akeu, I. Bakéh, friend. At night, we dined in his small kitchen building, adjacent to the longhouse. A chicken was killed, greens harvested. I sat on the floor, laughing and joking, chopping vegetables fresh from the jungle.

It was hot and my anti-malarial medication had left me susceptible to the tropical sun; my face burned and blistered. Mutang climbed a tree and pulled down a coconut, advising me its water was healing for sun sickness. We trekked deep into the jungle, and he told us about the plants and their many medicinal uses, for everything from virility and fertility to the common cold. He showed us how to make umbrellas and spoons from hardy leaves. This kindness humbled me. Here were people who were losing everything. And yet they gave so much and with so much love. I felt grief that the world tour had not worked, that I could think of no way to help Mutang and the Penan. That the only thing I could do was show up and be a witness. The only thing I had to offer was my friendship.

The night before I left, I sat with Mutang in the longhouse, drinking tea and talking, the rain pounding the roof. He told me that he’d had a dream that I was coming two weeks before, right around the time I had boarded the plane to Bangkok. Working in the rice fields, he’d told his friends about the dream. When they went to get him to tell him we had arrived, they exclaimed, “Mutang! Your dream was right! The woman is here.” The village had been expecting me, he said.

I had been waiting my whole life for those few days in the rainforest, for the deep feeling of connection that I experienced there—the sense of purpose that flowed from it.

The Penan gave the great gift of mattering, and in the most essential way possible. Of seeing how love can cross cultures and continents and countries, even whole eras of human history. “Why does anyone tell a story?” L’Engle once wrote. “It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.” When I was leaving Borneo, Mutang asked me to tell this story—the story of his people, of their mattering. And now I have told it.

Tara Henley
Tara Henley is a writer and broadcaster. Her work has appeared on the CBC, and in the LA Times, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, and the Toronto Star.
Sean Lewis
Sean Lewis is a Toronto-based illustrator.