When I was younger, A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books. For many years, I’d been meaning to reread it as an adult. The fifty year anniversary of the book’s publication seemed a perfect reason to pick it up again. I expected to feel like I was visiting an old friend, which I did. I didn’t expect it to still have so much to teach me as an artist, an activist, and a woman.
When the book opens, we see the main character, Meg Murry, and her family in a holding pattern. They are waiting, but they’re not exactly sure what they’re expecting. Meg’s father has been gone for several years. Meg’s mother is sure he’ll come back, but they’re not sure when, and they don’t even know where he is. Meg’s little brother, Charles Wallace, late to develop speech, tests at very high levels. Meg herself is uncomfortable in her skin.
Early in the book, Meg’s mother says, “I’m sorry Meglet. Maybe if Father were here he could help you, but I don’t think I can do anything till you’ve managed to plow through some more time. Then things will be easier for you. But that isn’t much help right now, is it?” (page 17). Meg receives variations of this message throughout the book. Sometimes, all we can do is wait.
When I was an adolescent, the message that a girl might be an ugly duckling waiting to be a swan resonated with me. I loved the character of Calvin, who falls in love with Meg, despite the fact that she’s unconventional, despite the fact that as an accomplished athlete, he could have any girl he wanted.
However, even as an adult at midlife, this message that we may have to be patient and wait still resonates with me. We live in a culture of instant results. There are times I’m frustrated with the slow pace of change, both in my individual life and in the larger culture. It’s good to remember that just because we’re not seeing progress now, it doesn’t mean that we’re never going to see progress.
As an artist, I need to take the words of Meg’s mother to heart. I need to remember that my task is show up to do the work, despite the fact that I may not be sure of my next steps. I write poems, not yet knowing how they will work together in a collection. I’ve published poems in an early form and revised them later. I hold before me the vision of poets from past generations, hoping that I can rise to their power, but I can’t guarantee an audience for my work or for the work of anybody else.
The publication history of A Wrinkle in Time shows us just this dynamic at work. Madeleine L’Engle worked hard and created the best work that she could. She tirelessly sent the manuscript off to publishers, who reacted not with joy, but with a puzzled disbelief. Some thought it was too sophisticated to be a children’s book. Some thought it too simple to appeal to adults. Some found it too religious. Some worried about the difficulty of the science. Even the publisher who eventually brought it out to the world didn’t expect it to be a success.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. A Wrinkle in Time has brought joy to many generations now. We often see a similar dynamic in social justice arenas.
Imagine we could time travel back to the year 1985. Imagine that we tell the people of that time that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall will come down. Not only that, but Nelson Mandela will be released from prison and free elections will follow five years later. Not only that, but the Soviet Union will soon be no more. The people we encounter will not believe us. The people of 1985 will be convinced that Nelson Mandela will die in his South African prison and that his nation will disintegrate into civil war. The people of 1985 will be convinced that the Soviet Union will always be a part of the geopolitical landscape, and that there will always be a literal wall that separates East from West.
Of course, sometimes reality changes very quickly, and A Wrinkle in Time reminds us that there may come a time when we have to act, and perhaps we will have to act quickly. When it’s time to go rescue Meg’s father, the children have to leave. They don’t have time to learn some of the basic laws of Physics. They don’t even have time to pack. What skills and resources they’ve accumulated will have to be enough.
Our recent history is full of examples of leaders having to move quickly, and the time that they’ve spent waiting plays an important role in their success or failure. One of the reasons that Nelson Mandela was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail planning for what he would do if he controlled the country. He didn’t nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with him. When Vaclav Havel died, he was similarly remembered, as a leader who inspired people to live as if the life they wanted had already arrived, despite the reality of living under a totalitarian regime.
Our human history also reminds us that we may fail. A Wrinkle in Time reminds us that even if we fail, all may not be lost. I had forgotten how much of the book depicts Meg, along with her family and Calvin, utterly failing to defeat the powers that rule the dark planet. They try all sorts of approaches, and all of them fail, at least at first.
We live in a culture that’s happy to tell us about successes, and the most popular narrative is of the overnight success. Unfortunately, that narrative rarely tells about all the approaches that didn’t work. We celebrate the victories of Martin Luther King. Many of us forget to talk about the decades of work that led up to those changes. Similarly, it’s truly rare for an artist to blaze to success out of nowhere. Usually there are years of lessons, years of unsuccessful attempts to create the vision.
Those failures can be what lead to ultimate success—that’s another lesson that A Wrinkle in Time gives us. A corollary lesson: our flaws may actually be our strengths, depending on the setting. At the end of the book, we see Meg puzzling over what she’s already tried. She has the kind of epiphany moment where all her failed attempts help her realize what will actually work.
We see similar outcomes in many a creative endeavor, and it’s not unusual in the activist realm either. Throughout the book, A Wrinkle in Time reminds us that sometimes we must wait, and sometimes it’s the waiting that means we’re ready to integrate the lessons that we’ve learned, and thus, we’re ready for success.
The most important lesson learned in A Wrinkle in Time is the importance of love. Throughout the book, we see a family undergirded by love, and this love leads to the ultimate salvation of the family members. This message, too, has lessons for us as women, as artists, and as activists. How would our lives change if we operated from a basis of love, instead of the scarcity consciousness that plagues so many of us?
What if we believed that our family members and our coworkers were doing the best that they could do? What if we offered encouragement, rather than criticism?
What if we did the same for ourselves?
What if we launched social justice actions out of our vision for a better society for all and not out of vindictive motivations?
What if we lived our writing lives as if we already were the kind of writers we wanted to be? What if we wasted less time in feeling jealous or inadequate or any of those other emotions that so often wreck us?
In our lives as women, as artists, as activists, we are similar to those medieval builders of cathedrals: we may not live to see the magnificent completion of our vision, but it’s important to play our part. In the words of that old Gospel song, we keep our eyes on the prize, our hands on the plow, and hold on.
For fifty years, A Wrinkle in Time has reminded us that the battle isn’t futile, that we are winning, even if we’re not sure we’re progressing it all. It’s good to reread and remember.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Her second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Chair of the General Education department. She blogs about books, creativity, poetry, and modern life at http://kristinberkey-abbott.blogspot.com and about theology at http://liberationtheologylutheran.blogspot.com. Her website is www.kristinberkey-abbott.com.