Stephen King advises in On Writing to get busy reading if you’re serious about being a writer. (Carolyn See’s advice in Making a Literary Life is to write 1,000 words a day. Which is so much harder.)
So as part of my reading assignment, I’ve just re-read Meet the Austins by Madeleine L’Engle. I haven’t read the book in years, so I was astounded to realize how much influence her writing had on me. Have you ever experienced that? It makes you wonder what you’d be like if you hadn’t read a certain book. Ms. L’Engle loved books and poetry and music, and it shines through in her writing.
It would be safe to say that L’Engle lived in a rarified world, but she made the idea of a beautiful and artistic life—even the rather humble, domestic sort found at the Austin home—seem possible for the rest of us. Mrs. Austin happily blares Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto to drown out the sound and fury of her four children while she makes a standing rib roast. She reads Kipling to them at bedtime, then plays and sings a song or two on her guitar as they fall asleep. And as if all that weren’t enough, the dog is named Mr. Rochester. When I was young, I identified with Vicky (the daughter), of course. But reading this book now, I paid a lot more attention to Victoria, the mother. I wondered if I hung out with her if her wonderful contentment and endless patience would rub off on me. And I wondered if Madeleine was like Victoria or if she was, like I am, just wishing she were.
The Austin children’s grandfather painted a poem called “Indwelling” by T. E. Brown on the wall of his loft overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a very “be still and know that I am God” sort of poem and the first one I ever memorized. It hasn’t lost its power for me.
If thou could’st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, “This is not dead,”
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes He says, “This is enow
Unto itself—’twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for Me.”
Vicky thinks the poem has a good influence on her family because they always seem to be more thoughtful of each other when they’re at their grandfather’s. Maybe we all need visual reminders like a poem painted on a wall to be more mindful. Although I have to wonder about the rock I saw that was engraved with “I know what love is because of you.” On a rock? Really?
But I love the sign my mother gave me that says “Home is where your story begins.” It hangs discreetly in my kitchen and reminds me to do my best to make my children’s Act I as pleasant as possible. I have another sign that says “Relax and enjoy yourself” on the screened porch. It looked so camp-ish and homey and cheerful that I couldn’t resist it. It’ll mean a lot more when we can buy some furniture and actually sit down and relax. But I suppose, as with just about everything else, it’s all a state of mind.