My bus ride to work, down Columbus Avenue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is frequently crowded with parents and young children en route to school. I love when I end up on the same bus as one particular mom and her two elementary-school-aged daughters. As the bus bumps along in its morning daze, the mom reads aloud in a quiet voice to the girls, who sit on either side of her and lean in close to listen. The first time I saw this family, the mom was reading A Wrinkle In Time — my childhood favorite, one that has endured into my adulthood — her voice intoning L’Engle’s wise and fabulous words as her daughters listened with bright, albeit slightly sleepy, eyes. My own eyes glistened a little as I was touched with memories of my own encounters with the book. I felt bereft when they closed the book and jumped off the bus; it’s hard to return to the mundane realities of our world when the enticements of another world await.
This morning, the family was reading the third book in the series, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. They were a few pages in, and when I sat down next to them, I overheard a quiet conversation. One of the girls asked what would happen if the book’s antagonist, a cruel dictator, started a nuclear war as he threatened to do. The mom responded that a nuclear war would destroy the entire world; that if one country attacked, another would attack in turn, and we would all be completely ruined. But the mom was quick to reassure them: this wouldn’t happen to us today. There are good people who will stop nuclear wars from happening.
They returned to reading; they returned to a world where nuclear war was a construction of fiction and where peace has a fighting chance of prevailing. But of course, the mom knew — as I do, as every adult knows, as increasingly more children know — that nuclear destruction is altogether too real a possibility. L’Engle wrote the book in 1978, when Cold War anxieties abounded and seeped into the collective cultural consciousness. Its relevance, one would hope, would have decreased by now, forty years later. But the storyline has only warped and developed and shifted into new, horrendous realities. We’ve had many valiant peacemakers, but the antagonists still overwhelm us.
As I sat out the remainder of my bus ride, I contemplated the ways that stories reveal reality slowly, gently, by couching it in terms that children can comprehend. Story doesn’t obliterate or attack; it seeps. It brought to mind the wisdom of Emily Dickinson, who wrote:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Dickinson here speaks of dazzling truths, ones whose brilliance can overwhelm our finite minds, but the message rings true for those realities that have no “explanation kind.” How can any parent or teacher look a child in the eye and explain to them that, if a dictator decides to push a button, entire countries of people will die in an instant? How can we explain total destruction to young humans who are the literal embodiment of creation?
I think the mom on the bus had it right. She found the way to “tell all the truth” — to prepare her children to receive the realities of the world — “but tell it slant” — so that their young minds could understand evil in the context of good; antagonists in the context of heroines and heroes; death in the context of life. Stories are safety, not because they allow us to retreat from the world, but because they give us a place to grow a new world altogether. Stories, in their infinite creative power, are microcosms of possibility.
By the end of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the protagonist has used telepathy and time-travel and ingenuity to alter the course of history and avert nuclear disaster. In all likelihood, those little girls on the bus aren’t going to be able to do those fantastical feats. But they will witness how peace is possible and how a light flickering can overcome the darkness. That flickering light dazzles gradually; it reflects off the dark pupils of their eyes and shines into a new and superb reality.
Madeline L. Taylor joined Writopia as an intern in June 2015 and, after a year of working part-time, began full-time as Registration Coordinator. She also served as the Production Stage Manager for the Writopia Worldwide Plays Festival 2016. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University with a BA in English & Creative Writing. At Barnard, she stage managed, edited, and contributed to student-written theater productions, and her main areas of instruction at Writopia are the Playwriting & Performance program and the Essay Writing program. She writes primarily creative non-fiction and short fiction, and received recognition for her non-fiction writing at Barnard College with the Schwimmer Prize for the Humanities and the Estelle M. Allison Prize for Literature.