The second hand jerked around the clock face making a faint ticking noise, the hour hand seemed to stand still at 12:45. Two more hours of school left. An eternity. Fear was thick in the air, on television, in newspapers, in the whispers of adult conversations. Russia, Cuba, Khrushchev, missiles, communists, blockades, nuclear bomb tests. Would the world ignite into nuclear flame?
My mind wandered from the math paper on my desk to my hopes that my mother would say yes when I asked her if I could shave my legs. How could I get my hands on a razor and avoid asking altogether? I was a befuddled little girl on the border of teendom. School was thoroughly painful most of the time. The world was on the verge of nuclear war and I wished for a subscription to Seventeen Magazine. I was also afraid: afraid of Khrushchev, Castro, and my mother. (I have to say she didn’t deserve that, although Khrushchev and Castro probably did.)
Then Mrs. Hawkins pulled out that book. The one she had started reading to the class a few days earlier. Before she spoke a word, I stowed the rumpled math paper inside my overflowing desk. Mrs. Hawkins, wherever you are, thank you for choosing to read aloud to a room full of attention compromised ten-year-olds. School children in desperate need of something mind expanding in the middle of a musty school day and a frightening world.
I don’t remember if you were kind. But you must have been. I don’t remember if you tried to build my self-esteem. But you read our scattered thoughts. You knew we needed that book. I settled my head on my arms. Mrs. Hawkin’s voice carried me into the under-furnished realms of my imagination. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Meg Murry were my guides through space and to the other side of fear.
“Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.” (A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle)
What is a fifth dimension? (What is a cold war?) What is a tesseract? (What is a ballistic missile?) Who is Euclid? (Who is Castro?) What is plane geometry? (What is an Iron Curtain?) How can the shortest distance not be a straight line? The details were confusing, but it all added up to the world spinning out of control.
Reading Wrinkle In Time tapped a new resource inside me. My own curiosity. A refreshing splash in the face. A brisk dive into the cold ocean of my own mind. A fountain of self-knowledge and comfort. Ingrown fears mingled in my imagination with that one distinct moment that I first remember feeling alive with curiosity. Some said, the end of the world is at the door. How does a ten-year-old cope with that finality? I look back now and see that curiosity and faith are linked. Having a vision, even a very small one about a tesseract, can kindle hope and energy.
Shortly thereafter, our school district held a yellow (or red, or orange) alert drill for evacuating the school in the event of a nuclear attack. We prepared to leave school early on the day of the drill. To all of us children this was exciting. We formed lines in the parking lot in groups representing various neighborhoods. My home was quite a hike from the school. Normally I took the bus, but on this day, in the company of teachers and other students I walked all the way home, our group shrinking as each student dropped out at his own doorstep. Would we ever have time for such a luxury in the event of a serious nuclear threat?
Meg Murry felt frightened, awkward, and unattractive. She lived a normal routine life of school troubles, worrying about her brother, playing in the yard, putting meals on the table (and space travel). I easily identified with her experiences. Strange events threatened her world and mine. I imagined myself in her shoes and stretched the bounds of my own universe.
On yellow-alert-drill-day, I stared up at the sky on the steep hike down Shorewood Drive towards my home on Basswood Avenue and wondered what it would be like if this “yellow alert” was not a drill. Would I be like Meg Murray if I came face to face with “It”? Could I save myself, my family? This was curious new territory for me.
Stages of my life have often forced curiosity behind concrete dams of fear. I learned to be wary of curiosity in school, at college, as I sought safety and security for my own family. Recently a serendipitous moment of exploration broke the containment fields I have built around my curiosity. I feel aglow with elemental human nuclear energy. It bounces around my mind and pushes outward radiating faith, knowledge, and enthusiasm.
Curiosity is a source of profound comfort to humans in a world full of pain and contradictions. It is the life force of problem-solving. When we treat curiosity as if it is a radioactive element best kept in protective containment so that it doesn’t burn us, we lose touch with an elemental source of personal power and even healing.
We don’t need a flask of radon, or a laboratory, or a particle accelerator to glow with radioactive energy. We don’t need anything more than this quiet moment, and a little curiosity, to connect powerfully and fundamentally with the whole universe.