Ursula K. Le Guin has left us. But only her material form has gone. She has left us treasure. She was large, she contained multitudes. Of worlds, of characters, of feelings, of insights. Of books, of poetry, of essays, of words, words, words. She titled one of her last books of essays, Words are my Matter, and so I comfort myself with the knowledge that though her body matter has left us, her spirit is still here, in all the words she left us.
This week, writers of every stripe have written a river of memories and tributes, gratitude and mourning, and almost nothing but admiration and love. I like to think of this river carrying her, the consummate world-builder, on her new journey to explore the World of What Comes After. My few drops to add to that mighty river begin with the story of the time she came to my house.
In 2000, she was the first Lurie Distinguished Visiting Author-in-Residence at San Jose State University, and rented an apartment near campus while she was there giving a couple of classes for the spring semester. We live quite near SJSU, and have friends who teach in the English Department there. As the semester was drawing to a close, a conversation between my husband and our friends led to him offering our house for a reception for her and her husband Charles. Our reception was well attended by her students, other teachers, friends of ours who had begged an invitation, and even our own CongressMom Zoe Lofgren and her husband John. (Just to be clear, I have the greatest respect for Zoe. Back in 1994 when she first ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, when our children were both in the same preschool at SJSU, she tried to list her occupation on the ballot as “County Supervisor/Mother.” Election officials refused to let her use the term “mother,” stating that it “fails to state principal professions, vocations or occupations” as required by the state elections code. I can well imagine what Ursula had to say about that.) Everyone had a marvelous time. But I had an embarrassing secret: I had never read any of Ursula’s work.
I know! Heresy! But though I was pretty widely read, I didn’t care for science fiction, which seemed formulaic and overly concerned with conquest and technology. Since she had been pigeonholed into the science fiction genre early on (and in her later career often remarked on the perils of genre), I had never actually read any of her work.
I liked her quite a bit that day, though I did not admit my failing. I let our conversation remain in the realm of answering her questions about our unusual house and land, and it wasn’t long before she and I were heading down the back stairs to see “the creek.” This always involves a visit to the chickens, who live down there, and since it was late spring, we were also attended by many ducks. I wish I could remember the details of our conversation, but I know it was quite mundane.
I like to tell myself that my appalling ignorance of her work on that day was something Ursula wouldn’t mind, that in fact perhaps she welcomed an ordinary conversation that did not focus entirely on her, her fame and her work. Then again, what writer doesn’t like to hear how much her work is liked, or loved? In any case, she was graciousness itself toward me, genuine and smart and funny. She seemed enchanted with everything around us, the birds, possible other wildlife, the ups and downs of the creek. She had an inquiring mind and interest in everything, for it was always a “new world” to Ursula, who invented so many. She was charmed by our little slice of farm in downtown San Jose, and in our subsequent correspondence never failed to ask after the “livestock.”
For we did correspond, as I became a pesky asker of permission to use some of her words in my work. After she left that day, I was intrigued enough to pick up A Wizard of Earthsea, and the rest, as they say, is history. I naively thought I would give the series to my son to read. Soon I was grabbing the books back from him and devouring them all. I was astonished by what I read. I found so many amazing “quotations” that I wanted to remember forever, which I usually did then by committing them to calligraphy. So 2001 found me shamelessly bypassing the usual protocols to write her directly for permission. She was very kind, and explained “fair use” to me, and agreed that seeing a photo of the finished work would indeed please her.
At that time I was making paintings like a house afire, using wheat paste and acrylic paint, gold leaf and oil pastels, lettering with many tools through layers of media. Many of them sold and went to live with other people, but I kept the one I was fondest of, and now I’m glad. “The Language of the Making” hangs at the hallway entrance to my office, in good enough light that I can stop from time to time and read it again, and even sometimes admire my own part in it. The gold leaf I used was saved from some previous paintings where I gilded lots and lots of lines, so the gold leaf remainder had the look of a shining indecipherable text from ancient, rich times. The whole effect was rather glorious and for once I felt did honor to the text, which I tucked in around the existing marks as in a landscape where the clouds might hug the hilltops and valleys.
The language of the making is not everywhere remembered, here one word, there another. And the weaving of spells is itself interwoven with the earth and the water, the winds and the fall of light of the place where it is cast.” –The Farthest Shore
Later I did her the kindness of properly asking for permission through her agent, which is how authors prefer to be contacted. Having just read recently in her last book how annoying most of the letters she received could be, and how she didn’t care enough to answer them (though on her website she stated she would make an exception if you were under ten years old), I am amazed and humbled that I received any answer from her at all.
For I kept asking, as I kept reading through some of her books. To be honest, I have never gotten back to her early science fiction, and I have no doubt I would be pleasantly surprised by those early masterpieces that won multiple awards and put her on the literary map, but after the Earthsea books, my favorite of her novels was Always Coming Home, 1985, which I read more than once. Always Coming Home would be a serious contender for the book I would choose to be stranded with on a desert island, unless it was instead Ursula’s translation of the Tao te Ching. Just picking it up, I can fall into it all over again. It is the kind of book you can open to any page and begin reading, for it is a compendium of narrative, poems, songs, rituals, histories, fables, recipes, religions, philosophy and more, all to create the future world of the Kesh, a people living in what was northern California. There are even songs and other audio files you can download to expand your pleasure with the book.
I was so enchanted with her “Madrone Lodge Song” poem that I found myself asking permission again. She explained, through her agent, that this was actually not fair use, for it was an entire poem, but nevertheless granted me permission to use it in a one-off book. At first I retitled it “Rainbow People” (oh! the hubris!), but in its second incarnation sanity prevailed and I returned the original title to it.
In the interest of “fair use”, since I don’t have permission to copy the entire poem on the internet (a whole different set of permissions than printed or artistic use), here is a bit of it:
From their houses, from their town
rainbow people come walking
the dark paths between the stars,
the bright tracks on water
of the moon, of the sun.
Tall and long-legged,
lithe and long-armed,
they follow the fog pumas
beside the wind coyotes,
passing the rain bears
. . . .
on the ways of starlight,
on the dark roads.
They climb the ladders of wind,
the stairways of cloud.
They descend the ladders of air,
the steps of rain falling.
The closed eye sees them.
The deaf ear hears them.
The still mouth speaks to them.
The still hand touches them.
Going to sleep we waken to them.
walking the ways of their town.
Dying we live them,
entering their beautiful houses.
I did make the book, but it was one of the first ones I ever made, and after a few years it began warping and falling apart. I decided this poem deserved better, and unbound the book, repainted the spine paper, and rebound it. Then, again, it remained unfinished, as I had moved on in my painting as well as bookbinding skills, and decided the book needed an ever better illustrative treatment, and painted a bunch of paper to remake the entire book. And there it stalled out, going to dwell among the unfinished projects. This week I dug it all out to see where I had left it. I think that I just wasn’t doing her poem justice, and I didn’t want to put a second-rate book into the world with her name on it. Because by then I knew she was absolutely first rate. Perhaps I will finish this work now.
Another quotation I had fallen hard for was about “handmind,” also from Always Coming Home. It crystallized for me the importance of working with my hands, a reality to my creative life I had discovered early on but had no words for. I thought many scribes could relate to this, so I used it often as a text to demonstrate in calligraphy classes.
It was a good thing for me to learn a craft with a true maker. It may have been the best thing I have done. Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind. When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast; even speech using the voice only may go too fast. The hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time. Purity is on the edge of evil, they say. – Always Coming Home
Indeed it is calming to spend some time with handmind. Writing in circles on this journal post was eased by going up to my studio to find this calligraphy sample, and then sitting down and folding some paper. It was just the tonic I needed for my busy brain.
Writing is so immaterial, so mental an activity! In its origin, it’s merely artful speech, and the spoken word is not more than breath. To write or otherwise record the word is to embody it, make it durable; and calligraphy and typesetting are material crafts that achieve great beauty. I appreciate them. But in fact they have little more to do with what I do than weaving or pot-making or woodworking does. It’s grand to see one’s poem beautifully printed, but the important thing to the poet, or anyhow to this poet, is merely to see it printed, however, wherever – so that readers can read it. So it can go from mind to mind. I work in my mind. What I do is in my mind. . . to me words are things, almost immaterial but actual and real things . . . Words are my matter – my stuff. Words are my skein of yarn, my lump of clay, my block of uncharted wood. Words are my magic . . . – “Having My Cake,” No Time to Spare
Time went on, and her words kept arriving in my life. One of the first of her essays I read after our meeting was in a book called A Question of Balance, 1995, a theme she frequently explored. This book, a collection of essays from many female writers about writing and motherhood, was emblematic of my intense interest in how to balance motherhood with any kind of creative life, let alone writing. Ursula was unapologetically a mother, a fact that only became an issue with the advent of second wave feminism; some of the earliest rhetoric was not particularly friendly toward motherhood and married life. She not only made peace with feminism later on, but became such a truthteller about women’s lives that the New York Times, in her obituary, said she had always been one, which is not true. Her long friendship with Margaret Atwood produced a body of correspondence I’d love to read someday, ranging from feminism to the label of science fiction, a category Atwood was averse to using even as she was writing it.
And Ursula spoke, often at commencement addresses, famously at Mills College in 1983 and at Bryn Mawr in 1986, where her long discourse on “the mother tongue” is absolutely brilliant (“I am sick of the silence of women”). I have an undated and incomplete audiocassette tape I recorded on my boombox of her presentation, on my local public radio station, of her thoughts and meditations on the Tao Te Ching, which I have not been able to find again despite a lengthy archive on her website of such files. Her brilliant essay on gender (“I am a man . . . “) seems to have been circulated very widely of late.
When she answered one of my first letters, she confessed to not being “enwebbed” (charming word), but she soon put that to rights. I expect that once her work began being copied around the internet, she felt enough of a tug to jump in herself, to shepherd it, to speak to it, and to add to it. She had pretty much jumped in with both feet when, in 2015, she gave a series of writing seminars on the Book View Café site, accepting questions from aspiring writers (since closed, but the pages are still up and are priceless). They can be read as an advanced graduate seminar on the art and craft of writing. And thus her later years were filled with the kind of popular recognition, outside genre, outside college classes, that I expect she was pleased about, living as she had as a literary outlaw for so many years. Being an outlaw means you don’t need to follow the rules. Ursula’s voice, at once brilliant and piercing with insight and wisdom, humorous with a riptide of rage, was welcome over and over again, and she was generous with it. Her personal story emerged more often as the engine of fiction slowed, but not the flood of words, which continued in poems and essays right up until her death.
“I think,” Tehanu said in her soft, strange voice, “that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn’t do. All that I might have been and couldn’t be. All the choices I didn’t make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me the life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed.” – The Other Wind
More than one writer has referred to Ursula as a “spiritual mother” or “mother to us all“. These descriptions, and the realization that she was born in 1929, the same year as both my parents, went a long way to understanding why I keened with hard mourning when I heard the news she had passed. I’ve come to realize that I looked to her for life lessons, as I have to many other elders since losing my own mother when I was only 37, when my children were very young. And loss tends to bring up other loss, so I was crying for my own mother as well. Ursula was a guiding light, in ways I didn’t fully realize. She was homegrown, American, a westerner born and bred, and a stupendously intelligent freespeaking woman. I will miss her, will miss thinking of her just up the coast in her home in Portland, will miss the idea that maybe I might write her a letter again, saying, thanks for everything, Ursula, thanks for the teachings. When I heard the news, the first thing I did was to finish submitting a manuscript. I could think of no better tribute in that moment than to keep writing, keep hitting Send, keep sending my own voice out into the world. I never again want to be one of those women whose silence she was so sick of. Of all the nudges back to my first and most natural craft, meeting Ursula was, I think, a big one.
One of the greats is gone. With the stars in heaven, with the blessed blue planet, and in all of our hearts. Her last message to all of us: No Time To Spare. I will think of you often, Ursula, coming from your beautiful house to walk the dark paths between the stars, the bright tracks on water, one of the rainbow people now.
Photo of Ursula K. Le Guin © Marian Kolisch