The words of the unquenchable, incomparable Ursula K. Le Guin are among my most treasured possessions.
Yes, her books. Of course her books — they occupy two shelves of prime real estate in my favorite, glass-fronted bookcase. But not only her books: her spoken words, emblazoned in my mind, from the times I was able to hear her speak. And, especially, her words, inscribed by hand — her hand — to me.
While there are still books and poems and essays of hers that I have not read, and while there may be audio and video tape of her speaking I have not heard, I know there will be no more handwritten notes in her graceful, even script. Not another chance to applaud and stand in line like a giddy fangirl to have my dog-eared novels signed. No more.
I am not, by disposition, much of a fangirl. I flinch from crowded conventions. I avoid dressing up as my favorite characters (except on Halloween). Nor am I big on collecting mugs, sweatshirts, or posters. But I am a fan of Ursula Le Guin.
I read her first book about Tenar, The Tombs of Atuan, when I was a little younger than Tenar’s age at the time: fifteen. And when I read of Tenar’s later years, raising a child and caring for Ogion as he lay dying, I was parenting my own children, and soon to be caring for my mother in her final year. In between, and since, I have read and re-read many (but not all, thank God) of her thoughtful, wise, funny, ascerbic, poignant, memorable, and above all truthful stories, essays, poems, and books. (Thank God, because now, even though she is gone, I can still read more of her writing.)
I have written five fan letters in my life: all to Ursula. Three of them I went so far as to send. (The first two were too embarassing.) In the first one, mailed in 2008 (after I’d been reading her novels and essays for some thirty-five years), I confessed, helplessly, “I just must tell you how much I love you! I know, of course, that there is a problem with this rather preposterous statement: just the detail that I don’t, in fact, know you! So you understand, of course, that I mean I love the person I invent when I read what you have written or said. But you know, I love people you have invented, including Tenar and Ged and many others, including cat people such as Wonderful Alexander. So I don’t see why I shouldn’t love the ‘you’ that I have invented.”
And she replied. (In those days, she made it a practice to answer personally every fan letter she received.)
She wrote, “I think the ‘you’ you invented is probably much nicer than the I that I am, so I will settle for her gladly.” She wished me luck on my work in progress, and signed, “With all good wishes, Ursula.” How I treasured that letter.
Then, in May of 2014, I made the pilgrimage to Portland to hear her speak at Powell’s Cedar Hills Crossing store. I was there an hour early, sitting in the front row, clutching the two books I hoped she’d sign for me. (She did!) I had only met her once before, at a reading she’d given in Seattle a decade earlier, where she’d signed my copy of Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, for my eldest child. That same child (by then college age), accompanied me, to take my picture in my flurry of excitement at getting Ursula’s signature. (I was absolutely goofy. She was patient.)
In her talk at the Cedar Hills Crossing event, Le Guin said she hoped that something she had written would survive her. What on earth could she mean? I wondered. Any one of her books would be a worthy legacy all by itself. Many will continue to be read, quoted, studied, and loved, for hundreds of years or even more. Her books, though many are fantasy or science fiction, hold the seeds of profound, undeniable truths, rooted in the humanity, compassion, and fundamental honesty of their author. She herself was the kind of writer she rightly noted in her speech at the 2014 National Book Awards that we desperately need: a realist “of a larger reality.”
I had to write to her again.
“Your legacy is the journey you have made as a writer and as a woman. . . . The way you’ve evolved as an author, the wisdom you’ve imparted, over a lifetime of working at your art, is an inspiration, a bright light on the horizon for all those who are coming along the road behind you, all women, all writers, but especially women writers. Blessings on your continued journey; may you have joy all along the way.”
Two years later, I wrote again. A chatty letter, to inquire after her health, to ask if she, like my mother, resented having to spend more time sitting down as she got older. My mother hated sitting, but I guessed that after a lifetime of writing, Ursula must be more tolerant of it. I confessed that after my mother’s death a couple years before, “I fell into a long writing slump.”
She had stopped writing novels by then, so I closed with these words: “I just wanted you to know that, even when you are not writing, you are still thought of often with love, by your grateful readers.”
Her reply, again, handwritten:
“Dear Virginia . . . I do like sitting — beats standing all hollow! Other aspects of old age can be tiresome, but sometimes revelatory. I try to write about it in poetry, since poetry hasn’t deserted me yet. I hope your writing slump will prove to be a reculer pour mieux sauter.”
In her notes, there was the lively intellect, the attention to the details of what I had written, the compassionate insight about what I needed from her, often seeing it more clearly than I had myself. I am not just grateful for her words; I am deeply moved by her kindness.
The books and poems she wrote have enlivened my mind and spirit for most of my lifetime, and will continue to do so. Her notes to me are gifts to the heart.
Here, then, for my readers, is my recommendation to you, if you haven’t already: Read Ursula K. Le Guin. Novels first and foremost, but don’t miss her collections of essays, her short stories, or her poems. She is a tour de force.
And, to entice you, here are a few of my favorite quotations from her books:
The Tombs of Atuan: “Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. . . . It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light, but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.”
A Wizard of Earthsea: “To hear, one must be silent.”
Tehanu: “ ‘Heather will let her help milk the goats, and look after her,’ Tenar said to Ogion. ‘So I can stay here with you.’
“ ‘Never one thing, for you,’ he said in the hoarse, whistling whisper that was all the voice he had left.
“ ‘No. Always at least two things, and usually more,’ she said. ‘But I am here.’”
The Beginning Place: “He did what a fellow human being might do; not an uncommon thing . . . nor yet, nor ever, a common one. It is royalty that call each other sister, brother.”
And here, in conclusion, is a fragment her poetry, from “Poem Written in 1991 — When the Soviet Union Was Disintegrating”:
So, why learn Spanish?
Because of the beauty of the words of poets,
and if I don’t know Spanish
I can’t read them. Because praise
may be the thing I’m making.
And when I’m unmade
I’d like it to be what’s left,
a wisp of cheap cloth,
a color in the earth,
a whisper on the wind.
Una palabra, un aliento.
P.S. For a humorous introduction, try this New Yorker article by Ursula Le Guin herself: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/06/04/the-golden-age-5