How I Met Ursula K. Le Guin

For years I harbored a fantasy, one that I did absolutely nothing to bring closer to coming true, that I would someday meet Ursula K. Le Guin.

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Curiously, I do not know when or where this fantasy began. My brain's peculiarities are many, but one that I can count on is its powerful connection to place. I know where things are, and what direction they're in. In particular I remember where things happened. Just yesterday morning, wavering on the edge of a nap after a too-short night of sleep, I was overwhelmed by the memories of a location I knew well: the corner of our family room, downstairs in our house on Sugarberry Road. When they were building it, they accidentally put the hole for the doorknob on the wrong side of a door, and when they replaced it, the first door was simply left downstairs. My parents converted it into a desk by laying it across two low file cabinets. I clamped a fluorescent drawing lamp to its edge, ran the cord down the doorknob hole, and used it as my primary zone of creation for many years.

Lying in bed, I recalled the sensations that surrounded that desk: the dim light seeping in from the north-facing windows, with western light just barely winding through the trees along Battle Branch and ducking under the deck... the faintly amplified sounds of pencils moving across the hollow paneling that made the door's faces, and the splintery edges of the sides... the texture of the reddish shag carpet beneath my desk chair, and the smoother, more rubbery surface of the carpet in the back end of the room--better for wheeled toys and keeping LEGO structures stable. I remembered the weight and motion of the sliding glass door next to the desk, the extra second or two I had to hold down the On button of the lamp. All those details were there for me, half over the edge of sleep. 

We lived in that house from 1970 until 1976, from the summer after first grade to the summer after seventh, and at some point during that time, I came across a mention of Earthsea. It may have been during a viewing of a PBS show called Cover to Cover, during which host John Robbins would expose the audience to a children's book of some kind, using his skills as an artist to illustrate a scene while it was read aloud. Our fifth grade teacher, Ms. Fulton, would show us an episode roughly every week, and from it I learned about classics such as The Children of Green Knowe and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I have learned that Robbins did do a show about Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, but I have no memory of it. I don't know if I stumbled across the book in the Glenwood School Library, or if it turned up in the Chapel Hill Public Library during a visit one day, or if I didn't get around to picking it up until I had moved on to Grey Culbreth Junior High. It's even possible that I went straight for it at the Intimate Bookshop, drawn in by its beautiful grey-brown Pauline Ellison cover art, and bought my own copy.

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I don't know where I read it, either. With many of the books I love, I know exactly where I was when reading (or at least starting or finishing them.) I know I first finished The Lord of the Rings in my brother's bed on Sugarberry. I read my first Doc Savage book in my grandparents' living room in Beaufort, SC. And I started Wuthering Heights in a slightly too-perfect way, on a dark winter evening, alone in a dormitory room in Manchester. But Earthsea somehow slipped into my mind without fanfare, occupying a space as though it had always been there. Perhaps it had.

But from the time I finished the first book, and the second, and the third, Ursula Le Guin was one of my favorite writers. And I'm not sure I could have told you why. With the other books I loved, their content seemed to be my own to play with. Even before I discovered fanfic or Dungeons & Dragons or fantasy football, I was creating my own adventures out of the pieces provided by other writers. On that old door downstairs, I learned to trace superheroes from my comics, and later to draw my own: Blackbird, and Bearcat, and Brother Earth. I started sketching my own fantasy characters like the Fellowship of the Rainbow, whose origins I hoped no one would identify, and created whole leagues of neighborhood sports teams, including my own Greenwood Hawkeyes basketball squad. Our colors were blue and orange, contrasting a bit with the blue and brown of our ostensible arch-rivals, the Glendale Beavers.

But Earthsea resisted this kind of looting. You couldn't really take a part of it out of the world where it already was. Sure, you could have dragons, or wizards, or dark elder gods, but they couldn't be THOSE dragons or wizards or dark elder gods. They were too organic, too well-woven into the fabric of the universe to be removed.

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I re-read the Earthsea Trilogy, as it was then known, and as I grew older I slowly began to consume more Le Guin. I absorbed The Wind's Twelve Quarters, whose contents included the Earthsea story "The Word of Unbinding," a melancholy tale that would come to mind years later when I read Our Town, and the devastating "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," which is simply one of the best short stories ever told. And then in high school I discovered her 1976 novel Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, a novel about the kind of nerdish, uncertain, overintellectualizing loner that I was realizing myself to be, and about the challenges and comforts offered by that condition. If I am honest--and if there's one thing Le Guin always demanded, it was honesty--it may have been the most important story I ever read. It's not my favorite book; I pointedly do not HAVE a favorite book. But more than any other book, I think it was a bridge, guiding and carrying the person I was then to the person I am now.

Since then, I have read a lot of Le Guin: her stunning political parable, The Dispossessed, the sprawling Always Coming Home, the acclaimed The Left Hand of Darkness, the mind-blowing The Lathe of Heaven, the recent additions to the Earthsea Cycle, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind, the whimsical Changing Planes, her version of the Tao Te Ching, and her final novel, Lavinia. And whenever I read, I thought about what I would tell her if I met her. It wasn't a crush--even if I hadn't known she was thirty-five years older than I, and married, this wasn't remotely romantic or sexual. I just wanted to hold the attention of that mind for a moment. Not long, not at all. A lunch, a cup of coffee. I'm not sure I would have even needed to say anything. I just wanted, for a moment, to be included in the tapestry of her perceptions.

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But I did nothing. I didn't go to any SF conventions, or write her a letter, or travel to Portland. I didn't press upon my acquaintance with former Science Fiction Writers of America president Marta Randall for an introduction. I just read, and dreamed, and vaguely hoped. The fantasy became most intense in 2016 when I visited the Pacific Northwest for the first time. We were staying in Seattle, but my new birding pal, Tina, let herself be persuaded to take a day trip to the Oregon coast. We didn't go through Portland. We crossed the Columbia River at Longview, cut out to the coast, and took 101 down to Haystack Rock. It was a gorgeous, sunny spring day, and we were hoping the Tufted Puffins would be back on their nesting sites atop the rock. They were not, but I wasn't disappointed. Everywhere I looked, I could see bits of Earthsea, or the land of the Kesh, or Owen's lonely imagined island, Thorn. I recognized where I was. And I took pictures--the ones you see here. But we left Oregon that afternoon, and I didn't go back.

When Le Guin died on Tuesday, it was not a shock. She was 88 years old, and not in great health. I received the news with a deep breath, and a final confirmation that the fantasy I'd nurtured would remain a fantasy. But as I've spent the week working, and thinking, and trying to write, I've come to a realization about meeting her. Naturally, she herself penned the words that helped me come to this realization, the words the Archmage Ged spoke in the land of the dead about the long-deceased wizard Erreth-Akbe:

Did you not understand that he, even he, is but a shadow and a name? His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there--there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive. And all who ever died, live; they are reborn and have no end, nor will there ever be an end.
--The Farthest Shore

This is the story of how I met Ursula K. Le Guin. I thought it was a fantasy. But she helped me understand that it had been real all along.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on January 28, 2018 8:05 AM.

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