I wrote this post a year ago, on January 23, 2018 and never published.
I was at work, checking Twitter (like one does) when I saw a friend retweeting a post from neil gaiman about Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. (I wrote passing, but as she’s not one to mince words, why should I?) She has died, after months of poor health according to her son. She was 88. In some ways she seems ageless, certainly older than 88. Maybe because I discovered her when I was 16 and she had already had such a prolific writing career at that point. Now, almost 20 years later, she was still a figure in the literary world.
I wrote my Facebook and Twitter posts acknowledging her impact on my worldview. But those short posts weren’t enough. I continued to meditate on her absence in the world. How her books still exist. Those worlds, those words are still there for us to revisit and for new readers to discover. She lived a long life, and she lived a meaningful life. She has influenced scientists, engineers, authors, artists, and anthropologists. Thinking of her death makes me cry.
I met her twice. Once at a book festival in Portland Oregon (our shared hometown) where she signed my copy of The Lathe of Heaven (the first book I read by her). I think I bumbled out some compliment about how much I enjoyed her short story about the oak tree on the side of the highway. She’s good with words, I am less so.
I met her a second time at my mom’s book group meeting. They had just finished reading Lavinia, a book I had already read (being a Le Guin fangirl and a Classics major). Someone in the group knew her or had a connection to her, because Portland is a small town. So there she was at this book group meeting, maybe 10 feet from me for a couple hours. I wish I could tell you I remembered everything she said. (I don’t.) I wish I could recount some inspirational moment between her and me. (I can’t.) Present-day Meris knows that past-Meris wasn’t living in the moment, she was probably ruminating about what she was going to ask Ms. Le Guin, wanting it to be smart and thoughtful. I won’t say I squandered my chance with her, because that is unkind to my younger, insecure self. I do wish I had been more present. Perhaps if I had paid more attention to the practice of Taoism, which I learned about because of her essays.
See when I first discovered Ursula K. Le Guin and her work, it was in the context of 11th Grade English. Our subject that year was American Literature, and we were tasked with writing a Junior Thesis focused on the works of one author. After reading Salinger (blech), Vonnegut (very intriguing) and Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, I chose Le Guin as the subject of my thesis.
I think about the legacy of the ideas that Ms. Le Guin left with me. The idea that the genitals on one’s body don’t (and shouldn’t) define who someone is. The balance of one’s actions and effects as portrayed through a system of magic. Characters who were beyond the typical white male protagonist and female conquest/damsel. Stories that explored humanity through genres that were often dismissed as fluff – a standard that I held onto as I consumed scifi and fantasy as a teen and adult. It is why Buffy, BSG, LOST, Firefly, and The Expanse are so powerful for me.
I also am left feeling that I wanted to approach my life with the same kind of “fuck-em, I’ll do what I want” perspective as she did. She has so many quotes. Asked “when did she want to be a writer?” She replies that “never, she was always a writer.” I was always an artist, but for a while I was something else pretending the art wasn’t me.
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness