I want to share some memories about one of the coolest nights of my life, when I met and shared a meal with one of my heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin.
I’m not even going to try to be clever in this post (I usually try too hard at that anyway). I’m surprised by how kind of raw I feel about her passing, and I feel like it would be good to share these stories still sharply etched in my mind and heart.
Ursula K. Le Guin came to our small, poor, rural library with her friend Roger Dorband. They had collaborated on the book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain, and they were coming to Grants Pass because it was where Roger had grown up.
I was asked to be the facilitator.
I was terrified.
How do you share a stage with a woman whose writing had consumed you, whose stories had taken up residence in your brain and soul?
How do you do it? Easily. Ursula K. Le Guin was kind, and generous, and warm. She was smart, and funny, and passionate. She loved libraries, and she spoke fervently about the magic and wonder of books and learning.
She made sure any children in the audience (clutching their Catwings books) had extra time with her. She asked them questions and whispered to them that Catwings had been her favorite books to write.
She agreed to go to dinner with several of us who volunteered for the library. I got to sit next to her husband, Charles. He asked me about my children and clapped when I told him my oldest daughter played the cello. So did his, he said humbly (not letting on that she is the accomplished cellist Elisabeth Le Guin, professor of musicology at UCLA and a founding member of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Artaria String Quartet). He told me the story of his daughter arranging to have her whole string quartet fly to Portland to play for them because they didn’t feel well enough to travel on airplanes anymore. I think he teared up a bit.
(He and UKLG lit up when talking about their children. It was a joy to see.)
All this, and then Ursula K. Le Guin pretended to lick my husband.
We, the group at dinner, started talking about book signings, and how in some ways it’s kind of a weird phenomenon. “I’ve just given my readers several thousand words. What’s a couple more?” she said. We all agreed a signature was like a souvenir at the atomic level—a sense that the page had touched the ink that had touched the pen that had touched the hand of the writer. It was incarnate, immediate.
Then my husband grinned and said, “Maybe next time, you should just lick the books.”
It was funny, but oh god. I held my breath. I looked at Ursula K. Le Guin–a Library of Congress “Living Legend” and a recipient of awards from PEN and the American Library Association. Winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. A National Book Award winner. A freaking Pulitzer Prize nominee.
What would she think?
She was roaring with laughter.
When dinner was done and it was time to leave, my husband went to shake her hand. She looked at him with a mischievous smile and gave a quick, lizardy lick to the air.
When I went to shake her hand, she instead wrapped me in a hug.
“OMG,” I shrieked after she left the room, “Ursula K. Le Guin hugged me!” I fangirled for days, weeks. Okay, I’m still fangirling.
And I’m not at all embarrassed by my excitement about that moment. Because I am a fan not just of her piercing, evocative, magical writing, or her ground-breaking, deeply human storytelling, but of her.
May she rest in peace.
Edited to add: I forgot about this, but about a year later, as we were gearing up to ask voters to approve a library district (we were operating just on donations and grants–long story), our library director asked her to write a letter to the editor. She did. I was stunned, and still am, that she would take the time and energy to write a letter in support of a smallish library system some 300 miles away. Here it is.
To paraphrase Borges, I hope her paradise is a kind of library.