I hope Ursula K. Le Guin’s paradise is a kind of library

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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.

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We’re A Nation Of Cowards



Original Post:

About two weeks ago, my husband and I were casually chatting with our daughter. Out of the blue, she said, “Mom, you know how sometimes I hug you for an extra-long time in the morning and kind of seem like I don’t want to go to school? That’s because I’m wondering if today’s the day there will be a shooter in my classroom.”

She told me she and her best friend even have a bucket list, just in case they get shot at school.

She’s 12.

About a week later, on Friday, October 1, 2015, a gunman killed nine people and wounded nine others at Umpqua Community College, about 70 miles from where we live.

On Monday, a bomb and shooting threat was received at Rogue Community College, in our town. The campus was shut down and schools in our county were either locked-in or had extra police officers.

Last night, a note containing unspecified threats was found at Southern Oregon University, about 40 miles from us, prompting officials to close the campus.

I just don’t know what to say. Over the last few days, in person and on Facebook, I’ve had conversations with those who (like me) favor gun control and with those who don’t.

Those who would like to see more regulations are frustrated. We keep having the same conversations: why not? Why not put commonsense gun laws in place?

Those who oppose gun regulations are also frustrated. Our conversations go something like this:

I say there are too many guns. They parrot Wayne LaPierre of the NRA and say the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. (Ignoring that the police can’t possibly tell the difference between the two when entering an active shooter situation.)

I say we need better gun laws. They say that won’t work because criminals don’t obey laws. (Ignoring the obvious slippery slope—if the lawless won’t obey laws, why do we have laws about theft, or murder, or drunk driving?)

They say we don’t need gun control, we need mental health. I nod and say, okay, let’s have better mental health.

I say over 90% of Americans agree we need better background checks for gun purchases. They say that it’s a slippery slope to abolishing the second amendment.

The same conversation. Each time.

And now I feel like a massive raw nerve, shaking with anger and confusion and fear.

I want to kick and scream and yell into the universe, “WHY? WHY NOT AT LEAST START SOMEWHERE?”

Why can’t we start having better background checks? Start improving mental health access? Embrace logic and reason and empathy when we’re discussing guns and gun control? At least start and see if it works. See if we end up with fewer dead kids.

The sad, disillusioned core of me knows the answer. We can’t do these things because of the NRA.

The NRA has carefully crafted an environment of paranoia that makes people think  having armed teachers in the classroom is a viable solution to gun deaths.

The NRA has purchased enough elected representatives that Congress recently extended a ban on research to even find out what forms of gun control work best.

The NRA has created a dystopian society in which it can produce a cartoon for kids, warning them to stay away from all of the guns lying around. You know, because it’s the grown-ups’ constitutional right to leave guns lying around.

And gun manufacturers just keep churning out more guns, more profits, more death.

I want to yell and scream and shout and holler, but I’m scared nobody will listen. Because I’m just a mom. Everybody expects parents to get all hysterical about their babies being in danger. It’s not like I’m a politician or a lobbyist or somebody important.

To be honest, writing this scares me. I’m afraid of voicing my opinions. I’m afraid of the scorn and ridicule of even my own friends and family, those people I love but disagree with.

But we’re a nation of cowards. America has been afraid of the NRA and gun manufacturers for too long. We need to demand accountability from our politicians. We need common-sense gun control, and we need research and respectful debate about how to balance constitutional rights with the rights of our children to grow and thrive in safety.

What kind of world do we live in that we can even think about debating whether a teacher should have a gun in the classroom? In which Congress would actually BAN research on reducing gun deaths? In which 5-year-olds regularly have “dangerous intruder” drills? This is complete fucking insanity.

I just don’t know what to do or say to my kids. We’ve left them such a mess.


Another Update, 5/18/18:

This time it was in Santa Fe, Texas. 10 dead.

Another Update 2/14/2018:
This afternoon, a shooter (again, I won’t say his name) killed 17 people and wounded numerous others in Parkland, Florida. I’m so afraid. Not just of shooters and bullets and seeing the bodies of my dead children, but afraid that as a society we’re growing numb, that we have no problem thinking about the unthinkable.

My friend Jennifer J. has an idea. What if we keep our kids home from school until SOMETHING is done? I propose that “something” be doing away with the Dickey Amendment, which threatens to defund the CDC if it funds research on gun violence (even Jay Dickey, eponymous sponsor of the amendment, changed his mind about it, saying “We need to turn this over to science and take it away from politics”).

This could be a walk-out. Or a one-week strike. Or longer. Perhaps we could wait until the bell rings and then pull them out one minute for every student who lost their lives today? (Thanks to Ann S. for that idea that preserves school funding.)

Can we change things? Can we live with ourselves if we don’t try?

(And please, if you don’t like this idea, call your representatives, join an effective advocacy group, or write a letter to the editor.)


Update (September 14,2016)
Early this morning, in a nightclub in Orlando called Pulse, a shooter (I won’t say his name) killed 50 people and wounded 53. The shooter’s father said the shooter became enraged when he saw two men kissing on the street.

This is the worst mass shooting (in terms of numbers of dead) in US history. The shooter used an AR-15, a type of assault rifle also used in Newtown and Aurora. We do not know how to keep this type of weapon out of the wrong hands, however, as Congress has rejected an amendment that would have repealed a ban on conducting research into the causes of the gun violence epidemic.

We need to act. We need to hold our elected officials accountable. We need policy, not just prayers.

Here is a link from the Huffington Post on contacting your representatives: “An Easy Guide to Contacting Your Elected Representative About Gun Control.”



Fascination of the Day: The Ripley Scrolls

There’s so much here, I don’t even know where to begin.  I won’t be able to write a coherent sort of essay right now about the Ripley Scrolls, as I’m just now wrapping my head around their magnificence.

There are 23 copies of the Ripley Scrolls, which get their name from the 15th-century alchemist George Ripley, as snippets of his verses are included on some of the scrolls. Most are thought to have been copied in the 16th and 17th centuries from a now-lost original.

The scrolls depict–in what to modern eyes are bizarre and obscure symbols–the process of making the Philosopher’s Stone, the substance thought to impart eternal life and to contain the power to turn base metals into gold.

I’m particularly interested in the “pelican flask,” the apparatus the alchemist is holding in the first panel. The pelican was a vessel that allowed the distillation of substances in the alchemical process to occur in a closed system.  The shape of the vessel was reminiscent of the fable of the pelican, which was thought to pierce its own breast in order to feed her young from her own blood (and which, in Christian symbolism, represented Christ’s blood sacrifice). The resemblance can be seen here:

Alchemical pelican, Wikimedia commons

The pelican the alchemist is holding is cut away to reveal the changes the substances are undergoing–but despite the seeming transparency of the cut-away pelican, the changes are cloaked in the arcane system of symbols and riddles that marks the pursuit of alchemy (as you can see below).

Ripley Scrolls
By George Ripley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a great video made by the  Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University:

My next step is to get a better digital copy of this manuscript (as an aside–the digital availability of archival material is the best thing to happen since the Big Bang). I want to check out what’s going on in the pelican, especially with that weird toad.  I’m thinking this more descriptive video from Adam McLean, who has been writing about alchemy for decades, may also be helpful:

Next post: toads, green lions, and menstruating dragons…