The spectacular and inimitable Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday.
I’ve decided the best way to post about Ursula is to do it in installments. Here are Parts 1 – 4.
It seems impossible that this person who was so noticeably and vividly alive can be so startlingly and incomprehensibly deceased.
I’ve been writing this post since Tuesday. I haven’t known where to begin, because Ursula was a giant, because who am I to say anything about this icon, this legend, this Ursula, who was already so many people’s favorite before she entered my life and became my favorite, too. She had that effect on people.
I was not one of her closest friends. I have not read her major novels. I only knew her briefly. We met in September of 2015 when I joined the book group to which she and her husband, Charles, already belonged. The group is as well-read, well-traveled, well-informed, and intimidating as one might imagine a Le Guin-calibre book group to be. I do not pretend not to be out of my league with them. At my first meeting, I knew Ursula’s name but had not read any of her writing. I respected her from a distance because I associated her with Sci-Fi (which I avoid because all the metaphors stress me out) and fantasy (which I have never been good at in any form). I knew that she’d won a lot of awards. I knew Portland was very proud to claim her. Little did I know when I sat with her in a circle of chairs to discuss a book by Sherman Alexie what a profound influence she would have on my life, how she, and her writing, would reach me, would change me so much for the better.
Our book group is, of course, feeling very much like we lost “one of our own,” because we have. I honestly think, because this was Ursula, the planet itself shares in this consensus. I know our group is not the only Ursula-affiliated entity with long e-mail chains of memories, articles, interviews, and, sadly, obituaries right now.
Things I want you to know about me and Ursula: She had me over to her house. She signed books for my friends. She sent me postcards. She touched my wrist and I can still feel it. I loved her very much.
What you should know about Ursula: Everything you’ve ever heard about how cool Ursula was is absolutely true, only she was even cooler than that.
I wrote an earnest and inadequate card to Ursula’s husband, Charles, and mailed it, noting as I surrendered it that the “forever” stamp I used had the shape of a heart with the word “love” on it. It was not a special stamp, it was the one I found in my desk when I went looking. I’m glad it wasn’t a forever Christmas stamp, or a forever American flag. That shouldn’t make any difference, but it did. I had a hard time writing the card. I was worried about what to say. I was worried my hand would shake. I didn’t want anything crossed out, so I had to get it right in a single take. A single take with several practice drafts on scratch paper.
I told him that Ursula had been one of my most important Unteachers, and that she had made an enormous impact on my life, and that I am so sorry for his loss. I told him I was thinking of their cat, Pard, too. I signed it, “Sincerely,” which I meant wholeheartedly and also felt was too weak, or overused in times of less intense sincerity, but I could not think of a stronger one, so that is the word I used.
My signature looked strange to me, like perhaps I was imagining this person who had written a letter of condolence to Ursula K. Le Guin’s husband. I had to remind myself that I had not imagined Ursula, or Charles, or Pard, so chances were I wasn’t imagining myself, either. The evidence I used was that I had their address because I had been to their house, and I had Ursula’s postcards right there on my bulletin board. I was worried that my letter seemed mechanical, because I felt mechanical, as happens to me when something is a big deal. Ursula was a Big Deal. I did not need to tell this to Charles.
Charles is one of the kindest people I have ever encountered, with a gentleness that makes my heart break as I think about him in this week that Ursula died, this week with so much rain. For a minute as I reviewed my letter, which I could not change because it was already in ink, I thought about how this is why some people say, “I’m keeping you in my prayers” at times like these, when there is such a strong inclination to provide comfort when comfort is impossible, or minuscule, or, shall I say, when the comfort we are wishing to convey needs to be so much bigger than what we have to offer.
As I heard the card drop into the mailbox (mailboxes don’t let you reach back into them if you change your mind), I felt a pang of distress, like I had forgotten something, like maybe I’d sent him an empty envelope. I knew that I hadn’t. I check for these sorts of things. Forgetting wasn’t the problem. What I was worried about was that I had done it wrong. Not the mailing, but the writing.
This is the first postcard Ursula sent me:
The entire earth is reverberating with this very sad news:
The world’s largest independent bookseller, today:
Thank you, Ursula: