Ursula K Le Guin’s​ ​No Time to Spare

A few months ago I read an article on Brain Pickings that suggested E.E. Cummings’  Miscellany and Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters  were two books that inspired creativity.  Having been in dire need of creativity for quite awhile now,  I decided to buy both.  Since I like Cummings’ poetry, I decided to start with with his book.  Trying to read his essays turned out to be absolutely excruciating;  the essays seemed the diametrical opposite of his poetry.  I couldn’t finish it.

Undaunted, I started Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. I didn’t know much about the author except that she writes fantasy/science fiction novels.  It turns out the book is a collection of short essays she posted to a blog for several years; I fell in love with the book.  I even regretted that I didn’t know her blog existed when it was active.  I would have loved to write about some of the topics she talked about and see how other early bloggers would reply. 

The topics in No Time To Spare range from tales of her cat Pard to the sorry state of our Nation. I’m a dog person, not a cat person, but I even found myself enjoying reading about her cat.  She brings an original view to everything she writes, even the topic of  “old age,”  a subject I’m already quite familiar with. 

Le Guin discusses old age in an essay entitled “The Diminished Thing.”  Most of us who are older and in, relatively, good shape have probably heard this:

A lot of younger people, seeing the reality of old age as entirely negative, see acceptance of age as negative. Wanting to deal with old people in a positive spirit, they’re led to deny old people their reality. With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”

I’ll have to admit that I might have fallen for that line — more than a few times, I’m afraid — because I work out to stay in as good of shape as possible.  On the other hand, I complain to some of my older friends who work out that I work out twice as hard as my son/grandson and I’m lucky if I’m in half the shape they are.  

Le Guin argues that old age is an “existential situation:”

Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation. Would you say to a person paralyzed from the waist down, “Oh, you aren’t a cripple! You’re only as paralyzed as you think you are! My cousin broke her back once but she got right over it and now she’s in training for the marathon!” Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires. Fear is seldom wise and never kind. Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow? Is it really the geezer?

No matter how much I may want to deny it, old age is more than a state of mind.  No matter how hard I try  I can’t get back into the shape I was when I retired at 57, much less the shape I was at 22 and training daily.  I’m not planning on any more five-day-long backpacking trips.  No amount of exercise — no amount of rest —seems to make that tightness in my hip go away.  I’ve finally reconciled myself to some of the physical limitations of being 77.  

Thankfully, Le Guin doesn’t see aging just in terms of loss:

Of course diminishment isn’t all there is to aging. Far from it. Life out of the rat race, but still in the comfort zone, can give the chance to be in the moment, and bring real peace of mind. If memory remains sound and the thinking mind retains its vigor, an old intelligence may have extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. It’s had more time to gather knowledge and more practice in comparison and judgment. No matter if the knowledge is intellectual or practical or emotional, if it concerns alpine ecosystems or the Buddha nature or how to reassure a frightened child: when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.

Le Guin is, herself, proof that an old person can be a “rare and irreproducible presence.”  All you need to do to convince yourself that aging can be positive is read this book.  I can’t imagine a better model for what we can all hope to become as we age.

More Desert Poems

I’m sure David Hinton’s Desert Poems isn’t for everyone, but it has become a personal favorite because it helped to answer some questions I’ve been exploring lately while at the same time raising new questions I’d like to explore further.  Now that I’m no longer working, my goals —if I ever had any — have definitely changed. No matter how much I’d like to think that I am the same person I was at three or four years old,  my way of seeing the outside world has changed radically since then, and has changed even more in the  seventeen years since I  retired.

I long ago rejected the idea that our possessions define who we are and immediately agreed with Emerson’s quote, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind”  when I read it during my freshman year in college.  Things have always been less important to me than to many of my peers, and I’ve tried, probably unsuccessfully, to live by Emerson’s idea that not wanting something is the same as having it — and doesn’t weigh you down nearly as much.  Things have become even less important in the last few years when I started working to get rid of things so someone else doesn’t have to later.

After stating our culture’s view that we can truly understand others by studying their “things,” Hinton then calls that assumption into doubt.

We make
things. Fire, stone
tools, shelter
and language, burial

rituals, art, mytho
logies, blood-
soaked war and
love and world—wide
infrastructure: we

make things, and they
define what we
are. It seems

enough, the anthropological
given. So how
is it I

can this easily
walk out
beyond the last
scrap of abandoned wall
or story, maybe

wander a trickling
riverwash where

crows feather mountain

wind? We
must be
something other than
what we are.

If we aren’t our possessions, then what are we?  Can we find who we are by re-experiencing Nature firsthand?  I’m not sure, but I do know that I feel more at home wandering through the woods photographing nature than I do sitting in my den working at my computer. There is nothing quite like sitting on a high ridge overlooking distant mountains to make me feel like I’m where I belong.  

Old age doesn’t seem to be one of Hinton’s major themes, but this poem suggests how getting older can make you see the world differently than you did in the past.  

Thinking of home
long ago and
far away, I

can’t understand
being so old

so soon. It’s early
winter. If I
look for what
became of

all that possibility
I once

was, I find
snow lowering
day by day
across mountains. Soon
I’ll live

deep in all that
lucid white.

Wondering what happened to your youth is not at all uncommon for those of us in our 70’s.  It’s a cliché, but Hinton seems to save it by suggesting that the snow in the mountains is what has become of “all that possibility”  — and it is not just white hair.  It is a “lucid white” that somehow makes old age seem like a reward, not a punishment. Perhaps it even suggests en-light-en-ment?

David Hinton’s Desert Poems

I have read several of David Hinton’s translations of Chinese classics, but I have never read any of his personal poetry until Desert: Poems.  Though I was originally attracted by his knowledge of Chinese literature,  I was also attracted by the title because I spent a year and a half at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert.  It didn’t take long to realize, though, that the desert meant something entirely different to Hinton than it did to me when I was stationed at Fort Irwin. His view is, however, closer to how I have felt about the desert since retiring.  The West’s high deserts are one of the few places left where  you can find solitude and can (almost) escape Civilization. I’ve become fond of parking my “camper” out in the middle of nowhere and spending the day doing nothing but watching wildlife, feeling the shifting light, and soaking in the silence.

For Hinton, the desert seems to take the place of the Mountains favored by Chinese hermit sages. Its solitude provides the ideal place for meditation, a place to contemplate man’s nature and his relationship to nature. This becomes quite clear in early poems like :

Empty mind 
is a mirror 
gazing out, the old 
masters say. It 
seems easy 

enough. But all 
night long, stars shimmer 
deep in my gaze. Who 

could be that 

vast? And at dawn 

I’m sure 
it’s not me 

desert, but wide

open desert 
mirroring whatever

it is 
I am.

I’ll admit my understanding of “empty mind” is nebulous at best, but a quick search of the internet revealed this definition which seems relevant here: “The still mind of the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth, the glass of all things. Vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and non-action – this is the level of heaven and earth, and the perfection of the Tao and its characteristics.” – Chuang-tzu (translated by Legge)

Hilton’s  “modernity” seems to slip into the poem with the ironical line “It/ seems easy/ enough” because anyone who has meditated knows that it is anything but “easy” to attain empty mind — as exemplified in the rest of the poem.    Whose mind is empty enough to mirror the stars?  Is Nature a reflection of us, or are we Nature’s reflection?  

Another recurring theme in Desert Poems is the inadequacy of words, an idea that, I must admit, has crossed my mind a lot lately, especially when meditating or trying to write a post. I suspect that I turned to photographs because I could never describe in words the feelings I got from hiking.  

I wish I 
could say this desert 
to you. But I 
cannot say 
in words 

what I am, only 
what I 

am not, what 
occurs beyond me 
and is 

knowable. It’s 
beautiful here: wide
-open, empty. Come 
with me. There is 

so much 
to say here.

Good Books

A good book is one that clarifies where you are in life and allows you to take a step forward.  Looking back, these books all  mark important stages in my life:

•  Grimm’s Fairy Tales

•  My Friend Flika/Thunderhead/How Green Was my Valley

• Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

• Words For the Wind by Theodore Roethke

• Leaves of Grass by  Walt Whitman

• Tales and Sketches by Nathaniel Hawthorne

• The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway

• Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

• Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

• Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig

• Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

• Moby Dick by Herman Melville

• Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

•Lost in the Funhouse by John  Barth

• To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

•Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu