A Note at the Beginning




















I’ve been inspired by José Saramago’s extraordinary blogs, which he posted when he was 85 and 86 years old. They were published this year in English as The Notebook. I read them with amazement and delight.

I never wanted to blog before. I’ve never liked the word blog — I suppose it is meant to stand for bio-log or something like that, but it sounds like a sodden tree-trunk in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage (oh, she talks that way because she has such terrible blogs in her nose). I was also put off by the idea that a blog ought to be “interactive,” that the blogger is expected to read people’s comments in order to reply to them and carry on a limitless conversation with strangers. I am much too introverted to want to do that at all. I am happy with strangers only if I can write a story or a poem and hide from them behind it, letting it speak for me.

So, though I have contributed a few blog-like objects to Book View Café, I never enjoyed them. After all, despite the new name, they were just opinion pieces or essays, and writing essays has always been tough work for me and only occasionally rewarding.

But seeing what Saramago did with the form was a revelation.

Oh! I get it! I see! Can I try too?

My trials/attempts/efforts (that’s what “essays” means) so far have very much less political and moral weight than Saramago’s and are more trivially personal. Maybe that will change as I practice the form, maybe not. Maybe I’ll soon find it isn’t for me after all, and stop. That’s to be seen. What I like at the moment is the sense of freedom.

Saramago didn’t interact directly with his readers (except once.) That freedom, also, I’m borrowing from him.

19 October 2010

In Your Spare Time

I got a questionnaire from Harvard for the sixtieth reunion of the Harvard graduating class of 1951. Of course my college was Radcliffe, which at that time was affiliated with but wasn’t considered to be Harvard, due to a difference in gender; but Harvard often overlooks such details from the lofty eminence where it can consider all sorts of things beneath its notice. Anyhow, the questionnaire is anonymous, therefore presumably gender-free; and it is interesting.

The people who are expected to fill it out are, or would be, almost all in their eighties; and sixty years is time enough for all kinds of things to have happened to a bright-eyed young graduate. So there’s a polite invitation to widows or widowers to answer for the deceased. And Question 1c, “If divorced,” gives an interesting set of little boxes to check: Once, Twice, Three times, Four or more times, Currently remarried, Currently living with a partner, None of the above. This last option is a poser. I’m trying to think how you could be divorced and still none of the above. In any case, it seems unlikely that any of those boxes would have been on a reunion questionnaire in 1951. You’ve come a long way, baby! as the cigarette ad with the bimbo on it used to say.

Question 12: “In general, given your expectations, how have your grandchildren done in life?” The youngest of my grandchildren just turned four. How has he done in life? Well, very well, on the whole. I wonder what kind of expectations you should have for a four-year-old. That he’ll go on being a nice little boy, and learn pretty soon to read and write, is all that comes to my mind. I suppose I’m supposed to expect him to go to Harvard, or at least to Columbia like his father and grandfather. But being nice and learning to read and write seems quite enough for now.

Actually, I don’t exactly have expectations. I have hopes, and fears. Mostly the fears predominate, these days. When my kids were young I could still hope we might not totally screw up the environment for them, but now that we’ve done so, and are more deeply sold out than ever to profiteering industrialism with its future-horizon of a few months, any hope I have that coming generations may have ease and peace in life has become very tenuous, and has to reach far, far forward into the dark.

Question 13: “What will improve the quality of life for the future generations of your family?” — with boxes to rank importance from 1 to 10. The first choice is “Improved educational opportunities,” — fair enough, Harvard being in the education business. I gave it a 10. The second is “Economic stability and growth for the US.” That stymied me totally. What a marvelous example of capitalist thinking, or nonthinking: to consider growth and stability as the same thing! I finally wrote in the margin, “You can’t have both,” and didn’t check a box.

The rest of the choices are: Reduction of the US debt, Reduced dependence on foreign energy, Improved health care quality and cost, Elimination of terrorism, Implementation of an effective immigration policy, Improved bipartisanship in US politics, Export democracy.

Since we’re supposed to be considering the life of future generations, it seems a strange list, limited to quite immediate concerns and filtered through such current rightwing obsessions as “terrorism,” “effective” immigration policy, and the “exportation” of “democracy” (which I assume is a euphemism for our policy of invading countries we don’t like and trying to destroy their society, culture, and religion.) Nine choices, but nothing about climate destabilization, nothing about international politics, nothing about population growth, nothing about industrial pollution, nothing about the control of government by corporations, nothing about human rights or injustice or poverty…

Question 14: “Are you living your secret desires?” Floored again. I finally didn’t check Yes, Somewhat, or No, but wrote in “I have none, my desires are flagrant.”

But it was Question 18 that really got me down. “In your spare time, what do you do? (check all that apply) And the list begins: “Golf…”

Seventh in the list of 27 occupations, after “Racquet sports” but before “Shopping,” “TV,” and “Bridge,” comes “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.)”

Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.

The key words are “spare time.” What do they mean?

To a working person, supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress, spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.

But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?

I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “Creative Activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category; but I rather doubt it.

The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?

And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?

Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh, lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings. . . . I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.

An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Vergil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one tomorrow. I have no time to spare.

20 October 2010


Out Here coverUrsula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.



A Note at the Beginning — 33 Comments

  1. No need to interact with me, but I still do wish you happy belated birthday.

    Being a teacher of history I can totally see where you have darker views when looking at the future – my niece is only three years old and I wonder what will be left for her, even if I just see that the previously working social structure in Germany is going the way of the US.

    Personally I wonder what will be when I retire, I’m 43 right now.

    On the other hand, there’s my mother, 76 this year, having survived fleeing from Eastprussia to the west of Germany at the tender age of 13, who may not be completely zen about things, but whose worst worry is her family’s health.

    “Everything else”, she says, “once you have survived a war,” (which cost her her home, her grandparents and her father) “you will learn to adapt to”.

    So, I’m not an optimist myself, but I hope there’ll be resilience and adaptation that’ll let people still enjoy themselves 100 years from now, wherever they are.

  2. I found myself wondering what I could answer to such a questionnaire (assuming that I live long enough to receive one) since I didn’t do many of the things Harvard grads are assumed to have done (no children, so no grandchildren, although I borrow children occasionally.)

    What came to mind was, I wrote books about competent people surviving under difficult circumstances. And finding joy in life around those difficult circumstances.

    With luck, some of those books will survive — and they will be a useful distraction, and an inner gyroscope for living.

  3. Oh, wonderful! I’m so glad you’ve developed a case of the blogs! If these posts are any indication, it seems a rather serious case, possibly quite contagious. I hope it’s not too painful or inconvenient.

    Thank you for your comments about spare time: thinking about it that way makes me re-evaluate what I’m occupying my time with. I am free, but my time is not. That is a powerful motto to live up to.

  4. Question 13 sounds a lot like the list of priorities on a survey sent me by the Democratic Party. When I didn’t see anything related to climate change on it, I decided it wasn’t worth filling out. Neither the Democrats nor Harvard are asking the right questions. The most depressing thing about their failure to deal with the real problems is that they’re two of our best hopes for constructive activity by powerful institutions.

  5. When you consider how much it costs to do one of these surveys (both in money and in unseen costs — every survey sent out sucks time and energy from both sender and recipient), it is a pity that more thought is not put into the questions.

  6. Welcome to the blogosphere. We’re glad you’re here.

    Words are so powerful and it seems that Harvard just threw them around all over that survey to check the block that they even act like they care. Maybe that is too harsh, but I’m even seeing where corporations are in charge of our academic realms. It’s disheartening, to say the least.

    I worry that my children don’t have enough free time that is free from undue influence. My sons are sucked up by jobs ans sports and video games. But both my daughters see the value in creativity and make that a priority. My youngest daughter — middle child stuck in middle school — does seem to find time to think those deep thoughts about deep feelings. I protect her time to do that like a dog protects its territory.

    As one who’s time is always occupied, I do believe I’ve found a new motto in your sentence: “I am free, but my time is not.”

    Happy belated birthday.

  7. I thank you deeply for this blog entry, particularly the last paragraph.

    I am one of those kids you describe who has been shuffled from one activity to another for most of her childhood. I remember the first time I turned down an opportunity to do an interesting after-school activity, simply because I wanted free time for myself. I’ve been so conditioned to fill up my “spare time” that I regretted for years not participating in that activity.

    But in spite of that guilty feeling, I cherish my “spare time” and like to fill it with so many of the things you list in the last paragraph of your blog entry–including the things that seem so unproductive to most people around me, like thinking deep thoughts and daydreaming.

    I am now a graduate student at Harvard, and I feel deeply and miserably guilty for every minute that I spend away from my schoolwork. The survey you described very much echoes my experiences at this institution, the way it implicitly belittles its students for not aspiring to high-powered, stressful careers. The overwhelming sense I have of not measuring up to Harvard standards has been pushing me closer and closer to suicide. But reading about what “fully, vitally occupies” your time reminds me that there is life beyond this campus. I keep trying to convince myself that Harvard’s goals for me don’t have to be my goals as well; thank you for your inspiring example of what else is out there. And Happy Belated Birthday.

  8. FSL,

    Please talk to someone — health center professional, friend, relative.

    I’ve been exactly where you are, metaphorically speaking (different decade, more than likely a different field, different school, but similar pressures).

    Things get better.


  9. FSL: Don’t let anyone tell you that daydreaming and thinking deep thoughts aren’t important things to do. Those things help you put the world in perspective. And I’m sure you need to think deep thoughts about your graduate studies. Graduate school isn’t just for mastering material; it’s for thinking about new ways of looking at your field and for questioning whether what you’re being taught is important. And you won’t be able to ask the right questions if you’re so busy doing the work you never take time out to think.

  10. FSL: Graduate school is a very dangerous place, and Harvard is about the equivalent, for intolerable stress and mental risk, of Afghanistan. You’re caught in a stupid war of competitive “achievement — you have a perfect right to seek safety and peace. I hope there are people you might talk to (maybe not part of the educational machine) who can give you room to breathe and listen to you, some quiet place to go where you can look at the campus from outside and think your own thoughts, find your own priorities. I wish you strength, and courage, and peace of mind.

  11. I ended up here through listening to music, then reading up on Nausicaa, then Miyazaki, Tales from Earthsea, and finally your website, only this time there was a blog. I am just writing to say thank you for doing this. I am not very good with words sometimes, I guess especially when I am writing to a writer, so i will simply say that your blog is really very good to read.

  12. “I have none, my desires are flagrant.”

    Wonderful! This should be true for everyone. I have always enjoyed your books, and look forward to reading your blog.

    (By the way, “blog” comes from “Web Log” which got shortened somewhere along the way.)

  13. I’m so happy that you’re writing like this. My grandmother is 96 this year, and I wish that she could do what you’re doing. Please, please keep blogging!

  14. FSL — Thank you for checking back in. Please keep us up on how you’re doing. I think a lot of us have been where you are, though perhaps not with the sheer intensity of grad school at Harvard.



  15. Dear UKL,

    Apparently, the luck that led me to your books at about age 14 was the same luck I had today stumbling upon these writings. (I’ll avoid the word “bxxg”–you voiced exactly my dislike of it.) I was reminded of how many times I’ve been poised to write you a letter, while reading or after finishing one of your books. And, more importantly, I was reminded of the moral center your work has provided me over the years — from a young unguided and mishandled young woman, to now, at age 40, when I can finally be clear about what is important to me and where I stand.

    Sorry to say I share your deep fears about the future.

    Thank you for your 81 years (give or take) of truth-telling.

  16. Thank you for writing this, and for pulling that questionnaire like taffy until it revealed more interesting thoughts than it intended to contain.

    I enjoy my blog as a way of forming thoughts that I otherwise might not take time for. I hope you find similar pleasures in your writing here. There’s something very companionable about a blog. More than I’ve found journals to be.

  17. Pingback: Ursula K. Le Guin begins blogging « Against Dumb

  18. Pingback: October Favourite Posts « A World Of Mots

  19. Menopause (Inspired by an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin “The
    Space Crone” 1976).

    Ursula urges me to
    become a Crone
    to not bemoan
    my declining hormones

    to wear grey hair
    catch a space ship
    somewhere out there
    so I can share

    my wit, my wisdom
    my years of fertility
    raising children
    (ensuring my humility)

    so the fourth planet Altair
    can learn about the human race
    from a woman (once a virgin)
    and now a Crone (on loan)

    But I’m all for my inner space
    and I won’t go grey
    well, not yet, not today
    there’s plenty of time

    because I still want to play
    to flaunt in the twilight
    my age now my highlight
    on the cusp of something

    almost a Crone – not quite
    ready for Ursula’s throne
    but not afraid either
    thumb out – hitching a ride

    not looking back, nor
    particularly forward
    pausing as they say – oh,
    but not for men

    for me!

    Maggie Rainey-Smith copyright – Poem published in NZ Books Vol.17 Number 2 Issue 78 Winter 2007

  20. Blog is short for “web log”, I think, which has the feeling of something done during a voyage as well as something spun. I love your writing UKL. I have hope for the four year old in my life (my son) and for the world of his future, though I’m not really sure why. Maybe because I live at the end of the earth and things don’t feel as immediate here sometimes. Maybe because I’m in the middle of my life. And maybe because, as he exists and I love him, I feel I have to refuse despair, regardless of what my brain tries to tell me sometimes.

  21. Dear Ms. LeGuin:

    Your mind, your stories, have been a treasure and a pleasure, sometimes uneasy, always dappled with depth and heat and light, since I was a very confused African American/Cherokee teenager trying simultaneously to fit in and to fly away.

    I’m a slightly less confused almost 53-year-old now, and here you are blogging. What a gift!

    Thank you.

  22. Dear Mrs. LeGuin,
    You still surprise and delight. Thank you, and happy birthday (belated).

  23. You see, how so many want to thank you, Ursula.

    I personally owe you a great deal, and even used to correspond once in a while, under my true name.

    One think I’ve always felt about your writing was that it gave a sense of home. I’d reach a certain stage of a travel, need to rest, and lie down with a book of yours, then come back slowly afterwards to an early evening room in a small city of Norway, for example, and feel I was indeed at home, however far from a specific place. And then ready again to live where I was.

    Your recent ‘Powers’ is a very beautiful book, which as ‘The Telling’ is eloquent about ones personal time, as you speak of it in the article. And each is eloquent about many further things. Just thank you, there.

    Enough for someone who is so busy, but it is very nice to have this chance to say something. For this moment.

    A smile, Ursula.

  24. Just heard your excellent interview on BBC radio and looked for your blogs and as a long standing fan of your fiction am now a fan of your blogs Well done!

  25. Dear Ursula

    A “blog”, some say, is an abbreviation of “bandar-log lingo”, or learned simious chatter, but I don’t believe it. I think it’s what people who do not have time or energy for fanzines write for themselves and publish on the Web. By this means I have come to know a lady (wot writes) who is fond of the odd Keats and Chapman anecdote, and I sent her one of mine. This one:

    Keats and Chapman were dining with the noted philosopher Descartes in connexion with some research they were doing on word-play of an equine nature. “Shall you take a little wine?” Chapman enquired. “Wine, sir?” cried Descartes, who knew poteen when he saw it, “I think not!” and instantly disappeared. The friends looked at each other (with a strange surmise). After a while Chapman said “How did he do that?” “Who? Do what?” said Keats, oblivious.

    —John B. 6 February 2011

  26. No, no, no, my first attempt at commenting online on a blog did not go well at all. I missed some passable wordplay (“bandar-logorrhoea” has since limped to mind) and should have made clear that I was quoting the “lady (wot writes)”. The K&C anecdote was meant as a posy, but looks more and more like self-advertisement. What I had in mind was something like this:

    Thank you, Ursula, for the most wonderful thirty-odd pages I have read lately.

    John B. 7 February 2011

  27. Welcome again to the blog-o-sphere! I just saw you speak at the Seattle Central Public Library, and while I wished to add to my welcome, (as you signed a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness for me) what you thought of blogging, that I am also a blogger (yeah, I know how that sounds), and possibly which living authors you currently read and admire, my lips decided to stay together after that initial burst of words. But, maybe the answers will lie in future blog entries.

    Blog is short for “web log,” but some celebrity writers (such as Roger Ebert) prefer to call it a journal, so call it what you will. And since blogs can be about anything, and on any subject, and only require a willingness to share oneself with strangers (which you already do through your books) and a talent for writing (which you’ve already proved through your books), I am not surprised to see that this first entry has taken something as mundane as a questionnaire and made it…interesting.

    Anyway, as I will be checking in on your blog now and again, feel free to do the same with mine. Just click on my name 🙂

  28. Don’t do anything to harm yourself FSL OK?
    Uni is competitive and scary sometimes.
    I hope you fond some good off line friends too.
    But online is sure better than a bad hair day.

  29. the cigarette ad with the bimbo
    being nice and learning to read and write
    seems quite enough for now

    the fears predominate, these days
    reach far, far forward into the dark
    my desires are flagrant

    “spare time.” What do they mean?

    COOULD THEYYYYYY MEANNNN like a spare tire??????????????

    after your regular time BLOWS OUT on the highway
    and you have to replace it just to get back to

    w h e r e – e v e r

    THANK YOU MS LeGuinn for beginning this blog I look forward to exploring your writing as I have always ex[loreD IT and loved it
    have read dispossessed three times it is so… insight


    ok bye

  30. ‘I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them.’
    Some of us do! Most of my childhood has been shaped around interstices, writing, reading, thinking, talking… There’s a lot of value in looseness.
    Thank you for your writing.

  31. I never thought I would write to you! I was 15 years old when my english school teacher gave us one of your books to read: Very far away from anywhere else.That one and the earthsea trilogy have been my companions ever since.I’m 42 now and tough I’ve read many of your writings, I keep comming back for them when I’m lost…

    I’m from Portugal, and although I hate stupid patriotic acts, I felt some kind of confort and pride when I found that You had be inspired by Saramago on writing a blog. Its a good thing to know that Mr. Saramago is apreciated by other writers.If you have the oportunity Mrs. Le Guin, read his tale Embargo.It’s a short tale but it takes who far beyond.
    Thanks for your writing and for taking the courage to think outside the box.

    Sorry for any mistakes.I don’t write in english many times.
    Best wishes from a Portuguese fan.
    Cristina Trabazos