Tag Archives: LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin and history

I went to the Salvation Army store the other day hoping to find a replacement for the jacket I left on the plane in Denver. No luck, but I did find a book that has proved to be worthwhile. (There was a jacket that might have served but it had Frontier Airlines stitched on the front. I don’t think so!)

I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy years ago and liked it enough to keep it in my library. I’ve read it once or twice more since then. She wrote a fourth book in the same story line that I read but did not care for as much.

Regardless, when I saw her name on a book titled Tales from Earthsea, I picked it up immediately. For a dollar how can you go wrong?

The book has a foreword that explains LeGuin’s take on the ‘nonexistent history’ of the fictional Earthsea. There’s a paragraph that hit me between the eyes this morning when I read it. She writes:

Even if we are present at some historic event, do we comprehend it – can we even remember it – until we can tell it as a story? And for events in times or places outside our own experience, we have nothing to go on but the stories other people tell us. Past events exist , after all, only in memory, which is a form of imagination. The event is real now, but once it’s then, its continuing reality is entirely up to us, dependent on our energy and honesty. If we let it drop from memory, only imagination can restore the least glimmer of it. If we lie about the past, forcing it to tell a story we want it to tell, to mean what we want it to mean, it loses its reality, becomes a fake. To bring our past along with us through time in the hold-alls of myth and history is a heavy undertaking; but as Lao Tzu says, wise people march along with the baggage wagons.

The philosophy of Lao Tzu is similar to that of Chuang Tzu, who I referenced in an earlier post involving LeGuin’s work: http://thezachproject.us/index.php/2016/09/01/loss/

LeGuin has a larger, world history in mind but her words resonate with me for the events of last November. Humankind is just a tiny blip in the context of the universe, but for us it is all we have. We must hold our memories true and pass them on. There is nothing more.


My sister wrote me an email today with a quote in it from a book she’s been reading. She said it made her think of me ‘and others close to me that have lost loved ones’.

She stood quite still. Late people do not altogether leave us, she thought; they are still with us in memories such as that, wherever we are, no matter what time of day it was or how we were feeling, they were there, still shining the light of their love upon us.

     — Alexander McCall Smith  in The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine


I believe my sister is without guile. She loves me and I love her unconditionally. So it troubled me that this quote does not move me. It has troubled me that most of my family does not seem to be affected by the death of Zach. This of course is grossly unfair. They did not see me weeping, as I did a few minutes ago, alone in my apartment. How do I know they do not grieve similarly? And what right do I have to determine how they, or anyone else, grieves Zach?

Well I wanted to write a response that is respectful of her feelings yet also representative of mine so I thought of the Ursula LeGuin book The Lathe of Heaven. It has quotes at the beginning of each chapter that have to do with time and permanence. Actually it was this book that began my interest in Chinese philosophy, in particular the writing of Chuang Tzu.

Sadly, no quotes seemed appropriate for my goal. Thumbing through the book, however, I remembered the story of the man who dreamed changes in the world. He has a wife he loves but loses her in the dream changes. At the end he finds her again and when I read that I started crying.

It’s a book I’ve kept in my library for years through many winnowings, partly through sentiment because of the introduction it provided to what is now my core philosophy. It’s a good book, not a great one. Arguably it’s a sentimental ending.

So why cry over the ending? It made me think of the last time I cried like that. A couple of weeks ago, the promo track for the Broadway show ‘Jersey Boys’ came up on my MP3 player in the car. It has snippets of the hits from the ’60s by the Four Seasons. Good, not great, I suppose, would apply as well. But there I was, driving on the freeway, crying my eyes out.

Zach had no connection that I know about to either the book or the tunes. I wasn’t thinking of Zach before I started crying. Thus the mystery of grief.

To go back to Teresa’s quote, I do not have any feelings of Zach watching over me. Indeed, one of the confusing things about the last couple of months has been a lack of feeling of Zach as presence. I’ve set aside his phone and ipad and given up on converting his texts. With one exception I haven’t read in his journals for quite a while now. I suppose you could call my arrangement on my dresser a kind of a shrine. (See the post ‘reaction’ at http://thezachproject.us/index.php/2016/07/20/reaction/ for a picture.) I do look at that every day and sometimes I just can’t connect to the idea of Zach as a living person. It puzzles me and perhaps that is contributing to my depressed state.

Here is a bit of Chuang Tzu via Thomas Merton’s ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’:

“The Master came at the right time
Into the world. When his time was up,
He left it again.
He who awaits his time, who submits
When his work is done,
In his life there is no room
For sorrow and rejoicing.
Here is how the ancients said all this
In four words:
‘God cuts the thread.’

“We have seen a fire of sticks
Burn out. The fire now
Burns in some other place. Where?
Who knows? These brands are burnt out.”