Monday, February 22, 2021

No Time To Spare - Ursula K Le Guin, and thinking about what matters

No Time to Spare - the blogs of Ursula K. Le Guin

Last week I happened to overhear the online funeral of a local resident - his hundredth birthday had been but a few months previous. I didn't know him, but the more I listened to the story of his life the more my admiration grew. He'd moved to our town when nearly ninety years old, had joined the bridge circle, the civic society the conversational french group... nine clubs and societies in all; he played the piano every day, had driven until he was ninety five, enjoyed companionship, exercised regularly ... all this and he'd once had a pilot's licence, served in the war, danced... what a rich and full life!

The writer Ursula K. Le Guin died in 2018 aged 88 - I've been reading a posthumously published collection of her blogs, No Time to Spare. They start from around 2010 which would have made her 80 years old when she began. By then she'd published dozens of books, won a string of international awards and was widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novelists of all time. She also penned essays, short stories, poems, the best book on how to write that I know (Steering the Craft) and of course - took up blogging. 

This year I turn sixty, and still I often find myself saying 'when I get old...' Which of course is ironic, because sixty is old - not in quite the way it used to be, but certainly the third stage of life, and a time when wisdom and reflection tends to takes precedence over physical prowess. All my working life I'd expected to be retired by this age - and after making prudent allowance there's no reason why I shouldn't be - but I find, now that it's possible, I approach the prospect with dread.

In the opening blog of Le Guin's collection she ponders a question in a residential survey - what do you like to do in your spare time? The tick boxes start with golf, and continue through shopping, TV, creative activities... 27 options in all.  Le Guin reflects not so much on these, as the idea of having 'spare time', and what that means to those who're notionally retired. She concludes that she hasn't any, that all hers is taken: 'It always has been and it is now.' she writes, 'Occupied by living.'

And in Le Guin's case that was a full and rich endeavour too - creative, caring, campaigning to the end. I first discovered her work from a podcast interview - another communication form she embraced. And reading her blogs, there seems few limits to the scope of her enquiring mind. Last night, writing to a friend I said that if - by some suspending of time and reality - I could host one of those imaginary dinner parties where you invite half a dozen people from history, Le Guin would be high on my guest list. 

Because as I get older (note the change in emphasis there) the more determined I am to remain as curious as she was, to embrace change, not to be curmudgeonly - to be the very antithesis of the 'grumpy old man'.  I've learned there are many virtues that come with age (Le Guin writes eloquently on this too) and that it's folly to chase rainbows by wishing ourselves younger - by looking backwards rather than ahead. 

Nowadays, it's commonplace to see older folk cycling in lycra, running marathons, skiing down whatever... and in many ways this is truly excellent. I want to say fit; I want to travel; I have a very full bucket list of sorts..  But I worry a little about the trend.  Are we oldies, by filling our time with tick lists, by obsessing over fitness, by pursuing pleasure in whatever ways we can ... finding truly positive purpose? Or are we staring into the pool of our lives only to see our reflection through eyes that ought to put on glasses?  

For all I say 'we' I really mean 'me'. These worries are not meant as any criticism of others - rather, they are a deeper, more personal concern about how to find - and maintain - a purpose as I age.  For some, playing golf or tennis may be the answer -  and good for them - for others, it might be the daily practice of humility and grace - good for them too. 

I'm not religious, and am not even sure that personal salvation gives any more meaning to life than the possibility of oblivion. But as I get older, I do feel keenly that we are part of one continuum - that the time we are gifted is but a moment at the end of a life-line that stretches back at least four billion years.  And in that context, I'm conscious that the contribution we make, is ultimately more satisfying - and meaningful -  than any pleasure we take. 

As for how to do that best, I'm still working... and thinking it through. This year I have a book to publish (big reveal coming soon!) and should this pandemic ever end, perhaps - just perhaps - a PhD to begin.  I'm yearning also to return to the mountains - to scale those heights that will only get harder with age, even if there's technology to help me. On the subject of which, one of my deepest determinations is never to sigh at its progress; to see it (and computing especially) as a map to explore, not a maze to be feared. 

Most of all I'm determined to keep on learning. 

For if I stopped I'm sure I'd atrophy - and more quickly than from any lessening in my heart rate or weakening of my grip. I'm not sure I want - or have the spare time - to join nine clubs and societies; I'd hope that doing fewer things well might be just as rewarding. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in one of her very last blogs '... how rich we are in knowledge and in all that lies around us yet to learn.  Billionaires all of us.' 

Amen to that.


  1. I have enjoyed all of her scifi that I have read. I didn't know she had a blog, nor that there is a book of her posts. I will read that.

  2. Great post Mark. I notice on your Meet Me There you visited Beara. We live on Sheepshead Peninsula across from Beara.

  3. Keep on learning... that's the key.

  4. I'm not sure about positive purpose but I am definitely keen on pursuing pleasure as I get older and not doing stuff that I don't want to. You sound incredibly self motivated; regrettably I seem to have more of a thirst for a good wine than a thirst for knowledge!

  5. Dear Mark,

    This is a very thoughtful post which has given us much cause for reflection.

    We had never come across Ursula K Le Guin before, but, from what you write, we are intrigued to know more and to read what she has written. There seems to be much wisdom in her words.

    Everyone approaches each stage of life in very different ways and that does indeed contribute to the spice of life which we very much enjoy. Our answer has always been to surround ourselves with young people, believing that they are the future for all of us. Of course, they can be irritating and impatient but they can also be incredibly perceptive, seeing life from very different points of view as they are not yet encumbered with fears or responsibilities which are acquired as one ages.

    It is, as you say, so very important to remain curious and continue learning. One really can always learn new tricks. To be interesting, one must be interested is our motto and people are indeed an endless source of fascination or so we find.

    We retired or, as we prefer to say, stopped working as soon as we could with absolutely no thought as to how our days would be filled. But, as every scientist knows, Nature abhors a vacuum, so things just flow into the space that was once occupied by paid employment. We love the fact that each day is an empty page waiting to be written upon.... go for it....

  6. Hello and good evening Mark,

    I hope you are well.

    I am delighted to hear that there is new book by you soon to be published this year and a possibility of starting a PhD. I hope everything goes well for you and I shall look out for the book when it's published.

    I admire Ursula K. Le Guin as a writer although I must confess that I have not read any of her fiction. I know and love her essays for their elegance, clarity and exploratory nature of writing with her inimitable style. I don't have the book you mentioned in this post. The only book I have by her is called "Words are my matter". I would recommend it to you since you seem to share the love of writings by Jose Saramago (there are two reviews of his writing in this book by her).

    My favourite essay in "Words are my matter" is called 'The Operating Instructions' (a talk which she gave at a meeting of Oregon Literary Arts in 2002) - a poetic meditation on imagination and the idea of home. It is so very poignant and beautiful.

    Keep well and stay safe, ASD

  7. I knew of her science fiction and some of her essays. I'm delighted at the prospect of a last book for her and another for you. I look forward to reading both. Congratulations. I hope you get that doctorate because you want it and I agree about there being no such thing as spare time. Enjoy your retirement by doing what matters to you and you need not tick boxes for that.

  8. A wonderful post Mark - and 60 is not old so don't worry - wait until you turn 80, which happened to my husband last year, and I'm not far behind - but we don't let the numbers bother us too much, there's still so much do and places to go once COVID is history!
    The absolutely wonderful Hattatt's (whom I've met in Budapest) in their comment, said it all perfectly in regard to keeping company with younger friends, and remaining interested to be interesting as we age - all so very true!

    Enjoying your writing a lot - keep going please!
    Mary -