No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

No Time to Spare collects and arranges pieces that Ursula K. Le Guin wrote for her blog from late 2010 until 2015 or so. She was initially unimpressed (not to say sniffy) about the form but one of her favorite authors from the later part of her life caused to change her mind. “I’ve been inspired by José Saramago’s extraordinary blogs, which he posted when he was eighty-five and eighty-six years old. They were published [in 2010] in English as The Notebooks. I read them with amazement and delight. … But seeing what Saramago did with the form was a revelation. Oh! I get it! I see! Can I try too?” (pp. xix–xx). And she does.

No Time to Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin

She divides the collection into four parts, with interludes concerning a cat, Pard, that she chooses as a companion for her and her husband’s old age, latest and perhaps last in a long line of cats she has had in her life. The first part, “Going Over Eighty” addresses aging directly and indirectly provides the book’s title. “The Lit Biz” covers what the title says, with some special emphasis on ambition, standing, and community. The third part, “Trying to Make Sense of It,” is the most directly political section, and to my mind also the weakest. She closes with “Rewards,” and these brief essays are very rewarding indeed: personal, closely observed, sometimes hilarious, full of unique life.

Le Guin begins by exercising her drollery on a suitable target: Harvard University and “the lofty eminence where it can consider all sorts of things beneath its notice.” (p. 3) She received a questionnaire from the university for the sixtieth reunion of the 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.” (p. 3) That change in status, and everything bound up with its former existence and making the change happen is one of the things that the institution as represented by its questionnaire loftily ignores. Harvard asks about how, given respondents’ expectations, their grandchildren have done in life. Le Guin: “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 great-grandfather. But being nice and learning to read and write seem quite enough for now.” (p. 4)

She’s less amused by Harvard’s question about what will improve the quality of life for the future generations of your family, with options listed and instructions to rank them in importance from 1 to 10. “The second is ‘Economic stability and growth for the U.S.’ That stymied me totally. What a marvelous example of capitalist thinking, or non thinking: 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.” (p. 4) On the whole, she found it a “strange list, limited to quite immediate concerns and filtered through such current [2010] right-wing 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).” (p. 5) Smart as Harvard’s alumni minions might (or perhaps ought) to be, their market survey efforts don’t measure up well against Le Guin’s concentrated intellect and scorn.

(As an aside, I don’t agree with her at all about democracy promotion. Invasion is not the sum of that effort of American governments since the end of World War II, and Le Guin should certainly know better. The cheap shot here is not worthy of her.)

“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.'” Four questions later she gets to the one that really exercises her: “In your spare time, what do you do?” The list of possible responses begins with golf. Somewhere between racquet sports and shopping comes “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She notes, “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.” (all p. 5)

She considers what spare time means, how it was different at different ages (“fifty, or thirty, or fifteen,” the descending order in contrast to the usual approach), and what it means when all of one’s time is notionally spare. “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. … None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.” (pp. 5–6)

Soon after, she addresses what life is like for people who have accumulated quite a lot of time. “Not wanting to know much about getting old (I don’t mean older, I mean old: late seventies, eighties, beyond) is probably a human survival characteristic. What’s the use of knowing anything about it ahead of time? You’ll find out enough when you get there.” If you get there. Le Guin riffs on a question about age posed in a Robert Frost poem, “What to make of a diminished thing?” (both p. 13) She argues for the value of acceptance, and also not to consider something, someone, diminished simply because the outside looks rather worn. Or because the inside is in fact quite worn.

She follows with a positive argument for the value of experience:

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.
Same goes for old people who keep their skill at any craft or art they’ve worked at for all those years. Practice does make perfect. They know how, they know it all, and beauty flows effortlessly from what they do. (p. 16)

Some of the beauty of Le Guin’s own craft flows into her pieces on literature, particularly the one on Homer, “Papa H,” and one that poses a challenge, “The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum.” Her essay on fantasy, “It Doesn’t Have to Be the Way It Is,” is probably mostly preaching to the choir, but it brings questions to a sharp point:

As for the charge of escapism, what does escape mean? Escape from real life, responsibility, order, duty, piety, is what the charge implies. But nobody, except the most criminally irresponsible or pitifully incompetent, escapes to jail. The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is “escapism” an accusation of? (p. 83)

In “The Narrative Gift as a Moral Conundrum,” Le Guin admits that she does not have an answer. She has strong beliefs about writing both as a craft and a practice, but she also finds her beliefs undercut sometimes by experience. “I read a book last winter that does an absolutely smashing job of storytelling, a compulsive page-turner from page 1 on. The writing is competent at best, rising above banality only in some dialogue (the author’s ear for the local working-class dialect is pitch-perfect). Several characters are vividly or sympathetically portrayed, but they’re all stereotypes. The plot has big holes in it, though only one of them really damages credibility. … All this author had to stand on is a hokey, sentimental notion, and from it she threw this perfect pitch! Seldom if ever have I seen the power of pure story over mind, emotion, and artistic integrity so clearly shown.” (pp. 76–77) The book threw Le Guin for a loop.

And I had to think about it, because a few months earlier, I’d read a book that brilliantly demonstrates a narrative gift in the service of clear thought, honest feeling, and passionate integrity. It tells an extremely complicated story extending over many decades and involving many people, from geneticists cloning cells in cloistered laboratories to families in the shack-houses of black farming communities. The story explains scientific concepts and arguments with great clarity while never for a moment losing its onward impetus. It handles the human beings it involves with human compassion and a steady, luminous ethical focus. The prose is of unobtrusive excellence. And if you can stop reading it, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I couldn’t stop even when I got to the notes — even when I got to the index. More! Go on! Oh please tell me more!
I see a huge difference in literary quality between these two hugely readable books, which certainly has to do with specific qualities of character — among them patience, honesty, risk-taking. (p. 77)

What Le Guin wrestles with, wants to know, can’t decide is “If one of the two books I’ve been talking about is slightly soiled fluff while the other is solid gold, how come I couldn’t stop reading either of them?” (p. 79)

I found the section on political questions marred by Le Guin’s easy use of a writing tic that annoys me to no end: the unmarked, undefined “we” and its possessive companion. “In any case, we’ve seen only a glimpse of what [sisterhood’s] effects might be.” (p. 103) “I understand why we’re in a panic when our business or our whole economy goes into a decline or a recession…” (p. 111) “It appears that we’ve given up on the long-range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences — about cause and effect.” (p. 119) And so on. Who does she mean? Who are the people of this “we,” and are they all the same, all equally capable, all equally culpable? I think that they are not, and muddling them all together muddles her messages, maybe shows that her thinking is not as clear as she believes.

(Parenthetically, her anger about official lying during the Obama administration makes me want to look over the reading glasses at the tip of my nose and say, “Oh honey, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” even though she was nearly forty years my senior. The naivety she showed in that regard is not the apparently starry-eyed idealism of someone in the Soviet Bloc insisting that human rights apply there too; rather, it struck me as an indulgence, or smug indifference to the state of American political parties in the twenty-first century.)

Within the section, her entries “Belief in Belief” and “About Anger” show Le Guin engaging carefully with deep issues that have expressions in the public sphere. “I don’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution. I accept it. It isn’t a matter of faith, but of evidence.” (p. 132) The first half of the piece on anger discusses the history of feminism, and women’s expression of anger in public. “Anger continued on past its usefulness becomes unjust, then dangerous.” (p. 138) The second half turns to private anger, what has made her angry, and what she has done both with it and about it. “I see in the lives of people I know how crippling a deep and deeply suppressed anger is. It comes from pain, and it causes pain.” (p. 142) She doesn’t offer any answers. The examination is enough, or at least a start at being enough.

The insterstices that comprise “The Annals of Pard” are lovely. Life with a cat is an antidote to the abstract.

The final part, “Rewards,” collects more miscellaneous reflections, splendidly. “Rehearsal” is about the magic of the stage, and how “Sitting in on a rehearsal is a strange experience for the author of the book the play is based on. Words you heard in your mind’s ear forty years ago in a small attic room in the silence of the night are suddenly said aloud by living voices in a bright-lit, chaotic studio.” (p. 164) “Someone Named Delores” is a longer meditation on hiring people, and specifically hiring someone to help with personal tasks. There are roles, and there are people, and these are never easy to resolve. “My envy of writers who hire a person to handle their mail and annoyance at people who assume that I have such help are really quite mild, but they are painful now, because I did have ‘someone,’ but I have lost her.” (p. 168) This one essay is easily worth the price of the book.

But for that price, readers also get “The Horsies Upstairs,” which, among other things, is about how young people perceive the time and distance, and some of the differences between lying and pretending. “First Contact” describes Le Guin’s encounter with the alien consciousness of a rattlesnake and contains the phrase “a mighty and wrathful commotion.” Fortunately for all concerned, it was not the first contact for all of the humans near Le Guin that day.

She had no time to spare, but instead had time to share, to share what she created with anyone who cared to come along and stay a while.

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