With my birthdays piling up I ordered Ursula LeGuin’s* new collection of essays, No Time to Spare, seeking enlightenment for my own aging journey.
The book’s title was inspired by a Radcliffe alumni survey sent to LeGuin, class of 1951. She was dumbfounded by the question that asked how she spent her spare time.
Her response: “What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be 88 next week. I have no time to spare!”
No Time to Spare is a sampling from LeGuin’s blog begun in 2010. This fact alone is inspiring: launching a blog at 81! The essays’ subjects include domestic scenes with her husband; the joyful antics provided by a new cat; her irritation with popular literature; and rants about the evils of capitalism.
I was enriched by LeGuin’s reflections on ageism, buoyed by her feisty spirit and delighted by her sense of humor. Like many of us, she rails against her aging body, especially visits by “Arthur Ritis,” who also visits me frequently.
LeGuin grumbles at the pervasive tendency to deny the reality of old age. When told, “You’re only as old as you think you are,” she answered, “Now, you don’t honestly think having lived 83 years is a matter of opinion.” (Touché)
She regards the aging brain positively: “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.”
This passage sparked my thinking about my own aging brain. I realized that aging finds me calmer and less reactive, so that when tensions ensue with family members my mind is less cluttered with old grievances. The negative hurt pathways have been cleared, making it possible to respond in a more respectful manner than was true even a decade ago.
In “A Band of Brothers, A Stream of Sisters,” LeGuin ruminates on the differences between male and female bonding.
She takes issues with male bonding, which she believes tends to perpetuate war and aggression compared to the more cooperative style of female bonding: “Instead of rising from the rigorous control of aggression in the pursuit of power, the energy of female solidarity comes from the wish and need for mutual aid and often the search for freedom from oppression.” (#metoo certainly applies here.)
When women join institutions that excluded them, like the military, LeGuin asks, “Can women operate as women in a male institution without becoming imitation men?
In “About Anger,” LeGuin describes her struggles with “private anger.” She is annoyed with herself for indulging in anger that’s triggered by jealousy or fear.
For LeGuin the central question around anger becomes: “What is the way to use anger to fuel something other than hurt, to direct it away from hatred, vengefulness, self-righteousness and make it serve creation and compassion?”
Less heady topics include her humorous encounter with a rattlesnake, where they stared one another down until her husband arrived with a snake-catching friend. Then there’s her sentimental attachment to her tabletop Christmas tree, which she could only part with incrementally once the holidays were over. She kept the tree stripped of its ornaments inside for a few days before placing it on the curb, but not before cutting off a few branches to fit in a vase.
In a poignant entry LeGuin mourns the changes ushered in by Trump: “I feel like I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.”
If we’re to have a future as a nation, we all have to do our part to turn the tide. At 88 LeGuin may be too old to take to the streets.
I will carry her spirit with me when I join the Women’s March in Las Vegas later this month. Maybe our rallying cry can be, “There’s no time to spare!”
* Ursula LeGuin is an award-winning author who has written novels, children’s books, and short stories, mainly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. The New York Times described her as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer.”