Mar 25 2018

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin died recently. There was lots of information about her death in the news and social media. The general consensus on Twitter and Facebook was that it was so terribly sad that she had died. For her family and close friends, yes of course, it must have been very sad. But I didn’t know her personally. I only knew her through her books. And as far as I’m concerned, she is still alive because of those books.

I first started reading Science Fiction when I was 11 years old; The Martian Chronicles was the novel that got me hooked. By the time I was 14 I had gone through all my Dad’s collection of the classics; Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clark. I was a freshman in High School when I discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings;  it had just been published in paperback in the US and it was on the list of books my English teacher let us order from some book club. For the next 7 to 10 years, Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth was what occupied much of my reading time and shifted me from Science Fiction to Fantasy. During that time, I kept searching for other fantasy novels whose worlds were equal to Tolkien’s. I bought a lot of books that mostly left me feeling very disappointed. My bookshelf was filled with stories about elves and dwarfs and magic that I judged harshly and barely got through without lots of internal complaining. Tolkien remained king. Then sometime in the very early 70s I picked up a paperback copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. I don’t remember how I heard about it. Maybe I just liked the cover illustration. The inside content was even better. I went on to buy each subsequent book in the series. I bought The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore as soon as their paperback versions were released.

Also in the early 70s, I discovered The Science Fiction Shop. It was a tiny crowded bookstore in Greenwich Village that only sold Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was crowded with books, not people. It was the first and only one of its kind in NYC – Science Fiction hadn’t gotten as popular as it would become after the success of Star Wars. I still remember how it felt that first time I walked through its doors and looked around. You could see the entire store from the door. There were a few geeky looking guys amongst the racks and me! I was in heaven!

My method of choosing a new book was simple. If I found an author whose book I liked, I went to the shelf where their name was and bought another of their books. I kept buying their books till I ran out of new ones and then I went on to find another author. After Earthsea, I spent the rest of the 70s and 80s reading all of Le Guin’s books – none of which were fantasy but real Science Fiction, set in the far distant future. I read all of the Hainish novels and all her miscellaneous stuff too. She became one of my favorite authors of that time.

Books can be read for different reasons. In some books, the plot is the most important aspect and that is what you remember it for; in other books, you remember very vivid characters and not so much what they did and in some very rare books, you remember the ideas. Le Guin’s books left me with remembered ideas. Before writing this post, I had to go to Wikipedia to remind myself of the plots and the names of characters but the ideas I didn’t need help with. There have been three strong ideas from her books that have stayed with me ever since I first read them so long ago.

A Wizard of Earthsea taught me that names are very important and they have power; that everyone has their own “secret” name that only their closet friends can know. To know someone’s real name gives them power over you. I loved this idea when I first read it. Ever since I was a child, I hated my name – Hilarie. It was so odd. No one was named that! And it was spelled weird too. I wished I was named something normal like Mary or Sue or Carol. My mother used to console me by saying that when I grew up I could use just my middle name, Ruth, which at that time seemed a more normal name, to my way of thinking. And then I grew up! And couldn’t imagine using Ruth as my name. Hilarie was my true name – my name of power – that no one else had. And now in the world of social media and the internet I have discovered the wonderful reality of having an unusual name. There is no one else named like me. Even though it’s not a secret it nevertheless belongs only to me. And I find that wonderful.

I love when a writer of speculative fiction creates an entire cosmology with many stories and worlds to fill it. Isaac Asimov did this in all his Galactic Empire stories, Iain M. Banks did it with his novels set in The Culture. My favorite authors have been those who do a really believable job at world-building. You can see and feel and smell the worlds they create. Le Guin built her worlds with a deft hand in her novels and stories about the planets that belonged to the Ekumen, a loosely connected league of worlds which had once been seeded and colonised by a long-gone civilisation from a planet called Hain.

My biggest take-away from the Hainish novels was the idea that the Ekumen, in their attempt to reunite the Hainish worlds, sends only one person at a time, a single envoy, to a newly rediscovered planet; a planet that had long since forgotten their Hainish heritage. In the Hainish cosmology, faster-than-light space travel doesn’t exist, travel through the galaxy takes time. If you travel to another solar system, you say goodbye to everyone you once knew. The job of envoy must have been a very lonely assignment; one that often ended in death for many of them. I liked the idea that the best way to convince a race (or a whole world) to join you was not by sending a huge military force but to send one person who speaks for you, to whoever will listen and if the first person fails, you send another. The Left Hand of Darkness was the most important novel in this series and a book I often recommend to friends who “don’t read science fiction”.

Published in 1969, Left Hand is also a fantastic examination about gender, and how it affects the way we relate to the people we know. Geffen is the name of the planet in the book; a world undergoing a planet-wide ice age at the same time as its industrial revolution. Among the Hainish worlds, Geffen was different. Its people, while from the same original human stock, had mutated from having 2 distinct sexes to a race of beings who were “sexless” except for about 6 days each month when they went into “kemmer” becoming either male or female. Each individual had no way of knowing in advance which they would become. The same individual could both father a child and give birth to a child. All other days of the month, they were just human, neither male nor female, yet at the same time both. To this odd world comes an envoy from The Ekumen, a human male originally born on Earth. Through the eyes and emotions of Genly Ai, Le Guin examines the various ways gender affects our lives.  Genly eventually learns to understand and even love a person who seems on the surface totally different from everything he had come to assume about being human.

In these #metoo days discussing gender discrimination and all the talk about the small percentage of women working in many diverse fields, this book should be required reading by anyone who thinks about the importance gender plays in our lives.

Click to see larger image of these other Leguin books I also have.

Click to see larger image of these other Le Guin books I also have.

When I moved permanently to Sweden, I packed up all my New York books in boxes and that is where they have been for over 20 years. I never had enough room to unpack them or shelf space to display them. But my storage room where the boxes have been patiently awaiting my return will soon have to be given up – the lease has been cancelled. I still don’t have enough book shelves for my weathered, yellow-paged paperbacks. So I am in the process now of revisiting them again for a short time; not rereading but reminding myself of the stories that helped to make me who I am. Some of those books I can say goodbye to without a second thought. But some of them I will thumb though softly, revisiting them with love. Le Guin’s stories are among those and like with any old love, I will fondly remember them forever.

 

 

 


Oct 10 2016

Day of Atonement

This evening is the eve of the Jewish Holiday Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is probably one of the most important holidays in the Jewish Calendar. Unlike most of the other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is not celebrated by eating a large quantity of food. On Yom Kippur one is supposed to fast for the entire day. And one is supposed to atone for the sins you have committed in the past year – to say one is sorry, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive.

This evening is also the evening before I leave for my trip to New York City. I stand next to my bed and look at the piles of clothing and other things that I have been laying out – choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. Is this item what I want to take with me on my trip or is it something I want to and can leave behind me, unneeded?

I feel these piles are also an apt metaphor for Yom Kippur. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur one must ask forgiveness from those one has wronged. And on Yom Kippur you are judged whether you have done right. I have hurt people. I have said unkind things. For this I am so very sorry. And like the items on my bed that I choose not to bring with me on my trip, I would rather not carry my atonement and its subsequent forgiveness with me. It’s not enough to just ask for forgiveness. The other half of the equation is that forgiveness is given. Without that, the books can not be closed and the journey becomes harder to continue.

I guess when I was younger, I thought that by the time I had reached 65 I would have figured out Life, be settled – know where I have come from, know where I am, know where I am going. But even at 65, it is still all so confusing. Where am I going? How will I live my life? What am I doing?

Tomorrow I will be traveling to New York City – the city of my heart. The first time back to the East Coast in over four years. The place I left almost 30 years ago to live here in Stockholm. I will be staying there for a whole month – the longest time back there in over 20 years. I am no longer the same person that packed her bags in 1987 to move to a foreign land. How will it feel to be reunited with my heart? Will we even recognize each other?

And after that month, I will return here to my home, Stockholm, to pick up the pieces of my life once again, hopefully forgiven. With all my baggage, all the pieces taken with me and even those I thought to leave behind – all the pieces of my life.


Apr 12 2016

Civilization

My family — my husband, my son and myself — have been spending our summers at our little piece of property out in the Swedish archipelago since our son was almost 2 years old. The boy is now almost 25 so I’ll let you do the math on how long we’ve been going out there.

The property had been in my husband’s family since his parents bought the land in the mid 50’s. By the time we starting going out there, the larger of the two buildings (hand built by my husband’s father) had become a 25 square meter run-down, moldy cabin. While it had electricity, it had no running water. In fact there was no running water anywhere on the property, except when it rained and then the area that we would refer to as the lawn became a small lake that slowly trickled downstream through the grass. The only toilet facilities we had was the outhouse, a short walk down the hill from our cabin.

We spent the first 8 summers out there fixing up the small 2-room building: new roof, new paneling on the outside with a new coat of paint, a “kitchen” makeover with new windows, wood paneling on the ceiling, new floor tiles, paint and wallpaper. We kept the kitchen cabinets from the 1970’s and the tiny 2-burner electric stove (just gave them a very through scrubbing). We got our drinking water out of the 20-liter plastic jugs we filled from the hand pump a 5-minute drive down the road. Water to wash dishes and ourselves was delivered through a thick black hose run from the nearby lake to a tiny hot water heater hung up on the outside of the cabin. We never did manage to get rid of the moldy-house smell though.

We also never got around to fixing up the cabin’s “big” room; partially because we couldn’t agree on what to do with it and mainly because after 8 years of tiny-cabin life, we bought a larger, new pre-fab house. The factory-painted pre-fab was delivered on a big truck with 2 carpenters to put it together and 2 days later we had what looked like a complete new house. Lying on the ground next to it were all the building materials needed to complete the inside of the house. Because we considered ourselves “handy” we decided that we would finish the inside of the house all on our own. Every summer of the next 7 years we spent working on the Big House. We put up gutters and drainpipes. We spent a summer just on the floors; putting in all the insulation and the floorboards. Another summer we did the same for the ceilings. Another year a carpenter friend spent a weekend putting up all the inner walls and we spent the rest of the summer with insulation and screwing up plasterboard. My husband spent weeks standing on a ladder, holding a nail gun, putting up the wood paneled ceiling. Finally in the middle of the vaulted living room ceiling, he decided he had had enough!

The following summer, we called in a crew of Polish carpenters who spent 5 or 6 weeks of plastering, wallpapering, painting, window framing, laminate flooring installation and kitchen building. By the end of that summer the house was ready to live in. So in 2009, we spent our first summer in the Big House.

During all the years we spent working on the new house, we continued to live in our tiny 2-room shack: brushing our teeth at night, standing outside while holding a plastic cup as we looked up at the night sky; washing dishes outside on the bench attached to the back wall of the cabin, hoping the rain would hold off until we got them all done; hoping we didn’t have to poop at night because who wants to have to walk down to the outhouse in the middle of the night, though in July it never really got dark so that was sort of OK.

Even after we started to spend our summers living in the new big house, we still had no indoor water even though we had dug a well a few years earlier. The “bathroom” was used as a glorified tool shed and the sinks in the new kitchen couldn’t hold water. Life in the countryside had become more comfortable but we still continued to wash dishes on a wooden bench behind the new house, took showers only when the weather was warm and sunny, brushed our teeth out on the deck as we looked at the stars, and traipsed down to use our outhouse carrying flashlights when necessary.

But then last summer my husband decided it was time to become civilized. He bought a Cinderella incinerating toilet. He hired a carpenter to build us a real bathroom with tiled walls and floor, a real shower, a sink and vanity and a mirrored wall cabinet. And a plumber to connect our well and water pump to the inside of our house.

running waterThis weekend was the second weekend I have spent here in our new civilized country house. It is early April and still cold outside. And rainy. And mostly grey and dreary. But inside its warm and cozy. I washed the dinner dishes without having to drag them outside first. I haven’t gone down to the outhouse once — its probably all full of spiderwebs by now, left over from the winter, but I haven’t had the need to check. And while I haven’t tried out the shower yet, I know that I can use it without having to check the weather report first.

But with all this new unaccustomed civilization at my fingertips, I find that I am missing something. I find myself missing that close proximity with all the vagaries of nature: feeling the rain come down as I finish washing the last dish; the chilly air on my face as I make my way down to the outhouse; the cold wet decking under my bare feet as I go out to brush my teeth. Yes, civilization has its advantages, but at the same time it also tends to disconnect us from the natural world around us. And this former New York City girl is forced to admit that she misses that connection — even after all those years of complaining about it. The cold and the rain and the damp isn’t all that bad; as long as you can come into the warmth of civilization afterwards.

This story was first published April 10, 2016 on Medium.com 


Jun 23 2015

Travelers

Some people are travelers. They have the desire or need to see and experience as many different places as possible on this vast yet tiny globe that humanity inhabits. I am not one such. While I have traveled to a number of different places,  I have made but two great journeys in my life and both of them have been journeys of the heart. The first was when I moved my suitcases across the Hudson River from my birthplace of New Jersey to New York City. There I found the city of my heart and thought I would stay there the rest of my life. My second great journey was across a wider river of water to Stockholm, Sweden because it was there my heart found love.

Many of the people I have met here in Stockholm in the 25 plus years I’ve lived here are the traveller type. While on their journeys around the world they somehow for one reason or another have ended up here in my little corner of the world. And they continue to use this corner as a stepping off place from which to continue to explore the other places they are curious about. But this little corner of mine has become, for me, more like the last stop on the bus line. Not really a final destination but just the last stop, from which the bus goes no further.

Now this doesn’t mean that I haven’t been anywhere except Budd Lake, NJ or New York City or Stockholm. I have travelled a bit in my life. I’ve been to Washington DC to visit with my roommate Roz and again to various towns in Maine to see her there too. I spent a great month in California when I visited another of my roommates, Lynne. We spent hours building up our tans round her swimming pool, then happy hour at the local Mexican restaurants drinking frozen margaritas. Together we traveled the coast road to San Francisco and went to the San Diego Zoo to see the Kuala bears. Greensboro, North Carolina is another place I’ve been to when I drove down there with three friends in a noisy Volkswagen bus to visit one more former roommate. On the way we stopped in a few local southern diners who’s customers didn’t seem to look too fondly on the four of us in our ratty bell-bottomed jeans and long, below-shoulder length hair (the two guys included). I’ve been to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York to visit my friends Tom and Wally at their 100-year-plus house and they drove me on country roads up and down the very green hills. I took the train to Washington DC to visit my New York City friend Nancy after she moved there. And I saw the sights of Philadelphia when I went there to stay with Linda who I had gotten to know here in Sweden. I took the train down to the south of Sweden to visit Gerd at her house near Trelleborg. I’ve been to Denver, Colorado where one of my besties from Pratt Art school, Irene, lived with her husband. They took me up to walk amid the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been to Florida a few times. First to Hollywood, where my grandmother lived and later to Miami where my former Philadelphia pal, Linda, had relocated to. I went there with my husband and son and while there we, of course, couldn’t avoid taking in the sights of Disney World, Sea World and all the other theme parks in Orlando. I’ve even been to Heidleburg Germany when Håkan and I drove down there to visit my cousin Devorah and her husband and kids who were living there.

So I have traveled around a bit. But if you look to see what the common denominator has been for all these trips it wasn’t because I wanted to see interesting places in the world. It was because I had people I knew in those places. The reason I traveled to those places was because I wanted to see the people not the scenery. I saw a bit of scenery on the side but it was the chance to once again meet the people I knew that enticed me enough to go to the trouble of packing my bags and going out on the road. Without the people, and the stories we shared, the places are just places. And I have to admit that in regard to places, the place I love the best is often one I find in my own home, where I can sit on the sofa, with my shoes off. And just relax with a good book. That’s really the only traveling I need.


Jul 8 2013

Summertime

The view from the beach

I took a walk this morning – down the road to the postboxes to pick up our morning newspaper. It was a pleasant, sunny 18 degrees C but the very brisk north wind made if feel cooler. On my way back to the house I took a short detour down to the lake. It was still early so there was no one there – I had the whole beach to myself. I waded out into the water, to just above my knees and stood there watching the fish swimming around my feet. 

I like standing there in the chilly water. It makes my arthritic joints feel better. Small wind-driven wavelets lapped about my knees and I listened to the tree leaves rustling in the breeze, in waves of sound, punctuated by the cries of the various bird species that live here in our neck of the woods. This is summer. This is what vacation means to me. I stayed there for quite awhile.

Sometimes as we drive to the store from our house, we pass joggers. There they are, running along our country road with their ears stuffed with earplugs attached to their smart phones. I have no idea what they are listening to. Aside from being mildly dangerous – they can’t hear cars coming from behind them – I can not understand why they would choose to cut themselves off from the all the sounds of Nature around them. I can’t imagine how anything coming over the wire could possibly beat that.

I was never much of a nature-lover back in my previous life, back in New York City. And even when I first moved to Stockholm, I preferred the city to the country. But now I can sit back, on my deck, listening to the birds and the sounds the trees make in the breeze and just feel good. I like looking at the green color of the trees as they are silhouetted against the bright blue Swedish sky and think what a beautiful color combination that is. Whoever designed that combination should be very proud of themselves. Professor Buckley, the color teacher at Pratt, certainly would think so.