While talking about the year after his mother’s death: “To try to tell it is like trying to tell the passage of a sleepless night. Nothing happens. One thinks, and dreams briefly, and wakes again; fears loom and pass, and ideas won’t come clear, and meaningless words haunt the mind, and the shudder of nightmare brushes by, and time seems not to move, and it’s dark, and nothing happens.” -Orrec in Gifts, by Ursula K. Le Guin
I’ve had a bit of a funny connection with Le Guin’s books. I started by not reading them–I picked up the Earthsea cycle when I was fifteen, and got bored, and stopped. Later I picked them up again, and it was like picking up a fire, or a seed that grew and grew until it was an oak I held, an oak that was holding me. Occasionally I still find myself bored by one of her pages, and yet her books are among the most powerful stories to ever sit down beside me, tap my eyes, and remind me that I can see. Why is that?
I think there’s a theory of literature somewhere in here, and within it, a theory of being alive. Lots of modern writers write go go go. We get a series of events and twists. (Before the credits, before everything but the music, James Bond shoots the audience). We’ve asked for stories with a hook, and they have hooks, and we’re reeled along from line one. “One of the worst mistakes writers make,’ a professor once told me, ‘Is thinking they have time. You have no time.’ He’s right–depending on what you’re writing. Or reading.
Le Guin has all the time in the world. She sits, and stares, and walks. “Nothing happens.” When we talk about sadness, it’s easy, it’s tempting, to tell it in turning points: he picks up his mother’s comb, and cries, awash in loss; he picks up her pen, and realizes he can continue the stories she wrote. But Le Guin says that doesn’t happen. That’s not true. “Nothing happens.” Sorrows and lives spell themselves out in shades and dappled light, not clear cut letters. If we want to understand where we stand, who we are, then we need to be willing to read those quiet signs. Le Guin insists on it.
Some of my students say that Gifts moves slowly. The truth is, sometimes it does. The truth is, why not. Life isn’t a series of happenings. The truth is, nothing happens–nothing but moments, ages long and overlapping, and we can choose to stand in them. When we do, we find a moment of presence. When we do, we mourn for our loved ones. When we do, we fall in love again.
How did we fall in love?
Who can say? How can we know? After all,
and what poignant, beautiful, heart-filling nothing it was, there in the moments I cannot say.