In a chapter of Always Coming Home titled “Long Names of Houses,” Le Guin writes:
“It is hard for us to conceive, harder to approve, of a serious adult person not in a hurry. Not being in a hurry is for infants, people over eighty, bums, and the Third World. Hurry is the essence of city, the very soul. There is no civilisation without hurry, without keeping ahead.”
Suddenly I’m thrown back to reading Terry Tempest Williams at the bottom of the Grand Canyon seven years ago; an image I’ve never forgotten of runners trying to outpace the Colorado River.
“The river was red. It was a race; they ran shoulder to shoulder, faster and faster, bodiesbehindandbodiesinfront, inhaling, exhaling, fat-free hearts pumping oxygen into every living cell, the body a machine, sighing, groaning, moaning like one large organism running, running, faster and faster, sweating, puking, shitting, wheezing. They outran the river, faster and faster, every one of them, two feet times thousands tapping, drumming, beating the pavement, faster and faster […]”
They are singing together, these two. (If you’re reading this via RSS, I’d recommend the on-site version for clarity in this next part.)
“The hurry may lurk invisible, contradicted by the indolent pose of the lounger at the bar or the lazy gait of the stroller along the hotel walkway, but it is there, in the terrific engines of the TWA or BSA supersonic planes that brought her from Rio, him from Rome, here to NY, NY for the IGPSA conference on implementation of GEPS, and will rush them back tomorrow, hurrying across the world of cities where there is no tense left but the present tense, every second and tenth of a second and millisecond and nanosecond clocked, the readout always moving a little faster and the A rising.”
“In our human world, we worship speed and desire. We desire money. We assign money to time. What is time worth? Your time. My time. Our time. Talk fast. Work fast. Drive fast. Walk fast. Run. Who ever told us to wear jogging shoes to work? Don’t saunter. Don’t look. Speed walk. Speed dial. Federal Express will fly our thoughts around the world. We do not trust slowness, silence, or stillness.”
“Mozart’s A was a hundred and forty cycles a second, so Mozart’s piano is out of tune with all our orchestras and singers. Our A is a hundred and sixty, because the instruments sound more brilliant tuned up higher, as they all rise like sirens towards the final scream.”
“Stop time. Time? What was my time? What was your time? They are handed their time; for better or worse, their trophy is their time.”
“There is nothing to be done.”
“Where the runners stop, the river continues, a slow, strong current that now meanders through willows.”
“There is no way to heighten the pitch of the instruments of the Valley, no way to abbreviate their institutions and addresses and names to capital letters, no way to get them to move ahead.”
“I am not so easily seduced by speed as I once was. I find I have lost the desire to move that quickly in the world.”
Le Guin published Always Coming Home in 1985, but here I am reading it in 2021. Williams published Red in 2001, but I first read it in 2014. The precipitous time travel of literature never ceases to make my head spin. To discover these things all out of order and yet find them in conversation with each other—so close they could be touching. A thought moving at the speed of light, yet also crawling forward with impossible slowness.
“To see how much I can done in a day does not impress me anymore. I don’t think it’s about getting older. It feels more like honoring the gravity in my own body in relationship to place. Survival. A rattlesnake coils, its tail shakes; the emptiness of the desert is evoked.”
A thought you must think all your life long.
The rattle on the end of a rattlesnake’s tail is called a crepitaculum.
What’s the thought you think all your life long? It must be a great one, a solemn one, to make you gaze through the world at it, all your life long. When you have to look aside from it your eyes roll, you bellow in anger, anxious to return to it, steadily to gaze at it, think it all your life long.— To The Bullock Roseroot, an improvisation spoken during the Second Day of the World ceremonies by Kulkunna of Chukulmas
I’ve been making my way, very slowly and over the course of many loans from the Multnomah County Library, through Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s unclassifiable, meandering, pseudo-anthropological record of a fictional future people called the Kesh. I’m not even a third of the way into the thing, but as the above quote from the book suggests, I’m thinking about it all the time.
There are so many things I love about this collection, particularly its place-specific-ness. The Kesh live in a far-future, post-societal-collapse Northern California. Even with the ravages of climate change, they describe the local flora and fauna in a way that taps straight into the landscape of my childhood—what Cassie Marketos calls “our good earth to grow in”. It brings me back to hot, dusty hikes through the Sespe wilderness in grade school, shifting my weight side to side as a leathery naturalist lectured us on different varieties of manzanita. It roots me in a place I think about even when I am not thinking about it.
If we are friends in any capacity, chances are high that I’ve pressed Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” into your hands at one point or another. It explores a hypothetical world where stories are about the things they gather and contain, rather than the bodies they pierce and conquer, and I want to talk about it with everyone. It took me years to bother looking up where it had originally been published, which led me to Always Coming Home. Now that I’m a third of the way into this massive, discursive, lovely collection, it makes perfect sense. Theory in practice.
I like a book that forces me to take my time.
I’m a fast reader, and the first to admit that I can get a little breathless with my consumption. I spin out over ideas, get caught up in the excitement of newness. A book like this resists every opportunity to rush. The chapters and sections are all relatively small, but they loop and meander and digress. They build in layers over hundreds of pages to give an impression rather than a narrative. The experience feels very similar to reading oral traditions of cultures other than my own—an abruptness as one’s expectations of narrative symmetry and pacing are undermined in real time. The lack of them speaks louder than anything; makes me more aware of what I’ve been raised with, and of how things could be different.
Despite their distance from our current world of technology, the Kesh still interface with certain vestiges of present-day culture. These moments are some of my favorite in the book so far.
The City mind thinks that sense has been made if a writing is read, if a message is transmitted, but we don’t think that way. In any case, to learn a great deal about those people would be to cry in the ocean; whereas using their bricks in one of our buildings is satisfying to the mind. […] What does it mean to cry in the ocean? Oh, well, you know, to add something where nothing’s needed, or where so much is needed that it’s no use even trying, so you just sit down and cry.
If that isn’t social media in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. The desire to know everything, consume everything, document everything butting up against Marge Piercy’s recognition:
Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.
When I retweet or double tap on a post by a friend to express my approval, I’m not using their bricks in one of my buildings. But when I write? That’s when we’re in conversation—occupying the same room across space and time, building it together.
This is what Le Guin manages, in this layered, looping collection of stories and ideas: she writes a re-envisioned world into being, and then writes herself—writes all of us who create—into that world. “What do they do,” she asks, “the singers, tale-writers, dancers, painters, shapers, makers?”
They go there with empty hands, into the gap between. They come back with things in their hands. They go silent and come back with words, with tunes. They go into confusion and come back with patterns. […] The ordinary artists use patience, passion, skill, work and returning to work, judgment, proportion, intellect, purpose, indifference, obstinacy, delight in tools, delight, and with these as their way they approach the gap, the hub, approaching in circles, in gyres, like the buzzard, looking down, watching, like the coyote, watching. They look to the center, they turn on the center, they describe the center, though they cannot live there.
It’s the doubled items in this list that I love the most: “work and returning to work,” “delight in tools, delight”. I love that Le Guin understands these as separate, yet interlocking elements. I love that she has thought, so deeply and with so much lenience and also so much slantwise clarity, about the purposes we might serve in remaking the fabric of society.
She was a writer with a thought to think her whole life long. And the beautiful thing about writing is that the thought didn’t end when she did—now I’m thinking it, too.
[I’m going to start cross-posting the weird captain’s log audio updates I’ve been doing on Patreon for the last couple years here on my blog. If you’d like to take a spin through the whole archive, I’ve made a page for every past episode here.]
Okay, so! A Ramble. Typically when I share these on Patreon I try to keep it simple and just throw up a list of links to things I talked about, in case folks want to follow up and read what I’m reading. I still don’t know how to approach the practice here. Ironically, this particular Ramble is about the relative ease of talking compared to writing for me, and how the pressure to “get it right” in text is so much stronger.
I recognize that this is probably diametrically opposed to how a lot of people feel about any kind of public (or semi-public) speaking, but I think by talking, and my best thinking-talking usually happens when I’m addressing people who get it. Sometimes this is specific friends for specific projects, but there’s a reason this practice came into being on Patreon. My Patrons have bought into the weird, non-transactional structure I’ve built for my page, which means they’re probably the people I trust the most with an imperfect, non-linear audio snapshot of whatever I’m thinking about at the time.
On a practical note: I talk so much faster than I write. My guess is that a transcription of each Ramble would feel like an insurmountable slog to read through, but as a 20-minute audio snippet it’s a relatively small ask. You can do other stuff while consuming it, which I know people do because they comment and tell me about it! How lovely to imagine a friend or stranger doing dishes or puttering in the garden while we spend twenty asynchronous minutes together. It’s the best.
Every Ramble also comes paired with a photo I took while recording it. This started because I was too lazy to draw a cover for the first one, but it’s become a really important part of the process. It creates a visual touchstone that reminds me of the season and the weather and the moment when I was thinking these thoughts. Seeing them all together feels like a form of cyclical time travel.
Anyway, here’s today’s:
This Ramble felt like going to therapy on a week where I think nothing in particular’s been going on, but find myself reckoning with the unseen weight of countless stressors from the last three days alone within five minutes of opening my mouth. Except I should replace “stressors” with “stuff I’ve been thinking about while reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home” to paint a more accurate picture.
And because I do think it helps, here’s that list of links to things mentioned:
- The Trap
- Oregon Humanities Magazine
- Steve Chapman’s Sound of Silence podcast and also his post “Provocative absence and the power of minus” and also also his 100 Crap Faces book
- Jinjin Sun’s 100 Days of Art History Jinjins (specifically her thoughts on revisiting the first ten paintings she tackled after two years of practice)
- Austin Kleon sharing Marshall McLuhan’s card deck
- Clubhouse, an audio-only social platform
- Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home
- Christina Tran’s writing to whiteness is not writing true
- Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use,” always
- The Right Number (503-673-6267)
So that’s that. These come out roughly every 2-3 weeks, or as the mood strikes. Don’t set your watch by it.