A Letter to Ursula K. Le Guin

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I did not know her, but I miss Ursula K. Le Guin and the gifts she gave unto the world

A Letter to Ursula K. Le Guin

22 Jan 2021

It was three years ago today that Ursula Le Guin passed away, most likely from a heart attack. I didn’t know her, of course, but I miss her anyway. And I wish more than ever these days I’d sent her the letter I wrote to her back in 2011. I didn’t, though, because I ultimately thought she’d be aghast when she read that the spark for me writing it was my discovering that Kurt Vonnegut had died some number of years prior. No matter that I tried to downplay the morbidness of it…I don’t think there’d have been any other way for her to take it than as a grisly sort of motivation for writing to her.

So it goes, as Vonnegut would say when someone passes. And so it went.

I’m posting the letter now, though, in its entirety, just the way it was written back in 2011, just the way it should have been printed, addressed, stamped and sent to Portland, regardless of my apprehensions at the time.

Miss you, Ms. Le Guin.

27 Dec 11

Ursula,

            First, I hope you don’t mind me, some stranger from out of the blue, addressing you by your first name.  I pondered and pained for a long, long time over the first line of this letter, wondering if I could or should use your first name or if I should call you Mrs. LeGuin, Ms. LeGuin, or Ma’am or some other respectful variation on that theme.  I finally decided that calling you by your first name was a chance I was willing to take.  I sincerely do hope you don’t mind.  Also, I spent a lot of other time trying to think of some way I could make this letter’s introduction so compelling, so riveting that you would for sure want to read the rest of it.  I had to give up on that, though, or I would have never gotten it written at all.  Just know up front that this note will be somewhat long and so will require a conscious decision on your part to invest precious time in the reading of it.  Even more audacious, I suppose, for some stranger from the blue.  Still, I hope you will trust and believe that my only goal in the writing of this is to say hi and thank you and, hopefully, to make you smile. 

            I’m writing to you this morning because even earlier today I wrote in my journal the following note to myself:

            Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007 and I missed it.  You know, I got so wrapped up in life and living and working and being that I didn’t even see the headline that must have been.  A few years ago I had time to read his Sirens of Titan again for something like the third or fourth or fifth time.  I should have sent him a thank you letter at that time, but did not.  Now I will never get to send him a thank you letter.  And I really wanted to do that.

You know who else died just recently?  Andy Rooney.  Curmudgeon.  Sunday evening icon.  Andy, you will forever be missed, and Sundays for me will never be the same.

I am going to send a note to Ursula LeGuin very soon.  I am going to thank her, too.  I just finished her book Always Coming Home.  It is hard to say how long it took me to read it.  I started and re-started that book several times over the years.  I cannot even remember when I bought it, to be honest with you.  I bet that it was more than ten, possibly even twenty years ago.  In any case, I finally did finish it just yesterday and, in the wake of finishing it, was left in a contemplative mood.  When I’m done contemplating, I’m going to send her a thank you letter.  Not just for Always Coming Home, but for many other of her works as well.  Maybe even just for being.

            Please don’t take any of this the wrong way.  It is not nearly so morbid as it must seem.  Not said in my note to myself, but certainly rattling around in my tiny little brain when I wrote the above was the nagging worry that another twenty years would pass before I got around to writing this letter to you.  And I so terribly do NOT want to miss the opportunity.  So let me get to it: thank you.  Thank you for being and thank you for writing.  For writing everything you’ve written.  And, most importantly, thank you for sharing what you have written with the rest of us.

Ged and I adventured together in my freshman or sophomore year of college at the University of South Dakota in 1980 or 1981.  I did little else good while I was in college, but I did read the Earthsea trilogy back then, when it was still a trilogy.  And that was something good.  Indeed, it was very good.

            I also watched many years later—and somewhat in horror I’d have to say—when the Sci-Fi channel turned Earthsea into a TV show of sorts.  I’m sorry about that.

It would be trite and cliché for me to say I am your biggest fan, so I won’t go there.  But I am a fan, a big fan (not trite at all!!) and have often found myself, after reading one of your creations, filled with at least a whelming, if not overwhelming, desire to express.  I usually don’t do much expressing, though, I mostly contemplate expressing. 

Time, precious time.

Please don’t stop reading yet!  I’m not writing to ask for advice on writing or for you to read a manuscript or any other similar thing.  I’m just writing to say hi to a friend.  Presumptuous, I guess, and even more so yet again coming from someone you don’t know who is writing to you out of the blue.

            I turned 50 this year.  I read Always Coming Home over the course of about the past month.  It wasn’t that the book was too long or that it was arduous, but that I was going too fast in my workaday life and didn’t have time—nay, didn’t make time—to get to it.  When I (finally) read the passage about the pace of life for the people of the Valley as compared to the pace of life for us in the current day…well, it rang very true and made me want to slow down a bit.  I’m going to write to your agent, in my own good time, and ask them if I can quote that passage in an essay I want to write someday.  Again, in my own good time. 

            Ma’am, I want not only to thank you for sharing your works with me, but also for sharing them with my son, Benjamin.  Benjamin is now 14 and has a voracious appetite for books.  He has read more in his young lifetime than I have ever read or ever will read.  He read Gifts, Voices and Powers several years ago and he read even more recently A Wizard of Earthsea.  Ged is now Benjamin’s friend, too.  Very soon I am going to cut him loose on the rest of your work.   I know for certain that he will enjoy all of it as much as I have and I am excited for him to begin.   

            We recently moved to Moscow, Idaho from Honolulu, Hawaii.  I am at the tail end of a 27-year long and very busy career as a US Air Force pilot. I am now working at Washington State University and the University of Idaho as the Detachment Commander and Professor of Aerospace Studies, heading up the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps training program.  What this means is that I might have time now that I did not have before to do things outside of work and family.  I have made a conscious decision to use much of that time—to invest that time—in reading once again all of my Ursula K. LeGuin books.  I look forward to meeting you and your characters in them once again, for the first time.

            Be well, and please keep writing.  Thank you again, my friend.

                                                Very sincerely,

                                                                                    GREGORY M. CAIN, Colonel, USAF

war horse

I went to see the movie War Horse with my family. It is in large measure an animal interest story, and from that perspective it left all of us feeling pretty good about the way things turned out for Joey, the horse. The contextual milieu, however, which was the tragic saga of trench warfare on the Western Front in the Great War, could scarcely have been a more depressing reminder of one of civilization’s darkest hours.  On the Western Front alone, millions of young men were killed, mowed down in the prime of their life.

You read that right: millions.

Upon millions.

In my estimation, it is beyond the imaginative capacity of the average person to comprehend those kinds of numbers, particularly when it’s understood that every single one of them represents an individual human being and all that attends to that condition—family, friends, loved ones and so forth.  Truly incomprehensible.  Sad in the extreme.

I enjoyed the movie, but as I watched it I could not help but ponder the larger tragedy that was playing in the background.  How little the world really learned during those awful years from 1914-1918.