GODSPEED, LE GUIN
A longtime Northwest Portland resident — and writing legend — left us when when celebrated author Ursula K. Le Guin died Jan. 22 at the age of 88.
Le Guin changed peoples' ideas about science fiction in her books, which include "The Left Hand of Darkness" and "The Dispossessed." But she also was a fixture in her Northwest Portland neighborhood, where she lived since 1958. She and her family lived above the busy commercial streets in the Willamette Heights neighborhood — up where the Thurman Street Bridge (or Balch Gulch Bridge) leads past old wooden garages, moss-covered stone walls, and into Forest Park, our city's portal to a different world.
I love the book "Blue Moon over Thurman Street," published in 1993. During the years I've spotted it at the Northwest Portland Library, or on the bookshelves of friends. The book is a collection of black and white photographs taken by photographer Roger Dorband, who lives in Astoria today. The collaboration traces Thurman Street from its empty lots near the Willamette River to the old homes and families along Upper Thurman.
Opposite each photograph is a poem by Le Guin, or fragment of stolen conversation, or a line from the Bhagavad Gita.
If you're interested, an original photograph from the book hangs at the Northwest Branch of the Multnomah County Library, on the corner of Northwest Thurman and 23rd Avenue. The photo is of a community garden and giant chestnut tree that was replaced by rowhouses in the mid-'80s.
Looking again at these photos and walking to some of the existing places — the 32nd Avenue drinking fountain with outlets for horses, humans and dogs, for instance — is one way to reflect on the amazing woman who lived in our city.
The photos glimpse a moment in time, a Portland that's a far cry from today. There are no French bakeries, all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants, or SUVs. The streets appear quiet, except for the foot traffic of old women hauling groceries from small corner stores. An old man sits on a porch with a fly swatter and his thoughts. Street poles are plastered with posters for rock shows. A teenager leans against a building in leather jacket and jeans, back when Portland looked more to London than New York for fashion inspiration. The train tracks and empty lots under the Fremont Bridge pylons is where the journey along Thurman begins.
Meara McLaughlin grew up on Thurman Street, four houses down from the Le Guin family.
"I wish I'd known as a child how cool she was," McLaughlin recalls. "My late mother was much closer to her. I think my mother helped her in some way on the 'Blue Moon' book, informally. I remember lower Thurman as a place one would never go and was bewildered why someone would make a book of it. Now I know it captured something special and long gone."
McLaughlin grew up knowing the writer as a neighbor and loving her "Earthsea" books but "not thinking of her except as the mother of my friend. I remember how different their house was to my own. While mine was always loud and boisterous, I always remember their house as quiet and formal. Her husband, Charles was a professor of medieval French history or something like that. It was probably that she was writing when her son, my friend Laura Paglin and I would tumble in."
Another of her Northwest Portland neighbors, Paglin spent a lot of time at the Le Guin house as a friend of Ted Le Guin, Ursula's son.
"Most of the time I was there, Ursula was in her tiny study on the second floor. It was a cheerful room, full of windows that overlooked a beautiful garden where we used to play. I'd often hear her typing away on her electric typewriter," she says.
"When Ted and I became friends, he gave me their secret unlisted phone number, which I still remember to this day (it was an unusual number with a lot of zeros in it). I was always a little nervous about calling because it was Mrs. Le Guin who usually answered, since the phone was in her study. What if I were interrupting some brilliant train of creative thought! But she was always very nice. The exchange was usually, 'Is Ted there?' And she'd reply, 'Let me see,' and call, 'Theo!'"
Paglin recalls Le Guin as a private person, but always warm and welcoming. Le Guin would kindly read film scripts written by her son and Paglin.
Paglin, during summer breaks from college, would sit on the family deck with Ursula and Charles, shrouded by an enormous chestnut tree. But, she says, a spiteful neighbor complained to the city about the chestnut tree, and it was cut down. "After that, I never saw the Le Guins on their porch again," Paglin says.
Multnomah County Director of Libraries Vailey Oehlke knew Le Guin as a huge friend of the library.
"Ursula had a long history and engagement here," Oehlke says. "She started years ago in the '90s as a member of our Library Advisory Board, and then later she was on a subcommittee that looked at issues related to internet access. She was just a staunch and unwavering ally of libraries. She really believed in libraries as a cornerstone of democracy."
The library system would turn to Le Guin again as the publishing industry was upended by the e-book industry. Publishers were scrambling to maintain a profit, so they put a lot of constraints on who could access the books, Oehlke explained.
"For instance, Amazon would be charged $9.99 and libraries would be charged $68 or $83," she says. When Ursula Le Guin accepted a National Book Award in 2014 she made a remarkable speech that took aim at publishing only for profit and the selling of books "like deodorant."
"I read 'The Left Hand of Darkness' in college, and it was more than science fiction," Oehlke recalls. "She had female characters who were smart and powerful and ... good. So she really elevated the genre to something more literary. I was so struck by it. I thought, I love this character. Not knowing that 30 years later I'd have tea with her in her living room.
"The last time I visited her I left thinking that if I could be half the person she is at the end of my years, I would be happy," Oehlke says.
Readers around the world, the people who knew, and those who simply retrace her steps, know a better world is a place worth fighting for.
Kim Stafford, writer and director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark College, and son of the late poet William Stafford, hopes that Le Guin passed on some of her greatness to others.
He says: "Ursula has passed on — that is, Ursula has passed on to us her fire — from an era when we relied on her fierce wisdom, her white-hot twinkle that scorched the unworthy but kindled the wise. Always young, irrepressible, ranging wider than we knew she could, showing us how far we could range in mind and story, leaving a basket in the dewy grass for us to pick up and carry, as we walk on into the future she prepared us to see, to savor, and to shape. Long will she be in our creation story, goddess with human hands."