Ursula Le Guin, teacher

A few days ago a friend told me that Ursula Le Guin died. There’ve been obits and eulogies, and repostings of her wonderful & incendiary award-acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in 2014. She accepted this Very Big Deal award in the name of all the other writers of science fiction and fantasy, those ‘writers of the imagination’ who had been passed over in the past 50 years in favor of ‘the so-called realists’. She skewered ‘the profiteers’, who included her own publishers; and finished by saying that authors write, not for profits, but for freedom. Her speech was just one instance of how she walked her talk; eulogies have listed others.

What I’d like to add is that Ursula also walked her talk as a teacher. She cared about teaching, she cared about writing, and she cared about freedom; and all three passions came through in her writing workshops, where she acted as a facilitator instead of as the ultimate authority to whom we must defer, despite attempts to lionize her. She had been my favorite author and role model for over a decade when I met her; she had a lot to live down to for me to see her as human. She did so within five minutes.

I had the good fortune to take two writing workshops with her in the late ’80s and early ‘90s. As an art school graduate and writing group participant I knew all about gut-wrenching critiques that make people want to bite (or wail, or hide, or bang their head against a wall). But as a facilitator Ursula created an environment for critiques full of humor and enlightenment for everyone in the circle, while those who had been in the hot seat left to go rework their stories, or finish them, or write new ones, with the focused high energy that comes from being heard. The safe and inspiring critique — which encouraged an openness to feedback as well as discernment about that feedback — was also egalitarian. Maybe that was why her workshops felt safe and inspiring, maybe that’s why we could learn – everyone’s voice counted.

In a circle of students critiquing a short story, Ursula took care to be only one voice. She was always interested in how different people heard a story, what worked for which people, since what often happened was the group would divide, but never with the same people on the same side, over what the writer (who was not allowed to speak) was saying, and whether or not it worked, and how it might work better. This made it clear that we were not writing for everyone (if only two people in the circle got it, you might realize that you needed to rewrite, or you might realize that those two were the people you were writing for), that writing was not a popularity contest, and that writing was not a way to get patted on the head by a prominent critic. (I was probably not the only one to regard Ursula that way, even though she refused the role.*)

She also was open to feedback/critique about her own work. I saw an example in the workshops, where she once gave us one of her own short short pieces to critique (and revised it in response), but readers can also see it in the way Earthsea changes in the books that follow the trilogy. In the later books she retells the history of magic and the role of gender, and ends with a story that completely alters the relationship of life and death in that land. You can also see her openness to feedback in the change in generic pronouns in a short story about the planet Winter, written in response to feminist readers telling her that the use of ‘he’ in her award-winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, didn’t make them think in terms of androgyny, but of men. Ursula came at the problem from a different angle in her revisions for the audio version of the novel, which she read herself for books on tape. (And if anyone can find me one, please let me know.)

In short: She was an open, generous, warm hearted, no-bullshit woman. We were lucky to have had her.

*Ursula did assume the role of expert as a writing instructor – she passed on what she had learned about how to write (see Steering the Craft for a book version of her workshops).

Imagining hope, the healers

There’s a great line somewhere in the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, where the author is talking to a Hmong man about what he looks for in a doctor, and the man says he wants someone who will listen to him and care about him. That is what I found with each of these healers, who worked to alleviate or clear up chronic health problems, as well as helping me in times of crisis. None of them has a 100% success rate, but all of them have healed me of health problems that allopathic doctors had treated without success. Since most of my life has been spent in New England, that’s where they are – except for Dr. Kim, who has moved to Oklahoma City. If you live nearby or plan to get your kicks on Route 66, you can visit Dr. Kim. Dr. Moskowitz and Susan Kippen are in the Boston and South Shore area, and both work long distance (over the phone).

Susan Kippen, at South Shore Natural Healing, does energy work, including reiki, cranial-sacral, tapping, hypnotherapy, chakra clearing, etc., and even shamanic work, although she doesn’t call it that. Her ‘natural healing’ includes a kind of spiritual counseling. To give only one example of her superpowers: she was able to rid me of a recurring nightmare in about 15 minutes, by finding the reason for it, and removing it. (Yup.) The icing on the cake is that Susan is a very down-to-earth person. She is also funny, warm, smart, keeps her fees low, and is good with children as well as adults. (Actually, that sentence applies to all three of these healers.)

Dr. Richard Moskowitz, in Watertown, MA, was one of the forerunners of the homeopathic revival in New England back in the day (1970s?). He is also an MD, and if what he prescribes doesn’t work, he’ll try another remedy, and if it still doesn’t work (this is rare), suggest another kind of alternative (or not) medicine. He has no axe to grind. At the intake session, which takes 1½ or 2 hours, he asks questions, including what frightens you, what makes you cry, what makes you feel better when you’re ill, and so on and so forth, to focus in on your homeopathic type. Once he’s got that, he can work with you to clear up chronic conditions. He can also prescribe homeopathic remedies for non-chronic illness over the phone. Twice, now, he’s been able to cure me long distance of dread cold-flu type diseases I got after a cross-country plane trip. Considering how shitty I felt, and how quickly they worked (between 3 and 8 hours), these homeopathic cold/flu remedies felt like miracle cures.

Dr. Myung Chill Kim, now in Oklahoma City, uses acupuncture in conjunction with Chinese herbal remedies; he also teaches Tai Chi and Qi Gong meditation and is a martial artist. During the year I worked with him on his book about cancer I was able to see him for treatment every week, and during that time I had no insomnia. He also got me through the last time I quit smoking – talked me down after I coughed up blood, prescribed a Chinese herbal remedy that stopped that symptom immediately, and gave acupuncture treatments to help with addiction and fear.

All three of these people listen, they care, and they cure.

*The book is about Hmong in the US, focusing on one family and their epileptic child, and the lack of understanding between the Hmong and the US medical system that led to disaster.

November 3, 2008*

pam's paOn the day after the Day of the Dead, I had a cup of coffee with Dad.

I had already cleared the altar – a shelf in the kitchen – of the food I had set out for the ancestors: the bowls of homemade soup, the whole wheat bread with butter, the gingerbread and coffee.

The coffee was for Dad. He thought coffee was a food group. In the months before he died, he would lie in bed late every morning and holler to my mother in the kitchen, “Caaaaw-feeeeee, caaaaw-feee!” Meaning hurry up and bring it now. He was dying so he could get away with that.

I had gotten him the best: a Costa Rican bean, light roast, ground fine. Even though Day of the Dead was over, I figured Dad would want a morning cup before his return trip, and would stick around for it. I no longer drink coffee, but I had a cup too. As I clinked his cup I stared at the photos I had put up – in one he has his chin raised, and he stares back at the camera, his eyes very blue. He looks forbidding and remote. In the other one he’s outside, with trees and an overcast sky behind him. He looks up from beneath the brim of his tweed hat, both his hands up to adjust the brim. He’s smiling a little. The position of his hands on the brim is like a double salute, like he’s saying, okay kid, over to you now.

I talk to both pictures. I fill him in on the past years, a lot of little stuff about what I’m doing and thinking, how his granddaughter is doing. I tell him that I haven’t seen Mom in a while, but I call her every couple of weeks. Mom and I seem to manage better that way. I don’t cry or blame or apologize – I did that yesterday. Today is more like when I used to go home and he would walk me around the yard to show me how all the plants and trees in the yard were coming along. Only this time it’s me doing the show and tell.

I write him a check, like he always did for me. I tell him it’s so he can take out the other ancestors to someplace really nice, a restaurant with a great view and excellent food – that was always his idea of heaven – on the way back. I burn the check over the sink until it’s turned entirely to ashes, making sure he gets it all.

Then I say goodbye for now, and wash the cups.

*This was first published in Tim Devin‘s zine, I left this here for you to read, issue #6. Tim left these zines in bus stations, in dentist’s offices, on park benches, and wherever, around Somerville, Boston, and Cambridge.


MassArt back in the day

The outtake called “Shards” was inspired by the printmakers and the studio in the Overland Building at MassArt, circa 1977-1981

I was 28 years old and my daughter was 3 when I started school at Massachusetts College of Art. Back then MassArt rented space in the Kenmore Square area, near Fenway Park and music clubs like The Rat. Most of us lived at home, and many of us were over 25 (I think the oldest student was a painter who was pushing 70). We joked that our ‘campus’ was the drunk guy who was always passed out on the doorstep of the Overland building near Fenway Park. We could tell when the Red Sox had lost because irate fans would throw rocks at the windows on the way back to their cars, and we’d have to clear the broken glass off the presses the next day. One of the litho presses had a kick like a mule; you had to really hold onto the bar or it could smash your hand. And the heat could be iffy; I remember making prints in my winter coat. People brought their dogs to class, and sometimes their small children. Tuition cost about $200 a semester. Most of us had part-time jobs, lived cheap, and got the BEOG, a federal grant for low-income students. We were happy to be there.

A few years ago I visited the new printmaking department – state of the art equipment, excellent ventilation, and the space was organized, spacious, and clean. Plus the school itself was no longer under imminent threat – MassArt now has plenty of more-or-less permanent space, and doesn’t have to rely on the legislature to vote funding for it every year, or on a landlord to keep rents reasonable. And instead of 2D and 3D being separate, in buildings a mile apart, the whole school is housed together under one roof. This is probably an improvement.

But it’s the old printmaking studio on Overland Street that inspired the printmaking co-op in Groping for Luna and The Night Trippers. It wasn’t pretty, but it had ambience. It was home.

Paul Dobbs, Director of the Morton R. Godine Library at MassArt, was kind enough to read the above and do some fact-checking. He writes that, back in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s: “the Overland and Fullerton Buildings were rented, but the Longwood Building at the corner of Brookline and Longwood Avenues had been built for MassArt in 1929 and was state property on state-owned land. It was probably only or maybe even less than half of the square feet of the college in those days, but, still, it was a ‘permanent campus.’”

“We continue to be substantially state-funded, but we are less at the mercy of the legislature’s year-to-year whimsy because of a new arrangement forged by our last president, Kay Sloan. Called the “New Partnership Plan” this arrangement keeps state funding more stable and enables us to self-fund to a certain degree. (MassArt’s obligation under the Plan is to monitor and adhere to certain performance standards, like graduation ratios, and we have been meeting and exceeding those so far.)

“All college programs are now housed in state-owned buildings formally assigned by the state to the college. So, yes, as much as anything is permanent in Massachusetts public higher education, our current buildings are.”