"Only in silence, the word /
Only in dark, the light /
Only in dying life /
Bright the Hawk's flight on the empty sky"
-Ursula K. Le Guin -"The Creation of Ea"
In my last post, I quote one of my living heroes, Gary Snyder, a philosopher king, the founder of the "bear shit on the trail"-school of poetry, an artist marrying prayer and environmental activism long before our present days, while living his values out upon the high peaks & high ridges. The quote posits that in this society, in our "civilization", our elders are books. In a world unmoored from traditional structures of inter-generational society, their authors, and other artists, musicians, creators, too are our elders. And some, are so profound to our experience as people, that they become our heroes.
I don't have many heroines, but the ones I have, mean the world to me. Many have been with me almost my whole life, through breakups, endless summer nights, milestones, tedious grinds, daily insults, and the lightning strike moments. I've known them and their characters longer than my best friends, my husband, or my beloved teachers. Actually, many of them were my first teachers about this world, and others. Their work, their words, music, and actions, have saved me countless times throughout my life. I've carried them with me in my pockets, suitcases, and backpacks, and headphones, and on postcards. Some I carry on my skin. Others I carry in my heart.
Heroes are people who birth worlds and words that alter our thinking, that challenge our perceptions, and create new ways for us to see.
A heroine isn't simply someone I admire for their bravery, eloquence, or some other talent, or quality they have. To me, a hero is someone who embodies not just their particular gift, but something larger-than-themselves. They're someone uses their gift in service of something bigger than themselves, in devotion to principles, craft, grit, and joy. The world is full of wonderful people, worthy of admiration, but very few of them our heroes. Heroes, they march to their own beat. In fact, often they march to some celestial, otherworldly beat the rest of us can't hear for decades, or sometimes centuries.
They don't need to stand on pedestals, be fawned over, or form cults of personality. Real heroes are forever baffled over their popularity, if they notice it at all, if it even reaches them during their lifetimes.
Heroines don't affirm our world-views, or self-image. They're often not in our affiliate-group. And they don't always carry a flaming sword, or rise to the occasion in a way that gets reported in the nightly news. They walk into our dark rooms with candles lit, light up in us what we need to see, and change our internal landscapes irrevocably.
Often I register the collective grief over the death of public figures, from a distance. When famous people die, we as society take the opportunity to participate in ancient collective grief practice. Those occasions are one of the few opportunities we have for that. But more often than not, I find myself being less-than emotionally involved in the person themselves; grateful for their work, if it meant something to me. Last year's spate of deaths of musicians didn't feel personal to me; it simply made me appreciate the music these people created more. Maybe that is the difference between authors and musicians: songs are part of our daily lives, books are Other Worlds we escape into, and emerge on the other side, tattered and different.
Of course all of the works of others that touch us are meaningful; healing, art, community building, activism, teaching, invention, scholarship, but some works go beyond a touch. Some people's work moves mountains within us. They help raise us, play a hand in who we are, without ever meeting us in physical space.
That is not say that heroes can't be ordinary folk. In fact, they must be. It is only their effect on us that makes them seem larger-than-life. But in order to tap into their power, they must, in fact, be deeply human, with all the flaws that come with that. Their work inspires us to push past our ordinary bounds. Our heroes are the ones who inspire us to do the things we ourselves consider heroic feats.
One of my longest standing heroines passed onto the other side today. It could be said she simply went home to the stars, to the empty sky.
Ursula K. Le Guin came into my life when I was 8-years-old, and unlike most other adults, she never lied to me. She told stories about magic that were as real as my own real life. She taught me my first lessons about gifts, pride, about magic, responsibility, and joy in one's craft, and a lot of about the relationship of light and shadow. She taught me more about death than any adult I knew would for years. She was there to hold my hand the first time someone I loved passed away. Most importantly, her work told me that there where wider worlds out there than the one I was forced inhabit. That there is no edge to the world, because beyond that edge there are...well...dragons.
She was not as prominent in the wider cultural consciousness as some feminist authors, and her work was respected, but there were parts of it never fit into how we perceive "literature", not the least because she wrote "science fiction". Her school for aspiring young wizards wasn't as famous as some later ones, and her work had a decidedly intellectually demanding edge, and a radical, unapologetic tone. She did not fit into the narrow confines of genres, dominant ideas, or even the human-centricness of our expectations. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote some unflinchingly real books about utterly visionary topics, the histories of places and people who've not yet lived, dizzyingly animistic points-of-view, and spells that became true the moment she put them onto paper.
Her work may have been in children's books, poems scattered across many decades, hard to categorize on the shelves of libraries, not always explicit, or sound-bite ready, but much of what I learned from her as a child, a teenager, a young adult, about activism, writing, justice, prejudice, magic, darkness, light, and the mythical mind, still informs who I am today.
Tonight I'm going to light a candle for her. My mourning for her passing, is a celebration of her work. The minds she's touched. The spirits she's lifted. The tricks she's played.
She is my heroine.
"Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home."
- Ursula LeGuin-
WHO ARE YOUR HEROINES / HEROES?