In 1977, we came together due to a death, and now she has died.
Ursula never much enjoyed a fuss–certainly seemed suspicious of hero-worship when it was directed at her. But now that she’s gone over to the mysterious beyond, she can’t give me that sidelong look and mutter, “Oh come on, Luisito.” So I’ll say it: not many people become legends–even fewer are legends while still alive. When I met her, she was already legendary. In spite of her raised eyebrow, I thought I’d tell you about it.
I was a lost boy. I didn’t know who I was. I was in college, trying to figure out what to do. I think almost all of my UCSD experience was one of confusion and refusal to acknowledge existential terror. I believed deep down that I was always going to be a struggling Tijuana and Logan Heights kid. My fate was to be working jobs I hated, secretly writing in my notebooks for lovers who didn’t understand what I wanted to say. I thought I had somehow fooled the college into taking me, and I had also fooled my friends into thinking I was some kind of art-savant. Because I had nothing else. I clung to friends and the arts like a life-line. I didn’t even believe in God anymore. And then, in my senior year, my father died.
I won’t belabor it here–many of you know the story already. But some of it is central to the Ursula story. In short, my dad had gone to Mexico to retrieve money from his bank to give me a graduation gift. And on the long drive back to the United States, he fell afoul of some Federales and local cops in Sonora. He died awfully in their care. And then they sold me his corpse. He cost me $750.
The details of those days are ugly. Suffice it to say that by the time I got home, I had forgotten certain words in English. My bestie, Rick Elias, was waiting for me at my house. He couldn’t stop laughing because I had returned with a heavy Tijuana accent, and he thought I was kidding. Because I was always kidding. But I wasn’t kidding this time–I was broken.
All-clear: drama has passed. Let’s continue. Enter, Ursula.
Of course, I was addicted to The Earthsea Trilogy. So when Mad Dog Lowry Pei, the hippest professor at UCSD, told me Ursula was coming to lead a workshop, I lost my mind. I know now that her name translated as “Hope” for me in those benighted days. I didn’t think I was going to become famous. I was going to be right beside greatness. Like getting some sun on my face. I thought I was going to be blessed with some kind of grace.
After abandoning my boyhood fantasies of being Jim Morrison, Steve McQueen, Salvador Dali, or B Kliban, I was all in on this writing thing. I had always been the writingest writing fool anywhere. But it was time for me to make a choice–dabble in all my enthusiasms, or focus in with what ferocity I had in me. I thought I’d be hiding my notebooks in my lunch bucket as I trudged off to work every day. I may not have been as talented as some of the writers around me–Kim Stanley Robinson, David Brin–but I was writing because I believed I would die if I didn’t. Pei knew this. Pei was merciful in every way. And he knew the only way I could process my father’s slaughter was to write. When other professors urged me to “get over it,” Pei pushed me to write it–just write it better. And the troubled and deeply shadowed piece I wrote about this death , “Father Returns from the Mountain,” was delivered into Ursula’s hands by the Mad Dog.
And she took me into her workshop.
What did a legend look like? Ten feet tall? No, more like 5’2′. She was small, with that famous haircut. Slender, and greatly amused. Scary, too. She was diplomatic, and she strove to find the best part of our pieces, but she could not help pulling a face at some ridiculous outburst of ego. Muttering. I think she was keeping an eye on me–probably just some of that authorial hubris on my part, but I knew Pei had shared my recent travails with her. And one thing anyone who came to know her would tell you, even when she was at her most cranky, is that her heart was immense, and her sense of compassion was not just tucked into her books.
I made the first move. I workshopped a story early, wanting to just get to it and face my fate. Maybe I was showing off for Mom. I know I was. So I wrote some science fictional potboiler. It was so bad I don’t even have a copy of it anymore. But she singled out a passage for praise. I knew it was the only really good thing in the story because I had plagiarized it from her.
“That’s a very interesting bit of cultural detail,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “I stole it from you.”
“It comes from The Word for World is Forest.”
She stared at me like some irritated hawk. Then she exploded in laughter. That famous laughter.
“Excellent choice!” she noted.
She made the second move. After class, she said, “Luisito.” I must have tried to look dapper, collected. “Yes?” I no doubt squeaked. She waited till everyone had left. “I don’t like that fellow’s attitude,” she noted about one arrogant man-splainer in the class. “Do you?” Oh Hell no! “If only the writing were better,” she said. I rushed away as if Queen Elizabeth had just spared me. How shocked was I later that same day when Pei took me aside and told me, “We’re going to Le Guin’s apartment tonight.” I believe I shrieked: like a class visit??? And he smiled evilly and said, “No, man. Just you. And me.”
Here are my impressions of Ursula in her lair: the college had rented her an upstairs apartment at La Jolla Cove, up top, not far from Bishop’s School. I was scared but thrilled to be following Pei up there. A bit of a working class boy’s mystical journey–up a stairway at night, to the lair of the true Wizard of Earthsea.
I didn’t know enough in those days to keep a journal. My notebooks were crammed with “poems” and attempts to write Ray Bradbury and Richard Brautigan stories. I wish I had kept notes.
I sat on her floor, looking up at her. These three details blew my mind (aside from the fact that I was sitting on her floor looking up at her). One: she was so tiny, she sat sideways in her chair with her feet up. Two: she drank. Some amber liquor–I was not knowledgeable about booze. But it was some sort of yummy- looking whiskey. Rocks. In a square glass! How utterly sophisticated, I thought. And three: she lit up a pipe. No, not a hash pipe. A grandpa style pipe packed with aromatic pipe tobacco. I had never seen anything like it. In that one moment, I had seen her with the entire curtain pulled aside. She had decided to let me make believe I was her intimate equal.
I can’t remember all of it, of course. But I do know she gently prodded me into telling her the full story of my dad and my upbringing. And then she asked me who I was reading. I was a Harlan Ellison fanatic at that moment. “Ah, Harlan,” she said affectionately, yet ruefully. Like an auntie with a bad nephew. I rattled off all these names. And she took a puff and said, “Luisito, you need to be reading more women.” And I immediately joined a feminist literature class. And discovered Diane Wakoski’s poems in a used bin. Pei was quite satisfied because he was already forcing me to read Doris Lessing.
Then Ursula told me about her own journey. About how difficult it was to get published. To be taken seriously by the male guardians of publishing. She told us this amazing story about how she collected every rejection slip, and created a stack beside her desk. And the stack reached the writing surface of her desk before she sold her first piece. (I remembered this when my first book was rejected for ten straight years before anyone would publish it. Thank you, Ursula.)
Of all my favorite memories of Ursula, this is in the top ten: she said, “Once you read women, you must write about women. But don’t write about us like men do.” She pointed that pipe at me. “When men write about women, the woman in the story invariably pauses at a mirror and regards herself. And she says, ‘My God, my breasts are magnificent.’ Luisito–we don’t do that!” I actually fell over on her rug laughing. And I never forgot it.
In class, she said, “We writers are the raw nerve of the universe. Our job is to go out and feel things for people, then to come back and tell them how it feels to be alive. Because they are numb. Because we have forgotten.” In class, she said, “We have forgotten our rituals. Out tribal practices. There is no more tribe. We don’t know how to tell our elders our dreams around the morning fire. There is no morning fire. We can’t receive insight from the mothers.” Then she terrorized us by bringing Toni Morrison into the room to meet us.
What I didn’t mention to you was this: that night of the pipe and the whiskey, Ursula dropped Thor’s hammer on me. She praised my story. I remember exactly what she said, but she would never quote someone carrying on about her work. So I won’t, either. Enough that she said, “And I want to publish it. I am editing an anthology. May I buy it?” You know what I said. And that was when she started to train me to be a professional writer.
“You have a lot to learn how to do this,” she said. “I’m not going to be easy on you.”
Well, that was true.
Once, when I pulled a bit of writer-ego pique, she wrote me a simple note.
“Who the hell do you think you are?” she said.
She was right, of course.
We often communicated through cartoons. We passed notes like bad kids in Catechism class. She was quite fond of a character I had invented named Tiny Rhino. Turn out Ursula would have loved a rhino the size of a teacup Chihuahua in her handbag at all times. She was also critical of many things in modern culture. Being in San Diego from her beloved Thurman Street in Portland, she was appalled at what she considered to be fake Mexican food joints. Not a fan of Taco Bell or Del Taco. We invented a fast food chain named Bogo-Mex. “It’s Almost Mexican Food!” our ads boasted. This is what a Bogo-Mex would look like:
It was becoming time for her to return home. But there was one other top-ten moments before she left. Pei conspired for us to take her to Star Wars, which she hadn’t seen yet. Can you imagine? Ursula sideways in her seat, laughing and gobbling snacks. She’d poke me and explain the science errors in the movie. “When they go into hyper-space drive,” she noted, “those stars should turn blue. And when they slow down, they turn red.” She stared at me as if to ensure I remembered that when I wrote my own space opera. And at the end, when our heroes walk through a massive crowd cheering and yelling their worship, Ursula muttered, “That’s terrible. That’s like some high school graduation!” Though she liked Han Solo shooting Greedo.
You get the idea. I don’t deserve to write a book about her. Many, many people knew her better than I. I am seeing all kinds of encomiums about her in major publications and on big-time websites. I know people who attended to her personally and professionally. Who visited her home and sat for hours with her. I took her Taoist approach to heart, though. When I met her, I was studying Chinese poetry–Li Po, Wang Wei, Han-shan. She seemed like a wandering Tao master. And I didn’t feel I could encroach on her great work as much as I wanted to.
That being said, she sent me her new books. We sent each other cartoons. We fretted about mutual friends. We saw each other at various important, transformative moments in my life. Each time there was a major evolution about to happen, Ursula would appear. She called herself my Tia Osa–my Auntie Bear.
Still, if you don’t mind, I’d like to share three more great things. Then I’ll leave Tia Osa at peace. She has a whole universe to explore now. Can’t be hanging around here while we all mourn her.
If you recall the title of this piece, you might be wondering who Tolfink is. Well, in our endless note passing and letter writing, she often wrote a line in runes. Why not? Ursula, right? Like, fantasy and magic and all that. But the word was a name, and that name was Tolfink. If I ever needed to get word to her–or get through minders at a public event–I’d pass her a note addressed to Tolfink. She’d jump up and find me.
Of course there’s a story: Ursula visited an ancient cave in Druid country once. Being a playful absurdist, she invented the ideal name for that region of the UK: Bwilbury. Ha. Inside the cave, this long line of runes painstakingly chiseled into the wall. She asked what it said. Upon reflection, her guide said, “Tolfink was here.” Instant hero.
Years later, this picture was taken at the Oregon Literary Awards ceremony. I was lucky enough to be master of ceremonies that night.
I had told the audience that even with my wife in the audience, I had to confess that I was in love with one woman in the crowd. It was Ursula. When she came up to receive her award, she said, “You should believe everything this man writes. But don’t believe a word he says.”
And, finally, at a literary event in Bend. It was in honor of Ursula, of course. And at the reading in her honor, I read her “Father Returns from the Mountain.” We had been sitting together in the front row. She elbowed me a couple of times when people waxed too rhapsodic about her. “Oh God,” she muttered more than once. I had found the original mimeo-master I had typed it on–complete with hand-written notes. I carried that to the podium, and I said I was retiring it that night. Never to be read again. But that I had to read it to her.
When I sat back down, she just stared straight ahead. After a moment, she said, “Let me see that.” I handed it over. She thumbed through it. Handed it back. “It was a damned good story then,” she said. “And it’s a damned good story now.”
Thank you, Tolfink. You gave us all a better life. I know you’d shake your head a little, but let’s face it–you gave me a life. Lovely journeys to you. I’ll find you later.