The usefulness of not–How empty space becomes powerful

Red Rock sedona

“Thirty spokes
 meet in a hub
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.”
~Ursula Le Guin, Lao Tsu, Te Ching

 

I am working my way through Ursula Le Guin’s translation of Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. She had loved this classic epic, and learned Chinese so that she could portray the work from a more feminine, less patriarchal, perspective.

Le Guin’s Tao is not a book that you can skim through, and I relish that in our frenetic Internet environment.

This morning I came across a passage describing the “usefulness of not,” the concept that what is put into the empty pot is more worthwhile than the container, or the way that an empty house is enriched by its inhabitants.

Wind can be such an empty space. What it touches will change visually and perceptibly, yet the wind itself is invisible.

For instance, I once lived on a hill above the mouth of a canyon. Each morning before dawn the air was still, holding its breath, waiting. The sun rose, dusting the red rocks on the canyon walls with light, and the wind started to move.

It touched each tree in a different pattern. The young bamboo outside my window shifted in the sunlight, each leaf dancing to its own rhythm.  At the end of the yard, a cypress and the old junipers were measured and deliberate in their approach, their branches ponderous in the wind’s wake.

The wind sound had an ebb and flow, like the ocean waves, only slower. It gathered momentum far away in the canyon, mixing with the murmur of the creek, low now after the winter snow melt. And then it gathered speed like a train rushing to make its next destination, roaring towards me.

Birds caromed off the wind’s currents, banking like a race drivers entering steep curves. Their flight accelerated in the wind as their wings became billowing sails. The sunlight glinted off their bodies before they disappeared against the backdrop of dark rocks.

Higher in the sky, the wind current divided a flock of bluebirds, then pushed them together once more, in a symphony of theme, motif, and recapitulation. Ravens lifted to greet the morning sun, their heavier bodies braced against unexpected currents.

And then the wind gentled, having had its morning gallop, and the life around me settled to a morning peace.

Our lives are like the birds and the trees, blown off our planned course by currents we sense, but cannot predict.

Sometimes it may be wise to suspect the obvious that we see and rather embrace intuition of what we feel.

Book Review: Ursula Le Guin, No Time to Spare

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What MattersNo Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ms. Le Guin, who recently passed away, wrote this collection of essays published in 2017 when she was in her mid-80s. It is a wakeup call to older authors that the writing life lasts as long as the words can be put cogently upon paper!

Le Guin’s essays are sharp, funny, and filled with wisdom.

Being a cat person myself, I was delighted to hear of the adventures of her new cat, Pard. One of her essays begins, “Last Thursday night, Pard woke me up about 3 a.m. by bringing his real, live mouse toy onto the bed so I could play with it, too.”

Upon receiving a questionnaire from Harvard asking about her spare time, she replies, “I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen…” she goes on listing activities, ending with, “lying down for an afternoon rest..with my own slightly crazy cat occupying the regions between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.”

When asked about old age, Le Guin said her pet peeve are the ads portraying “typical” older people with airbrushed wrinkles skiing diamond slopes or running ultra-marathons. What about the rest of us? she questions.

An excellent read, as Le Guin gives an unsparingly honest reflection upon our lives and the times in which we live.