My entry point into Ursula K. Le Guin’s creative nonfiction occurred more than a decade ago, via “The Space Crone.” I found the essay, the first in her nonfiction collection Dancing at the Edge of the World, when I was young, in my late twenties, when I still thought “crone” meant an elderly woman with supernatural abilities. Of course, Le Guin had something else in mind. In the essay she imagines a scenario wherein the captain of an alien spaceship requests the presence of a human for a return flight home. The right human for the honor, Le Guin muses, is not the type most will assume—a young male scientist or cosmonaut, for instance—but is instead a woman, a seemingly ordinary and somewhat domestic one that Le Guin might find behind the counter at Woolworth’s, and very old to boot. In fact: a crone, a woman who has been through menopause. Both the scenario and the essay itself are delightful as impudent, intellectual commentary on post-menopausal women—a demographic largely ignored in society and literature—and of whom Le Guin claims men are afraid.
In Le Guin’s essay, neither the words “crone” nor “menopause” belongs to the rhetoric of ageism. Crone is instead an honorific, and both words signal the vast and substantial phases a woman has lived through. Unlike her contemporary Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote The Coming of Age about her own aging and who viewed menopause as a “trauma,” fearing it would lead to “nothing constructive,” Le Guin views menopause as a necessary step on a woman’s path to fulfillment and freedom. Since men control their fear of a woman’s virginity through “fucking,” Le Guin writes, they “wilt and retreat” in the presence of a “fulfilled Crone,” who is no longer virginal or fertile. Only a crone has “experienced, accepted, and acted the entire human condition—the essential quality of which is Change.” In other words, menopause needn’t be feared and should instead be recognized as transformational, a significant component of a woman’s self-actualization, something men don’t achieve since they don’t live through a comparable experience, which leaves them in “poverty,” incapable of understanding the breadth of human experience. Le Guin writes:
She was a virgin once, a long time ago, and then a sexually potent fertile female, and then went through menopause. She has given birth several times and faced death several times—the same times. She is facing the final birth/death a little more nearly and clearly every day now.
Insofar as their bodies and minds will let them, Le Guin says old women who are “facing the final birth/death” can do and say as they like, and this is power. (Le Guin died in 2018, having authored twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, thirteen children’s books, six volumes of poetry and four volumes of translation. She was eighty-eight.) While in some ways what Le Guin imagines in “The Space Crone” reaffirms heteronormativity—she assumes an old woman has given birth and imagines that the spaceship companion must be either male or female—she also forges ahead into Old Age, one of the last frontiers of feminist studies, subverting conventional, negative notions of aging that still dominate Western society.
When I was in my twenties, I didn’t give aging much thought, but now at forty-five and experiencing perimenopause, I’m confronted with it—or at least the “symptoms” of a natural bodily progression—every week. Le Guin wrote “The Space Crone” when she was still young, in her forties and a mother, like me, and though she was “going through the change,” she was not yet menopausal. I wondered: what did she say and do once she herself was a crone? Did her bold claims prove true for her once she reached this third and final signpost?
No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a curated collection of the nonfiction blog posts Le Guin began writing in 2010 and published in 2017, at a time when she’d been living for a while in the metaphorical Menopause Manor, described in “The Space Crone” as more than a “defensive stronghold.” Le Guin’s narrative persona in No Time To Spare is complicated: a self-labeled “old crabby pants,” a worrier—“Mostly the fears predominate these days,” she writes—caring, funny, eloquent, and of course, audacious. She is also, like the Space Crone, enjoying the freedoms of old age, which she views in “The Space Crone” as a resurgence, and in No Time to Spare, she writes in the introduction that she is enjoying the freedom essaying brings her. Though, she is quick to point out, only the young and middle-aged equate spare time with free time. She writes: “In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.”
No Time to Spare is divided into four parts, each containing several blog posts. In Part One, aptly titled “Going Over Eighty,” Le Guin explicitly addresses the grim realities of having an aging body. She writes: “An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome.” Discussing her ability to go for walks with her husband she says: “after a few blocks I go lame on the left hind.” Old age is not sentimental or romanticized in No Time to Spare. The crone might be compassionate, sensible, and wise, able to explain the complexities of human life to an alien species, but any such gained wisdom is threatened by the natural consequences of physical and mental aging. What this book isn’t, however, is an aging memoir, one that might explore an elderly writer’s compunctions, age-related medical issues, or fear of mortality. Le Guin, a devoted Taoist—and the creator of Ged, who only becomes the Earthsea series’ hero by reconciling with his own mortality—accepts death as a given, the necessary balance to having lived.
In the remaining three parts of the book, “The Lit Biz,” “Trying to Make Sense of It,” and “Rewards,” where the subjects range from literary criticism, gender politics, interludes titled “The Annals of Pard” which feature her rescue cat Pard, feminism, an environment in ruin, imaginative literature, capitalism, and more, she sometimes subtly reminds us that old age is now part of her identity, though aging isn’t addressed as explicitly as it is in Part One. In a chapter in Part Four, Le Guin reflects on her irritation at adults who still lament the day they learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real, writing: “I am opening my mouth now because I am too old to be lovable.” Like The Space Crone, Le Guin can say what she wants, and in this particular chapter Le Guin opens her mouth to say that it’s not “the loss of belief” in Santa Claus that’s lamentable, but the fact that that we expect children to “believe a falsehood.” Instead, she urges us to replace belief with knowledge and myth with fact. This becomes a continuing theme throughout her book, especially as it relates to old age, though it’s sometimes framed as the relationship between religion and science. Reflecting on her old age, she writes: “…if I’m left groping in confusion, unable to tell the real from the imagined, if I lose what I know and the capacity to learn, I hope I die.” For Le Guin, nothing is more important than the knowledge one has gained.
Sweet, nurturing, platitude-accepting granny Le Guin is not. She isn’t amused by posters that are meant to be inspirational, showing extremely fit people in their seventies having just finished a marathon. Some elderly might be marathoners and weightlifters, but just as many are likely to struggle getting out of the bathtub. Le Guin isn’t writing to comfort readers’ fears about old age, which she says prevents young people from really seeing “geezers”: They “don’t know what they are,” almost as if they were a “different species.” Le Guin also writes about the pitfalls of ageist clichés and having too much of a rosy outlook, and in particular, she throws a few punches at the common saying “You’re only as old as you think you are!” which she wryly notes is only spoken by the young. “Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires,” she writes. “Fear is seldom wise and never kind.” And: “To tell me my old age doesn’t exist is to tell me I don’t exist. Erase my age, you erase my life—me.” Reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Le Guin argues that optimism and its palliative effects have their limits. We are reminded that Le Guin aims to make the crone more visible, not less, and that we need to value the crone for simply being. “Let age be age,” Le Guin writes, “Let your old relative or old friend be who they are.”
In a 2014 interview with John Freeman published at Lit Hub, Le Guin remarked that old age “gets written about by people who aren’t old and they imagine what it’s like to be and they don’t get it right.” In No Time to Spare, Le Guin seems intent on getting it right. She writes that “imaginative literature” says to our world: “It doesn’t have to be the way it is.” This championing of and urging for change are echoed throughout the book in nearly every chapter. What if, Le Guin asks us, old women don’t become invisible once their perceived beauty, sex appeal, industrial value, and fertility are gone, but, like men, are recognized as whole beings, appreciated for the experiences and knowledge they’ve accumulated, the changes they’ve been through?
Only the crone has transformed with each of the three distinct stages of her life—loss of virginity, giving birth, and menopause—and thus, has insights into what even the most worshipped men and youth of any gender are oblivious to. The crone, Le Guin writes, “must become pregnant with herself, at last. She must bear herself, her third self, her old age, with travail and alone. Not many will help her with that birth.” Only after years of reading her fiction and nonfiction and, finally, No Time to Spare, did the realization crystallize for me: Ursula K. Le Guin has long been our Space Crone.