For Word on Fire blog contributor Ellyn von Huben, summertime means books. Sometimes they're new, sometimes they're old, but they're always worthwhile. Today she reflects on author Ray Bradbury, who passed away last week at the age of 91.
Summertime, and the living's easy.
And what makes it easy, when faced with heat, humidity, mosquitoes? Because when school is out, you have unlimited time to read anything you want. I have been out of school for a long, long time but that summertime reading feeling has persisted long past the last diploma, long past the days of the library summer reading club where we each ‘grew’ construction paper caterpillars with a segment for each book read.
When the days grow longer and warmer I start to consider my summertime reads, which usually includes rereading favorites. Some Shirley Jackson, E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” and of course, Walker Percy’s “Love in the Ruins.”
The sad news of the death of Ray Bradbury not only touched me, but nudged me to put that long ago favorite “Dandelion Wine” on my reread list. Oh, how I loved that book. I read it over many summers, enjoying the nostalgic picture it painted. Those I considered to be ‘scary’ parts made it perfect for hot summer nights. My neighborhood gang (and I use gang in the happy, suburban 1960’s sense) had even endeavored to make our own dandelion wine. This was a comic disaster, as we clearly had not absorbed from our reading that it is the petals of the dandelion that are crushed and distilled to create the elixir for winter. We wound up with a tub of decaying dandelion greens. The odor became too disgusting, and we moved on to some other adventure.
Feeling sentimental, I asked whoever was lurking about my house to give me their reflections on Ray Bradbury. One of my daughters used this as an opportunity to rant about how much she despised “The Martian Chronicles” My husband had no literary memories—good or bad—to offer, but he did remind me that he had the honor of meeting Mr. Bradbury at an event sponsored by those seeking to preserve the original Carnegie Library of Bradbury’s Waukegan, Ill., youth: “He was a nice man.” OK, that’s useful. And now I wonder why I wasn’t invited—maybe it was best due to my tendency to prattle—I would have started gushing about “Dandelion Wine” and would need to be led away. And of his love of libraries? There isn’t room here to talk about his support of libraries. Don’t even get me started. If I had not cared for a single bit of his fiction I would still laud him for his musings about libraries.
So what is it about a story of the summer of two young boys in a fictional place called Green Town (but we all know it was Waukegan) that goes to the heart? It is simple pleasures of summertime, which contain joy, sorrow, youth and old age, and mixes in a bit of terror (the Tarot Witch made me sleep with a light on more than once) and fantasy. For protagonist Douglas Spaulding (a fictionalized young Bradbury) and the reader, this is distilled into an elixir of reality, delivering the news that death is the earthly end for all. Summer fun countered with Douglas’s, and thus our, sleepy epiphany: “So if trolleys and runabouts and friends and near friends can go away for a while or go away forever, or rust, or fall apart or die, and if people can be murdered, and if someone like great-grandma, who was going to live forever, can die . . .if all of this is true…then…I, Douglas Spaulding some day, must…”
The dandelion is so simply pretty and always a sweet harbinger of spring. As kids, we played the usual games of rubbing a dandelion on one’s chin to see if we liked butter. It was Wisconsin in the days before cholesterol consciousness; honestly, everybody liked butter and you didn’t have to be Paula Deen to have the vivid yellow of the blooms color your chin. We were happy to cooperate with nature’s genius for reproduction, blowing on blooms gone to seed to make a wish. Of course, there were adults, those harbingers of age and responsibility, calling out to us to please not help spread the dandelions around. But those were the days when parents fought the dandelion war one plant at a time, with poison probes and forked digging devices. Dandelions, for the time, prevailed.
The idea of Mary Gardens has fascinated me, though I am not much of a gardener. How interesting to find that even the lowly dandelion has a place in the Mary Garden, representing “Mary’s bitter sorrow.” There could be a whole treatise lurking here; the pristine suburban obsession with the eradication of the pesky dandelion contrasted with a culture that would prefer not to join Mary in her moment of bitter sorrow, and would rather jump to Easter morning. Not that I will be the one to write it.
As I sat down to write this I did a little Internet snooping about Bradbury’s spiritual life. As is often said these days, “haters gonna hate.” Many were happy to quote from a Bradbury novel and assume that it was Bradbury’s spirituality: “The minute you get a religion you stop thinking. Believe in one thing too much and you have no room for new ideas.” But Bradbury, raised nominally Baptist, described himself as a “delicatessen religionist.” That comes across as a bit too simplistic. We see a man filled with love, who loved the Gospel of John, whose writing was populated with Christ figures. He knew from whence his life and career came: "I sit there and cry because I haven't done any of this," he told Sam Weller, his biographer and friend. "It's a God-given thing, and I'm so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is, 'At play in the fields of the Lord.' "
Astrology is piffle but astronomy opens our eyes to the glory of God. So I see a certain beauty in a writer, of rare talent, to leave us during the rare Transit of Venus. Pray that he finds lux aeterna, and that our kind and merciful Lord will grant him eternal rest. And let that next dandelion you see remind you to pray for him rather than merely lament a lapse in the dandelion eradication conspiracy.
Ellyn von Huben is a contributor to the Word on Fire Catholic Ministries blog.