Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Farewell, Summer

My favorite author died today. I had sort of forgotten that he held that distinction in my life. I had convinced myself for a while that it was now Michael Chabon, that I had grown beyond the days when Ray Bradbury was #1, but his death brought it all back. There is no author I have read more of. There is no author who has had a deeper impact on my emotions and on my development as a person. And while I've enjoyed everything I've read of his, no book has ever changed me as much as Dandelion Wine. So this will not be an obituary for Ray; this will be a celebration of what I believe to be his greatest work.

Dandelion Wine is the story of a summer, told through the eyes of Douglas Spaulding. Douglas is a boy about to hit adolescence and excited for the season ahead. It starts out as a celebration of the joys of boyhood and life, but as the summer goes on certain things start to fall apart. The trolley that the boys love closes down. Their favorite machine at the arcade breaks. Douglas' best friend moves away. Each individual moment is small, but as they pile on they build up to a breakdown, as Douglas comes to the realization that everything in life ends. And as Douglas works through that he begins the transition from boy to man.

I always thought my love of Dandelion Wine was a little obscure. When you think of Bradbury you think of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, in that order. But it turns out there is a strong following of passionate lovers of this book. It makes sense; I read it and it touched me deeply. Inspired by its tale of youth and life I've traveled to Chicago to see a children's theater adaptation of the story, road-tripped to Waukegan, Illinois to hunt down locations from the book, searched far and wide for the eponymous wine, and I even wrote a mediocre piece for piano and double bass based on an excerpt of the book in a 20th century music class. Turns out I'm not the only one. I found a tumblr today where people simply post their favorite quotes from the book. Reading through and seeing how many of these favorite quotes were my favorites as well, I was deeply moved by the way a story can affect so many different people. I'm not ashamed to admit that as I scrolled through I cried for about 20 minutes straight.

In my lifetime I've owned probably seven or eight copies of Dandelion Wine. At one point I envisioned myself forming a collection, one copy of every edition ever released. So I hunted through used book stores, always going immediately to the science fiction section (an incorrect classification that greatly frustrated both myself and Mr. Bradbury) with my fingers crossed that I'd have the chance to drop another 2.50 on some yellowed paperback. But they never stayed in my possession long. Whenever I found someone struggling in life, someone caught in the limbo between the joy and the despair, I gave them a copy and told them to read it. And when they tried to give it back, I told them to pass it on to someone else. Almost everyone who has made it through high school owns a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye; everyone should own a copy of Dandelion Wine. Because I honestly believe this book is - to steal a title from one of Bradbury's short story collections – a medicine for melancholy.

I have never found a better description of depression than Douglas' experience near the end of Dandelion Wine. He is running a very high fever, is deathly ill and – in the world before air conditioning – his family is forced to put his bed out on the front lawn to try and cool him and keep him alive. But it is not the fever that is killing him. It is his realization, moving out of childhood and into adolescence, of what life really is. Your friends move away. The toys you love break and the places you love close down. Your grandparents die. Your parents die. You die. Summer does not last, no matter how tight you hold on. Life is hard, and life is sad, and there is nothing you can do about it.

But every part of life is essential. You embrace the good with the bad. The sadness, the pain, it is just like the bitterness of the dandelion wine. But you drink it anyway, because it reminds you of summer, it reminds you of the joy and the power of life:
I want to feel all there is to feel, he thought. Let me feel tired, now, let me feel tired. I mustn't forget, I'm alive, I know I'm alive, I mustn't forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that.

Douglas is saved by the junkman, Mr. Jonas. who carries around a cart of oddities to trade and sell. He gives Douglas vials of air from exotic locations all over the world, to restore his life. But it is not the magical air that saves Douglas, it is Mr. Jonas' magical words. The wisdom that Douglas is not alone in feeling the crushing weight of the world. He tells him, in my absolute favorite quote from the book:

Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.

It is this knowledge that heals our protagonist. And it is this knowledge that has healed me, again and again and again. Thank you, Mr. Bradbury. Thank you for telling an adolescent, and for now reminding a man that, yes, it is okay to feel this way. It is okay to be this way. We can't have summer without fall. We can't have life without sadness. Everyone dies. But it still sucks that you had to. I'll be thinking of you this summer as I run and swim and jump and love and laugh and try my damnedest to stay a kid until I'm 91.

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