Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dandelion Wine

The summer of 1971, I was 11 years old.  Sixth grade was behind me.  "Middle school" loomed ahead.  Both parents worked.  I and my two sisters were tended to by a nanny.  Her name was Mary.  Her son's, John and Jerry had been my playmates on and off for years.  I lived To Kill a Mockingbird and I'll Fly Away.

I woke every day that summer by 7:30.  I cooked my own breakfast--cereal, or cinnamon toast, or toasted cheese--and by 9:00 every morning I was in the garden.  I hoed and harvested tomatoes, squash, okra, radish.  With cousins who lived two houses up the road, I built "forts" in the field beside our home--areas where the near-head-high (to an 11-year-old) rabbit tobacco plants were bent down at the end of a maze of an entry path.  I played spin-the-bottle and got into all manner of other trouble with female cousins and neighbors.  (When I consider the freedom we had to wander back then, I consider it a wonder we survived.  Clearly none of us think our own children capable of the same responsibility at such early ages.)

But my favorite memory of that summer consists of the reading I did lying in bed each morning, enjoying that last fleeting hour of coolness before the sweltering southern summer sun turned house and world both into a place where any clothing more than cutoff jeans and a wholly optional tee shirt were too much to bear.  I remember Dandelion Wine and The Martian Chronicles.  And by remember, what I mean is, I remember that I read them, and that I enjoyed the former in particular, tremendously. As for the action of either, I've not a clue.

Fast forward forty years.

Tonight, out walking with the family after dinner, the air was laden with the smells of summer in the country.  I live in the city mind you, or what native Richmonders refer to as "the near west end."  I laugh at that.  Four blocks "nearer" and it would be in The Fan, and no one disputes that as being essentially in the city.  But the alleys here are alive with the smell of flowers, of cut grass, of treated wooden fences, of the dirt beneath your feet, of gardenia, magnolia, and honeysuckle's last gasp.  Rabbits run down the alley before you and squirrels scold from fence top.

And if you close your eyes and take a deep breath, you can travel through time to a summer of lazy mornings, food fresh from the garden, Royal Blue spray paint and fresh bearing grease applied to a boy's bicycle, crawdads snatched from beneath flat rocks in streams about to be dammed to create perfect ponds for skinny-dipping deep in the hollows of grandparent's old homesteads.  You can smell the leather of new wallets perfect for tucking away money earned pricing groceries in a family store--money saved with the object of a new RCA clock radio in mind.

And you can wake again the next day to that clock radio, pull the paperback book from the nightstand, and embrace again a dawning day and the beginnings of a lifelong love of the wonder of the written word.

All in a breath, if the right four-year-old is tugging at your finger to show you the treasure of newly discovered unidentifiable metal plucked from the otherwise inconspicuous dirt of the roadway.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


I posted this months ago, but a critical piece of it was misunderstood, and so I took it down.  The misreading behind that should no longer be possible, so, here it is, to stay I hope.
catharsis [(kuh- thahr -suhs)]

An experience of emotional release and purification, often inspired by or through art. In psychoanalysis, catharsis is the release of tension and anxiety that results from bringing repressed feelings and memories into consciousness.

--The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Reading The World According to Garp, back in 1981, I reached the point where one of the children loses an eye in an accident. I put the book aside, and it was weeks before I picked it up again.  I thought for years, decades actually, that it was simply that I couldn't stand for bad things to happen to children, even in fiction.  Time has refined the things I understand about myself.  I've realized that what I'm really bothered by is the sacrifice of innocence or beauty to something that is neither innocent nor beautiful.

For about the last 24 hours, I've felt physically ill.  I can't say for certain whether it's something I ate that affected me so, or, more likely, something I read.

My longtime mentor in the world of books gave me one over the holidays.  A book, as he said today, not casually chosen.  Nor am I sorry to have read it.  The book was Laughing Boy, the 1930 Pulitzer Prize winner by Oliver La Farge.*  The climax of the book and the accompanying cathartic moment came barely 30 pages from the end.  The climax: sudden revelation of the truth by an accident of fate, action taken on that truth.  The cathartic moment: the necessity of a choice.  Cathartic because I recognize that having faced the same choice, I lacked the self-awareness of La Farge's protagonist.  I lacked the strength of character.
   Now I must choose between her and myself.  If I stay with her, I lose myself, really.  I am a man.  I am a warrior.  If I do not give her up, I become something else from what I have always been. . . .
   I must go away.  I cannot stay with her.  She is worth everything in the world, but there is something in me that I have no right to trade for her.  That is what I must do.
What we appreciate about great literature is its ability to put into words what we know but can't express, what we experienced but couldn't recognize for our immersion in the experience itself.  I'm grateful to La Farge and to my friend for both.

*Whatever you do, don't read the grossly inaccurate plot summary of the novel on Wikipedia.  Grossly inaccurate.