5/25/2009

Rituals of Summer


I just finished teaching Ray Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine to my sophomore English II students. The story of a 12 year old boy experiencing a quintessentially ideal summer in 1928, DL is a charming book, full of memorable characters and incidents. This was the first time I had re-read it since my initial perusal, when I was around 13 or 14 years old myself. The novel wears well upon a second reading; it is beautifully written, full of joyous passages and rich symbolism, yet remains an extremely accessible book for both adults and teens. I was surprised how many passages from the story I remembered from that first experience of it, 30+ years ago. The magical opening sequence, the Time Machine, the Happiness Machine, the inexplicable horror of the Ravine, the simple joy of exploring one's world - all are recalled here. I think I have been forever shaped by the way the main character, Douglass, keeps a journal of all the new experiences he notices for the first time, savoring his yellow wooden Ticonderoga pencil as he writes. It was a fun book to explore with my students, and I enjoyed sharing their reactions to the pure simple joyfulness of Douglass' childhood and summer experiences.
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In this novel, the main characters celebrate summer in several deliberate ways : the father and his sons go into the forest and pick berries, the boy saves up and buys himself a new pair of sneakers, the grandparents make dandelion wine, or as they refer to it, "summer distilled". All of which got me to thinking, what are the memories I treasure of summers past? What are the ways that I celebrate summer?
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As a child growing up in the late 60's and early 70's, summers often began for me with Girl Scout day camp, which ran through the month of June. Growing up in suburbia on the very edge of rolling pastureland dotted with trees and creeks, there was always some farm not too far away where the local scout council would lease a meadow to build campfires, where we would gather 'round and sing songs, practice crafts, cooking, knot-making, and other important skills. This little camp ended when the really hot weather came, which was and still is always around the beginning of July. My family was fortunate enough to be able to afford a several weeks-long annual trip to the Rockies, where we camped and hiked and tried not to think about the sweltering heat that builds up each year in Texas during August and September.
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As a young child, my mother wasn't a big one for taking us swimming or for encouraging any sports - hey, this was the 1960's ! the whole youth soccer movement for boys and girls was still 20 years into the future - and I was perennially embarrassed by my lack of swimming skills. I often attended a summer sleep-over camp located in the piney woods of east Texas, which was a fun time of canoeing, archery, and horse-back riding. Swimming lessons were also de rigour, but I dreaded them as I was invariably the oldest student in the beginner level class. Each year I took the class and then promptly forgot what I had learned. As I grew older, several girlfriends and I began walking to a nearby pool at a local park on a near daily basis. We didn't really exercise at this pool or develop our swimming skills; instead, we checked out cute boys and slathered ourselves with Coppertone and slow-cooked ourselves on the cement as we lay for 30 minutes on one side, then turned and baked for another 30 minutes on the other side, before repeating the whole process. I was also blessed with a good childhood friend whose parents owned a lake house, and I often spent weekends and holidays with her family, water-skiing in endless loops around that lake. By this point my swimming skills had progressed to the point that I could at least dog-paddle out to the skis at the end of the ski rope, and tread water long enough for the boat to swing by and pick me up, if I wiped out while crossing the wake. I especially remember skiing in the late summer evenings, for as the sun went down the water grew smoother, almost like glass, and slicing through it on a pair of skis was the closest experience I ever came to flying. It was magical.
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By far the most indelible summer memories for me involved the ritual of daily bike riding, often for miles, far out in to the countryside. My best friend Monica would show up most days around 8 am,while it was still fairly cool outside - I always knew when she arrived in the driveway back of the house, waiting for me on her bike, because my dogs would start barking hysterically at her presence. She never knocked on the door or came into the house. Once the dogs started barking, out I would skip to join her on our daily rides that took us, soaring on our bicycles, wind in our ears, past the concrete streets and wide lawns of suburbia, crossing a few major roads as went, into the farmlands and fields beyond. As summer progressed, we rode a little further each day, finding and "adopting" a stable where we fed apples to the horses, or a deep shady creek bed that had a rope swing fixed over it and which tempted us off our bikes for a bit. We often ended each ride, once the sun was high in the sky, at a local Dairy Queen, where our scrounged quarters bought us enough food to fuel all that exercise. Afternoons were spent reading comic books at the local 7-11. My legs grew strong and well defined, thanks to the Dr Scholls exercise shoes that we wore everywhere, even while riding our bikes. I remember that we loved our bikes so much that we gave them names : mine was called Laticlavious Excalibur Land Rover II. It was supposed to suggest a fine stallion, from days of the middle ages, and I was therefore the knight who rode out into the world on just such a steed. (Interesting to note: in another book I taught earlier this spring, Beryl Markham's West With the Night, she names her first horse Pegasus, and I know just how she felt. My bicycle was my winged mythical beast, transporting me to worlds imaginary and real. On it I felt powerful, magical, resplendent.)
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My young adult life was filled with travel and work, and I often thought of those simple childhood pleasures with nostalgia and longing. It wasn't until I had children of my own that I began to intentionally re-create as many of them as I could, for my own children.
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Blessed with two sons, sports have always played an important role in our summer pastimes. I started the boys with swimming lessons from the time they were toddlers, (not wanting them to be embarrassed and traumatized over lack of swimming skills, as I was) , and we progressed on up through soccer to Little League baseball teams. As they grew older, I sent my children to a local boy scout day camp, then later to the same summer camp I attended, near Tyler in east Texas. My family vacations now take the form of trips to the North Carolina beaches, instead of trips to the Rocky Mountains, but either place successfully provides a break from the inferno-like heat that settles in on us towards summer's end. Health problems prevented me from recreating the joyous summer bike rides; as much as I would have liked to share that experience with my children, numerous kidney problems and the resultant surgeries simply meant I spent many summers either in the hospital or at home recovering from one operation or another, and my kidneys just couldn't take the strain (heat, exercise, dehydration = recipe for disaster to me now) like I used to as a child.
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I have other ways of celebrating summer, as well, however, other rituals I routinely perform. Yesterday , hubster and I were at the grocery store, and hubster purchased the first box of this summer's "pop-ice" ( also known as flav-r-pops, or whatever : they go by various names, but are essentially those plastic sleeves of hideously colored juice that you freeze, then cut the end off the plastic sleeve and squeeze the flattened tube of icy sugar water out onto your tongue, turning it electric blue or red or green.) I also love to visit the local farmer's market for fresh produce, esp corn, tomatoes, berries, okra, greens, and peaches, and have made a habit of doing so, no matter where I have lived. When I lived in the mid-Atlantic area, there was silver queen corn to roast and Chesapeake Bay crabs to catch and cook. My children have had fun smashing them on spread out newspapers with hammers for as long as they can remember. We eat them each year when we go back east, and I can never get enough. There are daily pleasures of working in the garden, cooking out on the grill, staying up all night reading books, early morning walks, trips to various favorite local haunts that I don't have time to visit during the school year. From time to time I dabble with painting as a hobby, have always dedicated a part of my home to a little studio, and enjoy having enough free time to pursue that past-time, too.
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But by far the sweetest summer ritual is the one that I savor the most : sleeping in. Turning the alarm clock off, and knowing full well that I don't have to turn it on again, until late August. That is the sweetest gift of all.

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