Taking Stock of Summer

Ray Bradbury may have been my first favorite writer. I loved reading his stories when I as a kid, and I was so excited to read The Martian Chronicles when it was assigned to us in sophomore English class at Deerfield Beach High School. Years later, when I was a student at Florida Atlantic University, Mr. Bradbury came to speak there; from that evening in the large, packed auditorium I remember two things: a bit of confusion in the pre-lecture small talk amongst the two strangers sitting in the row directly in front of me (“You’re a ballet dancer?” “No, a belly dancer.”) and I remember a story that Mr. Bradbury drifted into, a tale about a father and his young son going to Gettysburg to hear Abraham Lincoln speak. President Lincoln had traveled there of course to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on the site of the battlefield and to deliver a short speech, which would become known as the Gettysburg Address. But the boy and his father arrived to find the crowd was thick and that they couldn’t get very close, so it was tough to see what was going on and difficult to hear what was being said. The kid’s dad hoisted the boy up on his shoulders so at least one of them could see and hear better. The boy, from his new vantage point above the crowd, could take it all in, and then he became a beacon himself, taking in each word of the speech and retelling it to his father and to those around him. And so instead of hearing Mr. Lincoln speak, the man heard the Gettysburg Address through his son, who became a reporter of sorts, receiving the story at this important moment in history, sending it back out to the world.

This is kind of the way I tell my stories, too. I don’t really have the imagination that Mr. Bradbury had. I just see things, hear things, receive them and take them in, let them mull about in my head a while, and when the time is right, I remind people about them before they are gone forever. This, anyway, is how I’ve come to see my job as a writer.

These things––my appreciation for Mr. Bradbury and these memories about my encounter with him back in 1991 or so––they have been dormant in my mind for a while now, years and years, but then just last week, before the Fourth of July, it struck me that it was most definitely summertime, and the thought brought me to the bookcase, where I made short work of locating an old dimestore paperback copy of his novel Dandelion Wine, a book that chronicles the summer of 1928 as experienced by a 12-year old boy named Douglas Spaulding in a small town in Illinois. I’ve read this very same book two or three times before, always in summer. The pages, I think, were yellowed even back then, and now I am reading it again. As Douglas records all his summer firsts in that summer where he first felt alive, he’s gotten me thinking about all my own summer firsts this year. First realization that the lawn at Mom’s house needs a weekly mowing rather than biweekly: June 5. First ice cream of the summer: the ice cream cake that my sister made for my birthday at the start of the month. First apricot: just this past Sunday afternoon. Not one mango from our own tree this year (the few we had all went to the squirrels or raccoons), but the first mango this summer from the Jewel Mango that we planted for my dad on one of his birthdays, that, too, was in early June. First acknowledgement of full-on mango inundation: that may have been June 12 or June 19. It was a Tuesday, that much I do recall. It was the first day my mom and sister complained of peeling mangoes and prepping them for the freezer; they began at that point to give them to anyone who would take them away.

It will be known as the summer the fireworks were washed out, for the Fourth began sunny and hot as any summer day in Florida, but by cookout time there were clouds building, as I grilled the burgers and the sausages my mom and sister brought. We ate them with salad and watermelon and then, just about a quarter to nine, as Seth was getting out the wooden folding chairs for our trip to the lagoon to watch the fireworks, the thunder began and then soon after the skies opened up. It settled down eventually to a drizzle and soon we could hear the booming of the fireworks and sure enough, just over the neighbor’s trees, we could see them light up the sky and so we ran out to the street and stood there as the rains picked up again, which was fine as more and more neighbors did the same, saying Oooh and Ahh with each exploding shell, until the one that exploded and shimmered and was perfectly accompanied by a flash of lightning that lit up all our faces and made us all say Oooh and Ahh much louder than before. The second lightning flash was enough to send us all scurrying indoors, and the fireworks ceased, only to be started up again and abandoned again, until the whole thing was called off. What we got, though, in this July Fourth without a fireworks grand finale, was awfully nice just the same.

And it will be known as the summer that Bob the electrician suddenly left this world. He and Seth were planning on some work here at the house and at a friend’s house this past Saturday, and they had been communicating via text message up until Friday night. Saturday morning, Bob said, he would call. But he never did. We found out from a mutual friend that he died that Friday night of a heart attack. A young man, by standards of how we measure things today and as far as expectations of things like this go. Reminding us that we are indeed to love each day we have, to not hold grudges, to be kind and loving as often as we can––all things that seemed to aptly describe him. Plan all you want, at the end of the day, well… still we know nothing.

It is the summer that I spent Tanabata, the Japanese Star Festival, teaching eleven people about suminagashi, the traditional paper marbling craft of Japan. It goes back to the 12th century, this technique of floating sumi inks on water, using the breath to gently coax concentric circles of ink and white space into patterns that then are printed onto paper. When we scheduled the workshop at the Armory months ago, none of us at the time realized it was going to fall on the Seventh Day of the Seventh Month, but it did: Tanabata, the July 7 holiday of Japan, based on the stars Altair and Vega, in which we write wishes on paper and tie them to the trees. And so while my students practiced their new craft, I set some type and near the end of class, we each printed the word “tanabata” on strips of suminagashi papers, wrote wishes on them and tied them to the thatch palms outside the studio. Had I known about Bob at the time, I would have made a wish for him.

First trip to the beach: It hasn’t happened yet. First listening to Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: June 16. First listening to George Winston’s Summer: also June 16. As for the Gerswhin Brothers’ lullaby “Summertime,” it was June 23 for the Ella Fitzgerald & Louie Armstrong version; July 5 for the Peter Gabriel version, rich with harmonica, which, in my head, thanks to an old mix tape I made in the 90s, segues always into the Syd Straw version of “Blue Shadows on the Trail,” and this has been my summer soundtrack since. Thanks to that same harmonica backing, Syd’s “Blue Shadows” is full of dark and beautiful mystery simmered in the heat of summer. If you pass me on the street these days, chances are good you’ll hear me whistling the tune, or maybe even singing it, because I do like to sing, something I learnt for the first time in another summer: the summer of 1996, during my first printing internship at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine. Seth and I would go to Shaker Meeting on Sundays and sing Shaker spirituals with Sister Frances and Brother Arnold and all the other Shakers and all the other visitors like us, from “the world,” as the Shakers like to say. First time this summer missing that place, the place they call Chosen Land: July 3; same day I first felt a little wistful, too, for Penland, the craft school in the North Carolina mountains where Seth and I first met.

First sighting of summertime clouds: I don’t know that I even noticed that this year. In Florida, summertime is rainy season, and it began raining this year in May and it didn’t stop for weeks on end, which is not the usual way it goes. Usually the rains come each day in the afternoon after the clouds build, out over the Everglades, before they drift to the coast. That pattern is happening now, but I couldn’t tell you this year when it began. This summer, we just sort of meandered into it. Those clouds, though: they are beautiful, no matter how or when they arrive.

First book I began this summer: Parallel Universes by Fred Alan Wolf. It makes my head ache and blows my mind at the same time, makes me feel like anything is possible. I began reading that book just before Midsummer, so maybe it was June 18 or so, and I’m still not done with it, and yet I’ve picked up that paperback of Dandelion Wine, too. But I like having multiple books in progress at any given time. The book about quantum physics was getting a little intense, and summer’s lightness was beckoning and suggesting to me a different kind of story, a familiar one. Dandelion Wine has been just right. First observation of cicada song: July 7; again, Tanabata. Fitting, as the cicadas hang out in the trees just as the wishes do that we hang in them. As is the nature of cicada song, once I heard it, it was all I could hear. Such a small creature that emits such a heady song. Hearing it here in this strange green land means that summer is waning. The hottest days of summer are still to come but we know they’re growing shorter with each that passes. Here we are already three weeks past the solstice, each day a bit shorter than the one before it, a process that will continue all the way to the solstice of Midwinter. And the Earth spins and continues its journey round the sun in the vast celestial clockwork that keeps everything moving just as it is supposed to, while we are here to observe these things, and certainly well beyond that time, too.

Image: Detail from the cover of my 1990 paperback copy of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. The cover art is by Tom Canty.

 

It’s the 4th of July

John Adams wrote his wife Abigail in 1776 that he hoped every Second of July would be celebrated with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other. It was in Philadelphia on July 2, 1776, that delegates of the thirteen colonies at the Second Continental Congress officially voted for independence, Adams amongst them. Two days later, on the Fourth, came the adoption of the Declaration of Independence that was penned by Thomas Jefferson. Adams didn’t get his way about the day we celebrate (even then, we Americans found plenty to bicker about, and it was the Fourth of July camp that won over the Second of July camp), but he was pretty spot on about the ways we celebrate, even today. Illuminations, or fireworks: they go back all the way to the very first July Fourth celebration, at Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1777. And we’ve not stopped using them since.

I know fireworks upset pets and wildlife, but still, I love them. The booming and the sparkle in the warm night sky––these things are central to Independence Day, to summer in America. This is the time of year, too, where I get a little nostalgic for Great American legends like Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, and you know, here we are––three, four, five hundred years later into our troubled history––and a lot of these tales are not very politically correct, we know this, but still, I love them. They may be a whitewashed version of Americana, but I take them for what they are, warts and all.

It can be confusing, compromising these feelings, valuing tradition while being sensitive to the staggering number of peoples who have been done wrong through our history. And here we are today. These have not been the best of days for Democrats like me. Something fundamental has boiled up to the surface in the American experience in the past few years, something that makes some of us feel fear where others see progress and it goes in both directions and there are times lately where the chasm feels impossible to bridge. Perhaps we can take comfort in knowing that the people of this country have always disagreed on things; generally, we find ways to come together. It is what we do. Much has happened recently that bewilders me and makes me, perhaps for the first time in my life, embarrassed by what our elected officials say and do––and I am not easily embarrassed. But on the flip side, I am immensely proud of the fact that I live in a place where we can say these things and assemble to voice our discontent. Where any of us can be activists.

And so the fireworks will explode tonight over the Lake Worth Lagoon and Seth and I will be there, my mom and sister, too, I hope, on the grass, watching it all unfold. We’ll come back home after and Haden will be asleep somewhere; she never seems bothered by the commotion overhead. But I’ll have the pets in mind who are bothered, and their humans, too, for I do have compassion for them. And all day long, I’ll be singing this song in my head, just as I do each Fourth of July, just because it’s by X, a good old fashioned activist band who had plenty to say and who just happened to record a song called 4th of July. There’s a great deal of complexity to all the issues we are dealing with today and to the history that brought us here. Why should our national holiday be any different?

 

 

Floating Worlds, or Your July Book of Days

Here’s a sentence no one has uttered for a solid couple of centuries: Tensions are high right now between Canada and the United States. Be that as it may, I have nothing but admiration and goodwill for Canada, perhaps because I have only known really wonderful people from Canada or perhaps because an awful lot of my favorite music comes from Canada. Then again, maybe it’s because Canada Day, the national holiday of Canada, typically falls on my birthday. This year, though, since the First of July is a Sunday, Canada Day falls on July 2nd. Here below the 49th Parallel, Independence Day in the States is on Wednesday, and so for a lot of folks it’s going to be a weeklong celebration. (Why work Monday and Tuesday if we’ll be off on Wednesday? And then the weekend is right after, so why work Thursday and Friday?) As for me, I’ll be working most all week, preparing for a few events happening at the end of the week––events that maybe you’d like to come to, if you are local. More on that later.

But first: Here’s your Convivio Book of Days calendar for July. It’s a printable PDF as usual, and a fine companion to the blog. This month’s calendar is designed over a sheet of suminagashi marbled paper I made back in 1995 at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, just about the time that Seth and I first met. Suminagashi is a marbling process where sumi inks are floated on the surface of water and where patterns are created by your breath: by blowing gently on the water, the ink on the surface moves accordingly. By setting a piece of paper atop it, the ink pattern is printed on the paper. It’s a most lovely and organic approach to paper decoration, and one of the traditional ancient crafts of Japan.

I’ll be teaching a suminagashi workshop at the Armory in West Palm Beach on Saturday, July 7, which, as luck would have it, also happens to be the Japanese Star Festival of Tanabata. That fact, like suminagashi itself, is a happy accident… when we scheduled it, months ago, it didn’t even cross my mind that it would fall on the seventh day of the seventh month, but it has. Tanabata is celebrated by writing wishes on strips of paper and tying them to the trees… so we’ll be doing some of that at Saturday’s workshop (not to mention a little letterpress, too). It’s a morning workshop, just three hours, so you can learn a craft, make a few wishes, and be on your way by midday, leaving you an entire long summery afternoon to enjoy other things besides suminagashi. If it sounds like something you’d like to do, register here (you do have to register ahead of time, and probably the sooner the better).

The month continues through many saints’ days and at the end of the month, we come to Lammas Eve, another of the cross quarter days that usher us, by traditional reckoning of time, into a new season. Summer, though, was so late in coming this year, perhaps it’s best to say that Lammas is not so much a seasonal shift as a gentle reminder that summer is waning. Indeed, the days have been getting shorter and shorter each day since the Midsummer solstice of June… six weeks later, with Lammas, we are fast approaching the halfway point to the autumnal equinox of September. William Shakespeare, for good metaphoric reasons, chose Lammas Eve as the night that his Juliet was born, reasons we will discuss in the blog once Lammas comes. But we have a whole month of summer before that, so for now, let’s just enjoy it. To that end, here are all the events I’m involved in this coming weekend… I hope you locals might attend one or two (or three):

Real Mail Fridays: Campfire Social
Friday July 6, 2018, from 2 to 6 PM (an open house; come and go as you please)
This monthly letter writing social is at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University Libraries in Boca Raton. Donation: $10 at the door. This month we’re enjoying campfire-inspired foods, and we’re asking each person who comes to write a short letter of welcome to summer campers attending the two sessions of letter writing camps hosted by the Delray Beach Historical Society. Here are two info links: this one for the event’s webpage, and this one for the Facebook event page, where you can say, “Hey, I’ll be there!”

Cason Cottage Snail Mail Revolution Event
Friday July 6, 2018, 6 to 9 PM
The links above will provide information, too, for this event, a sort of After Party for the Real Mail Fridays Campfire Social. I’ll be speaking beginning at about 7 PM at the Delray Beach Historical Society’s Cason Cottage about the Jaffe Center’s Real Mail Fridays letter writing socials and showing some artists’ books… and you’ll get a chance to write a letter or two yourself. It’s a pot luck but you shouldn’t feel obligated to bring food. Just come.

Workshop: Floating Worlds (Suminagashi Paper Marbling)
Saturday July 7, 2018, 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM
And I’d love to teach you about suminagashi and Tanabata at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Advance registration is required; please register here.