Dandelion Wine

Reading Ray Bradbury’s book paved the way for my own encounter with, and embrace of, the magical side of life, while still not believing in god. I think I read the book over forty years ago in junior high English class, and I can hardly recall any of the details of the story, but no book I’ve read has had more impact on my life. It’s one of those cases where you encounter an idea that does not seem to impact you immediately, but seeds a thought in your mind that maybe comes to fruition at some later time, when that idea addresses a new need.

I think as a child I lived in a world of constant magic, creativity and imagination, so acknowledging a magical side of life was not an issue… there was just life and it was what it was… and for me that included being magical. Now looking back, I acknowledge the context of circumstances, the privilege of being a white male growing up in a progressive, middle-class community in America. I also acknowledge the proactive effort of my parents to raise me “outside the box” and dedicate time and money (given their modest means) to create an enriched environment for me to bloom within and explore life’s enchantment.

As a youth I began to be exposed more to the “muggle” (that great word from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books which conveys a more precise meaning here than the word “real”) world when my parents’ relationship began to fracture, leading to their divorce when I was ten. Add to that, my own precocious sexuality being put down two years earlier by a third grade teacher when my supposed friend blurted out to the whole class that I had told him I would “pull down my pants for Amy” (another classmate of ours), something I thought I had told him in confidence. Four years later it was the ugly aspects of my junior high school experience including being jammed in with way too many other kids my same age and feeling constantly and utterly inadequate.

Reading Dandelion Wine was one of those occasional oases during my three year participation in that discomforting institution. I was already into science fiction and fantasy, having read Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Mysterious Island, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, plus various other more pulpy stuff like A Fighting Man on Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, about earthlings having adventures in fantastical Martian and Venusian societies. So in Dandelion Wine, here was Bradbury writing about a kid’s summer experience, where no aliens came from the sky or zombies from the ground but real life events were still framed in a magical fantasy context. I appreciated the reframing (which our English teacher did his best to point out to me and all my classmates). Of course then I looked around me and saw nothing magical about my junior high experience, and was too busy just trying to keep some thread of my self-esteem intact, so I filed Bradbury’s summer odyssey away in my mind.

During my pre-teen and early teen years I only managed to inhabit magical realms compartmentalized from “real” (better “muggle”) life in books, comics, TV and movies. Even today, the smell of paperback books brings back memories of wild imaginary tales plus one of my favorite haunts on my bicycle as a youth, now an Ann Arbor landmark called the “Blue Front”, a hole-in-the-wall newsstand, that also sold comic books, pulp sci-fi paperbacks, Mad Magazine, and even some soft-core porn magazines (which as a kid you might be able to sneak a look at when the guy behind the counter was looking away).

Marvel & DC comic books with their super heroes and villains, expanding exponentially on the capabilities of normal humans, plus movies about archetypal witches, wizards, vampires, and giant reptiles emerging from the sea, led a kid with an active imagination to at least imagine that the “muggle” world could be incanted with these sorts of meta-real possibilities. My friends and I would fantasize about having super powers ourselves, being more than “just kids” somehow, and better challenge what felt at times like a tyranny of adults and their “adult world” and the lack of their acknowledgment of us (youth) as equal partners in it.

In my high school years, maybe becoming a bit more sophisticated and discovering some real agency (other than super powers), I had the experience of creating another compartmentalized magical world in many of the theater productions I participated in, either as an actor (playing a fantastical king or teen on a distopic adult-free island) or backstage (helping create that unreal ambiance manipulating the dimmers to bring weird lighting to the stage).

Coincidentally or not, it wasn’t until I finished high school, that I was able to de-compartmentalize and begin to find magic in moments during my regular life. A suspect coincidence was being introduced to marijuana, that next fall after high school graduation, during my first year of college. Having not really had any experience at the time with meditation or other more Eastern metaphysical disciplines, smoking weed was my first (at least first recognized) experience with altered consciousness. It certainly felt like a very different world getting high, going to the movie theater, and watching the movie Fantasia sitting in the front row.

So even when I was not high, I now had been introduced to another frame of reference, and based on the preponderance of thought and discourse, historically and in the current media about spirituality and deeper levels of consciousness, I began to imagine what a deeper level might feel like, which is a first step towards making it part of your life. Given that, and recalling Dandelion Wine, when I saw a kid joyously playing and laughing, or an old woman see me and smile knowingly, or when I felt completely enrapt in the moment, I would ponder, or at least imagine, if somehow I was in touch with some deeper magical level. It felt good – affirming and supporting – to imagine I was a being operating within a deeper tapestry of connected existence with the rest of the universe.

I recall a hit song of the time I heard a lot on the radio, “Strange Magic” by the Electric Light Orchestra…

Oh, I’m never gonna be the same again
Now I’ve seen the way it’s got to end
Sweet dream, sweet dream

Strange magic
Oh, what a strange magic
Oh, it’s a strange magic
Got a strange magic
Got a strange magic

Sitting at the Laundromat pondering entering the adult world (what I want to be when I grow up), my family’s clothes churning in a mixture of Tide and water in the Wascomat washer, it was such a relief and an inspiration to hear Jeff Lynn (ELO’s lead singer) reminding me about that non-mundane side of things. Inspired perhaps by the ELO song, I recall a tune and lyric of my own that came to me one day as I walked the tree-lined streets of my hometown, and would sing to myself over and over sometimes, like a mantra, particularly when I walked…

Everything has got magic
In its own way
Cool the rational logic
Hey, hey

Certainly to be mystically connected and in tune somehow with everything around me had some efficacy for everyday life, allowing me to relax, bear witness and be, rather than nervously fret and cautiously observe, detached.

I think some people might frame this sort of experience as getting in touch with god, and I thought about that at the time, but there was no sense of a deity, except perhaps a sense of the consciousness of all those big old trees around me. The question of who created all this did not seem to matter… it just is and I am. It would be years later exploring Unitarian-Universalist thought where I would be presented with the ideas of “many spiritual paths” and “creating your own theology”, which after Dandelion Wine and my own first deeper-level experiences would really resonate with me.

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