Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

SERMON: Whatever Happened to Happy Endings? (Ray Bradbury’s Answer)

Sunday, January 23, 2011
UU Society of Sacramento

Not all quotations have page numbers here, but all are from Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine, Bantam Books, 1976.

Hymns: #298 (Wake Now, My Senses),  #201 (Glory, Glory, Hallelujah), #128 (For All that Is Our Life).

Dances by the Sarah Bush Dance Project:
“Someone’s Daughter” by Beth Orton; “Wanting Memories“ by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Meditation and Prayer
It’s the 23rd of January:  3 weeks of a new year, already gone—just like that!  To me, the rush of time is all the more cause to give thanks for this new day, to appreciate these moments and this time together with all these people, of all ages and stages of life.
As we prepare for our personal meditations and prayers, let us give thanks for every breath we take and every pulse of life through our blood vessels.  Let us notice our bodies in our seats, notice our breathing, our neighbors’ breathing:  our common breath, which is the breath of life.   With the sounds of our community around us, let us take a few moments for that silence which is more than the absence of sound, but which is the source from which we all emerged.  Our time of silence will be ended by spoken word, and followed by dance.

I’d like you to go with me back to the summer of 1928, in Green Town, Illinois, population 26,349.  A neighborhood’s children enjoy life, explore their city, and come face to face with change, loss, and grief.  These kids are characters in a novel written in the 1950s by Ray Bradbury.  The book’s title is Dandelion Wine.  It is based on Bradbury’s memories of childhood in the northern Illinois town of Waukegan.  In the novel, Tom Spaulding is 10 and his brother Douglas is 12.  At the start of the summer, Doug takes out his yellow pad and a Ticonderoga pencil, and he begins making two lists.
In the first category are the traditions of summertime in the Midwest, such as taking the wooden swing out of storage and hanging it up and on the front porch.  After supper, the family sits out on the porch in the warm air.  Other ritual pleasures of the season are swimming, fishing, and staying out until late sunset.  There’s eating the first Eskimo pie of the season.  Another one is making homemade wine out of dandelions from the yard.  On the pantry shelves, adults line up the bottles of fresh, golden green liquid, capturing a bit of the summer for enjoyment in the other seasons. The kids might even enjoy a tiny, exciting sip of the tingly juice.  Tom headlines this list, Rites and Ceremonies.
His most important ceremony is getting a new pair of sneakers for the summer, but this year he’s a dollar short of the price.  On a warm afternoon, he goes to old Mr. Sanderson’s shoe store.  He stacks nickels, dimes and quarters on the counter top.  The man, dressed in a business suit, is gruff:  “I see you every afternoon at my window; you think I don’t see?  You’re wrong. … You want the Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis shoes:  ‘Like Menthol on Your Feet.’ [And] you want credit,” he barks.
The boy says, “I got something better than credit.”  First he asks the man, when was the last time that he wore a pair of sneakers?  It’s been decades!
Mr. Sanderson, don’t you think you owe it to your customers, sir, to at least try the tennis shoes you sell, for just one minute, so you know how they feel? …. How you going to sell sneakers unless you can rave about them and how you gong to rave about them unless you know them?
The man resists a bit before putting the sneakers on.  Doug says:  “Now, could you kind of rock back and forth a little, sponge around, bounce kind of, while I tell you the rest?”
He proposes a deal.  If the man will sell the shoes to him, he will work off the dollar he owes by running errands.  “Feel those shoes, Mr. Sanderson, feel how fast they’d take me?  All those springs inside?  Feel all he running inside?  Feel how they kind of grab hold and can’t let you alone and don’t like you just standing there?” Mr. Sanderson sinks down into the shoes and rocks back and forth, while the 12-year-old spins the tempting offer to do the man’s unwanted chores out in the afternoon sun.    He gives Doug a list of errands for the day and sends him along.  “Thanks, Mr. Sanderson,” and the boy is off. (24)
The second column on Doug’s writing pad is a list of things that happen for the first time in the summer of 1928, and lessons learned.  This list bears the title Discoveries and Revelations.
Some revelations are not so easy to accept.  The kids learn that life changes, and not always the way you want it to.
They take a last ride on the town’s electric trolley, before the train is put out of service, to be replaced by buses, including school buses.  The boys mourn the end of an era. The change for them is not only sentimental; it has practical implications.  One boy grumbles:  “School buses!  …. Won’t even give us a chance to be late to school.  Come get you at the front door.  Never be late again in all our lives.  Think of that nightmare, Doug, just think it all over.”  (100)
They learn that people disappoint us.  Doug doesn’t “get the book of magic tricks he wanted for his birthday.  [His brother says he] got a pair of pants and a shirt instead. That’s enough to ruin the summer right there.”
The kids begin to learn that they will age.  One day several boys and girls greet an elderly woman on her porch, and she invites them in for lemonade.  They notice a picture of a little girl sitting in a frame on a table.  “Who is that?” one asks.  “Why, that’s me, when I was your age.”  First they don’t understand her.  Then, they don’t believe her!  They can’t accept that she was ever a child or a young woman.  Rudely they insist:  “You’ve always been old!”  “You stole that picture!”
Desperate, she grabs other pictures from her life to show them.  The clash of two opposing realities only escalates, and she throws the kids out.  Back home, Doug writes on his yellow pad:  “Old people never were children.”  His brother calls this revelation “brilliant,” but also “kind of sad.” (78)
When I was a child, and I would see people who were sick, old, frail, or weak, I did not imagine that such conditions could happen to me.  It was if they inhabited a different world from the one I was in.  Aging, physical pain and health problems happen to other people! Fortunately I was never so rude as to say what I was thinking.  In any case, this mindset did not long endure.  My perspective on physical health began to shift… with foot problems in my 20s, chronic neck and shoulder pain in my 30s, a recommended colonoscopy in my 40s due to a family history, and now back, hip and elbow pains, and wrinkles and gray hair taking over my body.  So much to look forward to!
In the book, after the kids leave the older woman’s house, she has a good cry.  On reflection, she decides they were right.  She’s been holding on too much to images of who she was, and not been open to who she’s becoming now.  So…she throws out her pictures!  Days later, in a reconciling gesture, she invites the kids back in.  She’s much more forgiving than I could be.  Timidly they enter, and she and  they talk again.  Before they depart, she invites each one of them to choose an item in the house they would like to own.  She’s downsizing!
The kids discover the world is a dangerous place.  For example, someone has stolen Doug’s catcher’s mitt, which cost him a dollar ninety-five.  Much worse, a serial killer is on the loose in Green Town, strangling women at night.  The townspeople refer to the man as the Lonely One.  They urge one another not to go out alone or stay out late.  The boys joke and scare one another about the Lonely One, until a dead body is found in the nearby ravine.
The kids learn that people you love will leave.  Doug’s admires his friend John, a godlike human being, an athlete who knows all the wildflowers and the times when the moon will rise and set.  John’s kind as well as talented and fun.  And one day, he tells the boys, his family is moving out of town.  No!  It can’t be true!
The kids learn that people die.  The boys’ Great-grandma is full of energy and creativity, and now in her 90s.  So strong, she even repairs the roof.  This is how Bradbury puts it:  “Every April for as far back as there were calendars, you thought you heard woodpeckers tapping the housetop.  But no, it was Great-grandma somehow transported, singing, pounding nails, replacing shingles in the sky.”
But even she slows down, weakens and her body shrinks.  One day she decides she’s tired, she’s not well, and she’s done.  And that same day she goes upstairs, nestles herself under the covers of her bed, and waits to fall asleep and pass away.  At her bedside Doug tries to talk her into living longer.  She assures him it’s okay, that it’s really her time, and gives him farewell advice.
The kids learn that love stories don’t always turn out the way you want them to.  Tom, Doug and their pal Charlie are talking about Miss Loomis, who just passed away at age 95.  Not long before her death, a much younger man whom she had known earlier in life tracked her down.  A hopeless romantic, he had carried her picture around for years.  He had imagined that as he aged, he was catching up with her, and that she was still the age of the young woman in the picture.  He found her in Green Town, and called on her.  He reminded her of their past friendship, and confessed his continuing love.  At age 95 Miss Loomis was philosophical about the opportunities they had missed over the years.  She was accepting of her life.  But on hearing the story about her, young Charlie is disillusioned, and he asks his friends for advice.    Charlie says, “Tom, answer me true now….  Whatever happened to happy endings?”
Tom says: you can see happy endings at the movies.  “Sure, [Charlie says] but what about life?”  Somebody in heaven must not have been watching, he says. “Somebody up there slipped.”
One night Doug sneaks into Tom’s room like a ghost, and scares him.  The Spaulding boys are not allowed to stay up late, and forbidden to have flashlights in their room, because they would use them to read after hours.  So Doug has brought an invention:  a big glass jar full of three dozen fireflies.  Doug sets down the jar, takes out his pencil and yellow pad, and begins to write in the flickering light.  He makes two columns.  One lists reasons why “You Can’t Count on Things.”  The other column gives the reasons why “You Can’t Count on People.”
Then he writes a stunning realization: “So if trolleys… and friends can go away for a while or go away forever, or rust, or fall apart or die, and if people can be murdered, and if someone like Great-grandma, who was going to live forever, can die…if all of this is true…then… I, Douglas Spaulding, some day… must….” He doesn’t finish writing his thought, as the fireflies have turned off their flashing.  So he lets them go.
The summertime discoveries of these kids are part of growing up, part of the struggle of spiritual awareness.  Some of us face hard revelations earlier in life, some later.  How do we live with such unwelcome facts? It’s easy to get lulled into thinking that change is avoidable, that nobody else is leaving or dying.  It’s easy to believe that since life is going well for me, right now, life really is fair.
Life is not guaranteed to be fair, yet life is worth it.  Life is a gift.  The characters in this book, the residents of Green Town, show a joy in ordinary life.  In the book are lovely scenes of big dinners around Great-grandma’s table.   One of the rites of summer in Green Town is going on a picnic to enjoy sandwiches by a river or in the woods.  One boy says:  when you eat a sandwich out of doors, it’s more than a sandwich.
An old man by the name of Col. Freeleigh has become an invalid.  His adventurous days are gone, and now he’s stuck in his bedroom upstairs, with an in-house nurse.  The kids had heard that Col Freeleigh had a time machine, but on their first visit, they learned that he is a time machine.  Through his words, he transports himself and the kids to great eras of world history.  He still enjoys their visits to hear his stories, but the nurse won’t let them come back.  All that excitement can’t be good for someone in his condition!
He doesn’t mind dying, he protests, but when the kids visit he knows he’s alive.  Another joy for him is to telephone a friend in Mexico City.  He asks the man to hold the telephone receiver out the window so he can hear the familiar sounds of that beloved city.  A little escape, though it likely comes with a large long distance bill back in 1928.
Tom admits the story of Miss Loomis’ lost love was a hard one to hear, but he accepts it as a part of life.  “The last few days when… I finally put it together—boy, did I bawl my head off.  I don’t even know why.”
Tom is a 10-year-old sage.  When hardship happens, his prescription is to let it all out, and then rejoin the parade of life.  He says, “You cry just so long and everything’s fine.  And there’s your happy ending.  And you’re ready to go back out and walk around with folks again.  And it’s the start of gosh-knows-what-all!” (156)
The adults and youth of this novel are blessed with relationships across the generations.  Not only in the same family, but in their neighborhood.  Elders invite kids in for a visit, even if they get unfriendly questions about their age. Adults watch out for one another’s kids, helping to keep them in line by keeping them in sight.  Of course this neighborly ideal didn’t exist for everyone who grew up in the 20th century, and it’s almost nonexistent these days.  It’s a rare thing today for people in a local community to reach out across the generations.   But it remains important for us to build connections among all age groups.  When we are young, we need to develop identities and roots.  As adults, we need to think of the legacy we are handing on to those who come after us.
I believe that religious congregations serve as one of the last places where connections can take place across the generations, especially beyond family lines.  What does this bridging of generations look like?  It can be as basic as introducing one another to gardens, parks and rivers.  It can be helping someone learn to read—whether an adult is tutoring a child or a child is helping an adult learner.  It can be inviting others to share in the joys of serving and helping out in the kitchen, at a shelter, or on a parkway restoration project.
It can be as generous as asking someone questions and waiting to listen to their answers.  As I thought about Ray Bradbury’s characters, I realized that we have characters in this church that a novelist could put in a book.  Actually you could draw a book out of any one of our lives, no matter our age.
As Great-grandma lies on her deathbed, Doug asks:  Who’s going to repair the roof?  She whispers:  “Don’t let anyone do the shingles unless it’s fun for them…. Come next April, ask ‘Who’d like to fix the roof?’  And whichever face lights up / is the face you want….  Because up there on that roof you can see the whole town going toward the country going toward the edge of the earth and the river shining, and the morning lake, and birds on threes down under you, and the best of the wind all around above.” (182)
Tom’s advice for disappointment and loss is practical:   “A good night’s sleep, or a ten-minute bawl, or a pint of chocolate ice-cream, or all three together, is good medicine.”
For him, a happy ending is going to bed at night, knowing he’s alive, appreciating the simple joys of life, and giving thanks for a time of rest and the promise of a new day.
Ray Bradbury writes:  “One day you discover you are alive.  Explosion! …Illumination! Delight!  You laugh, you dance around, you shout.”
The hardships of life do not prove this discovery false.  They only call on us to affirm it, over and over.  For the gift of life, and the gift of every new day, let us give thanks.  Amen.


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