What Ray Bradbury Taught Me

by: Chris Thompson

An ardent fan digs deep…..

Ray Bradbury passed away last week. He was 91 years young and for a great many his absence from this world will be strongly felt. A joyous man to the end, Ray Bradbury grew old without ever growing up. He was one of the last living links to the early 20th Century, a time when kids read pulp magazines and dreamed of going to the stars. For those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Bradbury and his delightful contributions to our collective joy I kindly direct you here, where Mr. Bradbury himself eloquently shares some insight into his life and the inspiration for his stories.

My connection to Ray Bradbury is of a personal nature. Not personal as in we enjoyed the occasional Sunday dinner together as friends, but personal as in he figured prominently in the more impressionable years of my life. Mr. Bradbury’s books and stories enriched my childhood, kept me company, shaped my imagination, and taught me countless lessons. Lessons about life and self, loss and love. I’d like to share a few of them here with you today.

Lesson One: Hone your instrument

I first encountered the work of Ray Bradbury as a very young child. My father–a voracious consumer of the written word–kept a small bookshelf in my parent’s bedroom next to their bed. It was stuffed top to bottom and left to right with all manner of yellowing, dog-eared paperbacks from his youth. The Golden Age of Science Fiction saw the works of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein and Bradbury rise to prominence; and these authors were well represented in my father’s collection. As a brash and inquisitive youngster I would stand on my tiptoes and pull two or three of these stories off the shelf at a time. I would then run to my room, close the door and sit cross-legged on the floor next to the dog, wide-eyed and admiring the covers of these richly illustrated paperbacks with their pulpy depictions of fantastical adventures. I could not yet grasp the concepts within those musty-smelling pages but the covers provided my imagination all the stimulation I needed.

As I grew older and entered grade school it became apparent to me that I too had an appetite for the written word and so I no longer just stared at the covers of these books. They now had names like R is for Rocket, Earthlight, The Caves of Steel, and the Machineries of Joy. I could not wait to devour what lay inside! As I began to read them I felt like I was being transported to new worlds filled with bold concepts and remarkable people. My brain soaked these ideas up like a sponge and I think I actually went mad for a few summers attempting to read them all at once. I immediately gravitated to the works of Bradbury. My love for him was solidified with Fahrenheit 451. It is a story rife with themes of alienation, censorship, and the growing effect of television on literature. The main protagonist, Guy Montaug, was a fireman with a simple job: burning books. I had never encountered such a concept before and its web of words captured my fluttering imagination.

Now, I’m somewhat of a complex person. I’ve been this way from the very beginning. Some who know me would venture that I’m a walking contradiction. I’d have to agree with this assessment. I’m methodical but not deliberate. I’m obsessive but I procrastinate. I’m insecure and my own worst critic–even when I know I’ve done something great. I’ve been blessed with an overactive imagination and as often as I can I draw and write. But sometimes it’s paralyzing. Sometimes I lay awake at night staring at the ceiling wishing for my brain to turn off, take a break; go out for a smoke and grant me some peace so I can get some rest. And sometimes I don’t. It’s not easy trying to exist in this manner and I constantly make mistakes. But it’s okay. That was the first lesson Ray taught me and I found it nestled in The Sieve and the Sand, Part II of Fahrenheit 451:

“You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.”

I’ve made mistakes…a lot of ’em. Hell, haven’t we all? To err is to be human and I struggle everyday with my flaws. But they’ve helped me to understand myself and become a better person. I’ve never hid from them and I’m hopeful for the day when I consider them an asset. I know I’ve got a long road ahead of me but I’m honing my instrument and learning all the time. I think Ray would be proud.

Lesson two: Seek that which is good

If you were to ask me as a child to list my favorite moments of the day, reading under the blankets with a flashlight would be at the top of that list. For me that quiet time, getting lost in my favorite story, while the world around me slept was magical. I would often read until I fell asleep, exhausted and in mid-sentence. Or until the battery in my flashlight died, each word becoming fainter and fainter as the incandescent light gradually dimmed to nothingness. Sometimes my mother would come in and catch me, angrily scolding me about it being a school night and too late for a boy my age to be awake. But to me it was an everyday joy of life and something that I pursued with unbridled enthusiasm. It was the rhythm to which my heart set its beat and I could not wait for the day to end so I could return to the worlds I visited under those downy covers.

I read many a Bradbury story in this fashion but there is one novel that I believe is particularly well suited for this “under the covers” style of reading. I took Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes down from my father’s shelf during an exceptionally cold winter season that seemed to have no end in sight. Every week brought a fresh deluge of snow to the region and with it a new round of school cancellations.  Homework–my arch nemesis–went on vacation and my evenings were free to enjoy reading and drawing.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is an eerie and frightening novel and Bradbury’s most realistic treatment of the nature of evil. In it the Cooger & Dark Carnival (a physical manifestation of evil) arrives in a fictitious settlement and tempts the towns inhabitants with offers of living out their secret fantasies. The novel is, at its most basic, an allegory of the age old struggle of good versus evil but where it shines the brightest is in its masterful storytelling and unseamed blending of fantasy and horror. The story is rife with repetition of imagery and I found myself drawn to the power that Bradbury gave to ordinary objects and gestures. He taught me that a smile or a burst of laughter could be a powerful force if it comes from a place that is genuine and Bradbury wields it masterfully as a weapon against evil in Something Wicked. Evil will never be dealt with successfully unless we acknowledge its existence and Mr. Halloway–a man tested endlessly by the evil of the carnival–realizes this in a climactic moment to the story:

“He gathered the boy somewhat closer and thought, Evil has only the power that we give it. I give you nothing. I take back. Starve. Starve. Starve.”

We ultimately have control over whether or not evil affects us. We should live in a manner that gives wickedness no fuel on which to live. Through laughter and happiness we can hope to lessen the powerful control that evil holds on humanity. These emotions spring from love, which is in Bradbury’s view the “strongest and most humanizing of the forces which man possesses”. Through our common struggles against fear, anger, and death we can build a community built on love and ultimately triumph over evil. With this story Ray taught me that we all have a potential for evil hidden deep within us, but only through a constant exercising of our inherent goodness can we conquer it.

Lesson three: Surrender to mortality

I was very young when I first encountered the sting of loss. My mother’s sister died suddenly at a young age from complications of diabetes. Her loss punched a hole in our family and we struggled for years to fill it with something; anything that would dilute the lingering taste of her death. It has been a difficult journey for us all and I still don’t believe to this day that my mother has fully recovered. She loved her sister dearly and I was too young to understand the implications of my aunts passing to help her. But I did perceive that there was an ending to things and I lost a little bit of my innocence with this realization. As I grew older and entered into adolescence I began to more fully realize the struggles of my family as they came to terms with her death and it set me on a path to realizing my own mortality.

One summer evening, many years after my aunt’s passing, I came across Dandelion Wine, a novelized collection of short stories Bradbury wrote based loosely on his childhood experiences. I had just passed the sixth grade and had a summer full of fun and adventure awaiting me. I was looking for a good summer read and so I scanned the shelves of my father’s bookcase, on the lookout for nothing in particular. On a whim I pulled Dandelion Wine off the shelf and made my way out to the front steps. I liked to read there, perched on the soft, moss-covered brick while all the while racing against the failing light of the setting sun. The sound of cicadas in the trees and the smell of lilac and cut grass in the air were magical as I dove headlong into the novel. Therein I encountered the main protagonist, 12 year-old Douglas Spaulding, celebrating the simple joys and sorrows of life while struggling with his humanity, fears, and acceptance. As I plowed deeper and deeper into his imaginative and fanciful world I was delighted to find that Bradbury did not just write of the lighter magic and wonder of childhood. He choose to dig deeper and present to Douglas the bitter realization of his own mortality. Chapter 32: The Leave Taking brought to my mind vividly the memories of my family trying to deal with the death of my aunt. It is a very poignant chapter and I encourage you to read it in its entirely here. The substance of the lesson is below:

“The important thing is not the me that’s lying here, but the me that’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that’s downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I’m not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. I’ll be around a long time. A thousand years from now a whole township of my offspring will be biting sour apples in the gumwood shade. That’s my answer to anyone asks big questions!”

“No person ever died that had a family.” Those words resonated within me and forged new paths of understanding within my adolescent mind. I could see it colorfully in my imagination, my aunt existing forever in the memories of my uncles and cousins, aunts and grandparents. Up until that moment my experiences had caused me to view death as a threat, an eventuality waiting for me; real and inevitable. But those words began to change my thinking and helped to lay the foundation of my current beliefs today.

Your fear of growing old and your fear of death cannot distract you. It cannot consume and own you. You must accept your mortality. Ray taught me that this knowledge is a right of passage. Meeting and knowing death so that it is removed from your subconscious is freeing. Allowing man to get on with the real business of life-which is living.

And so I’ve put Rays own sage advice to use. He’ll live on forever in my memory and never truly be gone, just existing in another form.

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