Author: Tiffany Babb (@explodingarrow)
Discovering Dandelion Wine
Tiffany Babb is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She's a regular contributor to The AV Club's Comic Panel and the Eisner Award winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can find her poetry in Rust + Moth, Third Wednesday Magazine, and Cardiff Review. You can follow her on twitter @explodingarrow and sign up for her monthly newsletter at tiffanybabb.com/puttingittogether.
“The World, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him. And he knew what it was that had leaped upon him to stay and would not run away now.
I’m alive, he thought.”
- Douglas Spaulding in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine
I’m not sure exactly what moved me to pluck Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine off of the bookshelf at my childhood home last April. In the early days of shelter at home, I had been flipping between the comfort reads of EB White essays and PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books. They were comforting and calming, but five pages into Dandelion Wine, I knew that it was what I was meant to be reading.
My copy of Dandelion Wine had been sitting on that bookshelf unread for at least eight years. It’s an old copy, the kind that people would send in a dollar or so through a mail catalogue to buy. The tag on the back indicates that I came across it at The Last Bookstore, so I figure that it was sometime when I was an undergrad at USC and spent my weekends accumulating stacks of cheap books.
I probably brought the novel back to my dorm in the middle of a hefty stack of coffee table art books I had been collecting at the time. It may have ended up in a cardboard box under my bed (my method for storing most of my books back then), or it may have earned a coveted spot on the monotone college-provided dorm room furniture. It travelled from dorm to dorm, unread until it found its place in my childhood home and stayed there, waiting to be read.
“Doug, the Terle house, upstairs, you know?”
“The colored windowpanes on the little round windows, have they always been there?”
“Darned old windows been there since before we were born. Why?”
“I never saw them before today,” said John. “On the way walking through town I looked up and there they were. Doug, what was I doing all these years I didn’t see them?”
Dandelion Wine is a book about a boy who is beginning to realize that he’s alive and that the world is alive and that he actually lives in it. It’s a book about summer and about life and about death. It’s also a story about the tragedies that we can’t control—the tragedies we just have to live through and endure. Bradbury’s language is full of a mix of fear and wonder, and it’s sentimental almost to the point of syrupiness. But what prevents Bradbury’s prose from being too over-sentimental is his refusal to leave anything out. All of life can be found in Dandelion Wine. All of the wisdom and innocence and cruelty and stupidity and horror of humanity is captured in Bradbury’s short vignettes that all take place in a small town that feels like it could be anyone’s town.
As I read, I kept asking myself why I hadn’t started the book sooner. It had been sitting on a bookshelf, so easily accessible, for years. But when I finished the book, I was glad that I hadn’t read it before. I needed to have that book at that moment. In April, my world felt like it was shrinking. I had moved across the country, giving up my apartment in the city to live in the suburbs with my mom and grandmother. I went from a life of seeing friends and watching movies and going to museums to leaving the house only for very tense trips to the grocery store. It was an experience a lot of people were going through, but it still felt overwhelmingly scary and isolating. It felt like my life was shrinking and that it would just keep shrinking until I lost all control over how I could live my life.
In the first month of the pandemic, I was so overwhelmed that just making it through the day and getting my work done seemed like all I could do. But after reading Dandelion Wine, I began to think about what it meant to wake up and to figure out what I had to do that day. I began to think about what it meant to feel afraid, what it meant to feel grief, and what it meant to be alive. Being alive meant noticing things and making choices and being present instead of dwelling in a never ending spiral of panicked thoughts that sapped my ability to do anything but sit tensely on my bed for hours. Dandelion Wine jolted me out of my fugue state. It reminded me that life can be terrifying, but also that life, if it is meant to be experienced in any way, is meant to be experienced fully.
After finishing the book, I started making plans for what I might want to do during the foreseeable future of staying indoors. I was still terrified and feeling awful, but I began making plans to video chat with friends and started making sure I called family members more regularly. I bought more books and ordered a couple of puzzles. I started scouring the internet to find a place where I could buy a bottle of dandelion wine. There was something so magical about the way that Bradbury wrote about this mysterious elixir that was so present in his main character’s childhood. But however much I searched, I just couldn’t find one, so I settled on a bottle of mead that was brewed with dandelion petals.
“Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered. And now that Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of his new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months and perhaps some of the miracle by then forgotten and in need of renewal.”
It appeared weeks later in a narrow dark green bottle with a glass stopper and a beautiful golden illustration on its label. I chilled it and drank it with my family out of old crystal glasses we had bought at a garage sale years ago. It looked beautiful in those glasses, shining dark gold-green, almost otherworldly. When I tried it though, it was sour and pungent, like olives and strong herbal tea. It was nothing like “summer caught and stoppered.” But I was glad to have it anyway and to taste it in all its complexity.