Happy 4th of July!

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.” –Samuel Francis Smith

In and around my community, you can hear the snap-crackle-bang-pop of fireworks every night for a week before the Fourth of July. Neighborhood kids convene in the middle of the street to launch bottle rockets, while business owners and service club members gather at the local golf club for an old-fashioned barbecue and a fabulous display of fireworks.

And who doesn’t love the patriotic spirit that parades down Main Street in the form of high school marching bands and grinning politicians? Yes, it’s every bit as cornball as a production of The Music Man, but we expect nothing less from the holiday.

If you’re hitting the road for a family vacation this week, pack your sense of adventure. And please put your cell phone away and drive carefully. Cheers!

— Fireworks photo was taken (by yours truly) this year at the Red Run Golf Club in Royal Oak. —

Summer vacation nostalgia

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” — Marcel Proust

Now that summer is here, thoughts turn to the challenge of entertaining the kids through August. How do we keep ’em out of trouble while the rest of the world goes about its business-as-usual?

When I was a kid, there weren’t many day camps or summer-enrichment programs beyond the local “parks and rec” craft sessions. (How many lanyard key chains and Popsicle-stick cabins could you make in one summer?) My mother worked at home as a color artist for a photography studio, but her deadlines were non-negotiable.

My job was to keep myself busy. “Just stay out of my hair,” is how Mom put it.

In those days, I got to know my back yard like the back of my hand, hanging from an apple tree or hanging out with a small troop of neighborhood kids. If we got bored, we’d ride our bikes to the park across the street and hope to catch an ice cream truck en route. Few of us were the same age — but that didn’t seem to matter. The older kids looked after the younger ones, and everybody had a role or a position to play.

Best of all, the previous owner of my childhood home had left a wooden playhouse in the back yard. Replete with a linoleum floor, glass windows, and room enough for a table and chairs, the small house was the nucleus of our summer games. After reading Pippi Longstocking, I dubbed the playhouse Villa Villekulla and pretended I had a pet monkey like Pippi’s Mr. Nilsson. In other incarnations, my own Villa Villekulla served as headquarters for covert CIA operations, a storage unit for Barbie and Ken dolls, and a private reading room. Yes, a reading room.

An only child, I relished my quiet time as much as I enjoyed playing spy games and flashlight tag with neighborhood pals. I collected twice as many books as Barbie clothes and baseball cards.

Remember when we could order paperback books in grade school? I’d load up on enough of those paperbacks to feed my imagination all summer. As soon as she discovered that reading kept me out of her hair — for hours — my mother supplied me with all the books from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. I gobbled them like buttered popcorn and wanted more.

Everything about summer, in short, was fuel for my fantasies. And while I enjoyed our annual family vacations in August, my unstructured summer weeks fed my creativity, encouraged my independence, and gave me time to explore the natural world I grew to love.

How about you? What did you enjoy most about your summer vacations? What childhood books do you remember? — Cindy La Ferle

When stories are prayers

“To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” — Thomas Campbell, Hallowed Ground

Last week I attended a standing-room-only funeral service for a young man in his early twenties. I’ve never been to a memorial service where so many people wanted to stand up and declare their love and caring for the deceased.

Though his mother and I have been friends for several years, I didn’t know the young man very well. But I learned a lot about him through the anecdotes his friends and family shared at his memorial service.

I heard funny stories detailing his favorite foods. I heard stories recalling the sense of playfulness he brought to work every day. I learned about his passion for military history and animals.

Like everyone else at the funeral, I wondered if the young man, who died tragically, had realized how many people he’d touched in his short lifetime; how deeply he was loved.

At the end of the service, the pastor reminded us that every story shared that morning was a prayer as well as a memory. I thought that was true and beautiful.

The words “memorial” and “memoir” share the same Latin root, memoria, which means “belonging to memory.” Once we share a story, it also belongs to everyone who hears or reads it. It becomes a prayer for the living, too.

— Top photo is a detail from one of my altered books. —


Inspiration for writers

I believe, with a patriotic sincerity that would make a Legionnaire blush, that American literature is owned by everybody in America….and that we all get to have a say in it.” –Carolyn See

Preparing to coach my writing workshops is almost as fun as working with the students. This week I’ve been updating my lists of “required reading.” If you’re truly serious about writing, you need to stuff your bookshelves (and your mind) with top-notch material that inspires you.

It also helps to own a collection of practical guides that explain — in no uncertain terms — how to survive the ups and downs of the writing life. Among my favorites is Carolyn See’s Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers.

Carolyn See happens to be the mother of novelist Lisa See (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) — so it’s clear that her advice works. Best of all, she’s brutally frank about the whole business of writing and publishing. She’ll be the first to tell you, for instance, that while the literary life can be incredibly rewarding, it’s often fraught with rejection, stress, envy, and frustration. But she does so with such wit that you’ll want to give it a try anyway. To whet your appetite, I’m reprinting some favorite quotes from the book:

On finding people who support you:

“To find people who support your work, it’s best not even to think in literary terms but to look for easygoing and open-hearted human beings with a low threshold of embarrassment, who, generally speaking, aren’t beset by terror, fear, or what we, out here in California, call a ‘scarcity consciousness.’ These are people who think there might be enough of everything for everyone, who can consider popcorn for dinner if you’re busy working.”

On promoting yourself:

“Don’t assume that everyone has read whatever it is you’ve written. Nobody ever reads anything you’ve written! They’ve got their own lives to live. If you want someone to read it, send him a copy.”

On remaining calm after publication:

“When your first work is published — that story, article, or poem — nobody is going to care except your immediate family, your circle of friends, and maybe your editor. What they really care about, what they’re watching for, is whether or not you’re going to turn into an asshole. Because the only people harder to be around than failed writers are pretentious jerks.”

On learning how to accept compliments or criticism:

“If someone sidles up to you and says, ‘I read that thing you wrote in the Daily News a while ago,’ you must on no account say, ‘What did you think?’ Because you might get an answer you don’t like. In fact, it’s pretty certain you won’t get an answer you like unless that someone says, ‘It’s the greatest thing I’ve read since the New Testament!’ What you say is: ‘No kidding!’ Which very adroitly bats the ball over into their court and they almost always have to say, ‘I liked it.” Or, ‘It was good. I was surprised!’ In which case you say, ‘Thank you.’ Or if they are mean or competitive enough to say ‘I don’t know how you got started on such a loopy tangent,’ you give them a big amiable grin and say, ‘No kidding!‘”

Whether you’re toying with the idea of becoming a writer, or you’ve been toiling in literary fields for a long time, this book will make you laugh while it keeps you grounded and sane. No kidding. — Cindy La Ferle

A toast to Ray Bradbury

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” — Ray Bradbury

“Yes, summer was rituals, each with its natural time and place,” Ray Bradbury reminds us in Dandelion Wine, his semi-autobiographical novel celebrating childhood in the summer of 1928.

I was introduced to this magical book in middle school, back when I was old enough to appreciate its literary charm but still young enough to indulge in the simple pleasures of catching fireflies and playing flashlight tag on the lawn. Since then, I’ve made a ritual of re-reading Dandelion Wine every summer.

The book is so special to me, in fact, that it has a place of honor with other life-changing books on the shelf closest to my desk in my home office. The shelf also holds well-thumbed copies of Something Wicked This Way Comes (another Bradbury favorite) and several collections of Bradbury’s short stories.

Learning of Bradbury’s death at 91 earlier this week, I burst into tears, then revisited my favorite passages in Dandelion Wine. Once again, I was reminded of the author’s remarkable gifts. As one of his biographers noted, Bradbury was more than a good storyteller. He was an incomparable stylist and a disciplined craftsman. His prose is lyrical, singing directly to the heart.

Calling himself “a genetic enchanter” in his introduction to the reissued edition (1975) of Dandelion Wine, Bradbury makes no apologies for his nostalgia. And he always makes me wish I had the sort of front porch where neighbors and friends could gather on humid July nights:

“Sitting on the summer-night porch was so good, so easy and so reassuring that it could never be down away with. These were rituals that were right and lasting; the lighting of pipes, the pale hands that moved knitting needles in the dimness, the eating of foil-wrapped, chilled Eskimo Pies, the coming and going of all the people. For at some time or other during the evening, everyone visited here; the neighbors down the way, the people across the street….”

I’ve always believed that Dandelion Wine is the perfect antidote to the mindless distractions of modern suburban living. Even if you’ve read it before, grab a copy to enjoy in your favorite deck chair this summer — or on the front porch, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Mix yourself a pitcher of lemonade, or better yet, a glass of chilled white wine from your own cellar.

Cheers, and thank you, Ray Bradbury! — Cindy La Ferle