It came back to me today, as it has over the years: the story of the girl who did not see the sun.
For me, it’s been the opposite. All we’ve had for two months has been sun. No rain. Not one drop. We’re heading into drought conditions.
As the creeks dry up and the river runs low, as the grass dries and the ants invade the house looking for water, my heart shrivels a bit each day.
Until today. Today, we have rain, and I am out in it.
And I’m thinking of the girl.
I read the story in elementary school; I was maybe eight or nine, so around 1970. The girl lived on a planet where the sun came out once every generation (as I remember it) for two hours. The rest of the time, it rained, it rained hard, the light was grey, the people lived indoors. And they lived for the moment when the rains stopped, the light brightened, and they would all run outside and feel the heat on their skin and the indescribable caress of sun on their faces.
But when it came, the single day of the sun’s two hours, this girl’s classmates locked her in a closet. No one knew she was there but the children who had locked her away. And when they ran outside to play in the sun they forgot about her. No one let her out. She did not see the sun that day, and in my memory of the story, she would not see it in her lifetime.
This was a shocking, poignant, and enrapturing story of yearning, betrayal, remorse, and acceptance. As I remember it (though my memory turns out to be faulty), in her closet, this girl travelled through grief and fear to acceptance and humility, and ultimately embraced her identity as the only person on the planet who had not seen the sun that day.
Sitting on my porch this morning with the rain finally pouring down, the long, steady sound of heavy drops around me, the thick wetness of the air, the rhythmic loud dripping from the eaves, and the grey mid-morning sky, I seem to be right inside that girl and her longing for something unattainable beyond the rain. Yet as I head out in the downpour for my morning run, feeling the coolness on my skin and the wetness on my face, I am deeply grateful to be out in this drenching water, no longer a prisoner of the beating closet of heat and dryness the past weeks have brought.
And because I have WiFi and curiosity, I have just now looked up the story by keywords and found it immediately: All Summer in a Day, by Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954, a story of Margot, nine years old, from Earth, who now lives on Venus where the sun shines once for two hours every seven years. “Only when they sang about the sun and summer did her lips move as she watched the drenched windows.” A thoughtful blogger has posted the story here. After all these years of remembering it as sad and elusively beautiful, of having only pieces of it, of not knowing how to find it again, I’m almost topsy-turvy with how easy it was to rediscover this tale that through the years has shaped my thoughts on a deep level.
Lies and true things
Then this morning, after I wrote my first draft of this piece, came my weekly email digest from Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, with an article about Neil Gaiman’s take on Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451.
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
The gist of Maria Popova’s article and her examination of Neil Gaiman’s book, for me, is the question of why stories matter. Why did this story that I read 46 years ago matter to me then, and why does it matter to me now?
But the aboutness of the book, like the aboutness of any book, Gaiman reminds us, is porous and responsive and in constant dynamic interaction with the context of its time, its place, and the locus of circumstances in the reader’s life at the particular moment of reading it.*
At the particular moment of reading All Summer in a Day, I felt, like Margot, an outsider in my school environment. Sensitive and somewhat small, I had friends but I also felt (and was) at risk of being bullied – either on my own account or because I stayed friends with others who were bullied. Unlike Margot, who had seen the sun on Earth, I didn’t particularly know something important the others didn’t know – although the truth of that is a longer story – but once when younger I was locked in the garage by another girl (who denied it) and later for a time I was shunned at school for having a secret written language with a friend at a different school. These happenings made me embrace my outsider identity at the same time that I wanted to be rid of it.
Childhood is confusing like that.
It turns out that Margot in Bradbury’s story did not, as I wrote above, travel through grief and fear to acceptance and humility, and ultimately embrace her identity as the only person on the planet who had not seen the sun that day.
That was all in my head.
The story ends before we know how she acted, and how the others were with her once daily life began again. I created a memory that served me: Margot let me identify with the outsider, but also heal my pain and confusion at this separation from my peers that I thought was unjustified, by creating a false memory of her epiphany in the closet.
Popova quotes Gaiman:
Ideas, written ideas, are special. They are the way we transmit our stories and our ideas from one generation to the next. If we lose them, we lose our shared history. We lose much of what makes us human. And fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gift of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.*
This story was powerful for me because it was a tale of what could happen if a world’s shared history was lost; a story of jealousy and remorse; a story where ambivalence and thoughtlessness led to the unthinkable, but as is clear when Margot is freed, after the unthinkable happens, we must still find a way to go on. How will these children be with Margot now? Who will she be inside? It also taught me empathy: for Margot, that’s the easy part; for myself, as expected; for the other children, who found themselves having done a terrible thing without meaning to, because of fear, perhaps, or wanting not to be powerless, and now had to bear the consequences, or deny them.
I have told myself lies about the unfolding of this story – and the story is a lie in itself – but the details don’t matter. The emotional true things for me are these: We cling to what we’ve known. We yearn for what we believe we need. Others will do what they know, and they may harm us deeply. They may be deeply sorry. Whether they are sorry or not will not change what has happened. It may rain for seven years, or we may be in a drought condition, and we must find a way to live, with ourselves, with others, as a damaged person or a better one, and maybe with some kind of grace.
*Quotes are from Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
[I titled my piece before I found Ray Bradbury’s story online. It’s a self-evident title, but I also enjoy the unconscious reference back to his story, so I’m keeping it.]