Crashbang has a trunk made of blue cardboard. It is battered and held together
with old scarves braided and tied around its middle. The trunk is full of toys.
There are puppets, bright scarves, juggling balls, bean bags and a harmonica.
Not even J. J. knows of everything that is in that trunk because when he plays
with people, he invites them to throw in anything they think might belong
J. J. wears
the trunk strapped to his back. He leaves his hands free to balance as he rides
his unicycle around the town. J. J. Crashbang is a clown. He is a street clown
J. J. is
seasonal because Montreal is seasonal. In the winter, he rides his unicycle
through the slush and snow wearing layer upon layer of second-hand sweaters. He
goes from the home of one friend to the home of another. How he manages to
balance on that unicycle with a trunk strapped to his back and the roads
slippery with snow is beyond all knowing. Yet he does it. I’ve watched him set
off with as much concern as if he were driving a car.
summer, J. J. is on the mountain, on Prince Arthur Mall or in Old Montreal.
He’s always out of doors, it seems, and he’s always playing. He has a bent
black felt hat which lies on the pavement in front of him to collect coins from
J. always has enough money to buy a friend a cup of coffee. I’ve never seen him
sad. I’ve never heard him say that he was tired.
early May and the weather reporter issues a frost warning. J. J. Crashbang
cycles down the Main against the flow of traffic and almost hits a suddenly
opening car door. He’s wearing a fool’s cap with an impossibly high peak and a
red silk tassel. He’s wearing three sweaters one over the other. I call to him
as I come out of the bakery and he unicycles weavingly through the pedestrians.
J.” I say, and he greets me in his half French, half English way.
belle! How are you?”
J. J. is on
his way to Parc Lafontaine to pick up litter and then to juggle with a friend.
His enthusiasm for each moment is so palpable that he seems to radiate a
glowing love of life. I decide that I can afford the time on this Saturday
morning; I will join him.
I put my
bakery bread in my bicycle basket and J. J. and I cycle on down the Main,
through Prince Arthur Mall and the Carré Saint Louis. There I ask him, “Why
don’t you pick up litter here too?”
Lafontaine is calling me. That hillside near Sherbrooke….”
We ride on
down Cherrier Street to the park and I help J. J. to pick up litter. As we
work, he sings a little song that he makes up in the moment, about the hillside
and the cool windy day. When his song is finished, I sing one with a strange
light-hearted feeling. I used to sing like this as a child in the back seat of
the car. Not for many years have I sung a song that I made up on the spur of
themoment. For now, I am a child again
and time has no more meaning or power than it did for me then.
long it’s been is hard to say, J. J.’s juggling friend arrives and the trunk is
opened. J. J. and Michel pass clubs and practice together. I watch them and
play with a puppet that looks like a dragon. The day darkens and the rain
begins. It is cold.
invites J. J. to his house and I realize how it is that J. J. has a place to
sleep most nights. Tonight he’ll eat with Michel and sleep on his couch.
Tomorrow, he’ll go on to Sarah’s house. I know this because she invited me as
well to a barbeque dinner on her back porch. He’ll sleep there, as he has slept
at my house, on the extra mattress or a couch. J. J. just goes from friend to
friend relying on their generosity. I leave him with Michel. The lid of the
cardboard trunk is spotted with the slant of a cold Spring rain.
live that way.” I tell myself. “I couldn’t live that way ever.”
about that wonderful playfulness of his? What about those moments when he sings
a song that has never been sung before and will never be sung again?
seen him look worried, anxious or stressed. Yet, he has no security, no home
and no job. I wish that I couldlive
that way, like a butterfly on a breezy day, but I can’t. I cycle home in the
cold May rain, trying to understand my friend J. J. Crashbang the clown.
In my third year of university I lived in the Castle in the
Air. This is the name which we gave to our house in a moment of casual
inspiration. Whether the name fit the house, or the house shaped itself to fit
the name we cannot say, but whatever; the Castle in the Air seemed to allow for
all of our dreaming and to lift us up to the level of our dreams.
Four of us lived in the house sharing all of ourselves. There
was no conscious intention to create a communal space. We were poor. We had all
experienced living within tension and conflict. We all moved simultaneously
toward a peaceful co-existence. There was no before and no after to really
speak of. I knew only one of my house-mates before we gathered there. We came
from different places, with different ideas and aspirations, and we found
ourselves living in among the hundreds of students, right beside the laundry
and the squash courts. And it was magic.
Christine had the room at the top of the stairs to the left.
She definitely believed in the magic and encouraged it to manifest itself by
dancing about at odd moments. Christine gave the house love. She poured love
out from her eyes and her lips and her hands. She had only to walk into a room
and the room became somehow warmer. Christine gave the house tears as she gave
it love. As loving is painful, so Christine was filled with pain. She was all
emotion, all opened to whatever feeling welled up in her. She danced, she cried
and she accepted the whole of whatever the moment held for her.
Lucy had the room at the end of the hall to the left. It was
Lucy who named the house and Lucy who first spoke of magic. Lucy brought lust
to the house. Lucy brought the philosophy of extremism. Lucy brought the street
drugs. She believed in going to the edge, to the limit, and then beyond. She
crashed and careened herself through, laughing all the way. Lucy brought noise
with her. She brought excited craziness that bounced off of the cement grey
walls and filled every pot and bowl and cup in the tiny kitchen. Lucy lived in
the moment; she knew of no other way to live.
Benson had the room at the top of the stairs to the right.
Benson brought balance to the house. He brought a steady enthusiasm to all that
he did and a grin to every situation. He never spoke of the magic of the house.
He called it ‘Townhouse Three’ and invited young men over to drink beer and
play guitar. Benson was constant. There was no flash of anger, no spill of
depression. He studied chemistry and played hockey and never took out the
garbage. He balanced us all with his simple presence. He held the net.
I lived in the fourth room of the house, beside the bathroom.
I brought art to the house. I did not always know that art was what I was
intending, but every wall and level surface held it, every activity and every
conversation was a manifestation of it. Cooking dinner was art. A clean kitchen
was art, the dishes put away, the salt and pepper arranged just so. There was
art in our weekly grocery shopping trips with the ritual hash smoking
beforehand. There was art in the placement of cups and sugar bowl before
afternoon tea. Our house was well-known for its tea.
We brought other things to the Castle in the Air than these.
We brought all of ourselves. For all of us, the eight months of living there
were smoky and intense. Our living there was like the dream just before you
wake up, so clear, so real and so easily dissipated. On the living room wall,
just below the asparagus fern, Christine painted so carefully in blue, “Live
the Dream.” The words belonged. They were a part of the house and to each of us
they meant something, either a promise, an injunction or a statement. The magic
seemed to emanate from these words and from the walls of the Castle themselves.
The magic and the freedom of those words flowed through the
house like autumn morning mist by the riverside. Christine turned starry-eyed
with the drinking in of so much of it. Lucy whirled through the days, filled
with the energy of it. Benson, smiling, played his games and made his music to
the rhythm of it. I slowed and calmed and was wide-eyed with the wonder of it.
Live the dream.
The possibilities seemed suddenly golden and blue and
far-reaching. We contemplated living the dream, building this Castle in the
Air, and we spread ourselves out to try to hold the immensity of space. In
living the dream, in confronting myself with even the possibility of it, I
expanded myself and opened doors and began a new kind of singing.
When I first arrived at the house in early September I
brought four friends, ten grams and two car loads of stuff. I also brought
enthusiastic confusion and my own frenzied lack of direction in among the wool
scraps and plants. I knew only two things about that year when I began it; that
I was going through my final year at Trent University and that I wanted to grab
hold and wring the experience out of every day. I wanted an eight month
celebration and there was Christine, sitting cross-legged on the butt littered
floor, smoking slow and telling me to live the dream.
I didn’t at first know how to achieve the perspective that
Christine and Lucy seemed to bring to their doings. That one could free oneself
from future concerns, from insecurities and perceived limits was beyond my
experience. The magic of the Castle and the constant buzz of the hash had me
moving more slowly, noticing small things and learning. In the cold wet poverty
of that winter going to class became an adventure, writing an essay was like
going on a journey, eating dinner was a pouring in of tastes and textures and
energy. Everything meant something; everything was significant.
We spent long smoky twilit afternoons talking, writing and
painting. We covered one of the cement block walls with squares of paper,
paintings and drawings, a kindergarten classroom. We spoke of our concerns,
thoughts and questions. Heather came over to the Castle to join us for
afternoon tea. Her eyes spoke of joy and humour. She moved quietly through the
small rooms. One cold evening, Heather said in her soft voice, “I had a good
thought today. When one has a good thought, one’s day is complete.” I remember
this because such words were good to hear and were so characteristic of Heather
and of that time for us all. We were enjoying every moment of every day. We
needed very little to make our days feel complete.
It wasn’t so much what we were doing as how we were doing it.
We were conscious of the meaning of moments, of the rhythm of our days. When
the daily chores, the school work and the conversations were all seen as
meaningful, beautiful and precious, we put great attention into our every act
and experience. Walking to a seminar one night, Christine and I paused together
on the railroad tracks without a word being said between us to mark the sudden
halt. We looked at the stars and felt the night around us. It was bitterly
cold. As the days passed and the dream of the Castle deepened I found myself
pausing more often, feeling more fully the richness of the moment, and
directing my days more consciously.
I felt that I had withdrawn from something, some unspoken
assumption about being in the world; I had become mindful and careful and true.
I became more and more conscious and concerned with the patterns of my
experiences and with my reasons for being and doing. In the ragged end of winter
I looked down at the insides of my life and sought a calming of mind and an
absence of mind’s many voices so that I could hear the small song that worked
its way up from the very bottom of myself. I wanted to feel as clearly as
possible the simple truth of my existence. This was my living of the dream.
The others of the house were with me still, but the dream was
not a collective one. Christine looked for love and found it everywhere around
her. She spent time walking with Peter, holding hands. She had long
conversations with Lucy, with Benson, with myself. She cared so much for so
many people that she seemed bigger than she really was; she was tiny and
child-like in appearance. She would smile, crinkling her eyes and say, “I’m not
a girl; I’m a woman!” Lucy would stride into the house carrying the familiar
brown paper bag and say, businesslike, “I bought some rum, so let’s party.”
Lucy ingested fantastic amounts of alcohol, hash, pot and
speed. Sometimes I was right there along with her, as were the others, joyfully
snapping the strings that held my life together, testing the elasticity of my
sanity, wanting to break it open to better view the fragments of myself.
Sometimes I backed away. Sometimes I wondered fearfully what ‘normal’ was like,
what ‘reality’ was like.
In the mud of early spring I sat in the stale air of the
living room, crouched in the butts and the ashes and the deadness, after the
life-flow of the night before. My mind was numb. I had gone very far from where
I used to live. I realized that I had gone very far and that I had never been
where I now found myself. I had never travelled quite so far into nowhere. I
felt keenly that I was nowhere. I had risen that morning only to arise. I had
slept only to be asleep. Everything was meaningful, therefore I was
indifferent. It didn’t matter what it was. Everything was alright and even
nothing was alright. I was completely empty of self-direction.
Suddenly and sharply I wanted to go home and it was the
beginning of the end. Lucy was in a dilemma. She had one month in which to make
up for dozens of missed lectures and essays filled with drug-induced
meanderings. Lucy wanted to pass her final year, but she did not want to stop
whirling. She didn’t want to sit down. She found an answer that at first amused
me. She took speed all the time so that she could party and yet still do all of
her work. She stopped sleeping.
Soon I had to turn from her. Her hands trembled. Her chatter
was empty. She was bursting at the seams. Reality had thrust into her fantasy dance
and Lucy laughed and popped some pills. I still feared reality, the demands of
the professors, the fluorescent lights of the exam hall. Lucy had gone beyond.
It was what she had wanted to do.
I had two weeks of student-teaching to do at the elementary
school on Barnardo Hill. With a sense of being someone else, I put on my skirt
and my panty-hose. I brushed my hair. I went up the hill every morning and did
what was expected of me. It was unreal to me. It was ‘the typical classroom.’
My distance from the people at the school, normal people, frightened me. I was
studying to become a teacher. Did they know where I had been? Did they know how
far I had gone just the week before? Could I ever make it back to where they
I felt that I had to actually physically move myself into a
space that I had left. I had to turn my gaze onto the world around me, focus on
clothes, desks, blackboards and pieces of chalk. High voices and little bodies
flowed through the classroom. When the two weeks were done I received a glowing
report from the associate teacher. She said I was a ‘free spirit’ and that I
genuinely cared for children. “Yes,” I thought, “these things are true, but do
I actually belong in that classroom and in that staff room? Do I want to belong
I took some acid when the skirt and panty-hose had been put
away. I flew, in minutes, back deep into the world of wonder, fantasy and
living the dream. I forgot the culture-clash of those two weeks. I avoided
Lucy’s frenzy. I tried not to watch Christine sinking into the drugs, deeper
Love was all she wanted. Christine looked for gentle touching
and giving of self to self. Reality threw expectations at her. It threw job
applications and phone calls from her parents and arguments with Peter. Christine
cried. “Where is the dream?” she asked me.
I just shook my head. I looked at my toes sticking out of my
sock and felt the push and pull of being in between. I was in between dream and
cold light of day. “I don’t know how far the dream can take you.” I said to little
Christine. “I don’t think the dream can fit with the reality.”
“But reality is full of desperation and people running.” She
mourned all of these unknown people. “People are running who don’t want to run.
And I can’t handle it. I can’t handle their desperation and their running and I
can’t handle my own.” Christine lit another joint, drank the last of the rum
and contemplated the sunlight on the carpet. “It’s so sad that you can’t live a
dream,” she said. “It’s so sad.”
We had cleared our minds of all the details, all the ego
concerns and the business of the world. We had emptied ourselves of ambition,
of needs and insecurities so that we could see what glowed there underneath. We
had felt the joy of simple experience, of living in the now. We had fought monsters and looked for the magic and seen the Castle as somehow separate from all the uncertainties of our world. The dream is wonderful as long as it goes on. In Christine’s
tears, my withdrawal and Lucy’s rushing we felt the pain of despair and of
ending. To be certain that we could get back there would have been a peaceful awakening.
We were not certain. We only knew that we had come close to heaven, so close,
and now we had to leave it and think of other things.
Our beginnings in that house seemed like fantasy. The beauty
and balance and expansion that we had experienced seemed to be negated by the
demands and tensions which we faced at the end. We pushed against the
imperatives; we tried to pretend that it was the way it had been before. And with the
inability to accept what was happening, we limited ourselves and stopped
believing in our dreams. The living of the dream became mere illusion, sorry
escapism. We finished up our school work wearily. The sun was warm and the new
green of summer was spreading when we began to pack up. It was time to go.
The Castle became just another townhouse with cement grey
walls and a leaky faucet. The magic was gone and I was filled with sadness and
questioning. I was the first to leave and I took the art, the surface beauty of
the Castle, with me. By the time I had finished packing it all up, I was ready to move on.
I left the way I had come with a carload of friends and
possessions, drug-induced euphoria and a party waiting at the far end of the
401. I no longer carried confusion with me, or if I did, I carried it lightly.
I had found heaven. I had seen how far a dream could take me. I had experienced
more joy and more truth about my own being in that year than ever before.
I dreamed of being peacefully involved with the world, of
being free to live my days for the sake of the living them, moment after
moment, experience after experience. I dreamed of going only where the heart
told me it was good to go.
I no longer moved without direction; everything in
me was directing me toward the realization of my dreams. The Castle in the Air
had fallen. I mourned its ending. But as I had lived there, gazing out from
that height at a wider view than ever before, I had come to see the
necessity of self-direction and the possibility of true joy. So I, at least,
was left with something.
Postscript: When I
lived in townhouse 3 on George Street in Peterborough, Ontario, I was 20 years old. I am now 54
years old. I have lived through a lot and known experiences of both joy and pain, both love and terrible loss. Yet I am living
the dream. I am living in heaven on Earth. I am living in the now moment, in
the truth of myself, which glows from underneath in that magical way.
If you have built
castles in the air, your work need not be lost;