Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Castle in the Air

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 lived?

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 there?”

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 and 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.
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;
that is where they should be.

Now put the foundations under them.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden


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