|The place we lived when we were young
||[Aug. 1st, 2011|10:28 am]
My parents have bought a new house.
They believe I should be excited about this. The new house is objectively much better than the old house. It is on a high hill from which you can see forever. There is a swimming pool and a jacuzzi and a Zen garden and a koi pond and god I am feeling snooty and posh just writing all that. The point is, it's a really really nice house and I should feel privileged to be able to live there whenever I'm back visiting my parents in California.
That's the theory, at least.
In practice, I feel like one of those Indian tribes in the 19th century. The US Army comes up to the Indians and says "Look, we're going to take your land. But don't worry, we've got some new land for you way off in Oklahoma. It's a really big reservation and the weather is better and you can grow lots of crops and really you should be thrilled as this opportunity." But that doesn't satisfy the Indians, because this is their land, and they've been on it for generations, and they know and love every last tree and stone and river, and they don't want a really nice reservation in Oklahoma, they want their land, and if you take away their land, you've taken away a part of their soul.
Yeah, it's kind of like that.
I have lived in this house since I was two. Not continuously; I've been off to college and foreign countries and things like that. But whenever I was on summer break from college, or tired of living in foreign countries, I would come back to this house. That's twenty four years here. Out of all the seconds of my life, I have probably spent a greater number of them inside this house than out of it. It has become as much a part of my soul as the Indians' land must have been to them, as much a part of my family and upbringing as my parents or my brother.
Childhood is a pretty special time. My school hours were short, and technology had not yet advanced to the point where going on the Internet was a viable way to spend time. My brother and I spent most of our time exploring all the nooks and crannies of the house and yard, testing our newfound powers of walking, climbing, and object manipulation, and weaving odd legends in keeping with naive animism. I should probably stop mentioning my brother here, because he was not nearly as weird as I was, and for all I know he didn't turn the house into a sacred landscape by anthropomorphizing everything in it.
But I did. Sometimes I would talk to rooms. Every room had its own personality. My parents' bedroom was the friendliest, and even in my periods of fearing the dark I knew no harm could come to me there. The guestroom, which was almost never used, was the least friendly, and I would always close its door at night lest some of its malign personality leak out into the house at large. And that wasn't even counting the closets, most of which deliberately invited monsters into their depths and which stayed closed at all costs.
Other times I would construct cities and civilizations around various parts of the upstairs. My brother and I pooled our stuffed animals to form a village with population of about sixty in his room. The beds were mountains, the dressers great skyscrapers, and the doors highways to the alternate stuffed animal village we would sometimes build in my room. The village was ruled by a council of five animals, who would sometimes send explorers to far off lands like the bathroom or my parents' bedroom or the dreaded guestroom where goodness knows what horrors lurked. Our small town even managed to influence the world far beyond the borders of our house by sending a representative to the World Congress of Secretly Alive Stuffed Animals (which, for reasons that probably made perfect sense by young-child-logic, was located in the Himalayas). The WCoSASA later deigned to recognize us by sending one of its own leaders as an observer, under the cunning guise of a stuffed sheepdog my mother got me for Hanukkah. He is sitting on the top shelf of my closet, about five feet away from where I am typing this. Well into the second half of elementary school I would sometimes feel guilty, wondering if he missed the snows of Central Asia sitting up there with the discarded baby clothes and everything else.
Later, our neighbor Christina, probably about our same age, joined these games. She convinced us that my brother's closet was a teleporter to a parallel universe. We would enter the teleporter, say a magic prayer which only Christina knew, and the teleporter would activate and bring us to the parallel universe. It looked suspiciously like our own universe, but we could always tell it was really the parallel world because the air smelt just a little different, or the light came in through the window at a slightly different angle, or a toy was out of its usual place, or one of a thousand tell-tale signs. Eventually, after some tentative exploration, we would return to the teleporter, say the magic prayer a second time, and return to our own world, glad to see that the light coming in from the window was back to its normal angle once more.
Christina also taught us how to summon magical invisible pet dogs. One time we had a fight, and she told us she had unsummoned our magical invisible pet dogs, and now they were dead. This was around the time we stopped playing with Christina, for even her unparalleled knowledge of magic was not quite enough to compensate for her personality. Last I heard from her was a few years ago, when she got pregnant just out of high school and moved off somewhere to take care of the baby. Apparently some issues are beyond the ability of even the most skilled enchantress to handle.
It was through Christina that we met one of the other neighborhood children, Tor. Tor had his issues, such that he was sent off to military school or something when we were in fourth grade or so. But I mostly remember him as being really, really good at video games - at which he could effortlessly beat myself, my brother, Christina, and everyone in the world. Also, one day Christina declared a random sanitation-related hole in front of his house, just across the street from my own, to be a gateway to Heaven. We spent a few evenings hanging around the hole to see if we could figure out a way to get to Heaven with it, but eventually decided that the magic involved was beyond even Christina's skill level. Still, it remains a neighborhood landmark to remark upon when walking down the street - there the Tree With Sap You Can Write Stuff With, there the House Belonging To The Woman Who They Say Was In The City Council Once And Who Probably Has Even Met The Mayor, there the House With The Strange Bumpy Grass That May Have Come From The Moon, and there the Sanitation Related Hole That Is Secretly A Portal To Heaven.
Another of the Trees With Sap You Could Write Stuff With grew in our own yard. It was very climbable and had thick foliage, so I would sit in it sometimes and watch people going by, thinking to myself - I am almost certain that man walking by has no idea he is being watched by a small child sitting in a tree not ten feet from where he unknowingly goes about his business. When in second grade one of my class projects was to create a pillow using some sort of craft supplies, I took the pillow in question home and put it in the tree to aid my spying efforts, thus turning it into, by my undemanding definition, a treehouse.
Other trees in the yard included the Apple Tree, the Orange Tree, the Lemon Tree, and the Trees That When You Are Really Small Look Like A Jungle. These were all lined up in a row, accessible only by a gate near the Lemon Tree, and blocked off from the rest of yard by a wall which was constantly falling apart. My parents, in a fit of enthusiasm, bought us a prefab clubhouse and placed it right near the Lemon Tree and the gate. My brother and I, after several hours of intense, almost indescribably excitement at the prospect of having a clubhouse, went to the clubhouse, sat in it for a while, remarked upon how awesome it was to have a clubhouse of our very own, tried to think of things to do with the clubhouse, failed, and then never went in it again. Yet it became a landmark for our explorations, as we passed through the three fruit trees and into the Trees That When You Are Really Small Look Like A Jungle. There the foliage was so thick that you couldn't see any sign of human habitation from within, and so we fancied ourselves explorers as we braved the very real danger of having bugs fall on us in order to get to the other side.
Eventually, like all explorers, we turned from discovery to resource exploitation, as we realized that the mouldering wall near the trees offered a near limitless supply of random bugs. This was important because my parents had bought us a "Bug Circus", a sort of plastic landscape with things like tiny slides and a tiny tightrope. The theory was that you would put bugs in this landscape, and they would slide down the tiny slides and walk along the tiny tightrope, which would be adorable. Unfortunately, the manufacturers had skipped the vital task of contracting with the world insect population to make sure they held up their end of the bargain, so in fact when we put bugs in there, they would wander in circles for a few seconds and then scurry underneath a slide or something in the hopes of avoiding further annoyance. My brother and I never quite accepted that this wasn't our fault. The thought was always that we must just be using shoddy, inferior quality bugs. And so we scoured the yard for the better class of insect that would no doubt know how to use the Bug Circus to its full capacity, never quite getting there but becoming amateur entomologists, and world experts in the microgeography of our yard, in the process.
Eventually, my brother and I grew older. And my mother, whose interior design philosophy involves tearing down whatever she can find and replacing it with much more expensive versions, did a number on the old house. With every change, I would protest, and my mother would respond by explaining exactly why the new version was much nicer and more fashionable than the old. She didn't get it. Sure, our bathroom wallpaper might have been a bit ratty. But what she didn't realize is that since I was very young, I would stare at the constantly shifting patterns in its irregular tiling and use them to predict the future. She replaced it with a finished white look that was much shinier but offered no opportunities for divination. A quick pass of my room eliminated the space shuttle model that hung from the ceiling above my bed. Sure, it wasn't entirely finished, and sure, the wings were attached at an odd angle which would never make it off the launch pad on a real flight. But in my defense, I was six when I built the thing, and I had memories of drifting off to bed each night staring at it and imagining I was an astronaut. So one room at a time, my house became more fashionable and less spirit-haunted.
But a few things remained firm. The wood floor, with a few dots that, if ever I stepped on them, I would have to eliminate their pollution on my feet by wiping them on the nice kitchen rug. The big white counter in the hallway, which when I was very young I once dreamt I saw a parade of fantastic creatures marching out from and was never able to view in quite the same way again. The chandelier that started shaking when I experienced my first earthquake. And the general macrostructure of the house and yard was beyond her ability to alter in any but the most superficial ways.
And now, even that is to be lost. We move sometime this fall, while I am away in Ireland. The new house with its pool and zen garden and view that goes on forever has a lot going for it. But what I'm losing is my childhood, which passes from a living imprint on the environment into a vague memory. And I no longer have the ability to make new myths and worlds that are as real to me and as powerful to me as the ones I made then, so it is a loss which I cannot replace. As beautiful as the new neighborhood is, I will never again randomly pass by a sanitation hole and have a voice in the back of my mind still sort of half-believing it could be a portal to Heaven.
So I will enjoy my last few days in the house where I grew up, and appreciate the meaning it gives to everything I do to be in it still, and when I have to go, well, I guess I had a good run here, and nothing lasts forever.
And if any of you happen to be enchanters, and know how to open a currently closed portal to Heaven, let me know sometime in the next few days, okay?