When I was a kid growing up our house was at the top of a hill, our backyard was this grassy mound going up and up until it reached our house. In the side of the hill was a door, and that door led into the basement. I could still smell it now, that damp dark hollow world of a basement. The floor was mostly dirt, and it smelled of moldy old things, like books and mildew and the scent of the earth. I would play in that basement sometimes, thinking that this was a hole beneath the world that led into the world beneath the ground. A doorway into some primordial underworld right under my house.
I wasn’t scared, even though there was only one bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling. What I was scared of was the back of the basement, where there was another door leading to who knows where, a door I was never allowed to enter. Sometimes I swore I heard knockings and rumblings behind the door. Sometimes I would dream of the door opening and wake up in a cold sweat, and I never told my parents about these nightmares. When you are a child you always leave out the things that would frighten your parents. You know better.
I remember very clearly one time when I was really young, and maybe I think my brother was still young enough to be in a crib or my mom was still pregnant with him (so maybe I was two or three? I have a lot of memories from this point, from before my brother came into being…but those are for another time). I was in my room by myself and the closet door opened, and standing there was a shimmering blue woman. She was probably my mother’s age and she just walked up to me and told me not to be scared. I don’t remember what happened after that. Maybe it was a dream. It couldn’t possibly be real.
Yet, there it was, clear as day, real as a memory is real. Bright daylight, about noonish, maybe summer. My childhood closet door opening and she was just standing there, telling me not to be scared. And maybe I was. Maybe I wasn’t. I can’t remember.
2. The Deep Dark Woods
Living in a rural area, even one by a great lake, means to be surrounded by woods. Deep dark feral woods. The kind of woods that give rise to stories of witches and ragged homeless men sacrificing children, and maybe wolves as well as bears too. The number of stories about the woods were many, and we passed them back and forth like trading cards.
And yet, that never kept me out. I didn’t believe a word of them. The stories lacked truth, felt grim for the sake of being grim and didn’t feel really real at all. So I explored these woods on my own, without my friends or anyone else. I would wander off the path (that is, after all, where adventure happens), and would wander until I found ruins of houses covered in ivy and lost long ago to time. Sometimes it would just be just an outline of a basement in stone and nothing more. Parts of it would be a rank pond, filled with toads and greenish scum on the edges. But you would still see it, that outline of where a house would be. Other times I found the rust of what had once been a big oil rig of some sort, just metal tanks covered in vines. The once proud fences that surrounded it now torn apart and turned to rotted posts that could keep no one back.
I would climb those rust towers. Sometimes stairs would crumble as I’m walking up them and I wondered if I would fall and die alone and no one would find me. I would leap past the rotted parts then, and just hope the rest of it would still support me.
In some summers I would hear cicadas and I feared the noise, thinking of things chasing me. Giant insects with terrible wings making horrible sounds. I didn’t know what they were, or why it seemed it only happened every few years. But I would find traces of them, amber exoskeltons stuck to trees. I heeded these shells like a warning of things to come.
At other points in the woods I found a waterfall. And another time I found a horse farm nestled in the middle of nowhere and watched as the most beautiful girl fed the horses apples, and then rode away on horseback and I thought, was it real? Was this whole situation a real thing? Or had I witnessed something holy and ancient, forgotten gods from some lost world?
3. The Pines
Another place I loved to explore was out by my grandparents place, further out into the country. They had woods that rambled about and seemed to go on forever. I saw a few foxes out there once hunting a deer and I scared them off. A large portion of these woods were all pines, and my mom called it Narnia. She had loved going there as a kid, and Narnia was her favorite book.
I remember looking for Narnia in those pines. But I never felt the connection to Narnia that she had felt, so I wandered and wandered amongst the needles, always looking but never finding it. I saw magic there, yes, but the deep kind of magic. The kind of magic that turned the woods dark green through the needles on the trees. I guess Narnia was never a place I wanted to go to, so instead I found the magic in those trees that I was looking for instead. A personal kind of magic, that cuts to the bone.
In the summers we would go out at night, since their house was far away from any city lights, and watch the perseids shimmer and shatter down to earth. Millions of stars crumbling into the stratosphere. I remember my grandpa telling me that shooting stars used to be thought of as dragons. And I thought the sky was full of dragons. Millions of dragons plummeting to earth. In my childhood mind these were the dragon hearts that shined so brightly, and I wanted to go and find them. I dreamt that night of the pines, and how beneath the needles shined a million dragon hearts, all scattered along the ground, fallen to earth the night before. They flickered like fireflies.
I remember also writing a spell book in a tiny red notebook I got from Waldenbooks at the mall. Earlier that year I read Machen’s story The White People. And even though I found parts boring (I was like 8 or so) I got inspiration from that little girl’s diary beyond the frame narrative of the story. And I wrote my own spellbook, based on the words I found there, like Troy Town and the Green Rituals, and all of that sort of stuff. At that age I didn’t realize the statue at the end was the Great God Pan, but I didn’t need to. What I saw in my mind’s eye was something else, something far stranger.
What I saw in my was a twisted, insane form made of broken marble and unreal geometry. When I was done writing my little spellbook I wandered through the woods by my house and buried it under a gnarled tree. The tree looked like a door to me, the way those roots reached and grabbed at the soil, the way the branches bent, and the way the trunk parted just so, almost just like a veil that you could pull apart.
Of course some part of me knew it wasn’t a door and that book of spells was just a book of crude handwritten gibberish of an eight year old. But I wanted it to be real. I wanted to visit those mysterious lands, the lands I dreamt about in tossing, aching sleep. I wanted the blue lady to open the door and tell me not to be scared and take me to other places, places I knew existed elsewhere. I used to sleepwalk at night until I was about six or seven. I would never know what I was doing or where I was going, but a few times I made it all the way out the front door, walking lost and teary eyed on the front lawn.
I’d like to think I was being led by that blue lady in my sleep, and she was taking me to somewhere else. But I can’t remember those dreams, not at all. But I knew those hidden places were real, I’d seen them, so many times.
They weren’ faraway, otherworlds, no. I knew these places existed alongside of us, hidden from our eyes but there, there. Unmapped even then, except by brave children who wandered those woods in fear of killer wolves but still writing down their own jangled map. A place here, right in front of us, just a little out of sight, just a little to the right of what we see, moving out of the corner of our eyes.
5. The Return
Years later, of course, decades upon decades later, and I go back and hope to walk those same paths. But they’re overgrown now. I tried getting through, but I would need a machete. Other parts are the same, almost, the woods claiming those rusted weary parts completely devouring them. That old house is now shattered and not even a basement anymore. Just trees and dirt and a pond and nothing more. Other places in the world seem to be fighting the natural world, but not here.
The natural world seems to be devouring all of those paths we had cut through it. Even the places we would wander, restless and without a compass except our own bones, even those were impassible now. They were covered in completely by vines and bushes and ragged angry weeds. Water sunk in some of paths and it is now more marsh than ground anyway. You would have to swim and swim, and maybe hold your breath for awhile. I saw bands of wild dogs wandering through there, probably discarded by careless owners, and thought it best not to try and retrace my steps.
So those places so strange and dear to me, that contained the veins of magic and mystery are now verboten to me. Yet, they still exist in the same way, deep inside. And I remember the times I would walk on the rails and see firefly flashes in the trees and it looked like lightning in a cloud.
And this has me thinking about nostalgia for our youth, and how that word nostalgia is rooted in the Greek word for homesickness, and that sometimes we treat our childhood like a place. And other times, we make it manifest in some other place, some fantasy world we call into our own, and link it up with that same essence of childhood. The two become inseparable, connected together, entwined together in a double helix dance.
I can see it in others, in their approach to Narnia, or Hogwarts, or Middle Earth. This feeling of childhood forever wrapped up into some other world, drawing them in and then they want, oh they want forever to be some chosen one called up into that blissful otherworld. That place that was more real than the real they lived through, and it becomes all combined and turned up and tortured together.
This feeling, I think, is different from the want to re-experience the things of our childhood and try in some way to re-experience childhood itself. I think it is especially so with things that connect to our own imaginations, and draw upon them in those childhood hours. For example, in books we don’t have the visual supplied for us, so we must supply it ourselves. And in doing so, we create aspects of it, making it ours in a way a movie or television show could not.
Another example is with toys, and the way as kids we build upon the worlds we visit in other mediums, and our own dimensions to it, maybe even almost supplying that same co-creation that exists within the written works. Another part of it, and I think perhaps the most potent in some forms, is a sense of community. This is fostered with others enjoying and sharing within this same world, so it becomes less private and personal and more of a shared experience (and therefor, being more real). This can be with toys on a playground, in a bookstore at a midnight launch party, or standing for hours in line trying to get tickets for a movie. The more obvious is conventions, but not everyone is so lucky to hit these meccas of fantastical frontier.
All of these aspects create some shared experience that can create a longing for that fictitious world. A real emotion with real consequences. This emotion goes from nostalgia for childhood itself to nostalgia as a homesickness for a place we’ve never been to before. A pining away for an unreal world, one that is tied into all of our experiences, that somehow define us for who we are. Yet, creates in us a rootless, wandering, empty hearted emotion.
7. That Labyrinth is not a Labyrinth
It’s like being cast out from Atlantis, torn from Faerie and left to wander nomad in the wastes of the modern world. We always look back, look back, into this place we’ve never been to. A place we wanted to be real more than anything else. A place we created, co-created, built from the empty forms of our still forming selves, in that primordial state of childhood.
I don’t quite grasp this feeling myself, yet I have it in my own way. I don’t long for some idyllic other world, wanting to be chosen from the slack masses and be set out to learn magic or maybe save a kingdom from winter or witchcraft. Some part of me wishes I could feel that, I look outside of that feeling with my own sense of longing, to understand, to be that much a part of something else that it defines and creates you, builds you up and makes you into who you are. It seems like a magical feeling that others have, and it creates a distinct connection with their childhood.
And yet, and yet. I guess I have my own wilds of the mind, my own wilderness of the imagination. Sometimes at night I still dream of those woods, that basement, the doors and doors and doors leading to dark hollows. I dream of that blue lady, at various points, and wonder if somehow that tree grew around my spellbook, and drank in its words into the roots. And maybe, the veils of the trunk parted, slowly, softly, and let me into the mossy darkness beyond. That was my hidden world, the world of my youth, just slightly off to the side of this world.
Maybe all these worlds are connected somehow. That this longing is a longing to a shared otherplace. Maybe we just create a space for childhood, a real existence with roots in the mind and roots in the soil. Or maybe we’re all remembering the place before we were born, or will return to after we’re all dead and dust in the dirt. Maybe it’s really Faerie we’re looking for, maybe. If that’s the case we should turn around and not look back. Those stories never end well for forlorn travelers from distant lands, no, not at all.