Castles Burning, Come Around

Ryan Heller
It starts with a visual.
Could be triggered by a song, by a smell or even the mention of a street name. But it is the immediate visual which follows that holds a monitor to my face. And like the dilating of an eye, a circular emptiness swells in my stomach. A pinpoint sized whirlpool grows as it circles round, round and round, till my body is consumed. Till it swallows me whole and I fall into the depths of memory.

Because that’s all there is.
Memories otherwise dormant are triggered in a suffocating sandstorm of emotion.
I’d do anything to go back. I’d do anything to visit those pristine days of youth when I thought I knew everything. When anything was possible and life was without end or consequence. On my knees, hailing to heavy clouds with air cold and thick – a feeling of rain in my bones.
Painting in the garage until three in the morning.
Breaking into my old development to go swimming at midnight.
Driving aimlessly for an hour just to hear an album.
Brief moments of time now seem epic. So seemingly aware of life every second because I lived it, while so blindly unaware of life because I didn’t live it. Walking with eyes closed or maybe not moving at all. I thought I knew so much, thought I had all the answers. Thought the present moment was everything I needed wrapped on a plate and nothing existed beyond my sight. There was so much weight in every action, words consequential.
The drama of it all. Of my grandiose life.
And yet I missed so much for that same thinking, closed off by naivety or teenage self-righteousness.
But those memories.
They are beautiful and heartbreaking. Beautiful for what they represent and tragic for what they represent. Time, people, moments– gone.
Can never be rewound, scenes never watched again.
I recently saw a photo of a girl I knew from high school. She was with her mother and son in Disneyland. Immediately I remember freshman year when our parents sat in the library for an assembly. Her parents and mine, talking briefly about the elementary school we both attended, about the school play we were both cast in together. This memory trickles in while I stare at the photo of her family and realize how quickly life moves. In my mind I’m still in the library, can still smell the old books and musty shelves. Can still see her mother’s face as she gossips with my mom.
But now her mother is a grandmother. Both her children with successful careers and families of their own. The girl I knew looks like her mother did then. It’s been maybe sixteen years, but it could have been ten minutes since that day.
Life seems like an eternity, like a great big movie with no end and no beginning. Where my thirty-two years on this planet feels like forever until a fifty-year-old laughs at me. Until a ninety-year-old laughs. Until I see a fifteen-year-old strutting like they know everything and I smile. I feel like I could’ve walked with the dinosaurs, like nothing existed before me because what I know is what I know. What I know is all there is.
But oh-shit there’s so much more.
And if my mind could actually comprehend the fact that this planet is 4.543 billion years old and Earth is a spec of dust amongst an infinite universe, if I could actually comprehend these facts I may be a bit more humbled. But my thirty-two years seem so significant. Seem like the be-all-end-all years. And all those billions of years before– well, don’t pay them much mind because this guy holds all the cards.
A single day can drag on for what feels like forever.
Months feel like years and years can feel like a lifetime.
But life changes instantly. Transformation is as natural to existence as breath is to life. Year after year, month after month, I look back at days I thought would never end. Hours I couldn’t see through tear soaked eyes. Moments when the phone rings and life-changing news is delivered. Sipping coffee after a quick shower one morning, planning the day ahead then–
You pick up the phone and the world stops.
That time I quit my job.
Was caught plagiarizing an essay.
Withdrew from college.
Got dumped and thought there was no one in the world for me.
Found love.
The time I walked up a mountain and came back a different person.
If only I knew then what I know now.
A statement that has run through my head many times.
The thing about growth is it’s constant. For better or for worse, the wheels keep moving. They keep moving in directions I never anticipated nor could have understood in the moment. It’s always hindsight. Footprints always form a path when you look back. Smart as I think I am, talented as I dream myself to be, I eventually digest my minuscule contribution to the path. Aside from walking, aside from putting one foot in front of the other, which albeit can be a seemingly insurmountable effort at times, I have played no part in the construction.
And believe me, believe me I want to take credit for it.
I want to say I’m the designer of my life.
That I’ve orchestrated this whirlwind of thirty-two years.
I’ll even take claim for those dark years because they now seem so brilliantly crafted. Filled with the best learning, the strongest growth. The helpless struggle to crawl from old skin, shed layer after layer of teenage angst and twenties dysfunction. The best soundtracks, the best lighting. Days when it felt like nothing would change, the straight jacket strapped on for eternity.
Those days.
The best worse days.
Those days were sculpted by Divine hands. Hands which knew long before I that pain is our greatest motivator. Pain is the catalyst for brilliance. Pain is the balance of joy. The gateway to beauty.
I can’t take credit for those days or their outcome.
I can’t take credit for those thoughts and images that manifest into writing. I think my sole contribution is providing fingers to type. A vessel.
The difficult part is to know I know nothing. Because when I think I’ve got it all figured out, when I think I’ve got the upper hand in life, the rug is somehow pulled from under me. The snow globe is turned upside down and I’m forced to experience an even greater change. A new perspective. Left to pick up pieces and learn to rebuild.
It takes knowing everything to know nothing.
A house of cards.
Ready to overturn.
And I’ll hold tight with sweaty palms to try and maintain some semblance of familiar form. The form I’ve come to recognize as eternal truth. As fact. The form I take for granted because it has always held shape. The form I see less and less as my gratitude weakens. Because I innately believe it will always be there.
I forget.
I forget things change.
I forget nothing is permanent.
Everything evolves in time.
When a gust of wind blows. When hands of fate wipe the ground clean. When the house of cards become 52 Pick-Up.
I miss those days sometimes. Sometimes my heart aches for an old deck of cards. The one where I found a voice in New Mexico. The one where I could sneak out my bedroom window and disappear into night. Where we fed the beast on an ecstasy-laced Saturday. Or when sleep away camp was the beginning of independence for a fifteen-year-old boy.
It’s more than being able to play those tapes again, it’s a deep yearning to feel the emotion. Not knowing then, not understanding an entire time period would be compressed into one emotion saturated memory. Six summers of sleep away camp are represented by one single thread of images. One continuous haze of moment and feeling funneled into a silo of time. A silo infused with emotion, labeled by circumstance. So when my mind wanders back to that period, to the hourglass of sleep away camp, I immediately feel–
Whatever that feeling is.
I feel the wide-eyes of a boy in discovery, the nostalgic innocence of youth. The freedom of self bondage.
That feeling.
Whatever it is.
The point is, I look back on periods of time with a heavy heart. Because I realize how transient I am in my own life. From one place to another, one identity to another.
So many silos.
So many silos, I wish I could go back.
Wish I could experience some of it all over.
Wish I could hang out with that girl from the library again, drive around in her car again, be in the school play together again. But she’s someone else now, someone with a new silo. The mother of a small child. A small child who will grow into a man and look back at photos with his mother, who will long for days of simplicity. The day they spent in Disneyland with grandma. And who knows, grandma may no longer be around then.
Those silos of time have defined who I am. For a period I was the son of my parents, eventually the gay kid in middle school, the drug addict, the recovering addict, the artist, the writer, the actor. Defined by periods that communicate who I am, what I do. And I used these labels to dictate my life because it’s what we do, identify with something and wear it until that something becomes last season. Until a new silo begins to fill. I hung up the theatre hat and put on an artist apron, tossed out the artist apron to sharpen my writing pencil. Regularly consumed drugs and alcohol until the well ran dry and I was the “recovering addict”.
Life circulates around these labels, from one to the next as I jump from lily pad to lily pad in and endless pursuit of –
I guess I don’t know.
An endless pursuit of self.
Of Identity.
Or maybe just blindly following the Divine path laid out. Because in hindsight it all serves a purpose and makes me who I am today.
But the looking back is painful and the looking forward is exhausting. Identifying with silos of the past only makes me long for what was, while focusing on the future makes me feel like I’ll never succeed.
They say to look where your feet are planted and be grateful for today. Focus on the present. But it’s so easy to forget. Reflection takes over simply by looking at a photograph of someone from high school. Or hearing a song that grips you by the throat and transports back to those feelings. The people who are gone, the absolute upheaval of everything I thought I knew then.
I may be rambling now.
I think I’m rambling.
But if you’re still reading by this point, it is safe to say you understand what I’m rambling about.
I became hung up on writing because I didn’t know what to write anymore. I began to feel like everything was centered on addiction and recovery, but that’s only a fraction of who I am. It’s a drop in the bucket of my personal experience. We are diverse, multifaceted beings with an endless field of silos. Our experiences are shared on levels beyond sight. We connect through feeling, through an understanding of what it is like to be human.
To fuck up.
To be angry.
To fall in love.
To doubt.
To look backward.
To fear.
To ache.
To dream.
Those experiences define us because we’re human but they also connect us. We all ride the wave of change and hope for the best, have faith it will work out how it’s meant to work out. Usually never how we expect. But again, I’m not the designer of my life.
I don’t want to live in silos, but rather an ocean of existence where the waves of experience flow together in a stream of self-awareness.
To fully understand memories are not past; they are folded delicately into the present. To not see life as a linear path, but as a shapeless, formless energy weaving in and out of itself.
And in truth, I have no idea how.
No idea how to stop falling into silos and living by definition.
But I can write about it.
I can write about it and maybe understand later.

Thanks for reading