Bishop Castle is a real place. With castles, clarification is sometimes necessary. They seem fantastic. 

Out of the rugged majesty of the pines that make up San Isobel National Forest stretch two spires of stone and delicately latticed iron. The first time I climbed the spire stairs, I was 12 or 13. I clawed my way up the spiral staircase, practically on all fours, as the tower swayed in the mountain breeze. 

I’m afraid of heights. 

I am more afraid of missing an opportunity. Fear will not be the gatekeeper that keeps experiences from my life. 

And admission to Bishop’s Castle is proudly, pugnaciously free. 

So, upward, into the open cathedral chamber with its arched, gothic windows. Then up farther into each swaying tower, where the stone steps, worn by the passage of feet, give way to webbed iron stairs. You can see through the stairs. Tall windows gape, unbarred, at crystalline blue skies. There is nothing to impede a fall. Messy patches of welding appear everywhere, chronicling how Jim Bishop, the builder, taught himself to work with metal and stone as he went along. 

None of this is safe. Nothing is up to code. 

Six-foot, hand-painted signs around the property absolve Mr. Bishop from liability and decry regulation. 

One sign, tucked in an archway, declares the castle to be a testament to Jim Bishop’s “God-given” creativity. It protests governmental attempts at controlling the building process and the fines, arrests, and lawsuits Mr. Bishop has endured. 

You might expect Mr. Bishop to be a belligerent eccentric, or at least a cantankerous individualist. I pictured hard features, wild hair, cargo shorts, and tie-dye. 

The bent, elderly man with shaking hands who slumped in a lawn chair in the shade, softly answering tourists’ questions, surprised me. 

Jim Bishop is a man beset. In addition to the various authorities, cancer and Parkinson’s disease have also launched attacks against the castle, which is still “under construction.” 

I asked him why he built it.

“I didn’t build it,” he said. “God built it. I didn’t even know what it was going to look like until it was built.” 

His tone was so different from the defensive invocation of “God-given rights” on the signs. 

But why is it those things which are God-given which often seem most vulnerable to us, most in need of our defense? 

One would think rights bequeathed by the Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe would be impervious to puny, mortal attack. But God seems to give away freedom like a castle full of leaks and crumbling parts, without care for structural integrity or upkeep, unconcerned with how such a gift might reflect on the Giver. 

The maintenance of freedom will quickly bankrupt us, consuming our mental and emotional resources at an alarming speed. In our updates and fortifications, we must attend to the integrity of the original design. Our castles also closely border others, and we must be mindful of how our construction interferes with our neighbors. Defense must be tempered with deference. 

My aunt worked in a greenhouse and nursery through the spring months. Her frustration with customers who declined to wear masks made her voice sound brittle on the phone. 

“Your freedom ends where mine begins,” she said.

The sentiment is common and seems too simple, too trite. Is that really how it works? Do we take a compass and inscribe a circle of freedom around ourselves? Politics—and, indeed, most human interaction—is then merely the jostling, stretching, and popping of these millions of bubbles. Of late, our bubbles have materialized into the real, physical world. It is wearisome to be so conscious of every intrusion into this universe that has me at its center and a radius of six feet.

Considering one’s self to be the “center of a universe” is frowned upon. But what is freedom except a description of the borders around our domain of potential actions? Freedom is permission to act grounded in a recognized sphere of governance. So it is appropriate that Mr. Bishop should build a castle as a symbol of his freedom. To be free is to be king of a little section of reality.

That, however, makes freedom seem a petty, suburban, or even mean thing. I am convicted of analyzing through the clouded lens of great privilege. While people have died for less than a small bubble of qualified autonomy, the freedom which many have longed for and continue to be denied, and which I too often take for granted, must be more than that. 

What if true freedom were, rather than a means of widening our own little spheres of power, a way of widening the cracks in our world of grim, plodding necessity, allowing egress to the Other World of More. Every instance of True Freedom that I have seen does not soak up more of a limited, territorial resource, but offers more to the world—more wonder, more difference, most possibilities, more belief. Freedom is addition, building on. 

Could true freedom be every act of disruption and rebellion against the rule of the hungry cycle of consumption—a gleeful sortie of abundance?

 

Photos by Emily Joy Stroble

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    Thoughtful, artful, and well-articulated. To think of freedom as building rather than taking is a new perspective that really resonates with me. So often we stop at thinking we’re the center of our universe but never try to grasp what to do with that. Your proposal here is excellent.

    Oh and castles. Always a fan of castles.

    Reply

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