I’ve always had a thing for brokenness. I’m drawn to broken people, broken minds, broken spirits and places. I love the Japanese aesthetic, Wabi Sabi, which is a way of seeing beauty in brokenness. Nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, nothing is finished.
This is probably why I’m so drawn to abandoned places. I have a board on Pinterest for abandoned places — mansions, mental institutions, amusement parks, nuclear plants, farmhouses. Every place has an essence, whether still occupied or not. But there’s something about an empty place, a place stopped in time, humans taken out of the equation. The stillness of inanimate objects and invasion of dirt, leaves and even trees, creates an echo of the past, and creates the same melancholy in me as a long baleful train whistle.
Time has stopped in these places. Memories have stopped. Life is stopped.
I can’t help but try to imagine the lives once there. I’ll mentally pick up the trash, clean and straighten the curtains, fluff pillows, vacuum. I add people, television sounds or music. I add stories, drama, love. But I can never get it right. What came before is always a mystery. Where souls go when they abandon the body is even more of a mystery.
In most dream interpretation books, houses represent spirituality, like the home of the psyche. Multi-storied houses are vast and perhaps more accommodating for old souls or healthy souls, etc. There is meaning in hidden rooms, behind locked doors, down below in the dark of the basement.
When I look at abandoned places, it’s like looking at death. Life is gone, and now there’s just stuff, soulless matter. If the house were a repository for the soul, now the soul is gone, and the house is empty. Like the body when we die. The body is just stuff. I want to donate my stuff when I die. Why leave it to waste?
Anyway, here comes a segue… Since I live in Autism World, I see a lot of disabled people, every kind of disability. I see broken minds all the time, broken bodies, broken lives. Some can not contemplate their own lives. Which makes me wonder about the mind, the soul, the part of us that is believed by some to live on after we die. Some believe that this part that lives on will inhabit a new and improved body and brain. Will my son be whole in heaven, if there is such a place? Will he no longer struggle? Will there be a forever home for his beautiful spirit?
Such a scenario would bring me great comfort, but I have my doubts.
If things are above as they are below, then who’s to say we don’t have abandoned houses in heaven? Even stars die, and the rate of star birth is slowing. The universe is full of black holes, black throats swallowing anything nearby, an emptiness so deep as to have tremendous mass and gravitational pull. Not even light can escape.
Julian is starting to worry about dying, about me dying. He says he wants to be with me forever. The first time I tried to comfort him with talk of heaven, of us being there together one day, he thought for a moment then asked, “Will we play Angry Birds?”
In other words, will we have corporeal lives? Things around us to knock on, taste, wrap our arms around? I think not. But I won’t be telling my son this. He needs reassurance, to be certain there’s a place for us, a forever home.
A place is never just a place to me. The older, the better. I feel the richness of history in the oldest places. I’ve been known to sniff the walls. I reach as far as my mind can to sense the lives that came before, to honor them. Sans memories, we can only honor lost strangers.
I did this once in an abandoned hospital. The x-ray department was the only part of the building left open, and I was the sole employee. Since I was rarely busy with patients, I often took walks around the building. The eeriest place was the surgical ward. There were overturned tables and gurneys, a few tourniquets and empty glass canisters. The walls were turquoise ceramic tile, still shiny. The large domes of overhead lights were darkened, covered in dust. Straggly wires protruded from broken intercom systems.
I stood for a long while in one particular suite, imagined all the life-saving surgeries that had taken place there. I also imagined how many lives were lost, then wondered if it was truly possible for souls to literally float away from their bodies to occupy a corner near the ceiling, to watch human hands working frantically to save them.
In that moment I longed to gather all the lost souls, to give them a proper send off, say a few words in the room where they separated from their bodies or went out like a light. I wanted to tell them someone was thinking about them, whomever and wherever they were. The room was so empty, so empty that emptiness felt like a something, its own entity. That entity felt ancient, like an unanswered ache from the bottom of the bottom, the lowliest place a human can fall.
Maybe all I was feeling was me feeling sorry for the dead, feeling sorry for my dead, feeling sorry for myself and everyone else that has to die one day. I have the same haunted feeling when I look at pictures of abandoned places, when I watch a funeral procession or walk through a cemetery. When I listen carefully to a ticking clock.
No one, no thing, escapes death.
We’re told over and over again that the stuff of life doesn’t matter. We’re told that our bodies will die, that we can’t take the stuff with us, that only the soul matters — the soul and love. Which may be why that’s all I can think of when I look at an empty place, where neither exists. I pine for the knowledge of what came before. Were there children? A father? What was the last meal prepared in the empty pot on the stove? Where did the sounds go? The laughter in the amusement park. The screams in the asylum. The conversations about nothing, whispers in the dark, secrets and ‘I love you’s’. The steady hum of unanswered prayers.
The blemished walls will never tell me.