Decaying Worlds – Inhabiting the Ruins of a Structure and a Soul
Recently, my husband sent me an article on abandoned places. These were once glorious, but now forsaken European castles and villas. Dying tokens of splendor and opulence captured by architectural photographer Mirna Pavlovic, who has a thing for deserted structures. She risks getting arrested, falling through rotted floors, or just plain getting cooties by climbing fences and ignoring “no trespassing” signs in order to get some truly incredible shots. Ones of beautiful homes that for reasons we can only imagine, have been ditched and left to slowly decay. Their murals, marble and artisan carpentry are being encroached upon by the elements, until one day they will become part of the natural earth again.
“They are never truly dead, yet never really alive,” Pavlovic says of these villas. “Precariously treading along the border between life and death, decay and growth, the seen and the unseen, the past and the present, abandoned places confusingly encompass both at the same time, thus leaving the ordinary passerby overwhelmed with both attraction and revulsion.”
I love the duality she sees in these spaces. That the ghosts who visit while she snaps her pictures may tell a very different tale to her than to someone else. They might speak of folly, dancing, formality, and wing-dings. Or anguish, broken dreams, empty promises, death, hope, rebirth. Perhaps all of those things jumbled up into one, long Russian novel.
“Reminds me of the stories you write,” my husband told me.
And he has a point. It seems I cannot write a story without a double meaning or phantom of some sort. While Pavlovic focuses on place, I train my eye on people – emotion, memory, the senses. Picking apart and reassembling the interior mechanisms that conspire to make up a soul. Urging my imagination to recognize the spiritual components which make that soul eternal.It may seem counterintuitive, but I feel an inherent sense of optimism when I’m dreaming up characters who have been disavowed, betrayed, left behind to descend into ruin. From there, the only way is up. Thought by thought, step by step, decision by decision. Understanding this narrative is what gives life meaning. It opens our hearts to mercy.
So, I understand Pavlovic’s fixation.
The chronicling of this organic and at times supernatural metamorphosis is the sole reason I’ve never even considered giving up on being a fiction writer. Even when the frustration and fear of failure has been so great that it’s kept me up at night, found me tearing through my kitchen to cook up gourmet meals no one in my family really wants to eat, made me say mean things to my mother’s bird.
Because writing is so much more than a skill to me, or a way to do my part in keeping my kids ensconced in their expensive enrichment activities. Writing is an extension of faith, of compassion, of trying to leave behind something that will matter to someone else.
When I take time off from my stories for any extended period, I find myself averting my eyes from the ruined places and ruined souls that I would otherwise be exploring. Not because I can’t bear to look at them, but because I can’t spare the time. The hours in the day fill up with cooking and laundry and driving. And for a while, yes, the house looks better, our lives are more organized, our kids are always on time for their events.
Those intervals are important, too, and I’m not knocking them. Nor would I give them up.
But when they stretch out for too long, my interior life becomes a bit more stark. I might be a more competent wife and mother, but not necessarily a better one. I start to pick teams instead of examining issues. Ugly words begin to mean less, and even make me a little giddy. They feel like contraband – smoking a cigarette behind the shed doors.If I look away for too long, I start to give myself permission to retreat comfortably behind the sanctimony of political correctness, biblical passages, or quotes from my favorite philosophers – believing, wrongly, that I’ve got this empathy thing down. Smug in my place in the world, judgement and condescension worm their way into my daily thoughts. I have so much less to teach my children.
I don’t mean for it to happen, it’s something that creeps up – like the ivy in some of the mansions Pavlovic likes to photograph.
And that’s when I know.
It’s time to climb that fence again, march past the “no trespassing” sign, risk falling through a rotten floor and getting cooties in order to spend some time inside a soul – perhaps denied, friendless and pitiful, but still standing.