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in the eye of the tornado

in the eye of the tornado - Setting Sun Retirement Home*
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It is hard to explain certain things about myself. It is hard to explain why I would willingly go into a place that is in such a tremendous state of disrepair that I could fall through a floor and not be found for days, or why I went by myself. It isn’t just the pursuit of preserving a building through photography, or the search for the One Great Shot —both of which are convenient explanations that I often use to justify my work, but which fall short in the face of such harrowing circumstances as these. In the setting sun retirement home there wasn’t a moment in the building that I was at ease. The rooms had become cavernous pits fanned with jagged floor boards and bent metal bed frames, and the ground beneath me always was never quite solid or trustworthy. In all honesty the place terrified me. I took every step gingerly, not knowing whether it would be the one that would bring the walls and ceiling down on top of me, and when I left the sense of relief I felt was so great that it can barely be described.

While I was inside, though, a strange thing happened. Because I was so focused on the immediate peril around me, and the challenge of translating it into something somewhat logical within the camera’s frame, I ceased to exist as the person I am outside the walls of these places. At that point I was nothing more than a reaction to my surroundings; all of the hopes and fears and dreams and ambitions that normally clutter my brain vanished. I wasn’t thinking about my job or my finances. I wasn’t thinking about the friends and lovers I’ve lost, or all of the many things i should have said or done but didn’t, and the many things i have done that I would give anything to undo. I wasn’t thinking about the ruinous path the world around me is careening down, the growing island of plastic debris in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas, the myriad of drugs in our drinking water, the abundance of chemicals in our food. I wasn’t thinking about poverty or inequality or crime, mortality or despair or failure or debt. The rest of the world’s problems and all of my own were eclipsed by the one thing that mattered at that point: surviving the trip without being seriously wounded.

When a building is abandoned, it is shorn of its identity. What it once was remains, but what it is in the present is undefined. The Setting Sun Retirement Home is a retirement home no longer, and at this point it is barely even a building. Its halls are wracked beyond recognition, its doors lead to nothing, and its ceilings and walls don’t keep out the wind or the cold. The color the paint once provided has faded and cracked, and the ceiling fans and lights will never operate again. What have they become? The glib answer is trash and debris, but there is far more to it than that. It is now something that has either outlived or transcended its purpose, depending on how you look at it.

What do I become, when I am no longer the mass of limitations placed on me by the world around me and myself? Who am I, when I am not drowning in expectations and frustrations? What defines me when the scope of my world has shrunk to purely experiencing the present moment without the filter of my past and future to obscure it? What does a place like Setting Sun become when an observer such as myself enters it, someone who is not trying to judge its present condition or plan out what it should be, but instead loves it all the more for its current status and wants nothing more of it (save for not being maimed by it) than what it is?

Often I can’t sleep at night, as all of the events of the day crowd around my consciousness fighting for my attention. I feel as though I am choking on myself, suffocating under the inescapable weight of my own trajectory through life. In bits and flashes the places I have been come back to me sometimes. The fear I sometimes felt while I was inside them — of injury or of getting into trouble - is gone. In its absence there is something greater, the void left when the experience is unencumbered by the threat of immediate injury. I don’t have any answers to the question of what is left behind, save that maybe I enjoy the fear. Perhaps I go to haunted places because I am haunted myself, and because when I am there we cancel each other out or become something greater. Maybe I go to places that no longer are because they are the places where I am not. Maybe I need the sense of serenity that there is when all of the pushing and pulling our society revolves around has stopped, for only in the stillness of the eye of the tornado have I ever been able to find peace.

Photograph and text by Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America.

Also in: Setting Sun Retirement Home*

when it all comes caving in
the void within
as the evening twilight fades away
within me is the cold
every tatter in its mortal dress


Photo comment By Randy Hardy: my experiences in such environments, be it factory rusting toward its elements or near tumbled-down shotgun shack, each pulls me toward the sacred. all senses sharpened, the simple act of touching a doorknob, turned by many, countless times. gazing out the empty sockets of windows, sensing tears and longings. the smell of molds, dankness, greenery, leaving the promise of natures reclaim on the tongue. ears pricked for any sounds, coo of dove, wetdrips, and the mindsear...how easily it captures the shrieks of laughter, commotions, prayers of despair. in their calamity, such places are surely hollowed ground. just recently discovered your site. thanks for sharing your discoveries. the photos are amazing.
Photo comment By Dara: Regarding your essay, no explanation needed here...I understand all of that perfectly...