Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Desolate Oasis – Finding Peace in Empty Places

"Where is everybody?"

Do you ever find yourself asking that? You are walking down a street in the middle of the afternoon, and maybe it's during a sticky, hot summer day when you can hear bees humming and the leaves shuffling and rearranging themselves on the tree branches.

You walk down to the corner to get a better look at main street, and the only thing that acknowledges your presence is the American flag, lazily saluting your shadow stretched out before you on the sidewalk. 

Better yet, you find yourself in an environment that normally houses many souls, like a sports arena, an airport, a shopping mall, or a grocery store. You find yourself to be completely alone, accompanied only by the buzz of florescent lights and the whistled inhales and exhales coming in and out of your nostrils.

I happen to live for these moments. They are moments when you stumble upon a Desolate Oasis. 

Especially for us city folk, it is a privilege to find yourself in a situation where you are unlatched from the honey comb of society. These moments are so incredibly seductive that I find myself lingering to get just one last look, one last whiff of the luxurious feel of an abandoned space.

Abandoned spaces make me feel special. If I can view an empty theater, a deserted ballroom, or the clean-up after a party (with one lone vacuum cleaner being pushed back and forth in the corner, hundreds of yards away), I feel as though I have stumbled upon something I was not supposed to see. It is very much like The Matrix for me, because it feels like this millisecond when I get a sneak peak into the backstage of life.

Do all human beings feel this way to some extent? Do we all quietly indulge in opportunities to view gigantic abandoned construction sites? Do we all look over our shoulder while ascending or descending the steep steps at a baseball field, just to catch a glimpse of the trodden grass and the evacuated dugouts? 

I feel these moments in my chest and it is a mixture of voyeurism, melancholy and intrigue. These are heavy, silent moments, and they are so important, like chapters markers to separate the endless hours that make up a lifetime. These moments when I view a scene that is absent of Life, I feel the peace that comes from viewing an empty place.

Finding peace in empty places. It is the only way I can describe the sensation I felt as I walked with Sara though the desolate streets of Memphis on our way to the National Civil Rights Museum. Like a Picasso Gallery tucked away in the peeling, yellow ochre maze of a European city, the National Civil Rights Museum is somberly situated at the site of the assassination of MLK. Sara and I did not quite know where we were going on our walk there, but we knew the general direction. When we turned the corner and I saw the distinct turquoise balcony and doors of the Lorraine Motel, I grabbed onto Sara's forearm as the air deflated from my chest. The scene was too real and too much the same as history left it, and it was made more poignant by the lack of people around.

Just recently having observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination (April 4, 1968) of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the sight of the hotel balcony where he was shot was almost too much. What made it too much was the fact that there was this extreme sense of desolation in the air. On a Monday afternoon, not many people were around, and the tourists were quiet and sombre. I also experienced a heavy feeling of emptiness as I viewed the boarding house from where the shot came. I think my intense feelings were compounded by the fact that I had just viewed CNN's Eyewitness to Murder, which explained the MLK assassination in detail.

I suppose that by touching upon the death of MLK, I am perhaps bringing too much sadness and seriousness to the idea I want to get across in this post which is that, in the over-packed and insane world of today, there is something uniquely serene about seeing an empty urban space. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to spend time in Memphis where so much took place in the fight for equal rights for humankind. When we go places to honor those who have walked before us, part of what makes it so intense is the absence of that person's physical presence. 

Getting back to the idea of my love for hanging out in empty spaces (i.e. no one walking on the side walk, no cars driving down the street) – Well, I think part of this seducing effect of the absence of bodies is that it makes me so aware of our interconnected nature as human beings. Sure, it is fun to run around an empty shopping mall, but eventually, it is easy to start to feel left behind.

One of the opening scenes in the Tom Cruise version of Vanilla Sky illustrates this perfectly as he experiences a panicked moment of complete desertion in the middle of New York's Time's Square. This scene is taking the idea of finding peace in an empty place to an extreme which, I believe, puts it past the idea of a Desolate Oasis. The Desolate Oasis is supposed to be a reprieve. It is supposed to serve as a quick reboot before returning to the rat race.

There is a fine line between what feels like serendipitous alone time and abandoned loneliness. Once, when I was young, I was at my Grandma Nina's apartment with my mom. I was anxious to leave and I was doing that pull on your mom's hand thing. "Moooaaam? Can we goooaAA?"

Somehow, I was able to slip out of my Grandma Nina's apartment and I started walking down the hallway without my mom noticing. I confidently headed toward the elevators and was so proud of myself that I was going to teach my mom a lesson by walking myself to the car. No more of this wasting time chatting with Grandma business. 

Well, when I got in the elevator, I did what I knew best as a kid, which was pushing the buttons. When my brother, my cousins and I would visit my Grandma Nina, we had to take turns pushing the buttons in the elevator. It was the Big Fun Thing To Do after pulling our cold, pruned, shaking bodies out of her apartment pool when a good game of ring toss or go-fetch-grandma's-keys-in-the-deep-end had come to a close.

So here I was, making my getaway to show my mom that she should think twice before ignoring me when I am ready to leave, and I am pushing the buttons inside the elevator.


The doors unfold open, and I am perplexed as I assess the scene in front of me. I am standing in an area that looks very much the same from where I have just come, only it is slightly different. I am standing in what looks like the same hallway as Grandma Nina's, but there are different numbers and the plants are yellow instead of blue. This was terrifying and eye-opening at the same time. It was like finding a hidden level on Super Mario Brothers, where the scenery, the bonus points, and the bad guys all look different. 

When you find yourself stuck in an unfamiliar empty place, it is much like a new level in a video game, and it can be hard to know what to do next with your controls. 

Hmm. Another apartment floor that sort of looked like Grandma's was not what I was expecting when those elevator doors opened. I was expecting to see the glass doors that opened up to the parking lot where my mom's locked Oldsmobile Station Wagon would be waiting.

What happened next could only be described as sheer and utter panic. I began running the dim hallways, sick with the realization that none of the Welcome wreaths on the doors or the Come on in mats on the floors looked like the familiar landmarks I knew from where Grandma Nina lived. How sickening is that? To be stuck, lost, and trapped in a place that looks familiar, but is not what you expected it would be. It's like that scene in Back to the Future when he goes back to the time before his neighborhood has been built. It is familiar, and it sort of looks the same, but it is not the right place where he has to go.

Somehow I was so overloaded with terror at the thought of being trapped forever in this quasi-familiar apartment building, that it did not occur to my young mind that those glass doors that would lead to the promised land (my mom's Oldsmobile Station Wagon) would be on a lower floor, like, say, Level 1. Apparently I had not taken pressing the elevator buttons to be a purposeful task, so I did not know much about which number to push without Grandma Nina leaning over my shoulder and saying, "Now, you know which number to push. Go ahead and push Number 2."

Eventually, I did make it out of Grandma Nina's apartment alive. I did not have to sleep in the elevator, as I had feared. I remember that I walked down the hallway, tears streaming down my quivering chubby cheeks, and I knocked on a door near where my Grandma's apartment would have been located had I been on the correct floor. A nice old lady answered the door with a smile. I immediately started bawling and unfolding my saga – "And, an, ...an, I jus wan-ted to go HOME buh –"

The lady took pity on me. She knew my Grandma Nina. She walked me back to the elevator, and we went down to Floor 2 where my mom was waiting with a raised eyebrow and a Did you learn something about patiently waiting for grown-ups when they are not ready to leave yet? expression on her face. Huh. It's funny, cause that kind of laissez-faire attitude would pretty much NEVER fly nowadays and the police would have been called and issued an Amber Alert the moment back when I had stepped into the elevator by myself. I guess the '80s were better times for runaway kids like me.

The reason I share the Lost in Grandma's Apartment story with you is because, nowadays, I actually crave that feeling of being lost in a desolate place. As you can see, I took multiple photos of empty places on my walk to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, and I simply basked in the mystery of scuffing around abandoned parking lots and buildings with missing windows. 

Part of it, I think, is that I relish those private moments when I can inhale the scent of The Passage of Time. When you look in front of you at the expanse of a weed-infested sidewalk, and there is not a soul in sight, that has meaning somehow. We should pay attention to those moments. That gives us a chance to regain some head space and step back from our view finders. Of course, you want to be able to do this lonely exploring in a safe manner, especially if you find yourself in an urban environment like Memphis.

You can also seek out a Desolate Oasis by going into the wilderness on your own. I will say, though, that being alone in the wilderness is not the same as being in the presence of what I guess could only be called, Empty Places that Normally Have Lots of People. 

Relish those moments, when you are alone. It is your unique chance to stand on the stage and listen to the sound of your own voice echoing. And when you hear that echo, the echos of voices past will bounce back to intermingle with your own. You will experience a sensation of intertwined past and present and that is when you close your eyes and inhale the peaceful heaviness of that empty place. I guarantee that, despite being alone, you will feel that you are a part of something bigger than yourself.


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