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by Troy Chapman
The Empty Room
When I couldn’t bring myself to eat for several days after my arrest I was moved from my regular maximum security cell to a suicide watch room. It was an empty room in the bowels of the Kent County Jail. My clothes were taken away and the room, with its steel door, rock floor and cement-block walls, was always cold.
I sat on the floor in a blue paper gown and listened to the angry buzz of the fluorescent lights that were never turned off. I was as empty inside as the room itself. Long stretches of emptiness were broken by weeping. I wept in remorse, self pity, helpless frustration, self hatred and simple grief. I believed there was nothing left for me in this life and felt that I stayed only because I was afraid of leaving.
I had lost myself, and every possible path forward stretched under endless skies of meaninglessness. So I went backward instead, through the short years of my life, until I stood back in that field behind our house, the last place I remembered being whole.
I sat there in the paper gown, looking at the field through memory. I saw the red house Uncle Wayne had built and rented to us, the junk cars in the yard. I saw the violence and chaos of my life in the intervening years, and I raced between the empty room in the jail and back again to the field.
The spirit-voice that I heard in the field as a boy, 15 years and 70 miles away, still whispered here in this jail cell. As I strained again to hear it, I heard things it would take me years to translate and unravel.
God created me and put me down in this garden of wholeness. I lived here for awhile before eating the fruit of separation and in that moment…
I saw my child-self drop the red-purple sumac; I watched as the boy I was broke apart and began to disperse like those velvety seeds. My soul flew out of the garden, in every direction. I saw now what was invisible then: the pieces of my broken self went out into all creation and billions of broken pieces came racing back to me in a great exchange. These pieces weren’t me, but rather unfamiliar bits that didn’t belong to me nor even to each other.
Why, I cried. Why must we be broken, separated from ourselves and mixed up amongst one another? Out of the silence came this strange answer: You are broken and sent out into the world so you can meet yourself. You carry within yourself a missing part of everyone you will ever encounter. And they carry within themselves a missing part of you. Go and return what belongs to them; receive what belongs to you and re-member yourselves together.
So I took up my brokenness and came out of the empty room in the jail. As I went back to my maximum security cell to await my trial, my conviction and my transportation from there to prison, I had no clarity about what I’d heard there in that room. Nor did I leave with renewed hope or anything of the kind. But I knew I’d heard something that changed things fundamentally for me. I knew I was done with the empty room.
Over the years, the translation above has emerged with bright clarity and I have turned with more and more certainty to the task of finding and learning to see myself in my dispersed self’s many disguises. I have met myself angry and sick and hurt and twisted and lost and arrogant and violent and hungry and dreaming and scared. I’ve found myself hiding, fighting, old and young, black, brown, red, yellow and white. I’ve watched myself turn away or even lash out as I approached. But I’ve also found myself reaching out in kindness and with great courage, searching for me, longing for the very meeting I longed for.
I’ve met these others in countless sacred ceremonies that pass unnoticed because they look like ordinary life. We stand before each other and exchange these pieces of ourselves, each feeling deep gratitude to the other for the way they carried and cared for that part of us until it could be safely returned.
And here’s the meaning and meaningfulness of my life: It’s the everyday living of this strange mystery, this sacred knowledge. Pieces of me are hidden within everyone and everything I will ever encounter in life, and true love — i.e., returning to them a piece of themselves — is the only way to call forth the piece of myself that I need to be whole.
The art of learning to recognize these meetings and make the exchange is, for me, the sacred work. If I never figure out anything else, a life spent in commitment to this work will be enough.
Painting by Troy Chapman