Notes on Living Meaningfully
by Troy Chapman
I have an image of myself standing in a Michigan field, the smell and stain of wild strawberries on my lips and fingers. I’ve moved on from the strawberries, which lay alongside the footpath that runs between our house and Uncle Wayne’s and Aunt Mable’s. I’m inspecting a plant with deep red-purple tops that feel like velvet when I crumble them in my hand. My bare feet are planted in the warm, sandy earth, the wind flows over my skin like warm water and spirit rises up from every atom of the world to speak my name.
I feel it there at the edge of consciousness, like someone watching me. I simply listen, not alarmed or even surprised, but only wanting to hear and learn this mysterious language, to step into the arms that are open in it.
Life, in that moment, was infinitely meaningful. Indeed, it was so full of profound meaning that it hurt me in my chest not to be able to draw it all into myself, or run forward and be completely absorbed by it.
This wasn’t an isolated experience. I grew up semi-wild in a rural area where open fields and large tracts of wooded areas were my backyard. And as I ran loose in those early years there was an almost constant sense of this presence. Then, over time, it began to fade, and with it the sense of meaningfulness and connection.
I entered into a long period of darkness and disconnection that left me untethered, orphaned. I began grasping for meaning in things like drugs and alcohol that ultimately took me further from it. Disconnection became desperation and finally despair as I spun further and further from the center I’d once known. Then it all ended one November night in a central Michigan tavern where I took a man’s life.
This happened when I was 20 years old. I’m nearly 44 now and writing these words from a prison cell in northern Michigan. It’s the beginning of November and nearing the 23rd anniversary of this crime.
I’ve spent these years trying to find my way back to the connection I somehow lost, to that sense of communion I felt in the early years. This hasn’t been a journey back to childhood, though the strong memory of what I experienced then has kept me going through the bleakest of times. But I learned early on that the way back was forward and I’ve sought an adult version of this communion rather than try to recreate something that belonged to an earlier time. I have changed and carry with me the knowledge of my own crime, of human cruelty in general and of suffering that makes the return to meaningfulness not more difficult but in ways more complex.
Yet, as I travel in search of it, I’m learning to listen again. This upcoming series of essays is a collection of “things I’ve heard.” It’s not a map or a secret formula for success, either material or spiritual. Every person’s journey is unique, so I don’t believe in formulas, or shortcuts for that matter. Nor do I know anything about arriving. What’s real to me is the journey and traveling well. The teachings and observations I want to share have served me on my journey, deepened my life, cast a little extra light on my path or helped me make it through some difficult bit of terrain.
They have come to me sometimes as arrows scratched on canyon walls that have helped me find my way back to higher ground. Other times I’ve been desperately searching for arrows and have found only mysterious painted outlines of human hands. When I come upon these outlines I reach up and put my own hand inside them and sense a message more important than which way to go: namely, that someone has passed this way before me.
The upcoming essays in this blog will be partly arrows and partly hands. May each serve you on your journey and, if we never meet along the way, I’ll see you when we get there.
Painting by Troy Chapman