Seeking Empty Places

Years ago, I walked into a newly constructed art studio and had a religious experience. The daylight through the windows was making shine shapes on the grey-painted wood floor; the ceiling so far above my reach I’d be afraid to climb; the electrical outlets and exposed pipes painted to match the white walls. The molding had not yet been replaced around the edges, and the fumes made the air rich and heavy. Once assured I could walk on the just-dry floor paint, I entered, and it happened immediately.

Some call me a space junkie. Actually, no one calls me that, but it would be accurate. My spirit, and the yearning it experiences that Rumi suggests is God, calls for structure in certain shapes. At my most tempest-tossed, a video of a tiny house, or a guy saying he lived for a year in a yurt, strikes fire. When I hike and come across a lean-to made of fallen branches, deliberately placed, I crawl inside and lie down and analyze the sky design made by the interlaced limbs. Tear-drop trailers, aging Airstreams, dance studios with mirrored walls, banquet halls unused all sound in me a call to reverence. I remember weeping in the bed loft of a pull-behind camper when my parents decided to sell it, having built a cabin that replaced it. I was grieving this singular shape, the part of me that could only exist in this particular configuration.

For the last three nights I have slept in a simple bunk in a room shared with three other women, in an international hostel. Under my bed is a plywood cupboard, big enough to easily hold my backpack and hoop, with a latch that my borrowed padlock fits onto perfectly. My bed is below my roommate’s bed, against the wall on two sides, and the other two sides have green fabric curtains hung on elastic cord, that allow me to close it up like a blanket fort. Inside my fort is an electrical outlet, an overhead light, and a fan. The room has a table, a window, and a sink. You need a key to enter the room. Just down the hall are bathrooms, each one private, with toilets and showers. The bed came made up with a white fitted sheet, and at the foot of the bed a folded top sheet and one blanket. One pillow, one white pillowcase.

I’m in downtown Seattle, and a little troubled. My heart was weighed down when I arrived here. Each day, a little more centered, a little more reconnected to Spirit/Universe/God. Still, I am grieving losses. I’m pretty new to city life, and while most of it suits me (everything I could possibly need to eat or drink within a block, and conversation abounds) I am challenged to find a place to be alone and unobserved; a place somewhat bigger than my blanket fort bunk. I need a space for revolution. For many revolutions. For many, mini revolutions. I need a place to spin my hula hoop.

Last week, a hotel front desk worker unlocked an unused conference room for me. In the same hotel, in a pinch, I could hoop in the double queen-bed room, as long as I stuck to waist or chest hooping, keeping the rotating hoop higher than the bed, and not attempting any trick that risked the hoop flying off. But my hostel dorm room is not quite wide enough, and the bathrooms, though fairly spacious, are impeded upon by the fixtures. There is space in the common area, but having recently hooped under the observation of others who were not hooping, who were seated and watching, I can say that isn’t for me. Today I might try walking down to the waterfront, where friends tell me the dock is wide and unpopulated. I might also go to a church, and ask if I can hoop in their basement.

I realize we are all impacted by the size and shape and configuration of the structures around us; I’m not alone in this. Cathedrals are built for a reason. Many of my friends obsess over treehouses, hobbit holes, houses made from shipping containers, and houseboats. (I think I should throw a party someday where we all make playhouses out of refrigerator boxes.) I’m equally intrigued by living in small and unusual spaces, and living with a tiny amount of possessions. Spaces, and space. Little, and nothing. I would venture a guess that today’s lifestyle experiment is a bridge to something else, maybe a life where any storage space beyond a backpack looks generous to me.

When I walked into the art studio five years ago, I was living in an overstuffed three bedroom home on a tree-lined street. I had a garage, a shed, a porch, a basement, and an attic. My daughters’ outgrown baby clothes, decades of stored correspondence, unsorted mail, broken pens, magazines, and abandoned make-up filled tubs and junk drawers. I had a closet full of clothes, tubs of wrapping paper, and extra back-ups of just about everything. I was carrying my new laptop computer, unsheathed, in my arms. I was in therapy. I was married.

I stopped there, at the end of that paragraph, yesterday. I took my hoop and walked down the Pike Hill Climb, past the aquarium where I could see the harbor seals over the railing, and to the pier, wide and unpopulated as my friends had suggested it would be. In the middle, an outdoor, permanent table tennis table. The net was made of metal, and I slung my backpack on top, wove the straps through the netting and buckled it. The surface below my feet was wood, wet in places, and while there were some sightseers, I was mostly far away from anyone. Elliot Bay and snow-capped mountains on one side, the architecture of Seattle on the other. I hooped to exhaustion (vortex. one-legged knee. tornado up from knees to waist to chest and back down. arm extended to arm bent to arm extended. counter-intuitive. earth angle. sky angle. shoulder hooping, arms in, arms out, arms in.) and wound my way back to the hostel, stopping for a latte, turning away the street hawkers asking me to hoop or do a magic trick by assuring them they are not interested in my kind of magic. One vendor suggested hula hoops have been out of style for fifty years. I told him I’m fifty one.

By evening it was raining again. Unity Seattle lists a Wednesday night chanting meditation group so I walked there, getting turned around some by my navigation device on the way. The meditation was cancelled due to Ash Wednesday, so I was ushered into a round room with a pyramid ceiling where all the seats were in concentric circles. Later they told me it was designed for perfect acoustics, which might explain why the music dug claws into me and ripped me from my body, gasping, crying, overcome with relief and joy. The songs were about release, letting go, and surrender, and the shape of the room held me in the sound, free to be wild in this perfect containment. In it, my sadness was taken from me, and offered back to me, changed.

Years ago, walking into the art studio, I was astonished by the cascade of replies my spirit was composing to the space. Full of questions, I could barely speak from the joy and wonder building in me, and soon was on my knees, and then stretched out fully on the floor. I have not been a visual artist, or dancer, to speak of. My art, writing, requires little working area. Today I am writing at a tiny table in a small café. But I was nearly in fits, in some kind of holy wrestle, on the floor of that studio, unable to explain myself. Soon I was bringing the question to my therapist. Why do I want an art studio? The artist herself tried to explain to me that this studio was still in the construction phase, telling me where the shelves and cabinets and tables would be, but I knew that for me, I would never love this room more than I did right then, empty. Fully, wholly, thoroughly empty.

I wiped the ashes from my forehead before sleep last night. Today, there are fresh flowers wherever I go, and a secret wellspring within me flows with less impediment. A refrain from one of the round room’s worship songs plays in my mind. Everything different, everything new. Treasuring and documenting the past seemed like my assignment, so much of my life. Then, digesting the past. Then, overcoming the past. Today I walk around, sad and grateful and joyful, unsure what my assignment might be, wandering into spaces of different sizes and shapes, emptying myself, giving up, letting it all fall away around me, held wild in safe surrounds.

  • Michael Hardesty

    Large empty spaces are a lot like life, full of possibilities, an empty canvas. The possibilities are endless, only limited by our lack of imagination or confidence, it fires the mind.

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