What Fills Us Up?

Every one of us has an artist locked inside. We need to acknowledge that gift and keep that fire, that passion alive.  Your art may be cooking . . . it may be splashing in the rain. . . For me it's sitting at the keyboard, allowing the words in my head freedom. I urge each and every reader to find their own personal art, but during your journey, I invite you to share my escaped thoughts. . . as I write.

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Chapter 1 The Broom Tree


My life is a mess of riddles that wrap around each other like minor chords in a sad folk song.

            Can’t find any answers. Anger wells in me, bubbling—sure I’m about to pop like a corn kernel in a hot kettle.

            Bang! At times, I wake in the middle of the night, snapping up from my cot. The spirits of my men visit me in my sleep, asking me to stop it.  Their images, knees on the ground, dwell behind my eyelids. Hearing the gunshots explode wakes me from whatever rest my exhausted body steals.

            It can be worse. Other dreams start off in a soft, safe place with my wife and son—Izzy’s smile and sweet smell, Peter’s arms reaching for me to pick him up. Then a hazy blur of their bodies resting together in a casket. Waking, I hit the side of my head with the back of my hand. It wasn’t a nightmare. It happened. For real.

            Sleep is the one freedom they give me in here, but even when I try, so often it doesn’t come. I lie on my cot and pretend I’m a rat in a maze, looking for a way out. With some luck, I reach the oasis of slumber for a few sweet hours. Until I’m visited by my ghosts. At least that’s some sort of personal contact.

            In here I’m not Joseph Ruzika, but inmate #8906078 in Davidson Correctional of Northern Pennsylvania and they keep me in solitary confinement. I have no doubt there’s a hell; it’s here on earth, and I’m in it.

            By law I’m required to spend some time outdoors. Three days a week, with my hands cuffed behind my back, a guard takes me to exercise in an open-air space the size of a small truck’s parking spot. It’s fenced in with sheets of metal all around, so I can’t see any other prisoner. When we get there, the guard removes the restraints around my wrists. He looks at me, backs up, shuts the gate, and locks it. I’m in tight. Alone.

It’s time.

             I tilt my head back, close my eyes and scream. Loud and long.  I pound my chest like a goddamned ape. My eyes remain closed. Rotating my body and punching the air, I wail, screech, and howl, hearing my voice echo between the buildings. Soon the other prisoners yell back and tell me to shut the fuck up.

             My voice is scratchy, my throat sore, so I finish. Exhausted, I lie spread eagle on the cement pad and look at the sky. There are clouds up there, and even though there is no way to catch them, I try anyway. Violently throwing my arms in the air, I’m greedy in my reach. My helplessness simmers deep. I fixate on the heavens and breathe a jagged pattern, too dry for tears, until I remember the game 'I Spy" that mama and me used to play with the clouds and name shapes.  Today, I go back to that distraction.

            In the cumulus formations, I spy a dinosaur roaring, a horse resting, a race car revving its engine with the exhaust trailing behind. Mama’s cigarette-scratching laugh is with me, in a memory as near as the breeze,  tucked in the safety of my childhood. My breath becomes slow and steady. One white swirl reminds me of a broom tree I saw in a picture book from when I went to Catholic school. It told of a guy named Elijah who was ready to give up and die, all under a broom tree, but the angel from God came down and spoke to him. No kidding, that angel told him to get off his ass and not give up. “Get up and eat and drink, or the journey will be too much for you.”

            Still reclining flat on the ground, the heat from the summer simmers up my backside, warming my body.  I take off my shoes and socks. The fresh air surrounding my bare skin feels like a kiss, reminding me I’m human, sharing this oxygen with others. A kind of food for me.

            Staring up at the sky, I continue pondering the riddles.

            Why did that truck have to be right there? Why couldn’t I have died? Why did I break my promise to mama?

            Tearing apart the shit that landed me here, I ask myself how did this happen to me, God? Things should have been so different now. I don’t belong here. I was calmed down, but the turmoil returns, my emotions like a tight rope walker on a high wire, and they teeter on hysteria.

           Closing my eyes, focusing hard,  I beg for a source of self-control.  Feeling sorry for myself doesn’t help; it disgraces my memory of Izzy and Peter. Obtaining willpower seems as ridiculous as turning back the clock to before. A slow realization creeps in knowing what has to happen.

              Reaching far inside, I must see all the good in my life, the happy parts. How the hell to do that? The riddle eludes me. All things are possible with God, I hear echo in my head, and doubt rings straight behind.

            Maybe I deserve this life of solitary confinement. As a kid I was always a loner, but even then, people in my life told me I was part of a big whole. They taught me how I am connected to humanity, like branches on a vine, and the seed of God is planted inside me. I dig deep inside my soul, as if looking for China, to find that tiny kernel.

            I visualize that seed germinating; the roots buried far and hitting the water table, the budding sprout reaching through the dirt and rocks and muck to catch the light. Next the leaves mysteriously pop out, then a flower, maturing into miraculous fruit. It is through this process I connect to the life source that unites all of creation. And I am not alone.

            So many in here are craze, so I gotta remember this. This solitary confinement robs a man of his own humanity. I know. I’ve heard the voices, the rants, the babbles of inmates who have gone mad. That can’t happen to me, I must protect my soul. It’s critical I remain whole. There is no room for failure.

            Because when they strap me onto the gurney and flood my veins with poison, and I pass over to the other side, I must be sane when I meet God, so he can take me to my men, and I can tell them I’m sorry. Then I’ll be with Isabelle, Pete—and mama, and we’ll be united again.

            With everyone connected on one true vine. In heaven.


But right now…. Right now, I’m thinking of that old prophet Elijah, imagining I’m under a broom tree…. And I wait….


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Atlanta, GA, USA

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