To Breathe for A Spell
I have never been more aware of my breath, of the simple act of breathing, than I have in this last year. The ability to inhale air and exhale carbon dioxide and other gases is a bodily function I rarely give thought to. Breathing, like the beating of our hearts, is an involuntary act of our bodies—something our bodies automatically do to keep us alive.
Even though we are apart, we are together, experiencing in unison. It is these moments, so mundane that, before, they went unnoticed. But now they punctuate my days during early quarantine and bring me connection.
I’ve taken meditation classes here and there but never developed a practice of my own, finding it too easy to make excuses to not sit with myself for however many minutes and too difficult to calm my racing and scatterbrained mind. But life is slower now. Quarantine has put a stop to my hour and a half long daily commute to and from work, frivolous meetings, and social obligations that I say yes to when I really want to say no. There is more time now. I have leaned into this slower pace of life, grateful for the space it has given me, grateful for what I am now more attuned and pay attention to. My breath, and the capacity to breathe during a pandemic that has made it unsafe to breathe in certain conditions, has become one of the most profound and simplest.
The coronavirus pandemic forces us to wear masks to breathe safely when we are outside our homes and our pods. When the pandemic began and we started living in a protracted quasi quarantine, we learned that the virus traveled via microscopic airborne droplets in the air, entering the air from someone’s exhalation and able to enter another’s body through their inhalation. We also learned that people suffering in the end stages of coronavirus cannot breathe on their own and must be put into an induced coma and intubated with a ventilator that breathes for them.
I live alone, am single, and estranged from my family. When Oregon’s quarantine began in mid-March, the fact of how isolated and fragile my life is hits me with unexpected potency. I am thirty-five and relatively healthy; I often shoulder my way through a common cold. But I found myself deeply frightened by the prospect of becoming ill. Who would take me to the emergency room? There was hardly anything more terrifying in those early months than thinking that we could die simply because we breathed the air around us, the air we shared with our loved ones and friends. That every breath I take is full of oxygen to live and a virus that could kill.
I appreciate this fully for the first time when I go to the Portland Farmers Market on a cold and drizzly Saturday morning in late March, my first grocery shopping trip since Oregon’s shutdown. It is one of the first times I wear a mask.
I park four blocks away and walk to the market, then walk another quarter mile that is my usual loop around the farmer’s stalls. Breathing through the confines of my mask fog my glasses within a few steps. I take them off a few times to wipe them. I eventually give up—they fog again too quickly, and to wipe them off I have to walk out of the way of other people and put my grocery bag down. The whole process makes me feel clumsy. Instead, I tuck my lower jaw in and direct each exhalation downward. It helps a bit.
By the time I get back to my car, drops of water have beaded on the left lens. Where did that come from? I wondered. It was not raining. Then I realize that, in less than an hour, my breath, all those microscopic droplets, created that much condensation. Each breath adds up, I learned—right before my eyes.
My gym begins offering virtual workouts, over Zoom, two days after Oregon begins its shutdown. It is the first part of my life to adapt to a quarantined and virtual way of things, and I rejoice. I joined this gym in late November and it quickly became a cornerstone of my life: the owner and coach and I went to the same college and instantly become friends. I make other friends. The small classes, capped at 15 people and led by coaches, help me overcome an old back injury and immobility, a lack of stamina and strength. I start shedding pounds, become stronger and leaner, start feeling the body I have seen in my mind’s eye for years.
Now that we workout over Zoom, we workout wherever there is enough space in our homes, I in my living room, laptop on the coffee table. Facing it, seeing people on a screen when just days before I exercised with them in person, I do the interval exercises our coach calls out, a timer buzzing loudly in the background: fast feet, jumping jacks, burpees, toe touches, planks, squats, my best attempts at push-ups.
At the end of each interval, I pant for air. It is the only sound in my home. Before, I would have heard everyone in class do the same: gasping, panting, inhaling deeply. Now it is just me, alone in my living room and staring at a Zoom screen while my cat stares at me. But in their tiny, Brady Bunch-like Zoom squares with the sound muted, I see everyone’s chests heaving, color rising in their cheeks.
George Floyd’s dying words, as he was murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, were identical to Eric Garner’s six years before him: I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. Protests across the country recognize that, since this country’s founding, black and brown Americans can be strangled to death in broad daylight, that the bodily autonomy for an act as simple as breathing can be taken away swiftly and brutally. Portland’s protests become the most continuous in the country, continuing every day throughout the summer. I suddenly find myself living in one of the most violent cities in America. The police teargas protesters each night; photographs and videos of people with tears pouring from their eyes and gulping for air clog social media and make front-page headlines. Protests in more residential parts of the city are met with the same response. Friends write Facebook posts telling of teargas seeping into their homes, stinging the eyes of their infant and young children.
The journalists covering the protests wear gasmasks and protective gear with PRESS stamped across it, as if they were reporting in a war zone, not in a city with a reputation, though unearned in social and racial justice issues, for progressivism and for having some of the cleanest air quality in the country. They are tear gassed, assaulted by police, arrested.
I could have been one of them. I worked full-time as a freelance journalist for a decade, and I received calls from national publications to cover news on the ground. I don’t get those calls anymore: freelancing became financially impossible and I take a part-time job that gives me the most financial security I’ve had in my life. There are moments during the summer when I feel like a failure: history is unfolding miles from where I live and I am not helping document it. I find myself, throughout the summer, exhaling deep sighs of grief, loss, missed opportunity. But, in the space it takes to deeply fill my lungs with air, I also recognize that my life is simply different now: I am writing my first book, and all my creative and writing energy, goes there. It is not failing, but the realization that my place in the world of writing and journalism is no longer in the frenetic and unpredictable routines of daily journalism.
It is during the summer that I recognize that I have become better at stopping myself in the midst of these dark moments, better at breathing through a moment. Throughout the pandemic, I have trained myself to look for small joys: watching a bumblebee pollinate my tomatoes or burrowing under a tree root to create a nest; watching a feral peacock cross the road during a walk; staring at the Douglas Fir tree in my backyard and listening as hundreds of birds chirp and sing as they fly and hop from branch to branch; sending a new friend an unexpected care package that, they tell me in voice memos as they open it, makes their day.
In August, within the space of three weeks, I experience a devastating, heartbreaking friend breakup; I take my second, newly adopted cat to the animal hospital when he nearly died; I learn I may get laid off; my laptop fails; my car breaks down. It is almost too much.
In these moments I force myself to notice nothing but the feeling of air moving in then out of my nostrils, my chest expanding and contracting. My heart rate slows down. I can calm down, can think. It is more than relaxing, yes. But it is also taking control of what can be in my control, however minute. What else is there to do, in such moments of devastation? Deep breathing and other types of breathing exercises, research has shown, can combat all manner of illness: depression, anxiety, chronic pain, stress and its bodily impacts. I believe it now, fully.
During the early fall, I had to tell myself countless times that it was safe to go outside, safe to breathe the outdoor air.
For eleven days it was not. The air on those days, in Portland and much of Oregon, was smothered by the smoke of wildfires that burned more than one million acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed 11 people.
The smoke was a dirty yellow, the color of stale cigarettes. It hung so thick and so low to the ground that I could not see the neighbor’s backyard trees across the street.
One day, the Air Quality Index, which measures air quality on a scale of 0 to 500, determined Portland’s to be 584. Off the charts. The Index describes air quality of that scale as “health warnings of emergency conditions” that would affect “the entire population.”
We are told to stay indoors as much as possible. I shut all the windows and doors, turn the furnace fan on. Aside from a quick grocery store trip and taking the garbage out, I do not leave my home.
The smoke, for the most part, does not enter my house. The lack of fresh air, the stuffiness, the staleness, makes my throat dry and sore. My eyes ache; I feel bouts of dizziness and light-headedness; I drink a pot of coffee a day to stay awake when, even in the middle of the day, the sky is so dark.
One day, I walk into the small laundry room that is off the kitchen, that has a door that leads to the backyard. I felt the smoke on my skin before I breathed it, and I gasp. Then I inhale more deeply, accessing how badly the smoke had penetrated through the walls. It felt flat and stale, acrid. A miasma. I shut the door between the room and the rest of the house, shove a towel in the cracks between the door and floor.
I change the furnace filter twice in that time. The first one one is, within a couple days, colored pale yellow from filtering air so toxic, so hazardous, so chock full of particulates and carcinogens and toxins, in addition to oxygen and a virus.
When the sky clears and we can go outside and businesses are open once again, I get a massage. It is the first time I have been touched by another human being since mid-March. The building used to be an auto-body shop and one wall of the main room still has the large garage doors that open up to the ceiling. A massage table had been moved into that main room and the doors are open for air circulation. The masseuse, wearing a mask, says I do not need to wear one while I lie face down. Looking at the face cradle, she explains that the cloth covering is so thick that my breath will not escape it. I learn she is right: eight layers of thick white cotton cloth cover the cradle and when I first rest my head on it I feel, within a few exhalations, my breath surround my face. I breathe and the air becomes warmer, thicker. I smell my breath: earthy, warm, damp.
My gym begins offering a meditation class during the summer. I sign up. The meditation teacher is flexible and allows us to meditate in whatever posture is most comfortable for us: sitting on the floor or on a chair or couch, lying down on the floor. During one class, my body is in deep pain and had been for days, my joints inflamed and aching, my muscles sore and tight. I knew that I would not be able to sit upright for a half hour. I instead laid down on the floor. Within seconds, my body relaxed, found equilibrium: the searing pain in my back that pulled my shoulders down and forward dissipated. My lumbar spine shifted downward toward the floor. Vertebrae popped. My shoulders pressed evenly into the yoga mat.
The release of pain gave me focus. Our teacher began guiding the meditation. As I listened to her voice, I filled my lungs with air, felt my chest rise and expand, and exhaled.
I sucked in a sharp breath on the morning of Saturday, November 7 after seeing a friend’s Facebook post alluding to news outlets projecting that Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes would go to Joe Biden, making him the president-elect. I didn’t let it out until I checked the New York Times’ websites and saw for myself that Pennsylvania had flipped blue. That exhalation, and the breath after that, felt like the first full breaths I had taken in a week. Then when rioters broke into the Capitol on January 6, I again found myself tense, pent up. Holding our breath, or not breathing deeply enough, keeps carbon dioxide in our bodies. Did I poison my body slightly during this time of holding my breath, of fearing for the fate of the country? It was not until after Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20—an event that was both completely mundane and completely miraculous in how it transpired without incident—that I could truly relax, could breathe.
As the air left my body and my lungs shrunk, my shoulders dropped. My pec muscles relaxed, stretching and spreading above my breasts. My whole body loosened itself from the grip of the profound dread I had felt for the previous day, the previous two weeks, the last four years.
Friends who texted and posted on social media commented that they could finally breathe, were, during a moment as the second year of a pandemic and profound uncertainty begins, simply letting themselves breathe in and out, exhaling, with relief, deep sighs.