Guided meditation typically begins by paying attention to the breath. It can be straightforward (“Count one as you inhale, two as you exhale”) or evocative (“Breathe up from the earth, breathe out to the sky”). Either way, the goal is to focus on a single action, an automatic bodily function that we usually ignore. As soon as we rise from the meditation cushion, we don’t give breathing a second thought.
At least that’s how it used to be. As I write to you now, seven months have passed since this country began its battle with COVID-19. I have thought more about breath in these months than in all my years combined. The seemingly simple subject of breath has become loaded.
Breath is at the core of our national trauma. We collectively watch the extremes of life-giving and life-taking. We have seen essential workers putting themselves at risk to keep others breathing. And we have witnessed police who have stolen the most precious of inalienable rights—life—by cutting off another person’s air.
Even in mundane activities, breath is a constant and troubling consideration. When you ask your Uber driver to open the windows, or check the weather to see if you can enjoy a socially distanced visit with a friend, the real question you are asking is, Can we avoid sharing breath?
A stranger’s close-range exhalation can trigger complex emotions. Last week in Trader Joe’s, I came upon a woman who was maskless. She was breathing heavily. My immediate reaction was to turn my back on her, which made me feel horrible. A moment later, I was angry. How dare she endanger everyone around her? Then I worried that she might have asthma or a heart condition. As I went to alert a staff member, I wondered whether I was helping her or outing her. My conflicted introspection came from a few seconds of standing in three square feet of shared oxygen.
On my daily walks through urban streets, I’ve become keenly aware of windows and their visceral effect on my body. I survey the modern skyscrapers, with their unopenable, full-floor sheets of glass, and I feel my chest tighten. I’m sure these buildings adhere to regulations regarding airflow, but lately, I get anxious when I’m sealed in a room with other people and there’s no way to access outside air.
In contrast, I have a new perspective on buildings that I know and love. Simmons Hall, an MIT dormitory designed by Steven Holl Architects, has always delighted my eyes; now it’s delighting my respiratory system. Strolling by recently, I saw a young woman coming out the front door, and I asked her if she liked the building. “Oh, yes!” she said. “Especially the windows.” Each of the dorm’s single rooms has at least nine operable windows, and they open out at all angles. When I look up at them from the street, they are like flocks of giddy, wide-winged birds.
Like most city people, the past seven months have made me appreciate the outdoors more than ever; I breathe a sigh of relief when I enter green gardens and leafy parks. Just watching my neighbors doing push-ups or practicing tai chi outside makes me feel healthy. It’s not surprising that many early urban parks were created for the public in response to disease. For example, the design of New York’s Central Park, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, began in 1858, in the aftermath of New York’s second cholera outbreak. Olmsted believed that public parks should function as the “lungs of the city,” and that “the occasional contemplation of natural scenes ... in connection with ... change of air and change of habits, is favourable to the health and vigour of men.” When I read that Olmsted’s first child died of cholera at two months, and his brother John died of tuberculosis at 32, I was reminded that great gifts to the population are often born from personal loss.
Breath is our wake-up call. It touches everything we care about. Breath has been fraught with conflict, but it has also brought clarity. We understand that it must be protected and, hopefully soon, shared and unrestricted.
This winter comes with more all-encompassing, simultaneous unknowns than I have ever encountered—for myself, for my family and friends, and for the country. When it seems that nothing is secure, I tell myself how lucky I am: I can still control my breath.
So now, I invite you to close your eyes, breathe up from the earth, and breathe out to the sky. ca
© 2021 W. Richmond