Breath from another
Every single day is the same. I wake up and put the kettle on. I feed the cat, who chirps nonstop until the kibble is in her face. I look out the window into the retirement home across the street while brushing my teeth. I sit down with hot water and get ready for meditation. Sometimes I’ll light incense, lately the one Neha gave me which smells earthy and warm and far off, like a mossy cloud. Then I make myself very comfy to write in my journal. Every morning I write three whole pages. Morning Pages is the only tip I lifted from The Artist’s Way, and perhaps that’s the whole point.
And then I go out to walk along the lake or in the park, inhaling deep into my lungs only at the furthest point from the road, which is never very far off in the middle of a city. On very cold days my chest gets tighter as I breathe and sometimes I’ll hear a wheeze or rattle. The asthma showed up five years ago — in Toronto, not New York — and I’m still getting used to this version of my body. I should absolutely stop smoking weed but I want to move out of the city first.
So instead, I slow my breathing. Warming it through the nostrils. Bringing mind to present. Relaxing, supporting my lungs. Resting in the maddening dialectic of breath as both curse and cure.
Lately I’ve been missing the sensation of lying in a dimmed yoga room, breathing deeply with like 40 other people. Bibi’s class in particular. But when I think too much about it my mind conjures all those infographics of droplet projections and I start to get the same nauseous dread as when I imagine stepping on a sharp object, which I’ve actually been thinking about a lot lately. I guess I’m more afraid of exposure than dying.
It’s the actual feeling of that collective breathing that I miss. The tacit coordination, shared solitude, body smells and sighs, subconscious connection. I was reminded of this while watching the “Lover’s Rock” film from Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. There’s a moment about halfway through when the atmosphere tilts, and you watch as an entire house party sings every word of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” together. The selector has let the track run out and and so it’s just voice and air, a chorus sustaining feeling. I watched and wept with longing, for people, for that familiar feeling that is more intimate than yoga, which was not my first love. Similarly, I’ve squeezed my hands into fists, closed my eyes to the dark of a club or basement or the night sky, and belted my heart out along with an entire dancefloor. It is a moment, often fleeting, when everyone in the place becomes someone to you.
Observing is different, particularly when you are cast by the presence of the director, and cameras, and the Prime subscription, and the television, firmly in the space of consumer. I watched, and listened, and felt re-oriented to the space between the lyrics. The shuffling of feet and inhales. Goosebumps on my arms rose in search of skin contact: the damp wet of a friend’s palm in mine, the thick heat of other bodies, and soft puffs of air vibrating against my face and around my head as mouths make music. I was reminded that silence is a summoning space, where life is sensed — beyond knowing.
Recently, Aditi introduced me to the work of Ashon T. Crawley who writes about breathing in formation (and other forms of spontaneous and collective sounds specific to Black Pentecostalism, like singing and shouting) in a way that conjures cosmic flight. He writes about Blackpentecostal breath as a challenge to racialized knowledge systems. Now, when I watch birds swooping and diving, sometimes wavering with effort as they take off, I think about god. The formation necessitates the collective in order to be made visible. In The Lonely Letters Crawley writes that “the spiritual does not belong to and is not the private property of the things we call the religious and there are epistemologies that do not assume such, especially given the fact of religion being constituted as a modern way to think, and think against, relation.”
And how beautiful too that McQueen chose “Silly Games,” a song that, in her own telling, a young and deathly shy Janet Kay stumbled into recording. Every time someone sings her song it animates the life force that exists behind the construction of our personalities.
Admittedly, I’ve enjoyed the solitude of this year. Some of that silence has been shared over Zoom, in a reading group or leading friends into meditation after yoga. But breathing with others, with another, is something I miss deeply in a year where breath has become a threat vector. In April I held my breath navigating the city sidewalks. Sometimes I still do beneath my mask.
As a kid I had a strange habit of holding my breath every time we drove by a graveyard. I didn’t and still don’t have much experience with death and since I come from fire people I had no association with graveyards beyond Halloween and horror movies. The idea of bodies boxed up in the earth was frightening, and perhaps I thought I’d catch the misery of the dead by breathing the same air. As if life was still present. I’m trying to get back to that childish intuition.
During a recent COVID scare my mum advised that I take Ayurvedic bitters and “increase deep breathing exercises.” I laughed about it, mostly because she’s gotten hardcore into Sadhguru this year, but also — invoking folk medicine collapses timelines. As the year winds down I hear things in the silence of breathing alone. I hear the distance between myself and the people I love; I hear loneliness; I hear myself as a child, and the rustling chasms in my family history. I also hear far-off whooping and beckoning and clamour; the vibration of possibility in fundamentally re-orienting toward life.
Last year Rawiya wrote, “Telling a patient to breathe is to a doctor what thoughts and prayers are to a politician.” I won’t tell you what to do. I’m not a doctor, or a mum, or a politician. Instead I’ll tell you about my very first tattoo, a predictably corny timestamp on my left wrist. It’s a line from a song by Black Star (it’s okay to laugh!) and adding to the wretched corniness, the tattoo is in Spanish, a language that I have zero connection to. Escúchela, la ciudad respirando. Listen to it, the city breathing. I can’t hate the tattoo that much because it’s a reminder of life and of childish prescience. And in the silences of this year, it’s a reminder that every breath is a galaxy that holds us all.
With love and gratitude and strength for the quiet days ahead,