SOMETIMES I forget to breathe when I’m trying to sort out an idea in my head. It’s as though my brain cannot handle an autonomic task and an intentional one at the same time. Breathing is something your body is supposed to do without asking your consent, but mine doesn’t do that. Mine thinks it’s either one thing or the other— you can either breathe deeply or think deeply, Courtenay, but not both— and I keep trying to tell my autonomic brain that I cannot think at all if I’m not breathing. But no one is listening to me.
When I’m feeling whimsical about it, I think the head foreman of my autonomic brain is always out to lunch when I come to make my case. The secretary too. I’m knocking at doors within myself, asking the central nervous system and the pulmonary folks if they’ve seen the foreman, and no one will say a word. Isn’t that just like a body to not speak to you with words.
THE CITY of my birth has grown an exurb, a city on its tip-toes, a Lego town against rough-cut cliffs, ready-grown trees, and wide, congested streets. I find myself driving on the freeway that circles the exurb the way I drove when I lived in L.A., which is to say smoothly and a little viciously. My sight extends three cars ahead in every direction, my posture bolts upright. I am attuned to my anticipation of unexpected movement. I thought I’d dropped this habit when I left California. I thought I would put my tense shoulders and my indignant face in a box out in the garage and move it around with the other unused things from time-to-time.
Despite myself, I did forget my tense shoulders and my indignant face for several years. But then, the city of my birth released its borders to the doctors and the lawyers and the businesspeople and their collective spouses and children, who rushed out to claim a little space away from the circular medieval streets of the 300-year-old city that raised them. Now they have good jobs and they drive terribly, sort of like Los Angeles drivers, if those drivers had just gotten smacked in the head right before taking the wheel.
Cars out here go 40 miles per hour on the 70 mph freeway while the drivers jabber on their phones. Drivers around here turn around and talk to their children during rush hour while their cars scrape up the curb. The local drivers break at yield signs and roll stop signs and do everything in their power to find new ways to flout the laws and confound common sense. These exurban drivers would know all of this if they could hear me shouting at them— because I talk in my car as if we are standing right in front of one another; I feel like a vicious fool: “What are you DOING?” I shout. And: “You aren’t—no, you aren’t! You’re really going to do that? What the %*# is WRONG with you?”
LOCAL DRIVERS shrug and eat hamburgers and laugh and toddle into oncoming traffic as I give them the ol’ bug-eyed stare. I’m not breathing. I am so focused on this dance we’re doing together down this tricky little exit on a dangerous street that I’ve forgotten to inhale. Every other time I take this route I see a three-ambulance accident. My reflexes are tuned like harp strings—an insignificant wind will set my nerves neatly on point. I am moving in the right direction away from danger before I even know I am moving, and yet I do not know well enough to breathe.
There are traditions where the breath mates naturally with action. Barre work in ballet requires body, mind, and breath. Certain forms of mediation owe their shape to body, breath, and mind. Even firing an arrow at a target begins with mind, body and then, finally, a breath: an inhale for form and focus, an exhale to release the arrow shaped like a lean idea from one’s taut grip. There are songs and there are stories that we use to describe the body that deprives itself of its own breath. And none of these songs, these stories, end well.
I AM driving through the exurb in the afternoon after an errand; at a stoplight I see a man with a sign. I roll down my window and call to him, “Hey! How are you?” The man, slim, small, careful, threads his body like a needle through the tense knot of traffic. I have money folded in my palm. We shake hands; I release the folded dollars from my hand to his like a magic trick. “How are you?” I say again—and I mean it. “How are you, sir?” He smiles at me so sweetly it is a shock. The man has the mild eyes of an Italian Renaissance Madonna, and he starts to thank me, but I pat his hand and I do not break my gaze.
“I’ll be okay,” says the man. “When the VA takes this out of me in a month.”
He points to a lymph node between his neck on his shoulder that is so enlarged it is the size of two fists held together. I gasp. I am not accustomed to missing essential details on the street. This man is an essential detail to me. “I’m so sorry,” I say, and I mean it. I regret the meagreness of the dollars I handed him. I regret the meanness of my driving that day. I tell him that I will keep him in my thoughts, and I will do it, but now I have put him in yours too because he needs all the good thoughts to land on him like a cache of butterflies. Because he needs a breath and another breath and you can help give him that. And I mean it.
GREEN BURNS the stoplight. I leave the curb and the man, but in a way, I do not leave at all. I’ve left my breath there, and it takes a moment for me to reorient myself. Here I am: I am a 39-year-old woman in a mid-range car in a well-to-do neighborhood thirty minutes from home. I am a driver moving through a stoplight, turned red, now green. I am my hands, steering my vehicle into traffic. I am my eyes, watching three cars ahead and three cars back and side-to-side— I am my breath, which burns in my throat. I am my nerves: I change lanes, I accelerate. I am my ears: an SUV behind me hurtles into a van. I am my foot, depressing the gas pedal, which moves my car out of the way of an accident.
The streets are still for a moment— hesitance is the natural child of shock. I check behind me to see whether the man whose hand I just shook a moment ago is all right. He is standing far away from that disaster, unshaken. Cars in two of three lanes move again, swarming around the accident, passing without hesitancy. The exurbanites drive these streets like white blood cells encircling foreign matter when they pass the wreckage of one of their own, but no one stops to see. I inhale; I exhale— but I do not look back again. I, too, arrange my thoughts, and move on.
ABOUT THE PAINTING: “Der Schmetterlingsjäger” (The Butterfly Hunter.) German painter and poet Carl Spitzweig. He’s the master of illuminating a particular kind of alert aloneness. It’s not sad at all—it’s poignant. I’d never heard of him before today, but I love his point-of-view and his composition style, and I think you’re gonna love him too. Whoa.