Sunday, January 1, 2012

Catching Breath

In the last month of the last year, ill health forced me to take a long absence from my writing projects—except for journal writing, the only kind that didn't require too much in the way of editing or paying attention.

For three entire weeks in December, I was breathless; not the emotional-intellectual kind like in Godard's namesake film, but the literal, asthmatic kind.

One of my favorite memoirists, Louise DeSalvo, wrote a book called "Breathless", a wonderful diary-cum-intellectual analysis of what it means to have asthma (and what it meant to other writers who suffered from the disease, such as Proust, Bishop, Barnes). 
I cannot add much to her thorough insights, but I will state the obvious anyway: breathing is a gift we take too much for granted. Like the many everyday, common place things we fail to see, it is so banal yet so profound.

We only pay attention to breath if we are seriously into yoga, or meditation, and maybe sports (though I would argue that too many athletes perhaps misuse and abuse their lung capacity). But most of us are not serious students, observers, practitioners of breath. We just breathe as we go about our life: carelessly, unthinkingly, often in either too shallow or too labored a way, but we don't really pay attention to breath. As part of our Western culture collective delusion about the reality of death, we just think it's always going to be there.

And then one day you find yourself out of breath. The reality of it is overwhelming. No matter what fine tricks you try, the tricks you learned from your scant and scattered forays into the practice of yoga or meditation, you simply cannot push more air into your lungs—or out of them for that matter. The airways are constricted, the lungs just refuse to open up. The phrase "take a deep breath" is now only a metaphor, not something that can be taken literally anymore.

The lack of sufficient oxygen in your body translates into a lack of energy. You are utterly fatigued by the simplest everyday chores: getting in and out of bed, pulling on your clothes, fetching a glass of water; doing laundry, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the cats' litter box become grand enterprises totally out of your reach. Taking a shower is an almost impossible goal, and you go days without washing yourself. You can barely eat or drink water. You can do nothing without panting, without having to double over a counter trying to catch your breath back. You, usually so independent, need your husband's hand to get the morning cereal or a bowl out of the cupboard, and that makes you feel tired, irritable, and ever so helpless—helpless like a very young child that cannot do anything by itself.
Any action that before this condition would have been performed without a second thought, any insignificant movement now requires slow motion, concentration, unbearable effort. And more doubling over a counter to catch breath, for entire minutes that seem to last forever. 
Precious minutes, hours, days of your life are wasted in the constant effort to recover your breath—a shallow, labored breath that will allow you to survive. Your nights are spent hovering between shorts bouts of restless sleep and longer bouts of insomnia, while you toss turn in the bed trying to figure out which position can allow to maximize that tiny amount of air you can summon in and out of your body.
The rasp, sibilant noise of wheezing has become the soundtrack to your days.

Breath is energy: you now understand—no longer just philosophically or intellectually, but factually and literally—why in Eastern cultures the word for energy would also be equated with breath: Chinese Qi, Japanese Ki, Sanskrit Prana.

Three entire weeks of this ordeal, while I try all the natural remedies that have so far worked so well, in my nearly twenty years of having been diagnosed. And on day five of suffering I try the inhaler that has previously always helped to restore my breath during violent but infrequent asthma attacks. And finally I have to surrender, for the first time ever, to the poison of corticosteroids.

And the day before Christmas, I am able to breathe again. I've hated Christmas all my life, but this is probably my best Christmas ever: I am able to go out of the house, take a long walk, catch the bus, shop for food and a present for my husband—all without wheezing and panting and having to stop every few minutes in the street. 
Back home, I am also able to vacuum, do laundry, cuddle the cats, and to cook again. I make a traditional Christmas Eve dinner of seafood: penne with shrimp marinated in wine and saffron and then cooked with cherry tomatoes, Portuguese-style salt cod with potatoes and black olives.

And now that I've been able to breathe for days and days without giving it so much as a fleeting thought, I'm in danger of taking this for granted once again. Of forgetting to be grateful for the gift of breath, of energy, of vital force, of creative energy.
There was a lesson in all this suffering, and I must not relinquish it, I must keep it always present within me.

Yes, my new year's resolution is a very simple one: do not forget to breathe.

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