I can’t breathe.
How many times must 2020 say this to me?
George Floyd, my children struggling to breathe through their masks, my own chest when the anxiety burns like an open wound.
I can’t breathe.
God’s spirit came to us in breath, it animated us. I remember how that tense, tender moment after giving birth hung in the air: all of us waiting for the quivering wail that announced the baby was here, irresistibly alive and thoughtlessly breathing. The moment was microseconds, but I remember it, we waited for it, for the sound. It ushered in a host of activity from the midwife and nurses, a new identity for us. A whole world began with that sound.
Do worlds always begin with breath and sound?
In college, I took an anatomy course. I remember holding a sheep’s lung. It was light and porous, this organ that was a sickly brown from the formaldehyde, but it felt like styrofoam. The instructor pointed out the main bronchi, the branches, how they separated in two. Cut open, we saw the white branches break out and extend into each lobe, branching and branching again, exactly how a white oak tree looks in winter when all it’s leaves are gone. Our lung trees are held up-side-down, our throat is really a massive and delicate trunk.
Sometimes I walk up to the children and announce a thought without preamble. This happens when I am lost in mind, when my thoughts thrash around like ocean waves stirred up by a storm and I need to say just one thing aloud before I lose it.
“Trees are a thousand exhales,” I said to the oldest.
He paused at his work and followed my gaze out the window to the trees swaying in the wind, “I mean, I guess they really are, aren’t they, Mommy?”
“Our lungs look like trees too, did you know that?”
“What’s making you think about this?”
“Just, everything. How George Floyd died because he couldn’t breathe so we marched, how I keep hearing people say, ‘I can’t breathe’ in their masks. How God gave us his breath and now we’re spirited and alive. The whole world began with sound—which is breath—what does God want to teach us about ourselves and our spirits this year, if we all can’t breathe?”
He listened and waited, and I wondered, should I even be talking to him like this?
“I mean, even the language we use to describe our lungs, they have bronchi—branches," I said.
He took a deep breath, as if testing out his lungs for the first time. And I did too.
“Trees are a thousand exhales,” he said again, trying the thought on for size, before turning his eyes back to his work
I married a woodworker, which means our house is carelessly full of beautiful wooden things. Slab tables made of thick, solid walnut. Hickory veneer that’s been thinly sliced in a specific direction so the grain pattern splays out into a starburst. When we are out on a date and our conversation lulls, Builder-husband quizzes me, “That table top over there, what wood is that made out of? How about that decorative wooden screen that’s hiding the pipes?” Inevitably, I fail because this is a set-up; he knows, I don’t. I’m learning, but I can’t read wood like he can. He knows wood cut a thousand different ways, even if it’s colored and changed (and it’s always colored and changed); he can tell from the smell, the sound, the grain pattern, the story the architect wanted to tell within the space with the warmth, the life of the wood.
The physical manifestations of our thoughts, the proteins and chemicals in our brains branch like trees too, with their dendrites—Greek for branches. Do they grow thicker each year too, like trees do? Do our minds have growth rings? Dry years are thinner, wet years are thicker. Do we get to choose how much we water our minds and what grows there? Trees of life, trees of knowledge. Good. Evil. Do we get to choose?
I can’t breathe.
I can’t find a tether for this, a foothold to answer: God, what are you trying to teach me, that this is the phrase for 2020?
When I am lost, I look up the history of words. These root words, they’re comfort food (of course, they’re roots.) Tree and true share the same ancient root word “deru-“ meaning “firm, solid, steadfast.” Truth, tree, trust, endure—all share the same root. What’s steadier than a tree to build a framework from? What’s more solid than rockbottom truth to build a life on?
What’s the truth? God, what’s the truth? The unbreakable, durable, framework-building kind that will see me through the rest of this year, the rest of my life?
We all breathe. We are all spirit, imago dei and precious. Someone’s newborn baby, drawing breath for the first time. We breathe without thought. Invisible forces we can’t control are supporting us inside our bodies.
What we do with our breathing breath, that’s the choice we get to make.
Our breath creates sounds, our sounds create words, our words tell stories, and our stories build worlds. Our minds do the same thing, stories, cut and colored a thousand different ways.
What story am I going to tell?
I run my hand over my desk—rough hewn white oak—“Oh God,” I pray, “please let me use my breath well. Let me tell the best and truest story.”
I take a very steady, lung-filling inhale.