Remembering to Breathe

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I wish you could sit with me on the couch in our sunroom, looking out at the woods. That way I wouldn’t have to use words to describe what I see: the tapestry of leaves, most still the dark green of late summer, but with patches of early fall color bursting out —  new colors appearing each morning. The golden afternoon sunlight that filters down between the trees, making the ground look like the ocean floor every time the wind blows. The shadows moving over the rocks.

I live with this view every day, but of course it’s only occasionally that I see it. Today was one of those moments, with two girls napping upstairs and two girls running errands in town with their father. I sat on the couch for twenty minutes of uninterrupted quiet. It was so quiet, and so still; the only action was what was happening between the leaves and the wind. Do you know how rare that is, in this house?

I sat there thinking about how, almost exactly one year ago, I learned that I was pregnant with our fourth child. And how I spent that year wishing to be where I was right now: When I’m through the first trimester….When the baby is born….When Erick gets back from Africa….When the oldest girls start school again….  It was a crazy, crazy year, a year I felt had to be endured, gotten through, in order to reach a place of — what? Peace, I suppose. A place where I could sit on the couch in quiet, and breathe deeply, and think to myself, Well, we got through that, and it’s all okay now. No more babies, no more puppies, half of the kids in school. From here on out, it’s just smooth sailing.

I probably don’t have to tell you that “smooth sailing” is not what I was feeling on the couch.

I’m gradually coming to accept what I already know to be true:  that there IS no final peace in this life, no point at which you’ve gotten through everything there is to be gotten through, no smooth seas from here to the horizon. I don’t exactly understand why that is. Why are we allowed so few moments of unadulterated joy? It seems like even the happiest moments are marred by troubles, like a gorgeous cake with a fly stuck in the buttercream frosting. Maybe there’s a law of spiritual gravity: there always has to be some bitter mixed with the sweet, or we’d just float away with the joy of it all.

So, for all the challenges of the past year, and for all the joys that have been given to our family, I’m still firmly tethered to the ground. Down here there are postpartum hormones to contend with, and daily screaming sister fights under our roof, and friends and family in pain, and permission forms to sign, and contractors to call.

I sat there on the couch mourning the peace and joy that I’d assumed the universe owed me.

Then I remembered to breathe.

About a decade ago, I started taking yoga. And what really made an impact on me after my very first yoga class was the feeling that I’d never actually breathed before. I mean, of course I’d breathed, because I’d been alive. But yoga made me pay attention to the action of breathing: taking in as much air as I could and then releasing it fully, and continuing this mindful breathing while moving through various poses. The contrast between yogic breathing and my everyday, utilitarian breathing was dramatic. I realized that I’d lived most of my life holding my breath, stomach clenched with stress, taking in only the minimum amount of air needed to sustain life.

It’s impossible to feel stressed or rushed if you breathe the way they teach you in yoga class. If I could REALLY BREATHE like this for the rest of my life, everything would be okay, I thought.

Of course, I don’t breathe like that for most of my life, but every once in a while I remember. Sitting on the couch was one of those times.

So I sat, and I breathed, and I looked at the leaves and the sunlight, and for that one moment, in the middle of life’s drudgery and heartbreak, I felt grateful just to be alive: to be breathing, to be witnessing the dappled beauty of those woods. It wasn’t the ultimate peace I’d expected a year ago: In another few minutes the girls would wake from their naps and start bashing each other over the heads with My Little Ponies, the dog would bark hysterically at a passing car, and I still had to have six cavities filled the next week (SIX cavities! More on that later….).

I suppose we never get to stop enduring; life rarely awards us the long stretches of unadulterated joy that we think we deserve. But there are these moments when we remember to breathe — like spaces in the forest where the sun breaks through.

3 responses »

  1. Thanks, Faith, I needed this today! I have had a lot of moments in the past year where I have thought “I we can just make it through the first year everything will settle down.” Well, I sat down to read this after struggling for almost an hour to get a probably-teething James down for a nap, he’s still not sleeping through the night, our living/working situation is up in the air, etc. etc. Remembering to breathe now…

    • Aw, Emily, I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough day/week/season! And I’m glad that this was in some way encouraging to you; I wrote it a couple of weeks ago, and just re-read it and thought, “Gosh, that’s kind of a downer!” Which I hope will also encourage you: that perhaps, in a couple of weeks, things will be in a more manageable place for you. Breathe on! (And I hope we get to see you all in VT sometime soon — still haven’t met James!!)

      • Thanks! Life is really good for the most part- it’s just one of those busy, fussy, rough times. I hope we can see you soon, as well!

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