Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

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Missing the Gold

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When I let my mind wander, I’m a crappy mom. Ask my daughter.

Now, to be fair, my daughter was a prattler. Driving along with her in the car seat in back was like being bathed in word vomit. She would tell herself stories, she would make up songs, she would report on every day’s events at the molecular level, and sometimes, she would ask questions that she already knew the answer to, just to make noise.

As a busy single mother, I learned to tune most out, my mind a sieve that sifted for only the nuggets of gold amidst all the verbiage. Sometimes, I would miss the gold.

Like the time she was sick and the nurse mentioned pneumonia as one possibility. It seemed a fairly remote possibility, so I immediately discounted it, which is why I wasn’t paying attention when she asked, “Mama, is pneumonia serious?”

“Oh yes,” I responded, probably thinking about what to make for dinner. “People used to die from it.”

It was the unaccustomed silence from the back seat that finally got my attention. A tiny little hiccupping sob. Oh.

“No, sweetie, you’ll be fine…”

But even that pales for my daughter in comparison to the time I told her she had an ugly smile.

For the second semester in a row, she had come home with a terrible school photo. My daughter was a cute little girl, but somehow she got it into her head that smiling for a photo meant grimacing and baring her teeth.

When she bemoaned her bad picture with the usual excess of words, I said absently, “You just have to stop smiling like that. It’s not cute at all.”

Again, silence. But I didn’t pick up on this one, didn’t pick up on what she needed me to say, and it wasn’t until later that I heard her crying in her room because her mother had told her she had an ugly smile. Not what I’d said exactly, and certainly not what I’d meant, but she brings it up to this day, and she’s 26.

And today, I still try to listen to what my very verbal daughter does not say…that’s where the gold is and that’s when I can redeem myself for the crappy mom times.

Panning for Gold

I Love You/Miss You Now/Soon

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Being human is exquisite, although I sometimes think a little less exquisite might be a little more comfortable.

There are moments – my infant daughter laying her hand lovingly along my cheek as she nurses; my mother, her eyes intent on mine as she spouts poetic nonsense in her hallucinatory last days – that seem as yesterday. There are others, really important events like my wedding, or my college graduation, that I remember only through re-telling, but not through actual memory. And there are still other things, like my marriage, that seem simultaneously much more ancient than our married years, and much shorter.

It is this elasticity of time that makes us truly human.

More specifically, it is apparently the ability to remember the past like watching a movie, along with the ability to envision the future the same way that psychologists and cognitive scientists label “mental time travel” that makes us human. Apparently this is a gift of evolution; it enables us to learn from mistakes and never do THAT again.

It is a fascinating concept. I’m not sure I buy that it is a uniquely human skill. My dogs watch me pack a suitcase and grieve, even though I haven’t left yet. They certainly can envision the future. But maybe if there were no suitcase, my dogs would be undividedly happy.

Because, I am often divided.

The dark side of this evolutionary gift is the preoccupation with the imminence of the future. I think this happens with women more than men. It is the dark gift that makes me simultaneously glory in a visit from my daughter while mourning the brevity of the visit, envisioning the day she leaves. It paints each day, each joy, with a shadowy cloud.

Perhaps a little less humanity would mean a little more happiness.

Past and Future