Breath from Another
In a global pandemic, breathing is both a curse and a cure, writes Anupa Mistry.
Every single day is the same. I wake up and put the kettle on. I feed the cat, who chirps at me non-stop until the bowl of kibble is in her face. I look out the window into the long-term care home across the street while brushing my teeth. Sometimes I’ll see a silhouette looking back at me, but not so much lately. An outbreak has been reported in the news, 73 cases. I sit down with hot water and get ready for meditation. Sometimes I’ll light incense, lately the one Neha gave me, which smells earthy and warm and far off, like a mossy cloud. Then I make myself comfortable to write in my journal. Three pages every morning. It’s the only tip I lifted from The Artist’s Way, and perhaps that was the whole point.
And then I go out to walk along the lake or in the park, inhaling deep into my lungs only at the furthest point from the road, which is never very far off in the middle of a city. On very cold days my chest gets tighter as I breathe, and sometimes I can feel a wheeze rattling. My asthma showed up five years ago, and I’m still getting used to this version of my body. I should absolutely stop smoking weed, but I want to move out of the city first.
So instead, I slow my breathing. Nostrils warm the air as I inhale, four long counts. Mind notices itself racing, and then relaxes. It takes effort to support the lungs, but I try to rest in the tension of breath as both curse and cure.
Lately I’ve been missing the sensation of lying in a dimmed yoga room, breathing deeply with like 40 other people. Bibi’s class in particular. But when I think too much about it, my mind calls up all those infographics of droplet projections and I feel nauseous. I guess I’m more frightened of exposure than death itself.
It’s the actual feeling of collective breathing that I miss. The tacit coordination, shared solitude, body smells and sighs, subconscious connection. I was reminded of this while watching the “Lover’s Rock” film from director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series. There’s a moment about halfway through when the atmosphere tilts and you watch as an entire house party sings every word of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games.” The selector has let the track run out and so it’s just voice and air, a chorus sustaining feeling. I watched and wept with longing: for people, for that familiar feeling that is more intimate than yoga, which was not my first love.
Similarly, I’ve squeezed my hands into fists, closed my eyes to the dark of a club or basement or the night sky, and sung into the chorus of an entire dance floor. It is a moment, often fleeting, when everyone in the place becomes someone to you.
Observing is different, particularly when you are cast firmly in the space of consumer by the presence of the director and the cameras and the Amazon Prime subscription and the television. I watched and listened, and felt reoriented to the space between the lyrics. The shuffling of feet and inhalations. Goosebumps on my arms rose in search of skin contact: the damp wet of a friend’s palm, the smudged heat of other bodies, and soft puffs of air vibrating against my face and around my head as mouths make music. I was reminded that silence is a summoning space, where life is sensed beyond knowing.
Recently, Aditi introduced me to the work of Ashon T. Crawley, who conjures cosmic flight writing about breathing in formation and other forms of spontaneous and collective sounds specific to Black Pentecostalism, like singing and shouting. He writes about this “Blackpentecostal breath” as a challenge to conventional ways of knowing. So now when I watch birds swoop and dive, or waver with effort as they lift off from the lake, I think about god. The formation necessitates the collective in order to be made visible. In The Lonely Letters, Crawley writes that “the spiritual does not belong to and is not the private property of the things we call the religious and there are epistemologies that do not assume such, especially given the fact of religion being constituted as a modern way to think, and think against, relation.”
How beautiful, too, that McQueen chose “Silly Games,” a song that, in her own telling, a young and deathly shy Janet Kay stumbled into recording. Now, over 40 years later, the music is valuable beyond nostalgia because every repeat hints at power behind the construction of our personalities.
Admittedly, I’ve enjoyed the solitude of this past year. Some of that silence has been shared over Zoom, in a reading group or leading friends into meditation after yoga.
But breathing with others, with another, is something I miss deeply in a year where breath has become a threat vector. Last April I held my breath navigating the city sidewalks. Sometimes I still do that beneath my mask.
As a kid I had a strange habit of holding my breath every time we drove by a graveyard. I didn’t (and still don’t) have much experience with death, and since I come from fire people I had no association with graveyards beyond Halloween and horror movies. The idea of bodies boxed up in the earth was frightening, and perhaps I thought I’d catch the contained misery of the dead by breathing the same air. Now, I understand that I felt presence, immaterial, where most saw death. I’m trying to get back to that childish intuition.
During a recent COVID scare, my mum advised that I take Ayurvedic bitters and “increase deep breathing exercises.” I laughed about it, mostly because she’s gotten hardcore into Sadhguru this year, but also because invoking folk medicine collapses timelines. These days, I hear things in the silence of breathing alone. I hear the distance between myself and the people I love; I hear loneliness; I hear myself as a child, and the rustling chasms in my family history. I also hear far-off whooping and beckoning and clamour; the vibration of possibility in fundamentally reorienting toward life.
Last year, Rawiya Kameir wrote, “Telling a patient to breathe is to a doctor what thoughts and prayers are to a politician.” I won’t tell you what to do. I’m not a doctor or a mum or a politician. Instead I’ll tell you about my very first tattoo, a time-stamp wrapped around my left wrist. It’s a line from the song “Respiration” by Black Star and, adding to the wretched corniness of all first tattoos, it’s in Spanish, a language that I have zero connection to. “Escúchela, la ciudad respirando.” Listen to it, the city breathing. I can’t hate the tattoo that much because it’s a reminder of life and the collective and of childish prescience. And in the silences of this year, it’s a reminder that every breath is a galaxy that holds us all.
Anupa Mistry is a writer and producer, living in Toronto on the present-day treaty lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit. Her work continues to explore the cultural production and spatial narratives of and between Black and brown communities in Canada, through stories that disrupt official histories and unravel assumptions.