Wineskins Archive

December 19, 2013

The Write Side: Don’t Forget to Breathe (Jul-Aug 1997)

Filed under: — @ 11:07 pm and

by Thom Lemmons
July – August, 1997

A few months ago, I became the uncle of quintuplets. (I’ve been dying to use that opening line!) The babies were born 10 weeks premature, and we knew they’d be in for a lengthy stay in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Mary-of-the-Plains in Lubbock. We also assumed that, like many preemies, the quints might have some respiratory problems. Sure enough, Zachary, the third-born and second largest male sibling (weighing in at a hefty three pounds and a few ounces at birth), logged quite a bit of time under the oxygen tent. It also seemed he, like many preemies, had trouble with apnea: he sometimes forgot to breathe.

My sister-in-law once related how Zachary seemed to do better when he was in the same crib as his siblings. It seemed he felt more secure and serene when he had his former womb-mates close at hand. “He never forgets to breathe when he’s with his brothers,” she said.

The babies are, at this writing, just over eight months old and doing nicely, thank you. But my sister’s remark has stayed with me, stuck in my mind like a mantra. Her words immediately reminded me of Anne Tyler’s novel, Breathing Lessons. Its protagonist is a middle-aged woman who is forever engaged in a vain attempt to fix the unfixable lives of everyone she cares about. Despite her stubborn refusal to accept some of the more unpleasant realities in her world, she has, however, learned one important lesson: People Let Things Slip. They forget to tend their dreams, their passions, their relationships. And, in her own inefficient, wrong -headed way, she tries to remind them, to help them repair the damage, whether they want to or not. She reminds them to keep breathing.

I wonder if, like Zachary, we all don’t sometimes forget to breathe, forget to be fully engaged in life. Don’t we all need our memories jogged from time to time? When was the last time you really knew you were alive? And I don’t mean, “When was the last time you had a great time?” There is not necessarily a correlation between vital connection to life and having fun. What I mean is, “When was the last time you were aware of living within a moment that really mattered?” Maybe it was important because it was a moment of great, deep, wordless joy. Or maybe a profound sorrow gave the moment its significance. Or perhaps it was a moment of decision, a time when you were acutely conscious that your actions and reactions had consequences reaching, perhaps, even beyond your own imagination.

These are the times, I think that define our lives. For my parents’ generation, World War II, I suspect, provided many such defining events. But not all defining events have to be global. Sometimes they are deeply private and personal – intimate, even. And one of the great tricks of effective, significant living is, I suspect, the ability to recognize such moments when they occur (usually without much warning), and experience them fully. But all too often, we get side-tracked from such moments by other things: cultural expectations, a public image we’re trying to maintain, avoidance of vulnerability … There are many number of fears and external imperatives that can prevent us from fully engaging the critical moment. There are lots of things that make us forget to breathe.

This isn’t a recent problem, by the way. Several thousand years ago, a wise man summarized the fully engaged life this way:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to dance ….”

Have you ever thought about how hard it is to live this way? Perhaps, for example, when it’s time to weep, we believe others would rather see us laughing, so we play along, shoving down those feelings and emotions which we deem as unsuitable to the occasion. Don’t we frequently feel pressured to assist the enthusiastic builders when it may, in fact, be time to tear down? And when everyone around you is dancing, don’t you feel a little self-conscious about wearing that mourner’s veil?

But I wonder if denying the reality of the moment – even if it happens to be an unpleasant reality – doesn’t make us a little less alive. Failure to recognize and deal appropriately with reality can also have emotional and psychological effects. Ask any counselor. In short, I wonder if shoving aside the critical moment doesn’t make it easier to forget to breath.

Maybe that’s where the rest of us come in. Maybe, like Zachary, we need our brothers and sisters around to remind us. Maybe we all need to be able to give and receive breathing lessons.Wineskins Magazine

Thom Lemmons

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