Tuesday as I pulled up into my usual parking spot where I run, I could see that the empty car I thought I was parking next to wasn’t so empty after all. Inside was a young man in mint green scrubs, slumped to the side, sleeping in an arc or even in a fold, some God-awful position that couldn’t be comfortable.
At first I worried that everything might not be alright. The bend looked so unchosen and I’m around the unhoused enough to know that fatalities are not exactly uncommon. And so I looked carefully for movement.
At first I couldn’t see any. Some part of me was alert to the ways he might not be okay, and I was in the very beginning of panic, my mind beginning to race about what I’d do next if he wasn’t. But then I realized that I was freaking out, and tried to still my breath, to bring that alertness into focus, and look more carefully. “Gut,” I thought. Look at the gut. Is he breathing?
Soon I was still enough to see it, the gentle rising and falling. “Alive. Only sleeping,” I thought with relief.
I eased on into my morning run, but as I went, I was captivated by the memory of seeing him breathing. I kept playing it over and over in my head, like an important secret you’ve just heard and can’t seem to let recede out of your immediate thinking quite yet.
Yesterday morning, I found myself unexpectedly sitting on the floor of a church fellowship hall, playing blocks with a Congolese refugee baby, a tiny boy in boots, maybe 18 months old, who was taking our work together so seriously. As we stacked and unstacked, handing blocks back and forth to one another, I listened to the mothers speaking Swahili, and interpreters back and forth with agency workers. They’ll have only a year of rent assistance. They will need to learn at least a little English before they can get jobs even at a hotel, stripping beds and cleaning rooms.
I was processing their vulnerabilities. I know from the pastor heading up this work that many of these women are pre-literate in their own languages. I wondered how they would make it here. I wondered what in the world they’ve already made it through.
And there it was again, the rising and falling, this time through his tiny sweatshirt, breathing and alive. I watched, then let my eyes move to his eyes, his face, his curly head, his tiny hands, wondering at the stories I will never know.
Later on the playground, his sister would climb to the top of the slide and yell “Ona! Ona!” before she went down. Ona. See.
I didn’t know this for sure until googling later, that ona means see, but I could guess, because every tiny child doing something brave like climbing to the top of a slide about to go down needs a witness. Some things cross the language barrier. “Ona!” I said back, and pointed to my eyes. She nodded and went down.
Later their mother would try to talk to me as I handed her the fabric wrap she’d sent the baby outside with. I felt my eyes get wet the moment I realized we couldn’t talk, both of us staring uncomprehending at one another a moment before looking down. But even in the language barrier, it was a shared barrier, one we both felt, and the experience of helplessness and vulnerability in that moment similar. Suddenly I wanted to tell her everything she’d need to know to be safe and well.
I stay off the news as much as I can these days, listening to only enough really to be responsible. The world is so often chaos, and politics a form of triage we are poorly navigating.
Still, some of it makes its way to me. And I was struck by the images this week of that white kid from Kentucky facing off with Nathan Phillips, the Native American man singing the songs of his people. I don’t want to get into all the debates out there, most of which are ridiculous to begin with. That this kid gets a voice bothers me deeply.
But still, I wonder if it would have changed things if time could have paused, and for a few moments that kid could have heard Phillips breathing.
What would it take for him to get down underneath all the ignorant stories he’s been told, the feverish rhetoric bordering propaganda and his own pomposity to the basic core facts of existence, that before him stood another human being who was breathing? Another human being who desired to be seen, known, and dignified?
Could he stop to marvel at the miracle of air taken in, spun quick through the circular system, and then pressed back out through vocal cords into song? What if he could have heard the heartbeat too, seen it in the neck, sensed a pulse of life inside his opponent?
I don’t think he could have. Nothing in his formation has taught him this kind of attention to anything or anyone but himself, and probably not even to himself. Is this a kid who has ever felt a sense of wonder in his own humanity, his own breath even, I wonder? Could feeling wonder, even in himself, change everything?
I’m beginning to wonder this every day now, whether tuning into the breathing of the beings in proximity to us could change us, move us toward awe at the miracle of living, and toward some kind of human connection which would make everything a little less of an emergency, a stand-off, the end of the world.
It sounds dumb, so basic, not worth the effort even, like some trite answer to a world of problems.
But there is a deep tenderness in noticing the breathing of another, almost an intimacy, a recognition of human fragility. We listen for the first breath at birth, and listen for the last breath in the moment of death. But how many others really notice us breathing in the meantime?
In so many practices of prayer, noticing the breath is everything.
Usually though it’s about noticing one’s own breath, which surely is important. But I wonder if noticing the breathing of another could be a certain practice of attention, moving us toward empathy and compassion?
I challenge you, dare you even, for it’s a vulnerable thing and you might be caught. But for this coming week, pay deep enough attention to those around you that you can pray the breathing.