By Kellie Schorr
My father worked for a defense contractor so we moved every two years.
They weren’t little moves from one side of town to the other. They were big honking cultural change kinds of moves—the Marshall Islands to North Dakota, Florida to Texas. My young life was a never-ending parade of packing barrels, wardrobe upheaval, and the permanent position as “the new kid.” The one thing I could count on in my kaleidoscopic landscape was that no matter where we lived there was surely someplace nearby where we could go fishing.
I adored fishing with my dad. I suffered from severe asthma at a time when the world thought breathing problems meant you had to be locked inside and treated like an egg. Fishing was one of the only outdoor activities I was allowed. He’d use the time to teach me all about gardening, wildlife, and missile propulsion systems. I split my concentration between listening and trying not to cast into the trees. I don’t want to tell you how many bright red and white bobbers on fishing line I left hanging on tree branches. Let’s just say, the birds must have thought there was a barbershop in the sky.
It was after one of these casting disasters that I sat up, clutched my chest, and looked at my father with eyes that surely told him I was experiencing something worse than the loss of a bobber.
“I’m…um…I’m…” I wheezed, tapping the pockets of my jeans frantically. “I….”
“Where’s your inhaler?” My father asked, pretty casually considering his child was holding her chest, beating at her clothing, and clearly not getting any air.
“Gl…glo…ah,” I shook my head, flailing my jacket to show him it wasn’t in my coat. My mind’s eye showed me the exact location of my inhaler. It was on the kitchen counter beside the bowl of peaches underneath the cabinet holding the plates I wasn’t allowed to touch. At home. “Gluh…”
I was gasping and frantic. The warm sun of the afternoon dimmed as the whole world narrowed around me. The loud, ragged constriction of my lungs howled out a hurricane warning that I couldn’t hear over my desperate attempt to stay alive.
“Glove box! Don’t go anywhere,” he said, finally catching up with the fear in my eyes. He ran up the hill to his car.
Don’t go anywhere? The only place I was about to go was the afterlife.
“It’s not there!” My father shouted as he slid back down the hill with a bottle of Coke and a screwdriver in his hands. “What do we do?”
I held up one finger on my right hand, the left still massaging my chest and trying to get the elephant to move. Then two. Then three. “Cou….cou…”
“Cou? Count. Count to three?” He looked around to see if there were any other campers, or magicians, in the recreation area but alas, none were to be found. “Okay, okay. One, two, three!”
Presto chango! I can breathe! Oh wait, I’m dying from lack of oxygen.
I shook my head no. If I was going to live, I would have to take matters into my own trembling hands. Through ragged gasps, I put my forearms on his arms and made him look me in the eyes. I mouthed words as best as I could, trying to get him to say them aloud in a breathable rhythm that was less of an atonal blues riff and more like a waltz. Time for the little magic I had left. I thought the incantation and nodded my head in beat.
“One…” I mouthed. I waited two beats. “Two…”
He caught on. Finally.
“One,” he said with me, picking up the waltz. “Pause, pause, two, pause, pause, three.”
Yes! I nodded emphatically, taking the biggest swell of air I could get yet.
“One…two…three…” He said again, his attention locked. Over and over he repeated the numbers as I steadied my breath to his rhythm, finally catching an even flow until my lungs released. It was a trance of life.
“I’m okay,” I whispered, a tear from the breathless surge stinging the corner of my eye. He was still chanting. I had to pick up the volume, “Dad! I’m okay.”
“Where’d you learn that?”
“The babysitter in Florida. She used to do it with me when I couldn’t breathe.”
He leaned back and used his hand to comb his sweaty mop of bangs back in place. I heard him gasp as if he, too, had been holding his breath. We sat there together, just breathing, for a long time. It was one of the most spiritual moments I’ve ever experienced.
Eventually, he spoke.
“Seeing as that medicine is required to save your life, I think you’re smart enough to keep it with you, young lady.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, in a husky whisper. I looked down at the Coke and screwdriver, then slowly shifted my eyes back to his. I was not going to be lectured on survival intelligence by a man who brought those items to an asthma attack. He nodded and laughed.
“Okay, you’re right. We are both smarter than this. I panicked. We need to have some kind of system in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said. Leave it to an engineer to come out of a medical emergency talking about a “system.” I’ve often thought we needed a 12 Step Group-–-Adult Children of Engineers. We’d all show up to meetings with duct tape, a spreadsheet, two screwdrivers, and string.
“We have a system. But the inhaler in Mom’s care expired so I think she took the one out of yours.”
“I see,” he said, hand on his chin. “Well, you keep up with yours and I’ll keep an eye on the spares.”
I nodded and he closed the tackle box, signifying it was time to go. He turned toward to me as we walked up the hill.
“Don’t forget that breathing thing, Kellie. It works.”
It was wise advice then, and it’s wise advice now.
Don’t forget that breathing thing. The problem is, I did. You did too. We all forget to breathe from time to time. In a world swirling with emotion, fear, expectation, disappointments, political hate and suffocating love, at some point we all forget to breathe.
That’s what calm abiding is really all about.
Calm abiding meditation is like one of those local dinner theater productions where a big star (with an IMDB page and everything) plays the center role and all the rest of the cast is made up of hometown beloveds who crunch numbers by day and learn their lines at night. Posture, cushion, atmosphere, discipline, dedication-–-they all have an important part to play, but nothing really works until the breath steps in with its rhythmic and life enabling power.
In calm abiding we focus on the breath, follow the breath, and most importantly-–-return to the breath when our minds have wandered out to the lobby for popcorn. No matter how long you sit or what your intention, it all comes back to the breath. Meditation isn’t a cure-all miracle, magic success potion, or wisdom vitamin. It is the training we take to make it successfully through that thing called life.
Chances are, at some point in your day or week, you’ll encounter something that takes your breath away or sits so heavily on your soul it compresses your chest and makes it hard to get any air. When it happens, inhale deeply, think about following the breath and and coming back to it when all seems lost. Imagine yourself steady and grounded, breathing the rhythm of sanity back into the situation. It may not change your course of action, but it will give you a chance to act with heart and reason, not react with breathless distortion.
Before you yell at a child.
Before the news headline drops you off a cliff.
Before you throw a dish, or a fit.
Before you make that phone call.
Before you hit ‘send’ on the email.
Before you quit the job.
Before you leave the marriage.
Before you tear down all the walls.
Before you burn the bridge.
Stop and remember that breathing thing. It works.
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