Megan Baxter is a graduate student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a CrossFit Coach with an armful of tattoos and a pampered mutt named Rosalita Springsteen. She has been writing personal essays since the fourth grade.
I was always being taught to breathe. My father would say ‘inhale,’ and ‘exhale.’ My mother, who taught piano lessons in our living room, would set up her metronome beside my bed; tick, tick, tick, the needle swung back and forth giving me a rhyme to match my ragged breath. The asthma specialist gave me my own peak- ow meter so I could measure the strength of my breathing. I would lock myself in the bathroom and huff into the mouthpiece, hoping for bigger numbers each time. Each of my medication required different types of breathing, holding my breath, or sucking in huge gulps like a thirsty person swallowing water. I know the feeling of having almost no air in my body. One night, when I was five, my fingers turned deep purple. I was shutting down. I was dying.
Asthma made me scared of running and swimming. I was allowed to spend recess and gym in the art room or library at school. While I inhaled medication through my nebulizer, I read hungrily. In books, sick kids didn’t stay that way forever; the little boy in the Secret Garden was cured by the lush green of tangled roses outside his estate and in Heidi, the fresh Alpine air helped Clara walk again. I grew and my lungs became stronger gradually, until the cupboard under the bathroom sink was packed with the tubes and equipment I didn’t use anymore.
When air comes into the lungs it oxygenates the blood, the tiny cells deep in bronchial tissue work that magic. Each exhale removes carbon dioxide. In and out. Good and bad. Have you ever been afraid to breathe? I used to be terri ed of getting out of breath, the feeling of running, or playing kickball, that tightening in the lungs felt just like the start of an attack. My mother tried to teach me ways to control my breathing without medication. She would set me down on the steps of our porch and make me breathe in and out steadily. She gave me a cold glass of water to sip. In and out. I worked my lungs, I steadied my heartbeat, and I learned to catch myself on the edge of panic. But I will always remember the black nights with no air when my lungs felt as small as tea bags.
Like the doctors said, my asthma improved as I got older. Between those markers of adolescence, getting my period, wearing my first high heels, slow dancing in the gym with my crush from history class, I began to breathe more naturally. I didn’t have to tell myself in and out. One morning, I laced up my running shoes and headed up the driveway. My legs learned to run, one foot at a time until I was at the end of the neighborhood, slick with sweat, breathing quickly but without fear.
I believe in the power of the body, its chemical magic, transforming the world into fuel and spark. Inhale, exhale. Just breath, the lungs do all the work themselves. By high school, I was running a few miles every morning, around the quiet lakeshore drives of my boarding school. In winter I would wake early and jog on the treadmill. I lifted weights in the bright gym beside the basketball court. I wanted to look good, of course, I was a teenage girl, but there was also an underlying marvel when I ran or went to the gym. I was free. Free from my own body’s limitations. I had learned to breathe.
I can’t separate the physical from the spiritual. It seems to me that breath is the thing of mystery, the spark that fuels life. It links us to the world, even to the creation of the universe, inhaling elements that were born deep in space. It connects us to all living beings, trees, ferns, birds, and fish, whose lungs and pores process the same chemicals. Breath connects us; to the people we love, to the places we live and to everything that has breathed before us.
You don’t know how lucky you are until that thing is taken from you. When you can’t breathe, you can’t walk or talk, all you can do is survive. I am thankful, everyday, for the air in my bloodstream and for the depth of my lungs. I have constructed a life around breath and I treat my body well. In the morning, I work in the lush garden in our front yard, hoeing or trellising, pruning back tomatoes and lacing bean vines up their support poles. The garden is breathing as well. I knew I had met the man of my dreams when his kiss took my breath away. I spun out into a world full of fireworks the first time our lips touched. He can still make me faint.
My body has become a symbol of strength and of breath. What else do we have at the end of the day but blood and muscle, lung and bone? In the gym I coach people. I help them become stronger. They have forgotten their bodies, the simple equations that bind them to the world. Watching them grow, I remember again to breathe. Everything starts out hard, I tell them. One breath in, one breath out. I teach them to link breaths to lifts, to breathe while they run, to catch their breath, head up, and not collapse under the weight of exhaustion.
Breath sustains me. It moves me forward. It links me backward, to the darkness and the fear of those nights in my childhood when my body began rationing air, cutting off blood to my fingers and toes, trying to keep itself alive. When I cut with my hoe in the garden I feel the strength of my lungs and the pull of my muscles. Around me the plants are growing and breathing. When I run, or hold a yoga pose, or lift in the gym I am thankful. Body to body with my boyfriend we breathe together, easily, linked by our steady inhalations. Inhale. Exhale. Don’t forget to breathe.