I wear a silver bracelet every day. It started off perfectly round, smooth and shiny. After nearly nine years, it remains mostly round, bent and tarnished, but still intact. I take it off my wrist and set it on the desk in order to describe it, and it no longer lies flush against the surface, misshapen by years of daily use, but you might not notice that when it’s on my wrist. It’s a simple design, about 3/8” wide and 1/16” thick, stamped with seven letters in a plain font, all capitals, to form the word: BREATHE.
My friend Jen gave me the bracelet on Christmas Eve the year that my husband committed suicide. His death so stunned me – all of us, really – that it was all I could do to breathe in those early days of grief. Often I held my breath, not realizing that I was doing so. I lost my appetite and 25 pounds in three months. I couldn’t sleep, lying awake, flanked by my young children in the queen-sized bed, comforted by the sound of their rhythmic breathing in the dark. I lived by the mantra, “Inhale. Exhale. Repeat as necessary.” Even now, in times of stress, I will touch the bracelet and take a long inhale.
I took my first meditation class when the boys were little, before their father died. It strikes me as odd to take a class to learn a basic bodily function. Silence and stillness do not come naturally to me, and I had never really given much thought to breathing. I didn’t suffer from asthma or chronic bronchitis as a child, even though I grew up in Los Angeles at a time when we children were routinely instructed to spend our recess time indoors and not to run around. I was perfectly content to curl up with a book in my free time, but my lungs still ached at the end of each day with a deep inhale, so thick was the air with pollution. We didn’t give it much thought, though, that’s just how it was.
I think that children often think that whatever they experience is normal. It’s probably more accurate to say that they don’t think about it, and as a result they might not question it. At least that’s how it was for me. I thought it was normal for breathing to hurt by the end of the day, and it never occurred to me that other students could see the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. I was a shy, quiet, well-behaved elementary school girl with freckles and pony tails. My third grade teacher placed me at the back of the classroom, because she needed the seats in front for several rowdy students, up close where she could keep an eye on them.
One evening the teacher called my mother to inform her that “Charlotte was cheating. She was looking at her neighbor’s paper.” My mother, in her usual kind and unflustered manner, thanked the teacher very much for calling, hung up the phone and looked at my father. “Charlotte is not cheating. She’s too smart. She knows it’s wrong. It must be something else.”
Within the week, she had me at the optometrist’s office. As it turns out, I couldn’t see much past the length of my own arm, the perfect distance to read a book. Or my friend’s paper. I wasn’t intending to cheat. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was cheating. It never occurred to me that anybody else could see as far as the chalk board on the other side of the classroom. I just didn’t know.
I will never forget the car ride home wearing my new glasses. I could read street signs and billboards and see stoplights. I had no idea. Before that night, my world was a haze of indiscriminate colors. With clear vision, the streaks came into focus. The blurs suddenly had meaning. I was seeing this world for the first time.
Both contact lenses and meditation are staples in my life now. I’ve also added reading glasses to the mix, an occupational hazard, according to my optometrist, of approaching the age of 50. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, because I appreciate long distance vision for driving and watching my sons play sports or music or whatever they like to do, and books remain a passion.
This morning, I listened to a guided meditation, the theme of which was creativity. “The world, your world,” the gentle voice reminds me, “is constantly changing. There is newness and creativity in every breath.” When I open my eyes, I am struck by the realization that the world is a different one than the one I closed my eyes to just minutes earlier. Inspiration is simply a breath away. Breathe.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And inspiration.