Take Me to Church 11/1/20: In Between Breaths

Micah invited us to “check in with [our] breath” at the beginning of his sermon this morning, and when I dutifully did so, I noticed that I had been more or less holding mine since he brought up the election, however obliquely, a minute or two before. It didn’t feel good—the tightness in my chest, like trying to push sand between fist-sized rocks—and I forced myself to breathe in and out, slowly, the way you’re supposed to when you’re noticing your breath. It’s one more thing you have to notice, in this time when nothing can escape your notice—when, if you take your eyes from Twitter or the Times for an hour or a night, there will just be a backlog of outrage and grief waiting for you whenever you come back. So you don’t, and your breath stays ragged, the discomfort a small sacrifice in your otherwise comfortable life when thousands are dying and disconsolate.

I was trying to notice my big, beautiful, purposeful breaths when I heard a strange noise (almost like the cat puking, Dakota commented), followed by the baby crying. She’d had a good nap by then, so I stood up to get her up from her pack-n-play, expecting I’d greet her and change her diaper and put on her daytime clothes. But I found her in a sad state: while I’ll spare you the details, she’d been visibly, tangibly sick to her stomach, for the first time in her young life. Poor baby. We’ve been casually introducing solid foods, and while she’d eaten scrambled eggs successfully before, something didn’t sit right with her this morning.

We sprang into action. I wiped off her face and hands, got off her sleep sack and pajamas, and peeled off the crib sheet while Dakota retrieved the thermometer and checked her temperature twice. Then he doused all the textiles in Shout, tossed them into the wash basket, diluted some bleach, and got the whole mess down to the laundry room post-haste while I quickly drew a bath and scrubbed her clean as gently as possible. She settled down remarkably quickly, splashing in the bathtub and babbling as easily as if nothing had happened. Within half an hour, we had a clean, fully-dressed baby who was on a breastmilk-only diet for the rest of the day. And church had continued to play on YouTube the whole time, Tony Perry gamely singing “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime, but us having no idea how we’d gone from breathing to Broadway.

Babies will do this, make you slow down, make you interrupt yourself and others. I’d never suggest that only babies will do this, of course—more evolved people can do it through meditation or mindfulness—only that it was probably the only way I could have ever slowed down, by being forced to be responsible for another human life. Even now, over seven months into the pandemic, I still miss the pace of my old life sometimes, the days that would take me across three boroughs of New York City and always afforded me the opportunities to stop somewhere for lunch, somewhere else for coffee, somewhere else to meet a friend for dinner or shopping, somewhere else again for a movie or a show. Google Maps and Calendar were always at my fingertips, plotting distance over time and packing as much into a day as I could (or more). This is among the more seductive and pleasurable lies of empire: that we can control our own time, that we can pack our agendas full and hit every bullet point along the way, every day. Today, it was noon, and I hadn’t so much as finished watching YouTube church or put on pants. Babies force you to slow down, and, yes, to notice—but notice something else, or at least notice the same things on a much smaller and more intimate scale: human need, fragility, evanescence all there in your arms, crying and covered in not-quite-digested scrambled eggs.

Well, the laundry came back clean and dry, and the baby settled down to eat, and we restarted YouTube church. And later in the sermon Micah reminded us that empire will be waiting for us no matter who wins the election, that voting is often only harm reduction—that as urgent and dire as everything seems, we do actually have time to check in with our breath.

I wish for all of us, in the coming days, a baby to console and clean up, or a dog to walk, or a flame or a flower on which to meditate. I wish for all of us a chance to check in with our collective breath, and with each other. I pray for a heel of a hand pressed against a hole in the dike holding back tyranny and ruin, even knowing that it’s only a heel of a hand, that the whole levee system needs to be rebuilt.

I’ll start: as I finish this post, I interrupt my typing to breathe. I feel my chest rise and fall. I look up at the football game and over towards my husband. I hear the cats grazing in the kitchen and the white noise machine humming in the bedroom. I take a drink of water. Empire will still be there when I hit “publish.” For now, just for now, I take another breath.

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