“I invite you all to breathe.”
I breathed in
I breathed out
It felt as if I have never truly breathed before.
Last Thursday, my Ecofeminism(s) class was honored to invite environmental activists Zulene Mayfield and .O Payne as our guest speakers. Zulene, the storm, spoke first. In her rumbling voice, she opened with a caustic remark on the Covanta incinerator in Chester and urged us to use our privilege for the betterment of the world. Like a rainbow after a thunderstorm, .O, the sun, came next. Holding up a giant picture of the planet Earth, she introduced her source of passion: the pale blue dot. Then she gently invited us to breathe. After taking a short pause for a deep breath, .O revealed the suffocating truth: our planet can’t breathe, and it’s disproportionately affecting Black people, the women, the indigenous, and the working class.
In fact, “I can’t breathe ⏤ ” was the phrase Eric Garner repeated eleven times before he was choked to death. Asthma took the breath out of his body, but it was the abuse of police power that asphyxiated this Black man, putting him in an illegal chokehold as his desperate calls were ignored. Garner was strangled by racism, environmental injustice, and health disparity. These culprits are not separate. They are the skin, bones, and muscles of a single intersectional chokehold induced by a specter of structural insecurity that looms around us. Through racialized policing, racialized impacts of the climate crisis, and the resulting racialized disease rate, the specter insidiously constricts the colored neck. As Lindsey Dillon and Julie Sze, professors of sociology and American studies, respectively, put it: “breath, and the racialized difficulties of breathing, are therefore both real in the sense of Eric Garner’s asthma and an effective symbol of neglect.” If the police had taken his words seriously, would Garner still be alive? He may have lived, but never would have truly breathed.
For self-evident reasons, I must have breathed all this time to have lived thus far. But only when I was invited to breathe, or when I was allowed the time to breathe, or when I didn’t need to multitask between breathing and something else, did I feel like I was truly breathing ⏤ as if all the past breaths I’d taken had been mere imitations. As though I had been suffocated all along. To make sense of this, I considered that in Korean, the verb “to breathe” is homonymous with the verb “to rest.” In this respect, perhaps another modern crisis, one of restlessness this time, is the cause of my breathlessness. Karl Marx would have taken a different route, further explaining my symptoms as a natural result of the capitalist economy’s so-called “treadmill dynamic.” As he wrote in his book Grundrisse: “becoming is the condition of capital’s being.” Perpetual and endless growth is a necessary condition of capitalism. To prove our worth in the ever-developing market, we are haunted by the compulsion to run faster and faster, with no respite or rest, like hamsters on a treadmill. Guess what happens to our rodent companions when they run on a treadmill? Yes, they pant.
When you inhale, oxygen molecules enter your nostrils. They then start a brief journey through the trachea and into your lungs, where the trachea branches into narrower tunnels called bronchi and into even narrower branches called bronchioles. Finally, when they reach the alveoli, a new journey begins. They are absorbed into the capillaries and conveyed to the heart via pulmonary veins. As the heart beats, the oxygen molecules spread out into your brain, eyes, nose, shoulders, knees, and toes. There, they fuel an organ’s functions. In this way, oxygen molecules are sent back into the world, oftentimes taking the form of compassion, altruism, or unconditional love. When you exhale, carbon dioxide molecules returning from your organs flow reverse to the path of oxygen molecules. Finally, when they pop out at the tip of your nose, your outward breath provides energy for the plants, which in turn feed the fauna and at some point, yourself. Inhale, you shape the world. Exhale, you connect the world. Thus, by breathing, and only by this mindful breathing, will you be able to save future Eric Garners and free yourself from the treadmill.
I invite YOU to breathe.