“Do you realize how much you hold your breath?” said my collaborator Robyn as we sat at her computer choosing photographs for a new photo poem montage. As soon as the words left her mouth, I knew I was guilty as charged—queen of inadvertent breath-holding, steeling myself against whatever the world has to bring my way.
And it runs in the family. My husband–a free-diver and triathlete for many years, now the chronically multiply employed father of our three children–insists on holding his breath while driving our family across the Golden Gate Bridge. Granted he trails extra occupations like an over-tentacled octopus, all of those jobs requiring serious lung prowess from cross-country coaching to instructing Navy SEALS to underwater hockey. But when traffic gums up the lanes, I surreptitiously position myself near the steering wheel in case he passes out.
Which is of course, a top hazard of breath-holding. I remember the giddy thrill of passing out as a pre-teen after downing a bottle of vitamin C with my friend Muffy, holding my breath, and spinning for five minutes. Fine to enter that kind of a zone and wake back up with a friend in a locked bedroom, but far more embarrassing when in public, like the time I got clocked on the temple by a golf ball as a high school freshman while standing on the football field, the metallic “ding” garbled irrevocably with the last phrase out of my PE teacher’s mouth, “don’t mess around with the shotputs…”
…so that when the golf ball (hit by someone on the Varsity team several 100 feet away) first hit the goal post in the end-zone and ricocheted down to my head, I heard “shot-put” fractionally after the “ding.” My legs buckled and everything grew dim, including my last question: who survives being hit in the head by a shot-put?! Then came the cheerful, awed voice of my friend Patt, “Look! A golf ball,’ and gradually the circle of concerned faces peering down on me blurred into view. A unanimous vote passed the following week at the student council meeting in favor of using whiffle balls on campus.
But to return to the present time story, I spent the rest of that collaborative hour with Robyn trying to breathe like a “normal” person would, but to little avail. The most positive spin I could put on it was that I’m prone to practicing that portion of “ujjayi” breathing (“ocean breath,” sometimes known as “cobra breath,” or “victorious breath”) during which my lovely new yoga teacher instructs me to pause and hold my breath before beginning the next cycle of paired inhalation/exhalation. Except I think for the “ujjayi” breathing to qualify one must actually be doing yoga and completing the other half of that “ujjayi” deep breathing through the back of the throat as opposed to the perpetual clamming up of the throat.
Later that night I sat on the bed and tried to list to my husband the worries responsible for the breath-holding and state of overwhelm. He—with his considerably higher threshold for stress–assured me our problems were no different than anyone else’s (three kids to shepherd including one asking to be homeschooled, an unconscionably high mortgage, a two-city commute, a habit of living paycheck to paycheck dangerously near the minus side, chainsaw blades to change before winter, aging family members in distress, a clutch to replace, a broken washing machine blinking its F-21 message long into the night, one Siberian Husky—reinstated after a year’s absence—still obsessed with escaping fences and digging up the septic tanks and buried pets of the neighborhood, and one feral kitten with a habit of nursing on the ears of the sleeping children though mostly hickeying the neck of the insomniac mother you have by now correctly identified as yours truly).
But get this, once I got the domestic list off my chest, the real list surfaced with its crushing and cruel critical authority—you know the one—the “I haven’t gotten far enough with my writing” critic. Beyond the veneer of the daily tasks to cross call the blog posts to write, poems to post, book projects delayed, rejections to stomach, manuscripts to get in the mail, comments to scatter across mediums, and the elusive godmother’s blessing of “arriving” in one’s writing career vanishing down that tunnel of “not enough.”
My husband looked a little dismayed, and then rejoined with, “Well, then cut back, honey” (as if I could) and, “Start your day in your cabin with paper and pencil” (oh, maybe I could). Remarkable that he should land on precisely what I needed to hear—usually the best way to start a fight involves having him read a poem or give me feedback on one of my projects.
But I didn’t get defensive, thought about it, thought about all of us writers, humans, non-writers too, mothers, fathers, everyone, embroiled in this mesh of potential connections all the time (from email to social networks and non-social networks to tweeting and IMing and on and on) so inviting, so fun, until saturation sets in and some of the magic and synchronicity of connection wears thin when the connection to one’s self frays just in the tending to the connections.
Not that those connections don’t matter—they do. But a few hours, unwired, down in my cabin, rights the writing world. As for the breath-holding, how should I mark it? A penny in the jar per hold? And not to worry too much–I hear that as little as ten breaths, deep and slow in a row (minus the hold at the top of the cycle, mind you) can reverse the havoc of the stress/adrenaline response our body kicks into when we perpetually hold our breath or imagine the worst.
Wish me luck…and tell me, if you wish, the tale of your own secret inadvertent protective habit, body tic, or ritual. How have you successfully staved off your own inner critic? Send us a guest post. We’ll run it.