When we breathe, we inhale and then we exhale. For those of us whose childhoods were particularly difficult or who have survived trauma, the breath is shallow, tentative, furtive, and so, rather more frequent. For most people however the breath is deep and subconscious. In – belly swells. Out – belly withdraws. In – belly swells. Out – belly withdraws. Sixteen times per minute will this miracle of life occur. 960 breaths per hour. 23,040 breaths per day. Nine million breaths per year. And by the age of 80, we will have taken almost 700 million breaths. Each one along the way, literally life-saving and bracketing a gentle pause.
It is easy to neglect the gratitude. My body breathes. I live. It is no surprise that the name for God – both for Jews and Muslims, was created to be unpronounceable, and sounds like an intake and exhale of breath.
We call God by the sounds of a breath because of the mystery and gratitude humans have had for breath; for 200 thousand years of development. One need not live too long before figuring out that without breath life ends. Even Christians call the Holy Spirit “The Breath (or wind) of God.” It sounds like RUAHH.
We breathe in. We breathe out. Such is life. An in-hale. An ex-hale. A job well-done for life. Then again.
And for those whose life is not cut short by tragedy, life, like breath, has its beginning, middle and end. Life itself has an in-hale, a pause for the oxygen to become absorbed into blood and then the ex-hale of that which the human body is able to give away – to be recycled by the planet and returned as oxygen again. It is, quite frankly, a miraculous collaboration of planetary inhale and exhale.
But an exhale signals an ending.
In the last 14 days, I have moved from a five room house in the verdant valley of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, to a cliff on the southern coast of an island off the nation’s north-western coast. Islands are small. Everything is small on them. Grocery stores are content with fewer choices (thank God!) The Ferry taking me to and from my home only holds a certain amount of cars and pedestrians as they cross the seas, bisecting the paths of inhaling and exhaling whales, to get from shore to shore. For work-aday people like me, the new home, on the cliff of an island, needs be small. Two rooms. And I love that. I want that. I am one body and a dog. Why do I need more than two rooms when I can only use one at a time?
Moving from an eight foot by ten foot monk’s cell in my thirties (500 pounds of possessions) to a nine-room farmhouse in New Hampshire in my forties (10,000 pounds of inherited possessions) and then to a five room home in New Mexico in my fifties (5,000 pounds of reduced possessions) and now to a two room home towards my sixties (3,000 pounds of thinned possessions) feels like a life-breath. A welcome exhale. It feels, quite appropriately like the natural exhale to the in-hale I experienced in the first half of life. But there is a catch to such a charming metaphor – after the ex-hale of this last season of life is, well, “blessed rest” as religious people euphemistically call frailty and death. A letting go. A relaxing.
The exhale of life – indeed the move from cloister to farmhouse, to smaller farmhouse, to cliff-house is an inhale – exhale of possessions. It means sorting things. It means selling things. It means reducing one’s possessions and one’s footprint on the planet. It means giving things away. It means mailing the family silver to my sister. It even means sending some things to the dump. Things once cherished. Things once used. But things.
There has been loss and grief as I have paired down my possessions to fit this small house near a cliff on the salty seas. Beautiful things need to be let go of, and indeed the stage-set of my life is reduced, simplified. And yet, I must say, without romanticizing the life-change, it is on schedule. I am exhaling gently and without a fight. I am moving towards the end of my life. I am confident that I’ll be alive later today, barring a drunk driver or a heart-attack and yet expect to die sometime between tomorrow and a tomorrow 25 years from now. We all are heading to a final cliff and on to flight. It is part of the deal to exhale and then, one day, not inhale.
Sure, this could seem depressing, but for this little hairless biped on this little island, green and sparkling as an emerald on a blue sea; the exhale is lovely. A relief even. I feel liberated the way I did as a monk. I feel free of posturing. Free of the need of an impressive stage set. Willing simply to be me – little me – unimpressive, average, human me. Less things. A bit more wisdom to share. A bit less to dust. A bit more willing to march on slowly, and then with a cane and then finally to dust myself; as possessionless in my last breath as I was before my first breath. A bag of meat who did his best.
It is time to let go of my things. It is time to write my last-will-and-testamant. It is time to record my intention to pass my accumulated money on to an agency which eases human suffering. It is time to exhale. It is time to be grateful.
“Behold, you are from (star-)dust, and to dust you shall return”… blown, ever so gently by the breath of God into the Cloud of Witnesses. Light as the leaf falling to earth, to begin its transformation to clay, for a potter to use in a million years for a cup – to bring water to the lips of a baby, inhaling after a long, cool sip.