“I got the breath of life put in me.” He said it slow, unable to get over the wonder of it. “There was an accident. I’ve been to the county home.”
Christine and her friend Kathy had been walking across an old bridge on a back road in Iowa when a pick-up truck on the other side drove up to the bridge and parked, blocking off the exit.
An old man and a younger one got out and started walking toward them, the older man reluctantly, hanging back. Kathy said they should turn around, but Christine didn’t want to show fear so they kept walking. When they got close enough, Christine took control and said hello. Which is when the young one replied, “I got the breath of life put in me…”
Tipping back his head, he showed Christine and Kathy a scar running across his neck. He was pale, dirty, obese. His fingers were long and yellow. He wore those blue and white pinstripe overalls they make train engineer hats out of and looked to be in his 30’s. It was becoming clear the young one was not all there and that the older one was his father. It felt to Christine like they’d walked into a Flannery O’Conner story.
After showing his neck, the guy stuck out his hand to shake Christine’s, as if to complete their exchange. His hand was warm and doughy and damp. Christine hadn’t wanted to shake it, but she’d been set on walking down this road. This was the final test and she would hold herself to it.
And for 30 years I have held onto that story, unable myself to get over the guy who couldn’t get over the awe-inspiring way that one person can literally breathe life into another. I agree. It is a wonder how you can put your mouth over another and fill that person’s lungs with your breath and they will live. Or cut open their airway and blow your oxygen into them through a straw. And, again, they will live.
Which is not so different from a story, how stories transfer from the mouth of one person into the heart of another. How stories inspire life. This story is not mine, but it was told to me and I have held it in and held it in and held it in, not knowing what it meant to me until now. Only now, 30 years later, am I exhaling.
It’s the passing back and forth, that transfer of life and spirit that gets me. It reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption when the Tim Robbins character traps the prison warden in the bathroom then broadcasts The Marriage of Figaro over the PA system into the prison yard where the prisoners have been put. As those soaring notes fill the air, one by one the prisoners stop in their tracks and tip up their heads. There was complete stillness as they listened, transported, as if they were the birds flying free above them.
The same thing happened on the Titanic. As the ship went down, the orchestra played on, the life force of their music sustaining them, quieting their fear, lifting them up to overcome what was inevitable and carry them into their next life. And again the transfer happened in war-torn Sarajevo where musicians played for community members every Monday night, all of them risking their lives because music was more life sustaining than whatever relative safety came from staying put and holing up by regulation of the blackout mandate.
It is mind-blowing how something inside one person gets inside another. How it can move us, even literally. During a trip in college to the Yucatan, Christine and I spent a few days on Isla de Mujeres where we met a couple of Dutch boys at a street dance. The music was island wild, full of drum beats and panpipes and flutes. We joined in, dancing with that island wild abandon, lifting our peasant skirts and spinning like whirling dervishes, flashing leg to those Dutch boys and something else we hadn’t known was inside.
And human warmth, how that gets inside. Years ago when I was writing a story for an annual report for the hospital, I talked with an elderly man and his nurse during one of his appointments. He had cancer and I was asking about the life-preserving procedure he’d just gone through. He’d been so scared, he said, but this same nurse had held his hand throughout and he’d been okay. Peaceful even.
I was so stunned. He was an old guy. The nurse was so young, not more than in her mid-twenties. How had she known that her warm hand could offer such comfort? And how could holding a stranger’s hand bring peace?
Inspiration, respiration, spirit…all of the same root, the same breath of life. It wasn’t until I read On Canning Tomatoes by one of my professors in college that I got a real glimmer of something that can happen in writing that somehow spoke specifically to me, inspiring something in me. What Dr. Thomson did in that essay got through, showing me a way in to writing, perhaps my way in. Then, 35 years later, it was reading Three Dog Life, a memoir by Abigail Thomas, that showed me the form for this very memoir, something I’d been searching for for 10 years. The way Thomas simply wove together individual, fully independent stories as a way of revealing the larger one opened up something. My story has been gushing out ever since.
There is something permeable going on here… Back when Christine and I were in Yucatan, a Mayan girl around my age and I crossed paths. As we passed, our eyes met and something happened. I could see it in her eyes and feel it in mine, some kind of recognition. I had no idea what this was. If I were inclined to believe in reincarnation, I might say we were embodied in some way, that maybe this was some kind of reincarnation mix-up, an overlap in which we both walked the earth at the same time. We are that permeable thing.
After my breakdown in 2007, I became fascinated with how we come apart and how we can be put back together. Understanding what it means to be whole became my driving force, my breath of life, my inspiration. This was all I wanted to do.
It took me a while to figure out how I could make this my life, but I found my way in by becoming a wellness coach in 2012. When I started a coaching business, I wanted to name it something that got at the transformational work we do when we are inspired to make a change. I wanted this name to get at the root of what it means to do this re-creation. I wanted it to be elemental because what else is there to build yourself from? I couldn’t find a word that did this so I made one up:
For me Inspirito captured how we get inspired and how we can inspire, in one word wrapping up spirit, inspiration, respiration and air, the root of life itself.
As it turned out, Inspirito didn’t play that well when I tested it, so I went with Rocks & Water Wellness Coaching and Design, which still retained an elemental feel but with the weightier, concrete elements of rocks and water, along with design, the creative element.
A little while after we moved to Maine in 1988, Christine came out for a visit. I didn’t know Maine all that well myself, but I wanted to do something that would give Christine a little Maine flavor. In the “What’s Going On” section of the newspaper, I saw that Brooklin, a little town on the coast, was having a community dance. I’d been wanting to go to one of those.
The dance was held in a big grange hall. A band heavy on grange hall fiddle managed to cover every conceivable kind of music, which was perfect because every conceivable generation was there dancing. Teens clustered in groups, mothers danced their babies around, couples and singles did their thing and kids of all ages tore across the floor while waltzers skirted the edges, circling and circling.
It was a riot of life. And there in the middle of it all was an old seaman with one leg, wearing a yellow rain slicker, dancing on crutches.
Christine and I stood there, taking it all in. And then we danced.
Christine — One of my oldest and dearest friends. I met her when I was in 6th grade and we played leapfrog.
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.