[A comment from Guy: I can think of no more appropriate way to observe the beginning and the end of this summer than to offer this post from my new friend Donita Volkwijn. She is with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, where she is the Manager, Knowledge Management. She and I met recently when I attended a week-long workshop on Conversational Leadership. With John Hovell, Donita was co-facilitating the workshop and it immediately became clear that she and I are on the same wavelength, for many reasons.
First of all, we share much enthusiasm about the connection between Conversational Leadership and KM/Knowledge Services. More personally, with her background as an opera singer and my enthusiasm about that art form, we had another subject to speak about and share. And as we talked, we discovered that we shared equally serious concerns about the epidemic and, in particular, about how we as a society are going to make our way as we object to and try to find solutions for four centuries of racial social injustice. For as we all know, with the beginning of summer, on May 25, we had Memorial Day, one of our most revered holidays, specially set aside to honor those who have given their lives for us. By that time, we were well into the earliest months of the awesome Covid-19 epidemic. And on that awful day, our lives changed, interrupted with the murder of George Floyd.
All of these thoughts come together and connect to this important post Donita has written. As we move toward our nation’s Labor Day, we remember that this typically American holiday represents the beginning of our new “work year” (and for our children the beginning of their school year). But we don’t know what will happen, and that, too, gives us a very special reason to have Donita’s essay. When she shared it with me, Donita told me that she had written it five years ago and at the urging of friends re-wrote it in light of current circumstances. I asked permission to post it here, and I am honored that she has permitted me to do so.]
THE POWER OF BREATH
[Donita Volkwijn introduces the post: I wrote this piece 5 years ago. Yesterday, a friend of mine encouraged me to rework it to fit current events. I was hesitant, initially, because it almost felt like cheating to re-use what was already written to create something new. But as I reread it, I felt something akin to reverse déjà vu. Had I written these words 5 years ago, or had I written them today? Because with only a few changes, it became the same story. So I decided to do an experiment. I left everything that still applies to the state of the world today and changed references to specifics from 5 years ago. Any changes to the original piece, I noted or italicized. I started this effort, thinking that it would hammer home the brutal truth that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And it did. The horror is the same, the helplessness is the same, the anger is the same. But I had forgotten about hope. It hasn’t changed either. I was grateful to be reminded.]
I often think about the power of breath. As a singer, breathing is as close to life and death as one can get to actual life and death. Breathing life into a phrase is no metaphor. The perfect exhalation animates a lifeless passage and sends it scampering into the hearts of those who listen. It is the difference between applause and silence, between being carried aloft or crashing, gasping to earth. And so my mind is sometimes caught in the rhythm of my lungs. The rise, the fall, the inhale, the exhale, the awareness of air as it is taken in and expelled.
Breath communicates in a thousand tiny ways. A sigh of contentment, a gasp of surprise, a susurration of the zeitgeist. It is the bellows of the soul and the wings that unfurl with every heartbeat. It is life itself made manifest. [Three sentences removed]
[New section] And so it is with horror that I have watched the inexorable march of COVID-19 as first it crept and now barrels its way into every nook and cranny of the earth. This disease that steals our breath and before which we are powerless.
I live in Brooklyn, NY. The weight here of held breath could move the very needles on the barometric gauge, while the twin specters of death and fear lurk around every corner.
I often wake in the night, acutely aware of a change in breathing, terrified that a stuffy nose or a slight cough could signal an inevitable path towards suffocation. Whenever I speak with a loved one, even a slight clearing of the throat launches a barrage of questions, “Are you okay? Did you go out? Did you wear a mask? Did you remember to wash your hands?”
And the masks. Oh, Lord, the masks. Isn’t it the height of irony that we stifle our own breath to allow others theirs? And yet, we must, a tacit recognition and covenant that we hold each other’s lives in our hands.
The suppressed breath of millions is beginning to take its toll, however, with the heaviest price to the ferryman exacted from those who can least afford it. Black and brown communities, already bowing under payments to banks of racism and oppression, are now fracturing under suddenly imposed balloon payments, filled with the breath of the dead and dying.
We thought it couldn’t get worse.
[Two sentences removed and back to original piece]. It once again starts with echoes of “I can’t breathe.” And the anguish those three words bring to a nation. It builds into the suffocated gasps of lives cut short before they’ve had a chance to begin. For some, these past months and years have been one continual struggle for air, a clawing at throats to open passageways clogged by ignorance and hatred. For others, it has simply been a passage of time. Do they not feel the chokehold around our necks? Do they not feel our lungs, laboring to draw air as our hearts pump out the last drops of blood around bullet holes perforating our bodies? Do they not smell the stench born of the hopelessness of millions disenfranchised?
We hold our breath in fear. We drown in our own blood and the blood of others gunned down with no more thought than the swatting of a gnat. We are like children pulling the covers over our heads, in the hope that the monsters will go away. But the monsters hold all of the power, and they tug away our blankets and steal our breath.
But what happens when we reclaim the power of breath denied? What happens when we take the gasps of a dying man or the tainted air of overwhelmed hospitals and let it fill our lungs? Does it roil within us, infecting each cell with pain and hopelessness, or does it become an alchemist’s crucible, transforming pain into hope, hopelessness into purpose?
Breath does not exist in a vacuum. It operates in partnership with the myriad gifts of our selves. The heart that feels, the brain that thinks, the foot that marches, the hand that writes, all collaborators in our pursuit of peace and justice.
How then do we harness the power of those collaborators to achieve our goals? [Sentence removed]
Some of us will raise our voices to be heard above the din. Others will sing or dance or sculpt or write to capture this moment so it won’t be forgotten. Some will gather data to underpin our strategies. Still others will take to the streets and march in solidarity. Many will sit in offices and write papers and grants that will change a life or two. Or millions. Others will gather in conference rooms, at lunch tables, or in arenas and tell of what they’ve heard. Within each one of us is the seed of change. We simply have to recognize it within ourselves or in someone else and shine a light on it.
As I isolate in the safety of my home, the weight of the lives lost and squandered sits on me as a yoke, but something else begins to manifest itself as well. The last few days have been spent in communion with a network of people who bring brilliance, grief, joy, and, most importantly, humanity to the table. Our collective breath strums throats, made raw by the screams of the past, to become, instead, cries to action, to solidarity, to (r)evolution. We are reminded time and again that we are the instruments of change and that through the grace of our humanity we have the power to shape the world into what it was always meant to be. It is our mandate then to maintain, nurture, and spread the hope that was born from our gathering until it grows large enough to heal the wounds we have suffered.
And through it all, we breathe.
Rest in peace, George Floyd.