The Braided Breath
Healing the vision of life on Earth
April 30, 2020
By: Jonee Kulman Brigham
People are sewing masks. They are doing it out of love for their fellow humans. The masks connect us by offering some degree of separation, in hopes of blocking virus droplets floating through the air. Whether between a grocery clerk and an elderly shopper, or a delivery person and a family of five. In this moment of isolated quarantine, our interconnection is made more visible by its withdrawal and restriction. Some people want a haircut--not just for style, but to feel caring hands on their head. Others almost touch their grandmother’s hands through the glass window of a nursing home on her birthday.
The pandemic trauma heightens our guard. Newspaper articles show an illustration of the cough cloud from a jogger, to the walker behind them. Is six feet apart enough to keep us from being six feet under? The potential connection is haunting – separation seems to be safety. But can we also see the gift of how the virus makes visible our united breath? How there is no barrier between the interior of one person and the interior of another? Our lungs are integrally linked in the ocean of air with all other lungs. Large lungs of the horse, small lungs of a robin. If the air were a creature, our body-wrapped lungs would be the clothes it wears on its fingers, laced through our nostrils, fulfilled as its oxygen dissolves in our blood to animate our limbs, as we almost touch hands.
The virus may be tragic, but it is also a teacher in systems thinking. Thích-Nhất-Hạnh writes about the concept of “interbeing.” He says that if you look into a sheet of paper, you can find the tree it was made of, and the sun and the rain that nurtured the tree as well as the logger who harvested it. We don’t see these things because our convenient supply chains normally hide them, so that we can focus on commodities of exchange. We buy a ream of paper as a discrete object, without much consciousness of the timber or the landfill or recycling facility. Yet a systems consciousness is creeping in, as “sustainably harvested” becomes an attribute of our paper, or we use a different bin to send the paper to a different destination downstream in its lifecycle.
As our supply chains are disrupted, will it increase our consciousness of interbeing? See the food plant worker in the meat? See the lungs of the nurse in our choice to wear a mask? See the asthma-ridden lungs of a child in poverty in our fuel purchases?
If the pandemic can increase our consciousness of interbeing, perhaps it will instill capacity for healing along with its damage. We are sick with coronavirus, but we are also sick with a broken paradigm: the illusion of our separateness. Our futures are intertwined with each other and all the planet’s life. We need to re-integrate our social and ecological body. Seeing our interwoven truth is healing.
In the quest for this healing, I wrote a poem six years ago for an Earth Day celebration:
The way to make a braid
is to pull strands from the edges
into the center, where they are held
by other strands, once outside,
--now in the flow
those strands, bound in by others,
are able, in return to hold new members.
We are born a braid
of mother and father, water and sky,
fruit and grain and sunlight,
all pulled in to lung and belly, heart and mind
woven into life.
And then, our life a strand,
is woven into others
bound into a community
--a braid of braids.
Braiding gathers many strands
and makes them one,
together strong, like fibers of a muscle
Earth has braided into us the gift of life.
What shall we braid back into her?
Brigham, Jonee Kulman. Braiding Together. Full Spring Studio, LLC, 2014.
Thich Nhat Hanh. “Interbeing.” Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, edited by Arnold Kotler, Bantam Books, 1991, pp. 95–96.
©Jonee Kulman Brigham