The breath of the mind is attention.—Joseph Joubert, The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert
In with the good air, out with the bad. In with the good air, out with the bad. One thousand and one, one thousand and two. One thousand and one, one thousand and two. Push down on the back, lift up with the arms. However we chanted to ourselves, this was how we learned what they then called artifical respiration. How to save someone who had drowned. Push, then lift. Push, then lift. This was not CPR. No lips met other lips. One thousand and one. We went on counting as we practiced bringing breath back to the body before us.
It’s been forty-five years since that one bout with pneumonia—the one where I drowned without drowning. There was no cough, just the sledgehammer of pressure, the ache in the lungs. And the fever. For days I saw things on the bedroom wall, like a movie playing over and over. The soldiers rose in unison and walked into the swamp. In unison, their heads disappeared beneath the sluggish water. And then, as [End Page 1] though I were there, under water with them, I stared as their hair began to swirl and float, like seaweed, among the seaweed. This was the era of Vietnam. This was the terror: that it was beautiful. That their hair made intricate patterns on the wallpaper.
“Help me!” I shouted. “Me ajuda,” I called, in the world’s worst Portuguese. No one moved. And there he was—a body grown heavy the more he was out of the water, and I was struggling to haul him the last few feet onto the sand. “Me ajuda,” but no one helped as I pummeled his back and lifted his arms and counted my count until suddenly he sputtered and spit and my job was over. I looked up at the circle of people who stood there with candles at the ready—to light if he didn’t make it—looked up to see who had made no move even to help me drag him beyond the waves. Yet they had candles. What kind of faith in fate did they share?
I see her now—there on that beach—that young woman I used to be. The minute she hears the cry from beyond the breakers, she begins to run. She doesn’t think. She just runs. And by the time she reaches the water, the two men who were trying to save their friend are lying half in, half out, exhausted, chests heaving. So she wades in and struggles to drag the man a few inches forward, a few inches more into the air that surrounds them all. She tugs and pushes, and no one steps forward. No one wants to touch this man who has forgotten how to breathe.
If the breath of the mind is attention, then what is the breath of the body? The autonomic inhale/exhale that tugs at the air as though it were self-sufficient? And it is: in, then out, fill, then empty, over and over, without thought. You hardly notice the slight rise of the chest, the twitch of the nose. The prodigious body at work, attending to nothing more than its essential needs.
If the breath of the body is behind-the-scenes, then attention brings the scene to the forefront. What is attention but a complete entry into [End Page 2] the here and now? The present moment, lived to its fullness? There are people capable of that, but I am not one of them. It seems to me that I live so often in future tense—that my focus on the future determines what I notice in the present. And, already, I find myself planning for how—in that future—I will remember this present. Which thrusts me into a premature past, a future memory. But what are we without memory? Doesn’t memory shape what we become?
Where was her husband? Back with the boys, far up the beach, shielding them from what they might have to face. And what did she notice? The...