by Victoria Thomas
There have been three words on everybody’s lips for the past two weeks (and for the truly woke, much longer): “I Can’t Breathe.” Not to entangle you in politics, gentle reader, but there is no escape.
The criminal murder of George Floyd has brought those words into play again during the past two weeks of heated and heavy political actions across our land. Even as Floyd is laid to rest, I find myself holding my breath, literally and figuratively.
The phrase first came into common usage with the murder of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died after being put in a choke-hold by police on July 17, 2014—an anniversary that’s coming right up.
Floyd’s offense was passing a counterfeit 20 dollar bill, and Garner’s transgression was even more trivial: selling a loosie, a loose untaxed cigarette, technically illegal to sell outside a pack or carton. Garner was pulled to the ground and put in a fatal choke-hold by officers. He repeated “I Can’t Breathe” eleven times before losing consciousness.
A long-running platitude in our society has been “Just breathe.” This cheery thought is especially popular among yoga practitioners and Kombucha SCOBY-wranglers. Because Lord knows, tensions run high when trying to reason with a slick, slimy, bubbling, hissing disc of primordial protoplasm, and coax the throbbing, slippery hockey-puck of bacteria and yeast into a sterilized mason jar for propagation.
These days, just breathing does indeed take on both political and existential nuance that I find exhausting.
But I want to inhale deeply to fully experience what is happening around me, and I want to fully release the contents of my lungs to cleanse my bloodstream and my psyche.
And yet, our attitudes around breathing are newly complicated, and not only by the use of force by police, but by the presence of COVID19.
Dr. Fauci tells us that a forceful expelling of breath – a cough, a sneeze, a good belly-laugh, the projection of a song from any less than 13 feet puts other people at risk. The 6-feet distancing being practiced is really only for those in complete command of their respiratory behaviors, and Fauci judges this distance inadequate for responsible contagion controls.
So just the thought of breathing in and breathing out brings with it an existential awareness that, if I’m breathing outside the bubble of my home, I’m potentially inhaling and exhaling the virus that will kill me and infect my loved ones.
Yes, I mask, yes I wash my hands with soap and water, yes I use hand sanitizer, yes I elbow-bump and double-wave, and it’s still a strange sensation as I breathe more deeply and slowly than usual behind my filtered face covering, like a scuba-diving Darth Vader.
I think about those who are infected by COVID19, and listen to their reports. They can’t breathe. They sometimes describe the sensation they experience as the virus proliferates as the feeling of the lungs filling up with marbles, or styrofoam packing peanuts, or ice crystals, tightly pressing into the space so that even a shallow gasp requires effort.
“Spirit” is derived from the Greek and Latin words meaning “to breathe”.
Cultures around the world use the word “breath” to mean the essence of life.
“Inspiration” means to “breathe in.”
“Perspiration”, as in busting a righteous, healthy sweat, means to “breathe through”, and we do, in fact, breathe through our skin.
“Conspire” means to “breathe with others,” perhaps in whispered secret scheming.
On the other side of the planet in the Hawai’ian language, the derogatory term “haole” used to identify mainlanders literally translates to “those with no breath.”
I will probably continue to take breathing for granted, unless my lungs are filled with deadly congestion, or a man presses his knee into my neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
But a big box of desert thunder and lightning has made me less cavalier.
Life goes on
I live in Los Angeles. I live here because I make my living as a writer, and there is action in LA. I‘m not a tweedy, leather-elbow-patches kind of writer. I write for fly-by-night websites, podcasts, and occasionally legit magazines, covering travel, science, pop culture, art, music and food, and these interests have taken me everywhere.
Things in Los Angeles were really heating up, literally and politically, when a huge, mysteriously aromatic package arrived at my home office last week. We locked our company doors in late February and have not returned, so the pad has been HQ for months.
Neurologists and behavioralists agree that fragrance activates early memories stored in the brain. For example, studies have demonstrated that infants, whose eyesight is naturally undeveloped in the first days of life (this is normal), can identify their mothers instantly on the basis of their maternal scent.
In fact, some therapists have reported success in treating traumatized individuals through the use of fragrances, eliciting suppressed memories to gain access to useful knowledge of the patient’s past and begin the healing process.
I had a similar rush when the box from Clear Light arrived. I didn’t even have to open it: the vibrant aroma of cedar greeted me as I lifted the package from the doormat.
I had an instant déjà vu. I was born in the Bronx, yo, and grew up in Brooklyn. The aroma rising out of the sealed box brought this to the surface: my first days at the University of Denver. I was a freshman, and a long way from home. The night air had quickly turned cold by September, and I had never seen so many stars, even there in the metro area of the Mile High City (I was soon to see so many more stars when I found myself on the 1-25 heading toward Albuquerque).
The night-air in Denver was piercingly clear, sharp and sweet, and I’ll never forget the perfume of that first winter, from the thousands of fireplaces offering their smoke to the sky each night. I felt cleansed and new just walking home through the dark from the bus and breathing it in.
These sensations—clarity, and sharp desert sweetness—came over me today as I dug into the huge box of Clear Light aromatics. The lift of cedar from the wrappings to the air to my olfactory bulb took a matter of seconds, and it’s nothing like the experience of being assailed by those cologne-squirters at a department store.
The cedar-based incense (sticks and classic logs), hand sanitizer, body lotion, individual spray-on essences (straight-up cedar, or combined with tobacco, lavender, saffron), balm pillow sachet, and a solid hanging room-freshener create a blast of, oddly enough, light and lightness in the senses. So radically different from the heaviness of what the fragrance industry historically calls “orientals,” meaning spicy scents with a lot of staying-power.
Conventional rich, heavy notes of amber and musk tend to stagnate as part of the dry-down, leaving their weightiness on clothing, furniture, bedding and the air in a closed room. For me, those classic orientals, with the realization that the term is not politically correct, remind me of a clinging house-guest with a patchouli-oil habit to cover body odor. A proper soap and water bath and a change of laundered clothes are the only way to neutralize the enemy.
The Clear Light signature aroma has the depth to qualify as “spicy”, but the effect is one of clearing, and cleansing. The funkier bass-notes are seemingly carried on a cold, clear, strong mountain wind, and hit your olfactory bulb in an experience as clean, fresh and bracing as any citrus or green fragrance, with an added earthy note.
Light at the end of the tunnel
It’s been a rough four months or so for the world, to put it mildly.
I can’t complain, although I lost my day job as a copywriter at the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, and my health insurance along with it.
Being a raggle-taggle writer sort as I described, the dogs bark, but the caravan rolls on.
The first thing I did was light the sage-smudge bundle that was included in the press kit. I let it rest and glow in an abalone shell I literally just happen to have on my desk. Believe it or not, when I first moved to Southern California from Denver after graduating from college, abalone shells littered the beaches here. Those days are no more. Occasionally, I meditate on all that this means.
I then cleansed my home work-space with the burning sage, and the net result was: nothing.
I mean that in a good way. The air smelled like clean laundry and clean water.
No lingering, fuzzy trails of scuzzy half-scent.
More like opening a window. Zen Buddhists would say this is the place of “no mind.” The room seems brighter, bigger, and lifted now.
I tucked the sachet under my bed pillow, and hung the air-freshener from the dresser drawer-pull.
Then I improvised this next idea.
I’m a walker, and I stopped going to salons for professional pedicures long before COVID19 closed them, because they generally are astonishingly unclean in the microbial sense (Windex won’t do it, folks), unsafe for both the clients and the minimum-wage workers who do the service of sudsing, scrubbing, pumicing, filing, nipping, clipping and grooming of millions of human feet and toenails.
As a result, the condition of my feet generally kind of suggests that I’ve been on assignment to cross Spain’s blazing Extremadura to visit the shrine of Santiago de Compostela, the legendary remains of St. James.
Well, actually, I have, along with the long Lenten pilgrimage to New Mexico’s Chimayo, always in search of miracles.
But not recently.
I have, however, just subjected my feet to some long, hot miles in the past 10 days, carrying the BLM message across Hollywood, to West Hollywood, to Hancock Park where Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti resides, and on into downtown Los Angeles to Grand Park, City Hall, and beyond.
This is my town.
My feet are genetically flat. My footwear: battered black Converse canvas high-tops, timeless American classics, but perhaps not the most supportive construction for walking long distances.
Yet they carried me through tone-y Santa Monica, and through the sea-breezy streets of Long Beach, where things got a little rough.
I crossed broad stretches of broken glass that glittered like the invisible stars overhead, hidden by the burning of hundreds of city fires.
There was smoke in the air on those nights, too. Not the same calming, clearing smoke of cedar described earlier.
So today, I treated myself to a technique which replaces the murky waters of the conventional salon pedicure-throne, notorious for their teeming populations of bacteria, yeasts, fungi, free-wheeling viruses, and…well, now we’ve re-entered bubbling SCOBY territory!
I soaked two white hand towels in plain water, wrung them out, then then misted each towel with Clear Light Cedar and Lavender essence.
Then I placed each towel in a large zip-lock baggie and zapped it in the microwave for one minute.
I also misted my feet with the same Clear Light Cedar and Lavender essence. The essences are oil-based, so there is a bit of slip and glide.
The towels were steaming, so I shook them out for a minute for a quick cool-down, then wrapped one around each prepared foot.
I parked my feet on a big towel on the ottoman.
Then I cracked open an icy-cold beer. Brand of your choice. And there it stands.
Has the virus left the earth?
It has not.
Has injustice left the earth?
It has not.
What can we do?
I’m not sure.But I intend to keep on walking, and just breathe.