Reflections on PCN from Donita Volkwijn

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 can communicate 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 and I am attuned to its patterns because for so long it has been my lifeblood. Is it any wonder, then, that I think about the breathing of my fellow attendees at the recent PolicyLink Equity Summit?  I remember writing a note to my colleague, "she's such a loud breather" about a woman sitting right behind me at my first session, "I think they can hear her breathe in New Jersey".

But a few weeks later, I still hear the breathing, like a distant relative of Poe's tale. No longer, however, the sound of one maligned soul, but the combined force of thousands. It starts with echoes of "I can't breathe" and the anguish those three words brought to a nation, and builds into the suffocated gasps of the lives cut short before they’ve had a chance to begin. For some, these past months/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 incarcerated?

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 stay and 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 fetid air of a prison yard and let it fill our lungs?  Does it roil within us, infecting each cell with pain and hopelessness, or does it act as an alchemist’s crucible and change pain into hope, hopelessness into purpose?  It must be the latter.

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?  By any means necessary.  Some of us will raise our voices to be heard above the din. Some will gather data to underpin our voices.  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 ourselves or in someone else and shine a light on it.  

As I sat in the sessions at the Summit, yes, the weight of the lives lost and squandered weighed on me as a yoke, but something else began to manifest as well. I felt hope arise in the company around me and our collective breath strummed throats, made raw by the screams of the past, to become, instead, cries of recognition, exclamations of joy, and roars of approval.  We were 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.

|Donita Volkwijn