"Breath is Action" by Eric Tran

Eric Tran

Eric Tran

Eric Tran is a queer Vietnamese writer and a resident physician in psychiatry in Asheville, NC, where he is also an associate editor at Orison Books. His debut book of poems, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer, won the Autumn House Press Emerging Writer's contest. He is also the author of the chapbooks Revisions and Affairs with Men in Suits. His work has been featured in Poetry Daily and Best of the Net and appears or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Iowa Review, 32 Poems, and elsewhere.

Breath is an Action

When quarantine started, I picked up running. Cliché, I know, but awful for me as well. I thought myself in shape, but lifting weights has only made my bones dense and married to inertia. For all I thought my fitness afforded me, my feet clod barely a mile until my smoked-out lungs begged me to stop. I doubled over, panicked and breathless.

More hot, airless anxiety when I first wore an N-95 to work at the hospital. I was grateful for the mask’s protection, but it exposed my voice as humid dank. Quiet, shouting through the filter—the volume of a nightmare. My body knew breath but couldn’t taste it, so didn’t register it. Like holding my breath across a bridge. Or plunged underwater. Breath—vital and taken for granted.

It is summer 2020 and of course I’m writing about Coronavirus, which can bloody lungs and force people onto ventilators. Of course, I am writing about police and vigilante murders of Black Americans. Of course, to kill is to rob of breath. Our bodies fill with breath finitely. Let’s be direct with our precious lot.

Coronavirus turned my apartment, the smallest I’ve lived in, into my office. All day I saw patients via telehealth. After work I wanted, as the cliché goes, a breath of fresh air. As I’m sure did Christian Cooper, who was birding in Central Park when a white woman called the police (another cliché). In the recoding of the event, she clearly wants to orchestrate violence. We know, for no reason of biology, that Coronavirus kills Black people twice the rate of white people in the United States. To have or avoid Coronavirus is unequal. It’s obvious that breath is universal and implicit that it is a privilege.

Ahmaud Arbery was jogging, which, as we’ve covered, demands immense breathwork. Breonna Taylor was sleeping, a rhythmic tidal of air. Some of Eric Gardner, Elijah McClain, George Floyd’s—and so many others’—last words were “I can’t breathe.” In 2020, according to the New York Times, 70 people said this while dying in police custody. Protestors chant it during demonstrations because breath becomes power.

I’m a resident physician, specifically in psychiatry, and have learned to bisect the nervous system. The sympathetic system, fight or flight, focuses on survival, quickens and shortens breath, can flatten it to almost nothing. See: panic attacks. The parasympathetic system lives in long exhalation. Rest and digest, where the body builds, acknowledges its vulnerability, is how stress becomes progress. I’ve spent a decade learning how to fight for quantity and quality of life. When I read about another murder of a Black American, sometimes I cry for the futility of medicine. Why do useless work? Choking, frustrating sobs—which system is this? I ask not for sympathy but parasympathy.

Early in my medical training I met a woman who hadn’t left her house in decades. In the office she fixated on the exit, her breath quick and shallow like rain. I asked her to practice breathing with me: four seconds deep inhale, an exhale just a second longer. The pace of a fist relaxing. Her eyes mooned more in panic. What she might have seen: a devil’s offer, a stranger who tells her to stop breathing. What good and ignorant intention.

Again and again I watch police tear gas people protesting police violence. I might focus on the irony if my friends and I hadn’t been in those shoes when we were younger. In protest, we laid our soft bodies in traffic intersections. When my friends go to protests as participants or as medics I ask them to be safe, as if we have more than minimal agency in this. Still, I say Go as far as your breath will let you.

Breathing during my runs became easier when, to put it simply, I finally let myself breathe. Slowed my feet and my inhale. One mile became two became ten. How obvious and gratifying and effective to recognize breath as essential as light. And how infuriatingly simple that breathing can be forgotten, if not stolen. Ten miles sometimes becomes two again. I say I give myself breath and I also mean no one is trying to take it.

Many of my friends still demonstrate. But now we ask how we include social justice into the everyday, at work with patients, in our local political systems, with our families. I tell myself, pace the work as you breathe. Said again, every breath taken in justice, every breath committed to justice.

A writing professor told me to erase double breaks in my writing, that they excused the essay from needing a clear next step. Know what you want to say. A decade later, I still prize this movement. I call it breath, how the reader (and writer) can heal, reflect, plan a next move, pray. With breath comes action. We all have a quota of breath, but some of us more than others. This is exactly what I want to say, how I want to breathe: We with more must do more.

Early in my medical training and as recently as last week, a Black woman told me I have no idea what it’s like to be a Black woman. Of course I don’t. I commit myself to racial justice work and think each day how I may be better at it and even that is not enough to know what it’s like. With each woman, no immediate response seemed sufficient. But silence does not tie me to inaction. Pause, another form of breath.

I’ve wanted to delete this essay multiple times because I’m not arguing anything new. What, if anything, is new? Is not a cycle we return to, hopefully different? More breath than cliché. More directly: Who needs me to say any of this? But I don’t mean to write further than my breath allows, any further than myself. Rather to myself, to those who are myself. If you are tired or burning out, take a breath and then move again. If you are afraid to do anything, we all are—take a breath and do it. Work where you breathe.

Most directly: Breathe justice with a mask. Breathe at home or distant unless necessary. Demonstrate breath, however possible, when necessary. Breath as calling demands for defunding, for review, for reform and equity. Read breath. Donate breath. Breathe, distantly yet intimately, with family. With friends, co-workers, strangers, lovers. Alone, when you’re the only one who knows your breath is there.