Freedom of Breath

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I’ll be half a century old soon. It’s a lovely Spring afternoon on a college campus in the Rocky Mountains, and that reality is hammered home as I wander with my student son among other 20-somethings. They carry stacks of books from their biochem lecture, through the art gallery and up the stairs to a quiet corner where they’ll meet someone to cuddle or text unbothered.

Most do this with abundant spring in their step. Some, who are less fortunate, have spring in their lungs. Pollen has made their allergies or asthma a nuisance or worse. These people can still enjoy a distant sunset, but the pollinating trees in the foreground may strike them as sinister because they represent suffering too.

Not to me, not anymore. This wasn’t always the case though.

I grew up bucking bales on a farm in Arizona. During hay harvest I’d be up to my bloodshot eyes in cottonwood pollen that settled from thirsty trees that line muddy ditches on our family farm. A baling machine ingests dusty alfalfa stalks and chews on them until it decides the wad is adequately shaped like a stubby coffin. Then it spits it out on to the hard furrowed soil, disgusted at the taste but pleased with the geometry. If I picked it up and put it on the trailer, the farmer told me I’d get ten cents. What he meant was that he’d pay ten cents a bale and leave it to three greedy teenagers to split that dime equally between them.

The baling machine and the farmer may have been pleased with themselves. I was too hot, itchy and dripping in nose goo to be pleased with anything. I overlapped the cuff of my long-sleeved shirt with the opening of my glove and ceremoniously wrapped it shut with a few passes of duct tape. I felt like a boxer preparing for a big title fight.

Indeed, I was. It was going to be a fight to fill my lungs with air, and the title was Try to Breath, I Dare You.

Now I mostly work at a computer, where I’m more likely to develop carpal tunnel syndrome than I am to suck wind. Sometimes I hang out with my son on campus. There’s no gasping, no hives, and I don’t have to split the dime with the other dummies.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of breath. That’s happiness.