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14 April 2020

Breathing, Feeling

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I have stopped reading the news. I have stopped browsing most of my Twitter feed. I do not know how many people died in which countries today. I do not know which country is trying a new approach and which politician is discovering things that scientists seemed to have known for months. The noise and spectacle from the world outside the bubble of my London flat pulls me into a pit of darkness. I have turned it off. Instead, I brown butter for madeleines. I see my clients and my colleagues and my family on zoom. I write and erase, write and erase. I play cards with my kids. I lie awake at night, deploying meditation strategies like a ninja master to keep the monstrous questions from defeating my sleep. I read Proust, who, like me, searches for lost time.

I have wondered whether I am pulling into a cocoon of my own making. Physically distant from others, sheltering from the news, pattering between my study on one floor and the kitchen on the next, sometimes I feel like pulling the covers over my head and waiting for the pandemic to be over. There are times when I crave hibernation, when I crave ignorance, when I crave numbness.

But I have come to realize that it is not the pain of the world that I am trying to eliminate. I am not trying to shelter away from reality, from the genuine anxiety for myself and my fellow humans. I’m trying to eliminate the unhelpful amplification of these things that I find in the newspapers and in the curated newsfeeds on Twitter. Somehow my body metabolizes the news the way it metabolizes a Twinkie—all sugar and processed flavors that amp up my system without giving me any nourishment. I do not want to be thrown around by the latest statistics. I do not want to feel myself manipulated by the constant grind of the hourly news cycle. But I do not want to disappear from this pivotal moment in human sensemaking, in human emotion.

I do not want to numb myself from the genuine experience of what it is to be alive right now. There is so much life in my life, now that some of the busyness and all of the travel has died away. There is so much experience, now that the thing I am experiencing is fundamentally now and not lost in the past or headed towards some imagined future. There is so much pain in the world around us, so much beauty, so much immediacy of life and death. A client weeps as he talks about the death of a family friend; another client’s eyes fill with tears of gratitude because no one she knows is critically ill. Most calls start with a health and well-being check that would have seemed laughable just two months ago. Leaders would have been incredulous, “A round where we just ask people how they are feeling?” And now this is life.

There’s a way this awakens us to what should always have been. We should always weep with gratitude that no one we know is critically ill. We should always sit with each other in grief at the loss of a family friend.  We should always check first about whether people are safe and well, whether their families are safe and well. Some of what we are learning we should have always known.

This is not to suggest that this is an ordinary time. People have died, are dying. Hundreds of thousands will die. None of us is untouchable; none of us will be untouched. Breath—this miracle that connects us to life and to one another—is a struggle, and for some is impossible. Rolls Royce has stopped making its extraordinarily expensive cars and is switching to ventilators; now the most prized machine in the world is the one that does what our lungs normally do by themselves without our even noticing, without our ordinary thanks.

The breath of the economy, the inhale of need or desire and the exhale of goods and services, is also halted, halting. The lifeforce of capitalism might be corrupt, but it is all that we know, and it is on its own life support, the financial drip of governments around the globe trying to save the patient in critical care. Our actual lives are at risk, our livelihoods are at risk, and our sense of ourselves is at risk in this moment.

I do not want to be numb in the global face of the pain and fear of millions, in the local anxiety at my own diary, full for a year and now emptied out in a moment. But I also cannot metabolize the global flood of pain and anxiety and my own at the same time. I could not stand the Twinkie, but I also cannot eat the entire buffet of grief and loss. I feel it flood my system as I let in the enormity of it, as I feel my fear amplifying the fear of the world, as I feel my grief flood me for the world—my tears are always so close to the surface these days. Sometimes I’m not even sure why. There are times when I want to dive into a trashy novel, mindlessly click on cat videos, turn to a different sort of Twinkie, a different kind of numbing.

Instead I am practicing feeling the full range of my emotions. This sounds absurd—do we really need the practice? —but right now I have bigger emotions in a day than I might have had in a month before. I feel grief and gratitude in the early morning before taking Aria to the dog park, feel panic and calm before breakfast. I sense in myself the aliveness of this moment. I have less to do and more to notice.

Michael walks into the kitchen and I am staring out the window. The huge tree in the backyard is still bare even though spring blossoms have come and gone on its neighbors. I can almost hear it stirring, letting us know that it is investing its energy in the dinner-plate sized leaves that will burst into green in the next weeks. What is the emotion I feel? I can’t place it. Not quite anticipation—my relationship to anticipation is also fractured these days, the cracks of horror and the cracks of hope pulling great chunks from the emotional basin that used to hold a tingle of delight or tinge of worry. Not quite peace—there is too much difficulty in the world to find real peace in this moment, the buzz of anxiety is the constant white noise under my emotional state. I am clear about what it is not, though: It is not numbness. It is not gorging on despair or hiding from it. It is living. It is preparing for whatever the Jennifer version of dinnerplate-sized leaves might be for the next season of who I might become. I will not be the same then. None of us will be. But I will know more about how to be alive. Perhaps this is what hope means in the time of Covid 19.

(and for today, a poem from Mary Oliver who has taught me so much about breathing and feeling)


Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not

go any closer to grief

without dying


I went closer,

and I did not die.

Surely God

had His hand in this,


as well as friends. 

I was bent,

and my laughter,

as the poet said,


was nowhere to be found.

Then said my friend Daniel

(brave even among lions),

“It’s not the weight you carry


but how you carry it—

books, bricks, grief—

it’s all in the way

you embrace it, balance

it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,

put it down.”

So I went practicing.

Have you noticed?


Have you heard

the laughter

that comes, now and again,

out of my startled mouth?


How I linger

to admire, admire, admire

the things of this world

that are kind, and maybe


also troubled—

roses in the wind,

the sea geese on the steep waves,

a love

to which there is no reply?

One thought on “Breathing, Feeling”

  1. Jane Jones says:

    Wow. That is beautifully put. Thank you for the time and emotion you poured into this.

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