The words are ringing across the world, searing our hearts in sorrow. “I can’t breathe.” The rising up of people everywhere –from Havre, Montana, to New York City–is a magnificent breathing of unity, a demand for justice, for equal rights, and with one inspiring exhale to say, “Black lives matter!”
Breathing is difficult for my elderly mother in her retirement community in Maryland. This evening, I prepare to fly back to be with her as much as possible during this time of Covid-19 restrictions. I live in a duality of crisis–the large-scale calls for change and my personal sadness.
On that big stage level, I’m breathless with admiration of the brave people who are risking their lives –wearing masks and knowing that Covid-19 kills by taking your breath away. Passionate demonstrations are leading to practical reforms in police departments, and an awakening of all of us to the urgent need to end racism, and to vote in November.
My mother’s heart is slowing down. She’s frail and small. Her mind wanders. I call and soothe her with stories of the family dog Gina, the way our Dad would always say, “What a good dog!” –a favorite retelling she shares with me often when I’m out walking with our dog, Pepper. She says she loves me, and I love her back and she falls asleep. I feel her gentle smile, and her breathing is peaceful.
Breathing. Natural. What keeps us alive. As a naturalist writer, I can’t help but extend the words of “I can’t breathe” to the trees that are the lungs of the planet. I feel their cries as the biggest ones fall to the chainsaw. I see hope for merging the voices for racial justice with tree and climate justice, as I experienced when my niece Anna and I marched with tens of thousands of people in April, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
My mother and I marched side by side protesting the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, when I was in seventh grade, right behind people raising their fists and shouting, “Attica means, Fight Back!” My parents spoke up and acted for fair housing, for the end of segregation, for environmental laws, and for civil rights. My two brothers and I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary, to Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Joan Baez. Our spirited dinnertime conversations would range from voting and civil rights to overpopulation, birds, and sports. I’m grateful for my upbringing.
Here’s to my mother, Catherine Richie. I’m ready to breathe with her.