Several years ago - WAY too many to count since I would most certainly be dating myself - I lived as an undergraduate student in London. Standing at six feet even in stocking feet my young 20 year old self was not a Neil Simon ingenue - unless the casting director had a perverse sense of humor. Lady Macbeth, Regan or Goneril, Titania - these were roles meant for me. I was too young for them, sure, but I knew one day I would grow into such roles. A two semester long immersion in Classical Acting seemed a good bet.
The thing I love about Classical Acting is it focuses on the breath. By inhaling and exhaling deeply you let every consonant and syllable of verse wash over you until the essence of each character is fully alive in your veins. I know, I know, actor speak but bear with me. Half way through my first semester, tragedy struck a family very close to mine. This was my sister's best friend, the kids I grew up babysitting, the house we went to nearly every weekend. In a split second all sense of order and reason in the universe was instantly turned on its head. I opened my mouth to inhale.... and nothing happened.
I spent the next two weeks walking around in a daze. I held onto my breath, a bundle of constant tension every where I went. My instructors tried to help. My acting partners tried to help. But still I held my breath.
One evening at 2:00 AM I made my way to St. John's on Hyde Park Crescent. I had gone to St. John's only a couple of Sundays - I am a cradle Episcopalian after all - but it was Holy Week and I had signed up to "keep watch" between the hours of 2:00 AM - 5:00 AM.
Inside the church was utterly quiet, dimly lit with only a few candles. In the chapel two women sat silently watching the candles. I took off my shoes and joined them on the floor. I stared straight ahead. We stayed like that for maybe an hour when one of them turned to me, breaking the evening vow of silence, and said, "you know, it's okay to breathe."
For the first time in days I took a deep breath. Out went the tension. In came the emotions. Tears poured from me. The woman took my hand and smiled. We sat like that for the next two hours, silently keeping watch and breathing.
Since our return home from China I find myself holding my breath a lot. I hold it during doctors visits. I hold it during adjustment and attachment flare-ups. I hold my breath doing laundry and putting away toys, my laptop admonishing me from its dusty corner.
"It's okay to breathe" I repeat to myself all these years later. "It's okay to breathe." I wait a moment. Take a deep breath in.... and ever so slowly exhale.