She is, as she says, “a young woman with old lungs.” As she talked, I thought about the generations of smokers in my family who trucked through the woods with clear lungs practically to the grave while some of the other members of our family who never lit up once go through life wheezing. She coughed and explained how cold, dry air is the enemy of an asthmatic person and how terrifying it is not to be able to take a full breath.
Oh, the things we easy breathers take for granted. Like air, for example. What a gift it is to be able to draw air into one’s lungs, day after day.
It is the season of miracles, and yet, this year, it’s impossible to avoid the images of police and protesters in major cities. We watch the news and struggle to understand how it’s possible to live in a country where, in 2014, there are places in the United States that are simply too dangerous to police. If we don’t live in one of those places, it’s particularly hard to grasp that such neighborhoods even exist.
Last summer, I attended the wedding of a former student of mine on the south side of Chicago and visited one of those neighborhoods. I took a cab from the hotel to the synagogue where the wedding and reception were to be held. It was a beautiful June day. It was also the first time I’d visited Chicago. The wedding reception went late into the evening and as I got ready to call a cab to leave, the groom asked one of his groomsmen to go outside and wait with me until my cab arrived. I kidded with him and told him that wasn’t necessary and that I could certainly take care of myself, but he insisted, telling me that it wasn’t safe for me to wait alone in his neighborhood.
Outside the temple, the soft-spoken young man in the tux explained that he’d grown up blocks from where we were. He’d left for college and worked closer to downtown but had recently moved back into his grandmother’s house in the neighborhood because she’d been robbed at gun point twice in the past year. The second time was a home invasion by teenagers with guns. As we waited together, we talked about what we do for the people we love to try to keep them safe. We talked about how, often, it is the people we think we can trust who hurt us the most. And we talked about the type of fear that can leave a grandson breathless.
And then, I think about all the conversations we really need to be having when it comes to race and class, poverty and fear. The awkward, clumsy conversations we are often afraid to have but should, if we are to begin to understand each others’ journeys. The conversations that make us hyperventilate because we don’t know where to begin. Because we are afraid, so afraid, of doing it wrong, saying it wrong, and then being labeled something we aren’t.
In this season of miracles, my prayer is that we all take a really deep breath. That we find our voices, and use our ears, and simply begin at the beginning.