–March 19, 2008 / Davenport, IA–
There’s a bonus video on this French CD I have. It shows a child smiling deep and running over perfect sunny green hills. After an idyllic day in the sun, she savors the last moments before shuffling off a movie set so the next kid gets a turn against the backdrop. “Il faut que tu respire,” the chorus– “it is necessary that you breathe” by my high school translation.
I found the video my freshman year of college, around the time that Steak and Shake was exhilarating and we were so sincere and jazzed in our unfolding. We swam through Descartes and apple Pucker the same as strip poker and multiple choice philosophy tests (gross).
Il faut que tu respire. I don’t know any of the other words, so its meaning is up to me. I think at the time, it said to me something about authenticity and society. I’ll bet I saw the world as content with that backdrop in the name of progress, sedated by technology, not truly alive or ’real’ or asking the important questions, and no one gets it but us because we wear Chuck Taylors from before they sold out to Nike.
The song served the exact purpose it should have to an 18-year-old, and it didn’t roll around again until the river dredged it up today. THE river. Huck’s river, right where it confuses everyone by flowing west.
I spend all day at a desk looking out over the water. I see hawks and boats and barges. And I watch the wind and current duke it out (they really do). But after a full day of look-don’t touch, I inhale none of it. So this year, daylight savings has been my Easter. And with the return of sunlight, I’ve set myself to spending some chunk of each day outside.
Cloudy damp today called for a ride along the river, and it seemed like everything on that path had gone white-flight on history. Like I was the first one to venture back and remember what old buildings used to mean. I passed the base of the arsenal bridge like a little Alcatraz lego. Then there are old brick mansions above old wooden benches and lots and lots of seagulls. And finally sailboats—there are actually sailboats!—before gray and gray lock together for a deliciously dreary opening out. I turned around to head home.
On the way back, a freight train. Slow behind me and the rails clattered and I rolled to let it lumber up and past me. The mighty Mississippi 20 feet to my left, just pouring along, with sailboats winking from under their tarps. 20 feet to my right, massive insect cars thundering along. And then little me, in this history river rail corridor, just treading the air in between.
I was so struck by this. I felt so skinny and small and smooth; I was sliding down a leaf. I opted to humbly reflect on this moment by, of course, seeing how long I could keep up alongside the train. a friendly race. the second blue bin car and I were besties on a casual Tuesday night spin, this playing in my head:
shoo away the swarms of commuter planes
and find that train ticket we lost
cuz once upon a time the line followed the river
and peeked into all the backyards
and the laundry was waving
the graffiti was teasing us
from brick walls and bridges
we were rolling over ridges
I dream of touring like duke Ellington
in my own railroad car
But getting into town, she sped up. And I switched gears. She sped up more. And I peddled harder. She started to really move. Her axles were dizzy, and the gravel kicked up, and the puddles sizzled as we raced and we raced and we raced and she kept getting faster. It had been at least a mile by now, and my knees were ungluing and I had lost blue. So I challenged the train’s tail: one final sprint to the arsenal bridge.
I pedaled, she thundered, I pedaled, she thundered, and I spun under the rusty shadow just as the last flatbed said it didn’t need me anymore. I made it. Raw lungs and all.
Il faut que tu respire. The French song plinked into my head like a friggen pillar of cloud as I slowed down. Shaky-legged and rubber puffing, I thought of breath and pulse, pulse and breath while I walked the few blocks back to my apartment. Respire as I laid on the floor to be patient with my heartbeat.
I took a bath that turned me pink; I drank clear water from a clear glass. I inhaled.
The song still speaks to me of authenticity, but this time around I am less concerned with the breaking of molds. Il faut que tu respire. To someone else, that necessary breath is probably calm or patience or reflection. For me, right now, that breath is full lungs against petty distraction. It is the river outside the office. It is the willingness to let the inanimate come to life, to engage with it, and to be changed by it.