Learning to Exhale

It’s mid-July. I sit alone in my new house for the first time. The carpenters, painters, and electricians who are renovating it have left for the day. A light shining through the exposed floorboards extends two floors below. Overhead wires dangle. Outside, remnants of the house spill over the sides of two dumpsters. Amidst the dust and heat, I savour a moment I had long only imagined.

Closing my eyes, I take a deep breath. Then another. Each exhale carries away my stress and exhaustion.

I think about how, after the debris is removed, the tradesmen will mould, shape and reconfigure the house. That over the next four months, it will receive freshly painted walls, glistening flooring and stoneface, and modern light fixtures. The house will become the home I’ve long envisioned.

The renovation project is more than structural. Its processes mirror a deeply personal sort of demolition occurring within me—the taking apart, looking inside, and getting rid of past hurt and pain. Rebuilding from the ground up. A fresh start paid for with toil, sweat, and tears. On a deeper level, it is about pulling personal wellness from the debris and residue of my former life.

Thinking about the day my real estate agent and I first stood here, I recall looking past the old, worn and outdated, instead focusing on what could be. I loved the architecture and visualized its potential.

Too often, when we Iook at things, we focus on what needs fixing, removing or changing. Seeing only defects and deficits, thinking the tasks-at-hand overwhelming, we walk away. This hesitancy is why we, literally and figuratively, hold our breath. Stuck in the space between inhaling and exhaling. Choking on opportunities. Drowning on emotion, we leave words unsaid. Suffocating from stress and anxiety, we can’t step forward. If only, like with the house, we would take time to see the inherent potential in things. Surely doors of opportunity would open for all of us and we could open them for others.

For me, holding my breath has a familiar pattern. I wait for “the other shoe to drop”. Stall until a perfect moment arrives. Let the monotony of daily life kill dreams and aspirations. Focusing on what could go wrong, instead of looking for what might go right. Leaving the potential hostage between the inhale and exhale.

On average, people survive no more than three minutes without breathing. Arguably, many dreams and aspirations die when we don’t exhale what is holding us back. Sometimes we are surviving but not really living.

I have come to see that much of my life has been spent not breathing. Not taking the next step. Stockpiling emotions and events. Keeping the new out. Putting life on hold. Storing memories deep inside. Never letting go completely. It’s time to start exhaling.

To that end, I have begun putting my house in order. For my physical spaces, I now have keep and throw away piles. For my internal spaces, I am purging emotional baggage. Professionally, I am considering which of my beliefs are stale and need to be replaced and searching for ways to enhance my classroom practice. My considerations have shown me that it is time for me to move onto something new next year. Personally, I need to acknowledge and embrace my potential for more. Recognizing the areas of my life that need improvement. Determining what I really want. Letting go of the past so new people and experiences will emerge.

As an educator of exceptional students, much of my work involves teaching students to exhale. For them, exhaling involves much more than using the breathing techniques associated with our SEL practices. These students need to exhale. To cast away self-doubts, preconceived notions, learned helplessness, stress, and anxiety. To create a proper space in which to learn and grow. For this to happen, each student must have a reframed concept of what it means to be a learner. To find peace, calm and strength in what I create with them and become mentally healthy. 

I am reminded of our Ottawa Catholic School Board three-year theme: “Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). In order to live true to these words, I must remove the barriers that exist in my service to others. Part of seeking justice means breaking down barriers. Sometimes those barriers exist within us.

Exhaling is a sign of life. Each exhale is a step forward. A rejection of the traditional and status quo. A clearing of the way for inhaling fresh opportunities. The final act of life is an exhale. 

In this spirit, I commit to giving freely without expectation or attachment. To seek justice, where justice is needed. To break down stereotypes and stigmas when I encounter them. To speak up for those with no voice and encourage those who have a voice to use it wisely. Using each breath to live life intentionally, without regret. This means clearing the debris and ridding myself of what prevents me to move forward. To live a life of service means exhaling the entrapments of self. Truly learning to give without expectation of anything in return. In the words of Albert Einstein:

Our task must be to free

ourselves by widening

our circle of compassion

to embrace all humanity

and the whole of nature

and it’s beauty.

As I write, it is minus 32-degrees outside. Exhaling into this cold Canadian day produces a frosty cloud, a visual reminder of that which is exhaled that raises this question. If we could see what we exhale, would we choose to exhale sooner?

I know I would. How about you?