Don’t Forget To Breathe!

By Michal John

I have been complaining.  Mostly about my mundane life.  I get up and force myself to exercise . . . meditate . . . eat . . . I eat all the time.  As if filling up with food takes the place of a legitimate activity.  I watch television to pass the time and play monotonous, mind numbing games on my computer.  I find myself turning into a dullard.  I want to paint.  But my desk is so cluttered I can’t reach the surface.  I try to clean it off.  But when I’ve almost successfully managed it, I find myself, somehow, right in the middle of a new project that provides the desk with its customary camouflage of clutter once again.  I question my motives and hear a faint screaming in the back of my head; if I do not start to paint I won’t be reminded that I don’t paint well.  My desire to paint is much grander than the reality of holding the brush and making something of it.

My project for the day, determinedly, was to paint.  Once I had successfully cleared the surface of my desk.  During the clearing of the last few things from the desk top I happened to open the top right hand desk drawer and realized I had never cleared it out and organized it since the desk’s arrival to my workshop (a very worthy and distracting project to keep reality at bay.)  The job went all too quickly until I reached the back of the drawer where I found a bevy of old 5X7 ruled notebooks.  They were my little mundane diaries of daily activities from the past several years.  I am loath to throw them away. 

I remember all too well holding similar papers written by my Mother after she died.  I remember staring at her papers, many just scraps of paper, which held the last physical form of my Mother that I could hold on to . . . touch . . . nothing more than her handwriting.  I read them all at first.  Then I just glanced over what she wrote.  There were so many.  Then I threw them away for her.  It was awful to throw my Mother away like that.  It was wonderful to see her on a piece of scratch paper; a passing thought, a written church lesson, a recipe, a grocery list. 

I was saving my notebooks for the child who would clean out my things after I died.  I stared at the notebooks for a long time and decided to save that child the trouble and throw them away myself.  But I knew I would have to turn each page before I could throw them unceremoniously into the trash sack.  I did.  I turned each page.  I saw so much mundane activity: 

October 16, 2000

Goals for the end of the year

1.  Floss….


Another notebook, another page . . .


Shopping List

3 lemons

Italian tomatoes

green peppers

Vidalia onions



(Same notebook)


May 9

1-hoses for raised beds

2-fertilize strawberries

3-clean master bedroom…


 Another notebook

 Saturday, February 23



3-straw gone

4-Isidrio: cut down weeds, manure moved, move trash can to hay barn


6-Buy ice cream toppings

7-ride horse

8-water plants

9-clean patio

Menus and recipes filled the pages.  Holiday menus, holiday shopping lists, holiday parties, planning for trips to London, Denmark, Sweden, everyday chores, hopes, plans.  Every day life, documented, keeping my life busy, active, mindless, efficient, hopeful, so many things were not checked off, (usually the fun things.)  But I doggedly turned each page and a busy life unfolded itself.   A life seeking activity.  No, I questioned myself, perhaps activity seeking to prevent real life.  Or worse still, this was real life trying so hard to stay busy in order to prevent feeling or really seeing life.  Or perhaps the filled pages just made my life seem more important than it really was.  I saw fads come and go . . . all on paper. Diets, exercise plans, food plans, thoughts, all reduced to scribbles on ruled paper. 

The pages started shouting at me, taunting me, yelling out…”Wasted life!” but I kept turning the pages, I knew what I was looking for.  Each page must be turned and scanned regardless of the ugly truths they were hurling up at me.  The page I was looking for started out benignly enough:


Price Club

paper towels

Danish, Frosted Mini Wheat’s


then there were unfamiliar names and out of state phone numbers:


Jorge Palmo, 212-8287049

Edward Z. 203-222-7712

I turned the page and gasped.  I couldn’t help myself, the words, written heavier than the Price Club list on the previous page, darker than the names and phone numbers.  They were heavy, dark, bold, deliberate:


5 days-hung herself

25th precinct, case number M99-3320

Detective Joseph Parisella

medical examiner, cause of death

release to family, funeral home, funeral Hugh Reed, Manhattan

Cremated, Upper West Side. 


I tore the pages out.  I don’t know what I intend to do with them, but I will not throw them out. This list of words is unlike the other lists; the other pages.   They were painfully written without hope . . . in a stupor.  This list tells me how my sister ended her life; far away inside her prepared, nearly empty apartment in Spanish Harlem. 

The pages glare up at me, honest and accusing, “Your life may be mundane but you are living.  Quit whining and do something with whatever life you have left.  Get up.  Do something.  Do nothing, but don’t write anything down to accuse you later.  Don’t be busy.  Do think, ponder, listen to music, read a good book.  Go for a walk.  Finish cleaning out the desk drawer so you can paint.  Smile.  Hug your grandchildren.  Laugh out loud.  Look at the sunset and then watch the sun rise.  Watch the moon in all its phases.  Work in dirt, play in the water, cook good food.”  And in the last words my sister wrote to me in November 1998, “Don’t forget to breathe.”


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