Breath and Story

by Karen Haffey, Collecting Loss catalogue essay, November 2012

______________________________I’ve grown to love stories and breath and the space inside of me where these two meet.

Stories are how we tell ourselves to our self and each other. Stories can give breath and breadth to life. Stories need to breathe.

Perhaps especially the stories about people we love who die. Because when we collect loss inside ourselves and allow dust to settle around it, a story can begin telling us instead of us telling it.

By listening deeply, I’ve discovered that the meeting of stories and breath is vital for new stories to grow. This process of discovery began early one bright autumn morning in 2007. when I sat down on the polished hardwood floor in the breaker of the main room of the apartment where I lived. I spread all the Collecting Loss tories out around me: more than 100 lives remembered. The room was full.

I wasn’t thinking about things through the act of breathing or the metaphor of breath. I just knew I wanted to honour the dead and offer something new to the living.

In the days and weeks that followed that autumn morning, I spent time with each story. It became a mourning ritual, different from any I had known before, in which I sate quietly holding a story in my hands, saying aloud the name of the person being remembered, and inviting their spirit to guid me as I read the story. I asked to be guided to the parts of each story which most needed to come to light. Slowly I waded through the sorrow, sadness, celebration, joy; I followed the rise and fall of these emotions in the stories and in myself, carefully culling precious bits that would be used in various ways throughout the project, including on the pages of this book.

A larger window into story began to open. In this poignant collecting I could see how intricately stories weave us in and thought each others’ lives. I held in my hands deeply nuanced individual stories; shared expressions of how the death of one person was being lived by another. How beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking, to see death and life, grief and breath, so closely knit together.

And for me through grief came breath.

During the summer of 2010, I uncovered pulmonary fibrosis in both of my lungs. With the information that my lung function was deteriorating, breath became more precious.

Following countless inhalations and exhalations, I grew more acutely aware of the stories I was telling myself. As though my breath was a gateway to the places my innermost stories lived. When I focused on my breath some distance grew between me and my stories, I could really listen.

There were a lot of old, sad stories.

Continuing to follow my breath and listening, I spent time in this place where breath and story seemed to meet. I noticed what was happening side of me when I told this or that story. Feelings, sensations, thoughts, impulses. Whether I was nourished or depleted by a particular rendering. I saw more clearly that I had choices about how I related to the facts in any given story I might tell. It will never change that I have two siblings who died. What can change, perhaps with time, age, a safe container to be heard… and breath, is how I relate to that part of my story; how I tell it and how it influences my life are up to me. These things can change every times I tell myself or someone else about Greg and Laura.

Returning to Collecting Loss, I was once again struck by the power held in story. Here in the project, contributors gave breath to their stories held in the shapes, colours, textures of their deceased loved one’s clothing. Individual stories that, when read or heard together, tell entirely new stories that speak to collective experiences of death, grieving and remembering life. In some cases, remembering how to live.

It wasn’t for men to change what anyone had written, though I edited for spelling, grammar and length. My work has been to receive and get to know the stories, to find a place for each one to live alongside another, then to give them away by telling them to you- to let them go so they can be received by the many.

I believe in the translative nature of remembering the dead through community art-making. In the end, however, the only new thing I could add was simply drawing attention to the oldest thing of all: breath. Let us notice our breath; how breath meets story, because isn’t that what we all set out to do here together? Bring death to life in meaningful ways in each other’s company.


Read these other essays on the project: