Holding my breath.png

Sometimes, commas drive me nuts.  I put them in, and take them out. Put them in, take them out. Should I say that again? I have spent the last few days doing just that. 

I remember clearly the four comma rules taught by Mrs. Ward, my sixth grade English teacher.  A for appositives, B for before introductory dependent clauses and before coordinated conjunctions, C for series, D for introDuctory adverbs. And the rest for duh twang, meaning obvious places as in dates. As in addresses.

But I have trouble still, esp. in dialogues. I put them in before a question, and an editor takes them out. I take them out, and an editor puts them in.

My chapbook, Any Kind of Excuse, had two editors. The first editor took all the commas out, saying, This is poetry! You don’t need all these commas. The second editor put all the commas back in. This is poetry. You have to follow all the same rules as everyone else.

My friend, Beth, an English professor, says that when she’s writing, she knows when she needs a comma because that’s when she has to breathe.  She adds that everyone says this is the WRONG way to decide about commas. But she insists it works. Adding emphatically that if she doesn’t HAVE to breathe, she doesn’t add a comma. (I am sure she also follows the comma rules.)

But when do you HAVE to breathe?  I find that confusing, too. I never realized how confusing until I met my friend, Ann, a yoga teacher who was always telling me to breathe.

Before that, I never realized how often I don’t breathe. Or when I don’t breathe. But I have been trying to pay attention. Truth is, I hold my breath a lot.

I hold my breath when someone says something mean. I hold my breath when I can’t hear. When a car accident happens--or almost happens in front of me. When I am in the doctor’s office. When I'm listening to the bad news on NPR (I let it out on the rare occasions that the news is good). When I’m reading or at a reading. When the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning.  When I’m trying to decide what I think. When I don’t know how to do something. When I can’t answer a question. When I feel stupid . . . That’s just the beginning of the list.

In first grade I practiced holding my breath during class. I counted as high as I could before I would breathe again. Sometimes the teacher, Mrs. Wallace, asked me what was the matter with as my face turned redder and redder. That wasn’t the only time she asked me that question. I didn’t care for Mrs. Wallace and vice versa. I didn’t like school at all. So I never raised my hand when she asked questions like, Who ran faster, Dick or Jane?  (Should there be a comma after the like in the previous sentence?)

It wasn't just first grade I disliked. 

In grade school, it seemed to me that everyone else was raising his or her hand, eager to answer questions, eager to participate. But I didn’t want to be there. So often I just held my breath. I liked the dizzy feeling it gave me. And the challenge. I liked watching the clock hands glide past a few more minutes, counting down to the end of class. 

Sometimes mothers came with cupcakes for birthdays, or to help out around the classroom, or take us on field trips. Sometimes they read us a fairy tale or helped us with our coats before we lined up for recess or whatever. My mother never came. She wasn’t the baking kind of mother. Or the school-helper type.  And besides, I was the 6th kid.  

Sometimes my mother would ask me what I did in school, and I’d tell her I held my breath. I would tell her I was good at it. I don't think she listened to me.

But I was good at it. So good, in fact, I thought I might be another Houdini one day. And during the summer I could swim lengths of the pool without coming up for air. I doubt my memory is correct, but I remember swimming two whole lengths.  My sister was even better—she swam at least three. I know that’s probably not possible, but I remember it just the same, just the way I remember a lot of things that might not have happened.

But I am beginning to wonder.

Because at the Y lately, I’ve been swimming at the same time as an elementary school swim practice. These children are tireless. They zoom back and forth for hours, splashing and screaming as they race each other and pinch each other and pull one another’s swim suits down. All except one. One skinny boy with black hair and long trunks instead of the tiny Speedo others wear – who sinks to the bottom of the deep-end and stays down there for most of the practice. I watch him as I swim-- one lap, two laps, three . . . I must miss the moments he comes up for air.  I keep worrying about him. Doe she ever breathe? What if he drowns? I feel as if I have to keep watching just in case. But he’s always down there, his arms moving slowly as if he’s conducting.

At the end of practice over Christmas breaks, there were days when the mothers and fathers came to welcome their children, to cheer them on or wrap them in towels. No one came for the skinny boy. He rose slowly and slipped off to the locker room alone and towel-less.