Confession #6: The air we breathe

You can’t see it, of course, but air is one of the defining ingredients of a place. It can inspire as much longing or nostalgia as a certain type of bread or the view from a window in a room that used to be yours and no one else’s.

I remember with a pang that can only be called “heartache,” even though my heart is fine, flying back to Atlanta after I’d moved to Amsterdam, and exiting the airport into an obstinate wall of humidity. I wept, on the spot: I was getting close to “home.” Driving to Chattanooga—the town where I was born—in my rental car, the humidity grew. Approaching the initial curves that take you up Signal Mountain, I opened the windows and let the hot moisture in. A pudding of air, too dense to breathe. But I sucked it in joyfully. Tears again. Now I was all the way home.

I don’t love humidity; in fact I hate it. But that air was the air I grew up on, was nurtured on. It fed the cells of my brain and my heart and my guts. I miss it, the way one misses—in the most profound existential sense—the womb. Breathing that air even though I would no longer want to live in that place is the very essence of “going back.”

Since then, I have breathed the air of various adopted homes. The air of Virginia (very similar). The air of Oregon. The air of Amsterdam. Milan, Italy. And Burgundy, France. I have a complex relationship with all of them. The air of Milan, heavy like that of Chattanooga, is even weightier: it contains within it all the challenges of adulthood, second chances, leaps of faith and abiding love. Mountains bound the plain on which the city lies so that air moves in and out of it unwillingly. Gray skies tend to sulk and stay, loiter and linger. This is air that will eventually make a philosopher out of you, regardless of how frivolous you may be. You have no choice but to come to intellectual terms with “the way things are.”

Burgundy air, like Oregon air, is somehow fresh and alive. Moods shift. Change is afoot. Paradoxes exist easily. We are small under the sky that contains all this air and at its mercy, but this reality is a liberation. It’s comforting to know that you are just a speck on a cloud-raked, rain-washed, sun-drenched stage. The moisture isn’t cloying, it’s cleansing. Wet/dry. Cold/hot. Sun/rain. The grapes love it, and so do I. I’m a moody person, myself (apologies to the patient people who love me), and these shifts in the air around me suit me fine.

Early in the morning here, as the first light of day creeps into the sky, the air moves into the window and around the room like the chilly ghost of a cat. It wafts and insinuates, curving around your exposed arm and the nape of your neck—a cool current of life or the life-after. Or maybe it’s the life that came before, from whence we came. Who knows? It is a spirit, this air. A good spirit. It settles unsettling dreams, calms nerves, refreshes brain cells and sends you back to sleep—back to one more wordless, infantile vision—before it is really time to face another day on this Earth.

Which air is mine? Which do I claim? I can’t answer. It is comfort, in my confusion, to know that around this spinning ball we call home, they all mix and mingle and become one.

[If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy “The all important far nienteas well.]

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4 Responses to Confession #6: The air we breathe

  1. slpkdw13 says:

    I’m told that in some ancient languages the word for BREATH or BREATHE is the same as for SPIRIT. The power of aromas/odors in our memories, of childhood especially, is sometimes difficult to describe and put in to words, isn’t it? You did a beautiful job in today’s post – as always! Thank you~

  2. Thanks so much for this comment. I’m interested in the language link you mention…I’d like to look into that more. Thanks for leading me in that direction.

  3. bagnidilucca says:

    I also live in a place where humidity descends on you like a wet, heavy blanket and I hate it. Now I am lucky, I get to leave this place when the air become much like a fan forced oven (with humidity) and go to lovely winter in Italy to watch morning thunderstorms rumble through our mountains. I am never happy to come home to steamy summer, no matter how much I love this place. I get to leave Italy and the heat of summer there for a perfect winter in Brisbane. I get really cranky when it is hot so this new life suits me very well.
    Your post is beautiful.

  4. ron says:

    the wombiness you describe is one i often use, too, for the air in the south. it is almost smothering, but i also think it’s very nurturing, in a way: the moistest hug. (speaking of language, ‘moist’ seems to have some divisive power along gender lines. pondering….)

    i agree with your comments about the air in oregon. it kept moving and seemed lighter, thinner, more active. their humidity was nothing compared to the southern kind, but folks complained as if they were wearing parkas in a sauna — not my feelings cuz i grew up with the thick, chewy, swirling, puddingy air that requires a paddle for progress.

    and when i drove back from oregon, and crossed the mississippi river into the south a late october afternoon, not only did the air seem to change texture, temperature, and thickness, but the smell of pine seemed to fill the air. yes, oregon has plenty of evergreens but there must be something about the density of southern air that squeezes out the fragrant sap, something the northwestern air wasn’t doing that i could tell.

    tom robbins, in ‘jitterbug perfume’, has some interesting theories about smells — perfume, really — and the lingering primal sections of our reptilian brains that claim smells are one of the most powerful memory stimulators. so, when i crossed over the mississippi back into the south, the thick, piney air hit my nose, and it was suddenly an early summer evening and i was five years old trying to catch fireflies.

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