Susan Raffo

Nov 7, 2019

12 min read

how our bodies read the air

microscopic river delta that is the healthy human lung

I am sitting at home, in the midst of a cancelled day. Yesterday morning, out of the blue, my lungs started to get tight. Not asthma-tight, but germ-tight. Something was going on in the deep inside that was particularly interested in that place between diaphragm and back-of-the-throat. Husky coughing. Gravel voice. And this morning, no voice and a wavering cough. This week, I’ve been asked to do a teaching, a presentation on breath for a group of people who work with those who sometimes lose their breath because of illness. These things are sitting next to each other, as I look out the window, not feeling whole body sick, but also, when I move too much, feeling how much less oxygen my hungry lungs have for gulping.

Every resource we have, from the food we eat to the oil we pump out of the ground to the wood that is used to build our homes and then, because humans are masters at manipulation, to the other side of chemistry-in-a-lab meaning plastics and microfibers, every resource we have exists because of a dance between sunlight and oxygen. It’s daylight where I am, even as the days are growing shorter and the trees are falling off the leaves, and still, I know that elsewhere on this planet, the sun and the leaves on trees, the algae in the sea, the moss crawling damp on a forest floor, is zip zinging its oxygen exhales into the air and, because the air is an ocean that winds and tide-circles the planet, moves its way towards my unthinking inhale.

Go ahead, breathe. Kapok, Xate, Ipê, diatom, phytoplankton, baby tooth, rounded tongue and hammered shield moss, thank you.


When I was 6, and he was 4, my brother drowned. Like my brother, I ended up in the water, a muddy industrial river. My memory has me high in the sky, flying out of our car as it jumped the bridge, then coming to, deep below water, muddy and swirled, where I was floating, and then a voice, I always say it’s the first time I heard spirit, telling me to swim, swim, swim to the light. But I don’t know how to swim in water over my head, I said.. It’s too deep. And spirit told me, love in their voice, it’s simple, you just look towards the light and fly. And so I did, and that was joy.

The river bank our car crashed against isn’t even a real river bank. The Little Calumet River was created through dredging and rerouting, natural water becoming earth held pipeline between Gary and south Chicago; carrying waste from the factory floor straight south towards the Mississippi and north to Lake Michigan. It is a remarkable thing about this river, scientists have said, it flows in both directions, changing sometimes for no reason we can explain. They don’t understand what it looks like when a river being so severely abused tries desperately to flee its own banks.

There is an environmental report from 1965, five years before my family broke apart on the river bank. Gas and oil, untreated sewage, ammonia and cyanide are named along with pages and pages of chemicals. In 1970, my family merged with this river, my brother and I floating floating through the water, his life drifting away and then gone, while I, once back on land and no longer joy-floating in water like air, harsh gasped back, the fluids in this open air pipeline trading with the oxygen in our lungs. To cry for help you need to inhale so that you can exhale with sound. A breath held too long is only silent. Water breathes. In and out, deepness just below the tidal pull. in 2008, the Little Calumet flooded its banks and all of the land surrounding the river was declared a federal disaster area. Sometimes a river being so severely abused breath long held stagnant and unmoving will find a way to exhale, my brother’s breath trapped so many years ago is mixed with the oxygen and hydrogen that makes up that river water. An exhale is needed before you can sharp inhale the sounds that come back out as a cry.

Now breathe.


For every one of you reading this who does not have access to your breath as an unthinking thing, I am writing this as a prayer to your inhale and your exhale. If you are using machines to help that inhale and exhale happen, then this is a spark of love that wants to twirl along the electric lines to keep that juice flowing. If you breathe without machine, but your breath is not a safe thing, reacting fast, reacting slow, to the things people smoke or release or off gas into the air, then I send prayer like bubble, oxygen pure, the forests in the before. I have so many loved ones who are lungs-tight in life, who began that way as children, who live that way now. Lungs-tight, the constriction response to a world in overwhelm, too much crap in the air, too much harm to kin generations back that continues to the now, the eyes of the state keeping watch alongside grief that is clogging the channels where the air wants to come in.


The air is always cooler when you lean against a tree, like a little circle of something else, something sweeter. The older, the leafier the tree, the more true it is. When I leave the city and spend time where there are lots of trees, I get sleepy. So sleepy. My body has to slow down, the way it does after a really big meal, taking a bit more energy to get used to digesting this wonder. After awhile, everything inside just gets sparklier.

I once heard an elder explain that we would not recognize the air of 50,000 or even 5,000 years ago. It was just more-more, more full of itself. We were different then. I think our bodies have adjusted. We had to. The last time the atmosphere carried the amount of carbon dioxide it carries now, we didn’t yet exist.

There is a reason why factories that push pollution into air and water are usually built in poorer and mostly Blacker and Browner neighborhoods. The air has not consented to this.


Breathe, tight or loose, just breathe. This is your birthright.

When we first begin, wee bud emerging as cells go from one to two, to organs and limbs and the cover of skin, our lungs are practicing, moving fluid in and out, giggle gulp, respiratory muscles fluid stretching, we are fish but we are not, and then we are born and at one point, we all gotta do it, the umbilical cord is cut and rapidly, rapidly, carbon dioxide builds in our system, nanoseconds we are talking about, until air-instinct kicks in and we take that first hungry gulp of oxygen. And just like that, our respiratory system is on line. We breathe air instead of water. Thank you, ancestors.

Before telling more story, I want you to take a minute. First rule of everything I write: only do this if it is some kind of pleasure, if it feels good to you. Do it as I write it or if, going in to your cells is a kind of getting-too-close, then imagine it. In the case of this reading, play with the spirit of all-lungs, especially if your own are too vulnerable to receive a lot of attention.

So now, set this down or to the side, and put your hands right there, at the bottom of your rib cage, at the top of your belly. This is, more or less, where the bottom of your lungs are, lower down on the right, higher up on the left because every part of our body needs to make way for the heart. You might cup your hands, as though the bottom lobes were resting there, still bigger-small, expanding-contracting, while you notice them. Maybe your lungs, like many of us, will wiggle with joy if you send them a bit of love and care. Try it and see.

Now bring your hands up to your collar bones, just there towards your shoulders. Nip your fingers lightly behind the collar bones from the top, not the bottom. Your fingers will move into a hollow or a slightly softer place; the shape of it varies by how much fat you were gifted with. This, oh curious fingers, just a wee bit deeper in from the surface of skin, is the top of your lungs. Not the whole span of your collar bones, but somewhere around the middle, right there, is the very top. The first time someone told me this, I was surprised. I mean, they’re so BIG! Love zap those bundles of tissue and air, if you’re open to it, top to bottom and back again, whether breath comes with ease or is a struggle, they are here, these lungs of yours, and so, then, you are here, too.

One more thing, if you are sitting in a chair, rest against its back. If you are standing, put your back against a wall. Most of us think of our lungs in a front body way, because we tend to be front-bodied people. It’s where our eyes are and, since most of us are sighted, this front facing vision ends up defining what we pay attention to. Most of our lungs, though, are in our back body. Take a look at someone’s profile and notice how much more of their torso is in a curve behind. I am talking about the structure, the rib cage and muscle that is a shell of protection over the part that we can’t easily see. Within that shell are a whole lot of the lungs. Our front, too, of course, all huffing and puffing across the density that is our torso. Zap those lungs with love by sending breath to the back and then, play as though you were three, send breath to the front, and back and front again. First rule for everything I write: only do this if it gives you pleasure in some kind of way.

Again breathe, tight or loose, just breathe. This is our birthright.

And here is what they do, these lungs, the xan as they are called in Khoisan, the language spoken by those who are our oldest ancestors, where we first began to breathe as a species, there at the southern part of what we now call Africa. Here is what the lungs, the gift these ancestors gave us, can do: 3,000 gallons of air, each and every day, traveling through 14,900 miles of airways in your body, right this second, 14,900 miles. I know that the numbers come from science, but it must be an inheritor of magic, this folding and unfolding of physical space so that something your hands can span also contains 6 and a half Mississippi River lengths, three-fifths of the distance around the earth. All of this, right there, in the sacred glory of your inside. Around these 14,900 miles of the smallest to the largest of airways, there is blood; there are capillaries, vessels and arteries, an intimate kiss between air and fluid so that, oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, through the thinnest of membranes, with thousands of miles of practice, molecules pass back and forth, to clean and be cleaned, to nourish and be nourished. Inhale. Exhale.

And still, there is more. Taking the too cold air and bringing it to warm, taking the too hot and settling it to cool, our bodies spread from the beginning place of African savannah and lungs adapted, becoming paru-paru, baga, uvimbe, huhu, ria, o’pka, mob ntsws, scamhóg, pulmão and birika. Becoming lung, learning how to be steady and strong when breathing air of ocean, deep-forest, dry sands, high mountains, wind and no wind. Our lungs dance the seasons, working to keep us 98.6 even when minus 30 outside. They filter what is dangerous on the breeze, as much as they can before overwhelmed. They are here to keep our bodies from becoming too much acid, and to keep the information flowing through our mouth and nose, our smelling and tasting so that we know the difference between dangerous and yummy wonderful.


In the bodywork tradition I have studied, we talk about the breath of life, this rhythm that began as our own beginning and which continues, expansion and contraction, until we have passed. Lots of people and traditions speak to the breath of life. In the book of genesis, we came into being because

“the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” In the Quran, as I have been taught, breath is the life force of Allah, “breathed into him (Adam) the soul”, Surah-al Hijr. Also as I have been taught, in Diné culture, the cranial wave is called ‘nilch´í hwii siziinii,’ the ‘little wind,’ or ‘wind’s child’ and it is the wind that begins as new life enters and animates a new person.

I don’t know if every rooted culture on this planet remembers breath in this way. I know that when I listen and ask, it seems that breath as root, as beginning, is something we know, all of us, generations of culture around the planet, before language, below language*. We breathe and are breathed. It is called so many different things: in psychology, it’s part of what’s called attachment, that deep inward trust that it is safe to exhale, because there will be accessible unstressed oxygen when I inhale again. In public health circles and others, it’s called the livability factor. Is the air sweet, is your stress low enough that you can bring it easily into your lungs, are you receiving the accommodations and supports you need for your lungs to expand and contract? This is all broken apart ways of saying, I breathe because all of my relatives breathe and you breathe because I do. I breathe and I am breathed by that which connects us all. You get to put your own spiritual cultural frame into this piece that is just here, but that has to include, unless your people forgot how much we exist because of the land, thank you oak and elm, thank you moss relatives of crumpled rag, sea storm, and powdered sunshine. Thank you green and red algae, life forms in the fresh water lakes near where I live.

When we are wee cells dividing, we begin to organize around an expansion and contraction, a push to the big and then a pull to the small. This is a form of breath, a rhythm that organizes life, it’s the craniosacral rhythm, the breath of life. Then, when we leave our first home, coming through the small passage or out the belly, we trade water for air and we begin our second breath, the one that we need so that live separate from the womb.


And now another breath. This is the one where we bring together push and we begin together exhale and we shape it into a “no,” a moment that says no, not this, not this for my life. Take another inhale, bring it in deep, as deep as you can (remember my first rule), and then turn that breath around, letting it be the enormity of 14,900 miles of space saying no, not this, and not this again. Push that exhale out with a sound, with a groan, make it loud, and let it tumble towards the ground, where it will be soaked, like acid rain turned sweet through the filtering truth of soil. This is a real practice, a physical practice, a clearing breath, a way of letting the tiny feet of millions of cillia, push out what is not needed, not wanted, toxins on microscopic particles, the sediment of microaggressions, the micro murmur of a million moments of grief or disgust or panic or pain, like that, loud and raggedy and strong, we exhale.

Do this right now, in case while reading this, anything sparked up that needs to move. Inhale the sweet, exhale, as you can, that which must go.


I started hearing this piece when I lie in bed this morning, each cough making trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, avioli felt and known. Cough and here is the tightness, here is the span of tissue wanting to be free. I am sitting here now, a few hours later, ok more like four, and my breath is a bit looser, although I am tired. Someone I used to spend a lot of time with would say, often and like a prayer, every cell only has three seconds of oxygen and yet still it lives, trusting that more oxygen will come.

I am not going to end this piece, because it is written like breathing, from the deep to the shallow, and my breaths are not done. And so instead, I’ll slow down like this, each key stroke being the rhythm of inhale

And out…

And in…

*all of you people of christian descent, particularly those who have been christian for hundreds if not thousands of years, know that this deep felt sense of the breath of life is also within the roots of christianity, even as it was traded for more mental body ways of justifying god. The word “soul” that is now used in english-speaking christian spaces has evolved to replace the breath of life, the fact of the dust that was Adamh was breathed with the breath of life and became life. So for those still practicing christians, there is deep earth-based knowledge here that has been lost in the disconnection of spirit/mental body away from the day to day truth of connected organic life. For those who are of christian-descent, notice if you are only finding “truth” in cultural traditions that are not your own. Listen to your own ancestors while also learning from those who shaped different ways of naming this origin of life, and who kept the old ways longer, sometimes in the face of violence from christians who sought to disappear anything that made them feel the organic truth of their lives.