Brenna Sowder

Breathing Lessons

I sat still out of necessity, although I was no older than six, trying to breathe no deeper than a puddle, no deeper than a thimble, no deeper than spilled milk. 

The straight-back wooden chair was upright. I was alone, but I could hear my mother’s voice in my head coaching, encouraging me to sit up straight, stay calm, breathe in, breathe out. 

In a room somewhere distant, the sound of my sister and playmates bubbled, rising and falling like laughter, alongside the undertone of adult voices. Life carried on.

My mother had gone to get me a glass of water, which helped only a little. My rib cage was a vice, lungs limp balloons left to deflate. A straw with a hidden hole, no longer drawing water. A thin wheeze accompanied every labored breath.

Once, a respiratory specialist looked at me with horror when I told her I used my rescue inhaler several times a day. “Well! You can’t do that!” As if the choice had been mine, and I had made an error in judgment by needing to breathe. I was nine or ten. 

When I was four, first diagnosed with asthma and hospitalized, the doctors wrapped me in sheets to restrain me to draw blood. That, and subsequent weekly blood draws, brought on hysterics and a fear of needles. I was put on a drug called theophylline, which left me wired and breathless, heart racing. As a young adult, when I told doctors this, they looked at me with wide, incautious eyes. The drug was known to have serious side effects. But, so does lack of oxygen. 

As an older kid I used a nebulizer when I couldn’t breathe, a tiny generator that aerated liquid albuterol into my lungs. They slowly expanded, refilled, started working properly. I kept it for years, as my asthma gradually improved, although several allergy-induced attacks still landed me in the ER in the middle of the night. As a teenager I got pneumonia, a slow slide from the vice. The vice was a feeling I was used to, normalized with an efficacy that was dangerous. It was the feeling of knives in my chest that got my attention. I missed weeks of school, and slept most of that time, slowly returning to full breath.

In the straight-back chair, I breathe in and out, like a mouse, like a butterfly, something small that sips at the air. Through the lace curtains covering the front windows I can see the street, cars driving past occasionally, telephone wires connecting pole to pole to pole. 

Breathe in. Breathe out. 

Breathe in. Breathe out. 


I am suspended in this moment, the time of COVID-19. I am bound by memory, like bedsheets, to the girl in the straight-back chair, although I am now the adult who grew out of the most terrible symptoms, who has strategies for coping, whose asthma is “well-controlled.” 

It is late February and I can find little information about how this new, terrifying virus affects asthmatics. That’s not actually true: I find general information about COVID-19 and asthma, but nothing that answers my questions about what will happen if I get sick. I already know that every minor illness goes to my lungs. I do not know how this virus could affect me versus a person with a different backstory. I practice every strategy possible to avoid finding out the answer.


About two years ago I started running without much belief in my body. As a teenager I has discounted my ability for fitness, using my exercise-induced wheezing as an excuse for why I would never be fast, never go hard. Much to my amazement, all it took for me to run was to run. With regular unhurried effort, I got comfortable pushing my body, pushing my lungs, one foot in front of the other. 

A week ago I left my house and family in the early grey of pre-dawn, unable to sleep. I parked in an empty lot at a nearby trailhead. 

On the trail, I start jogging slowly, left right left right, arms propelling me forward. My heart pumps, breath coming faster, footfalls quicken, thumping along the dirt path, left right left right leftrightleftright.

I think: I can do this, my lungs can do this, my body can do this, my lungs 

my lungs breathe

my lungs breathe 

in out 

in out 

in out 

in out.

There is not a soul around, but I feel the virus at my heels, chasing me around the bend in the trail, urging me forward. 

One moment the run feels triumphant—I can do this!—the next moment the run feels like terror, fleeing from something still unknown, seemingly indiscriminate, taking the strong with the weak, none of it fully understood, all of it happening at breathtaking speed.

I take refuge in knowing that my body can do hard things. 

Also, I think carefully, that is no guarantee of anything.

At the end of each run, I am grateful beyond measure. Medicine and time have allowed me to forget that a breath in itself is a miracle. But, now is not a moment for forgetting. Now is a moment to channel the resilience of steel in the straight-back chair, and gratitude for pounding feet and expanding lungs.

Until we pause and hold, it may come without thinking, that miracle of breath. But, I am asking you: be aware of the miracle that is this breath. 

And this one. 

And this one.

And this one.


Brenna Sowder lives outside Seattle where she continues a lifelong exploration of rocky beaches at low tide. Her writing has appeared in ENTROPY, and most often explores the intersection of nature and the human condition. Visit her website:, and follow her on Instagram: @bsowdah.