This Is Us

I Made a Blueprint for Breathing

Because our world is always on fire somewhere

Soft sunset view from highway.
Soft sunset view from highway.
Photo courtesy of shea or jane martin (depending on who you ask).

They said firefighters were coming on Friday. I spent the week in mirrors preparing the perfect smile for my fire truck photo. Head tilt to the left. Neck up just a bit. Grin. Open your eyes. Don’t say cheese — it’s a trap.

Friday came but the trucks didn’t. Instead, a short, bald man walked into our classroom and announced himself as the fire marshal. He, awkward and grossly underwhelming, lectured our class about making emergency plans and running fire drills with our families. I mostly ignored him and picked carpet lint until he passed out the coloring books — a consolation prize for leaving the truck at the station. The back page was a tear-off sheet for our family emergency plan. I colored the booklet all afternoon. That night, I showed my parents the book and asked about our plan. My dad laughed. My mama said we didn’t need to plan. That we would know what to do.

The empty planning sheet stayed on the fridge until someone moved it to the trash bin. I spent the next ten years of my childhood afraid to fall asleep, praying that fires would never come to our duplex on Holmes Run Parkway.

I made my first emergency plan in ninth grade. My counselor, a drabby girl with platform shoes, said I would never have to miss history class again if I did it. I hated history class but I loved Lionel, a Turkish boy who sat in front of me and always asked for gum. I always had gum for Lionel. For Christmas, Lionel had gifted me a Dave Matthews album, so I knew our love was real. The drabby girl didn’t care about Lionel or Dave Matthews. “What will help you stay alive if you want to die?” she asked. I told her my people didn’t need to plan. That we would know what to do. I made the plan anyway and dropped it in the trash bin in the hallway. My mama spent the next three nights sitting on the edge of my bed, praying that wanting to die would stay as far away from her baby as possible.

It’s been fifteen years since I made the first plan. Living with generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and PTSD means that I am really good at imagining worst-case scenarios and how I might escape this world if necessary. I have lost count of the number of emergency plans that have kept me alive, but I am a master at figuring out how to keep breathing even when I don’t want it to happen. I record warning signs, list people I can call when I need them, name safe places I can go, think of things to distract myself. I write down reasons I want to live. Writing down reasons you want to live is a great way to stay alive when you want to die.

Everyone is trying to be woke; I am dreaming myself to freedom.

These days, I start all emails the same way: I hope you’re doing as well as can be as the world crumbles around us. It is an acknowledgment of this moment. It reminds me that crumbling constitutes an impending emergency and impending emergencies necessitate planning. Like the last plan I wrote, I will tattoo this one across my tongue and speak it aloud on days that I (or the world) don’t want me to live.

I am planning to breathe.

I moved to Vermont three months ago so I could breathe without fear. I live between a lake, mountain, and river. The air is crisp and empty here in a way that allows me to be fully human, to breathe without reservations. Most days, I see no one but my wife and my dog. We drive and walk on trails and roads that lead to nowhere — a place where breathing is like being and being feels like freedom.

I still can’t sleep though. When I lived in the city, fear of the virus and dying kept me awake. Here, it’s crickets, anxiety, and silence. So I smoke. I drive an hour to buy leaves rolled into canisters. Some nights, I raise a blunt to freedom and let it interrupt my panic with peace. I’ll be damned if I face the end of the world without peace. They have stolen enough. My breaths and peace are all I got.

I am planning to run.

Two weeks ago, my dad told me that the way I gulp water sounds like I ain’t never had it before. I didn’t tell him that that’s how I feel lately, that I have been drinking water to distract myself from drowning in grief. The truth is I am always thirsty, but these days I find myself refilling my bottle more than I ever have. In the middle of the night, I wake up to pee and then immediately replace the fluid. I am hoping that if I fill my body with enough water, she will be ready to run, float, or evaporate when the time comes. Some days, I drink a gallon and call it baptism, praying it will make me just holy enough to be saved, should the world perish in the coming weeks.

I am planning to fight.

I took karate twice when I was a kid. Once when I was seven and another time when I was 15. My mama signed me up for the $59 six-week introductory special. I never made it past week six. Week 7 always cost more money than my mama was willing to spend for a shoeless white man to teach her Black kids how to fight. She said black people are born warriors. Our first breath is resistance against a white world that wished it didn’t happen. I have never needed anyone to teach me how to fight for myself, only ever needed to believe I deserved to be fought for, worth defending. I have been writing a list of the things I love about myself so that when and if the time comes, I will be ready to fight.

I am planning to dream.

They say the worst part of whiteness ain’t them killing us — it’s the theft of our time, our genius, our imaginations. Black folks spend our lives trying to prove we deserve to live. Proving we deserve to live is a full-time job. We busy fighting for our lives. We busy teaching white people how to love us enough to care if we die. We busy trying to breathe. They say we don’t got time for dreaming beyond the world as it is. I call bullshit. This year, I stopped making the case for my humanity and I took up dreaming. Imagining a liberated world is the Blackest, queerest, dopest shit I have ever done. It feels like a fresh cut fade on a summer day, like dancing barefoot in the grass, like freedom. Everyone is trying to be woke; I am dreaming myself to freedom.

I am planning to take care.

What does it mean to care for myself and my people at the end of the world? It means remembering that the world is always ending somewhere. It means reminding myself that sometimes epilogues, notes, and sequels come after endings. It looks like scheduling therapy sessions, good sex, and FaceTime dates with no end times. Like choosing a book that I’ll finish next week. Like washing my sheets so that my body will be wrapped in heaven when I rest. Like ensuring we got bail money to send where needed. Like meal-prepping, gassing the car, making new playlists, and deleting socials on election day. It looks like telling my people I love them. Like telling myself I deserve to be loved. Like making a plan.

Notes (or people and stuff that influenced my plans)

  1. Freedom Dreams: The Radical Black Imagination by Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley
  2. adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism, particularly the homework she gives us
  3. This quote by Akwaeke Emezi: “The world is always ending somewhere. It just depends on whether it falls in your line of vision or not.”
  4. Spillage Village’s Tiny Desk, specifically Benji’s baseline in “Baptize” and Mereba’s verse in “Hapi”
  5. Lizzie and Kelly’s hydration reminders
  6. Pages 162–176 and 342 of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House
  7. The joy of my friends’ kids
  8. A conversation I had with Roxane Gay back in March
  9. The party scene in Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath
  10. Cody Miller’s blanket game
  11. The breath Natalie Manes takes at 0:21 of The Chicks’ “Tights on My Boat”
  12. The watercolor cards my friend Ursula sends me from Portland
  13. My sister’s undying love of plants and Blackness
  14. My mama’s death and my father’s sickness
  15. The way my wife’s cheeks dimple deeply when she laughs really hard
  16. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War

boston-based lit educator, researcher, and mixtape maker raised at the intersections of gospel and go-go. find [them] dreaming and working toward liberation.

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