Like a Song: Breathe

This essay is published today at @U2, the (yep, she’s going to say it again) best damn U2 fan website on the planet. The essay is part of our “Like a Song” series, in which @U2 staffers reflect on the personal meaning that specific songs have for us. It’s one of our most popular regular features. If you enjoy this one, I invite you to also read “Like a Song: Surrender” and “Like a Song: Elevation”, as well as the many other great essays from members of the @U2 writing team.

I’m posting the essay here in its entirety because I want to include the song itself, for those who don’t know it, as well as the lyrics (since the song moves rather fast). You’ll find both after the essay.

I really do love this song. I find it structurally fascinating. I love Bono’s voice, the urgency and precision of the rhythm section, the guitar… wow, listen to the guitar become positively ecstatic at about 3:40 as Bono proclaims We are people born of sound. I believe it. I cannot wait to see this song live.


Like a Song: Breathe

It’s been hard to breathe.

As is true for many people, much of my life is suddenly at risk: my income, my mortgage, my career, my art, the life I love so much and have worked so hard to build. In what seemed like only a moment, only a breath, the world’s markets went down in flames and took my money with them: the business I started has not yet found its feet, and may never become sustainable in this shaky economy; and the writing project that has consumed me for three years was given to someone else.

Most of us have taken a punch in the gut sometime in our lives. Most of us know what it’s like when we suddenly can’t breathe.

Man at the door says if I want to stay alive a bit longer
There’s three things I need you to know.

I knew what those things were: squeeze down our budget, get a real job, and don’t whine. Millions of people are having a hard time. So I sent out a truckload of resumes and tailored cover letters. I had a hundred “coffee meetings” to network with strangers, both of us smiling hard and hoping desperately each other would have the answer. I went to one unbelievably surreal job fair where the tightly packed room smelled so strongly of fear — like something burning — that I had to leave.

The forest fire that is fear

All those hours at my desk, working on those letters and resumes, I listened constantly to No Line on the Horizon. It was clear to me right away that this album is Bono’s line in the sand: he is a musician first and a world-saver second. Maybe I heard it that way because I was missing my screenplay badly, and trying to come to terms with the idea of someone else doing the writing that I thought of as mine. This is standard practice in Hollywood, it happens to every writer, but it was the first time it had happened to me. I wanted to start another project, to keep working, to stay sane. But I’m not Bono; art doesn’t pay my mortgage right now, and so I told myself that art was not the priority.

But I went on listening to Bono throwing down, being so clear: Sing your heart out.

And then I had the chance to apply for a job that would involve working around writers. A tough job for not enough pay, but maybe I could still do some writing of my own, or at least be near people who were. I fought like a bear for it. So did the more than 100 other people who applied. And sometimes there are miracles, but not this time. I was their number three pick; they talked about bringing all three of us in to interview with the entire staff, but the staff fell stone in love with number one, and that was it.

And there I was, no job, no screenplay, and I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was run in mental circles inside my own head, like a frightened animal in a forest fire.

The forest fire that is fear

And then… I don’t know. Maybe I ran myself out and was finally exhausted enough that the only thing I could do was turn and face my fears. Really look at them. Losing my home, my security, my writing, my confidence, failing, being ashamed, wrecking my partner’s life.

Here is what I saw. I saw that breath is life. Oxygen keeps our hearts beating and gives our muscles strength, and feeds our brains so we can think. And fear is like fire: it takes the air away. It burns our hope and our will and leaves us only the ashes of grief that will choke us if we let them. No wonder I was feeling helpless and afraid: I had stopped breathing.

And I’m not the only one. Millions of us every day are frightened and grieving. Right this second, someone is losing their job, their home, their relationship. Their child is sick. Their beloved cat is dying in their arms. They are blinking at the “Closed” sign on their favorite coffee shop where the barista always knew exactly how they liked their latte.

And right this second, someone is finding their courage to start again. Right now, someone is trying to breathe.

So here it is: writing is my breath. It may not pay my mortgage, but it will save me so that I can save myself. Writing this will save me. I got my screenplay back, and in a 78-hour period last week I spent 42 hours working on it, and that will save me. I am going to start offering my services as an editor and looking for more freelance gigs, and even if I can’t get enough work, even if I end up again as some company’s director of whatever, what I am doing right now will save me. Because I feel like myself again. I can breathe.

So this song has become for me the roar on the other side of that horrible silence. Every day I will walk out into the street and sing my heart out for as long as I can.

We all have someone or something we love so much that it defines us. We all have things that make us who we are. When you’re frightened, when it feels too hard, that’s when you need your clear brain and your strength the most –€“ so run, run to the things that make you breathe. Whether you find them in art, family, religion, helping others, reading books, gardening, hiking, counting stars, no matter — stand in the space of those things and breathe the pure oxygen they give you. Breathe deep. I promise it will help.

Walk out into a sunburst street
Sing your heart out
Sing my heart out.
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found.
And I can breathe.

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“Breathe” – U2

16th of June, nine-oh-five, doorbell rings
Man at the door says if I want to stay alive a bit longer
There’€™s three things I need you to know

Coming from a long line of traveling sales people on my mother’€™s side
I wasn’€™t gonna buy just anyone’€™s cockatoo
So why would I invite a complete stranger into my home?
Would you?

These days are better than that
These days are better than that

Every day I die again, and again I’€™m reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat
Neither down nor out
There’€™s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
Breathe now

16th of June, Chinese stocks are going up
And I’€™m coming down with some new Asian virus
Juju man, juju man
Doc says you’re fine, or dying
Nine-oh-nine, St. John Divine on the line, my pulse is fine
But I’€™m running down the road like loose electricity
While the band in my head plays a striptease.

The roar that lies on the other side of silence
The forest fire that is fear so deny it.

Walk out into the street
Sing your heart out
The people we meet will not be drowned out
There’€™s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
Breathe now

We are people born of sound
The songs are in our eyes
Gonna wear them like a crown

Walk out into a sunburst street
Sing your heart out
Sing my heart out
I’€™ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found
And I can breathe
Breathe now.

4 thoughts on “Like a Song: Breathe”

  1. Wow. Great essay – brilliant and brave and true.

    I’ve been dealing with a lot of fear around financial issues myself lately. Reading this helped me a lot.

    I’ve listened to No Line a bunch of times since your last post about it; I like it a lot. And I liked this song too. I kept hearing these lines:
    “These days are better than that
    These days are better than that

    Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn
    Every day I have to find the courage
    To walk out into the street
    With arms out
    Got a love you can’t defeat”

    Now I love this song – now whenever I hear it, I’ll remember your words. And that will help me remember to put myself in a place that has the oxygen I need to breathe. And yes, I have a love that will not be defeated.

    And yep, love that buildup around 3:30 that leads to those last lines. It’s got to be great to see them doing that live.

    Thanks for giving me some hope and inspiration when I really needed it.

  2. Oh Kelley, you have been having a rough ride. Thanks for the lovely song, not only for the words, but for the change of rhythm after the word breathe. I find it instructive that the Greek word for soul is psyche, which originally means breath. Bono and you are on to something. I work with mental patients, and when they get scared or mad I always tell them, “take a deep breath.”

  3. I’m loving their new album. Like always, Bono and the rest of his tribe seem to have their finger on the pulse of the world. So much of what he wrote for that applies to here and now.

    I like “writing is my breath.” Very nicely put. Art is mine. The ten years I put it aside were the dullest years of my life. I was suffocating, I realize now.

    Keep a steady hand on the tiller and you’ll find your way, I’ve no doubt.

  4. Bravo! Magnificent!

    I am in this kind of boat where I feel as though in the heart of hearts of us all is an underlying “you” screaming out these words.

    Everytime I stop by here you make my spirit leap with joy for the words you lay out.

    You and Nicola are the kinds of entities that my brother and I would stay up until 5 in the morning watching the sunrise together, chatting on endlessly about, dreaming of your existence.

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