Misha is a freelance journalist and teacher. A couple of times during the years when she was the theatre critic for the Seattle Times, I was lucky enough to be taken to opening nights as her “date.” This is how I got to see Wicked. What we’re experiencing in this country these days is truly wicked.
Breath and empathy
by Misha Berson, Seattle, Washington
It’s almost impossible to give friends elsewhere an idea of what it’s like to be enshrouded in acrid smoke for days with no end in sight. Life does not go on as normal. It feels like time is suspended. Outdoor air is an enemy. Lungs and sinuses burn.
Every day we go online and check the air quality indexes for Seattle. There are many, and they often differ in the number assigned to the air our atmosphere is currently providing us, or the color representing it—maroon, to purple, to scarlet, to pink. Yet all these monitors, for the past five days, have classified our air—the stuff we and all living things around us breathe in—as either Unhealthy, or more often, Very Unhealthy or Hazardous.
We are told to stay in, and only go outdoors when absolutely necessary and for as short as time as possible. We are told that the cloth and paper masks most of us wear to ward off the Covid-19 virus, are useless in protecting our lungs from this pollution that lingers in the air and blots out the sun, the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges, the lakes and Puget Sound from our visibility.
Even inside a home, for someone like me with allergy and sinus issues, you can feel the air burning in your throat and sometimes in your eye, the tightness in the chest. And with the stillness that comes from the absence of regular human activity, you know that that this is not normal. And pray it is not the “new abnormal.”
Last week, I didn’t know how to explain this to my family and friends who don’t live on the West Coast. And how do I comprehend that dozens of forest fires burning hundreds, and even a thousand miles away, are making my city one of the most polluted places on earth—despite all the electric and hybrid cars we drive, all the efforts of scientists, politicians and others in our region to mitigate the effects of carbon pollution and global warming?
My mind can’t quite get a handle on it, especially the knowledge that a relative who lives on the wild, rugged Mendocino coast of California, a place as pristine as I know in this country, was breathing air nearly as toxic at the same time we’ve been huddled in our homes, our windows and doors shut, around our makeshift air-filters?
Day after day, meteorologists have predicted that finally the wind will stop the billowing wood smoke from blowing north and eastward to converge over our city, and the coastal rains and breezes we have always relied on will rescue us, will blow in from the Pacific once again—as they did two years ago, during what then seemed to be the worst smoke pollution we’d ever had, from fires in British Columbia.
What I’ve asked for from loved ones is support and empathy, which they have provided in phone calls and emails. But that word “empathy,” which has recently been spoken and heard more often, cuts both ways. Several ways, in fact, at a time when the world has become so small that we are all in immediate danger of breathing the same air and contracting the same pernicious virus.
Empathy. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, it is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. And as I await those fresh, revitalizing breezes, I think of the half a million people in Oregon who have had to flee the fires, the legions of fire fighters who have tirelessly risked everything to stanch them, and now those left homeless and bereft by the hurricanes roiling in the Atlantic.
I think of how deep and vital the need for empathy is. How much it matters that we care for each other, unconditionally, in times like this. How much it matters for those who lead us to empathize and act on those feelings as the suffering fans out throughout the country, from mothers who lose their children to violence, to friends who lose their homes to a blaze, to those isolated and sickened by Covid, and even to us, who have spent a fretful week barricaded in, and scared about what this toxic air is doing to us now, and later, and what it might do to those on the East Coast and Europe as well.
One world. One people. One empathy.