Today’s Mindfulness Monday post is also a tribute post to my friend Mikhail, who passed away a week ago in a men’s federal prison in Virginia. I was connected to Mikhail through a transformative justice organization called Write to Win, which connects LGBTQ prisoners with LGBTQ and allied activist correspondents on the outside. Mikhail, who was a two-spirit-identified (he&she pronouns) bisexual prisoner, and I had been writing for just under a year. Mikhail wrote to me a lot about politics (he was an anarchist), cats (he loved cats and we drew pictures of cats to each others in most of our exchanges!), relationships (she had been in love five times), and mental health (he struggled with depression). I looked forward to Mikhail’s letters in my mailbox very much.
About three months ago, Mikhail’s letters got shorter. He explained that he had become very ill and didn’t have as much energy to write. The doctors, he told me, didn’t know what was wrong. He was hoping they would be moving him to a medical facility, and asked me to always double check the government Inmate Locator website to see if I should send the letters to a different address. Each month I checked, and each month he was still in the federal prison in Virginia.
On Friday night, I sat down to respond to Mikhail’s last letter, which was dated July 4th. After writing a few pages, I folded the letter, sealed it in an envelope, and went online to double-check the address. But this time, under Mikhail’s name was not an address, but the following: “Deceased: 7/11/2015.”
My heart stopped; and then it beat rapidly. I re-read the screen over and over to try to make sense of it. Deceased. Mikhail had died. She had asked to be relocated for more effective medical attention, the prison did not provide her that medical attention (they eventually approved the transfer, but just never actually transferred him), and he died. At 40 years old. In a federal prison in Virginia. Two years before he was going to be released.
I have experienced a number of deaths in the past few years, but this one felt heavy in a distinct and challenging way. Unlike the other people in my life who have passed away, I didn’t have any other friends or family who knew Mikhail. I had no one to call. No one to cry with. No one who would know what it would be like to miss the idiosyncrasies of this truly lovely human. I felt very alone in my grief. And sick with the thought of how alone Mikhail must’ve felt in his last days.
I curled up on my floor and held my kitty close to me and cried. I told Diesel how much Mikhail loved cats and how she always asked about him in her letters. Realizing how long it had been since Mikhail had been able to pet a cat, I told Diesel, through tears, “I am so so lucky I get to snuggle you right now.” At that point, my tears turned to sobs.
In an effort to calm my crying, I started taking deep breaths. Inhale…..Exhale….Inhale….Exhale… I remembered that I had written to Mikhail about breathing exercises too. She had asked if I had any advice for yoga or meditation techniques that could help combat his depression and anxiety. Breath work was the first thing that came to mind. I told him a few basic breathing exercises and practices that might be useful: the so hum mantra exercise, the 2-4 count breath, and the Five Breaths practice.
I don’t remember where I first learned about the Five Breaths practice, but it’s something I have found to be pretty powerful when I remember to do it. All it entails is this: pause after noticing something that you’re grateful for and take five deep breaths. That’s it.
The thing about feeling grateful is that, like all feelings, it can be really fleeting; the five breaths practices cements that gratitude feeling deep in your body. It forces you to sit with the sensation of appreciation. Ideally, you can find a way to incorporate this into your life on a daily basis, which will usually result in breathing after pretty simple occurrences. For example, once coming home from work I saw a traffic jam going the other direction. I felt really grateful not to be stuck in that traffic jam (which does not mean I was glad the other people were stuck in it, of course!), and I took five deep breaths as I drove to the yoga class that I would, because of my non-traffic jam route, arrive at on time. Another time, I took five deep breaths after a particularly good day of teaching at the college where I work, reminding me to sit with how lucky I am for the job I have. And then, on Friday, I took five deep breaths, sitting simultaneously both in the pain of loss and also in the simple gratitude of being able to have a kitty to hold with my sorrow.
I knew, when recommending this exercise to Mikhail, that she would have far fewer things to be grateful for than I did. But, in spite of her depression and her circumstances, she did find some reasons to breathe: she found moments of joy with some of his fellow inmates, in reading, and in working on the prison newsletter.
I want to live in a world where everyone has plentiful reasons to perform breaths of gratitude. I want to live in a world where everyone has access to quality healthcare. I want to live in a world where gender non-conforming people are treated with dignity. I want to live in a world where human beings aren’t subjected to going through activist pen pal services in order to have human connections. And, I want to live in a world without prisons.
This week, I invite you to practice the Five Breaths exercise. Take a moment to pause when you feel grateful. Sit with it. Breathe into it. Let it sink into your skin and your blood and bones. Let it vibrate through your veins. Be the gratitude.
And maybe, if you’re open to it, send some of those breaths up and out in memory of my friend, Mikhail…..a person who deserved many more breaths than she got to take.