“Three Breaths,” “They Come in Rotation” and “He Lies Dying”

“Three Breaths,” “They Come in Rotation” and “He Lies Dying”
Photo by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев on Unsplash


“To practice [a hugging meditation], open your arms and begin hugging, holding each other for three in-and-out-breaths. With the first breath, become aware that you are present in this very moment and feel happy. With the second breath, become aware that the other person is present in this moment and feel happy as well. With the third breath, become aware that you are here together, right now on this Earth.” - Thich Nhat Hanh, Chanting from the Heart, 2006.

1. Here I am

His creased dress-pants hang on bony anatomy:

pelvic brim, iliac crest. Long foreleg ankles without socks.

I don’t know why a Nuer, reputed to walk for days without rest,

measuring the horizon with metronomic femurs and tibia

reminds me of my adolescent father, but he does.

Denim jacket, thick-framed glasses, banjo,

Six-four (short here), he was swinging knobby knees

In the rain, cigarette on moustached-lip, colored lights on wet pavement.

The skinny walker should awaken my past hungry self.

(She traveled across oceans with me, a ghost imprinted on my body

judging zygomatic arches, ribs, phalanges, waiting to awaken)

Suffering is not comparative, nor hunger,

But starvation eats the same flesh from ancestral bones.

2. You are there

Mine remembers the shape of yours, how you fit in the curve of my hip

side-lying, an ancient twinned shape

from the ashes of Vesuvius, gravesites dating back millions.

I like how you lie atop, legs on legs, arms along the length of mine,

your body pressing me

against the earth, your gravity.

Alone, I lie on my back, limbs thrown around,

without even a sheet weighing me down

covid stole spontaneity and distance, you.

Last week I hugged a German midwife, whose hands

catch slippery fish babies, hot, glistening, smelling of inside.

Her bones felt fragile, so I let go.

All embraces end.

Not smelling your scent or tasting

I forget and my dreams worry, overlaying others atop you,

a reverse pentimento, anxiety’s filter.

3. We are

Incense trickles into my open window from the street

inviting me, a stranger, into someone’s house.

We reenact rituals: fire, a kettle, cups.

Hands touch giving/receiving steeped liquid,

three cups, three breaths, a communion.

My second body1 taught me to hug again

after my anorexic mind betrayed this body.

He said we breathe, it’s a meditation. And

we stood, until I learned to touch

(be touched) again.

In some languages there is no I

no autobiographical or singular experience.

The drops are not separate from the water.

We only exist in relation to We.

You can read more about the practice of the second body here: Dharma Talk: Taking Care of Each Other


My banal words should piss everyone off.

I blogdescribe flowers and greens, lizards in latrines.

Words, all words, a public tether, kite string.

I know the bombs are flying, children dead, I know

(How could I possibly know?)

Choppy internet brings pictures: Blood, blue lips.

There is no oxygen. Send oxygen please.

I can’t breathe. He can’t, we can’t.

Another trans woman killed. SAY HER NAME.

I write of airports and toes (but what of the bodies in rows and rows?)

It is not a beautiful world, and yet did you smell the rain?

Who is a contender in the Suffering Olympics?

“Going without milk for coffee is still going without”

But that’s not (What? Not the same?)

We look north and decry the tragedies, the mass rapes and

(even nuns, even young girls!)

Total Collapse of Health System.

We, in a refugee camp, are watching!

And, here COVID has delayed the food rations

From every 8 weeks to now 16.

To feed the children, women exchange their bodies

For grain, for milling the grain, for shelter while waiting for grain or milling

(This is my body given for you, my child, take, eat)

Sometimes seeds (weeds) take root, unwelcomed cells.

They come in rotation, the women, the wives, walking from

The land beyond the river

Balancing bags, baskets, babies,

sometimes more baggage than before,

Heavy pelvis, balancing hopes and bets, costs and debts.

Two months pregnant is different than four.

Before, they could swallow five pills

And deduct (expel) the eight, but the math of twenty weeks or more

Requires more time, more gore, they’re sure

we don’t have more time, they don’t.

We must, NOW, we must

do something. Look at the news!

Guernica’s flower does not ignore the wars;

It blooms despite them.


He lies dying, this 35-year-old boy,

breathed by machines, encircled by

family wringing their hands.

His lover is a moth to his light

approaching, leaving, bumping against

the walls of their judgment.

How dare they show up now, I think,

14 years after their rejection led to this?

This is your uncle, his red-bearded brothers

say to their skulks of kits

approaching the bed like a coffin.

The undertone: This is what

happens to gays. You will die. You will

end up thin and seizing and bleeding from your mouth

and anus and eyes. This is the

Hell you will bring to yourself and your family

if you leave the Church.

The family prays and the Elders stand with

hands on shoulders, oozing righteousness.

The lover wears a yellow mask

and paces the hall. They become Unitarians, I learn.

I think of my own welcoming church,

of our Ceremony of Spring, of Peepers.

I hope the boy and his lover were tender with each other.

I hope they found joy and held on like a lifeboat.

The boy drank to forget, to live,

to quiet his flock of righteous demons

waiting like vultures.

I drank, too, for all the same reasons,
but through some odd twist of circumstance,

am holding the stethoscope to his

chest rather than him, tall and smart,

to mine while I vomit and shit blood.

I got sober,

went to medical school,

and could just as easily been him

exsanguinating while family declines transfusions

and my lover, lawless and helpless,

paces outside the door.

It could be me,

having existed on spirits,



bled of my demons

until finally,


About the Author

Julia McDonald

Julia McDonald (She/Her/They/Them) is a queer artist and retired competitive lumberjack. Named Maine's 2019 Physician of the Year, they doctor to all ages, catch babies, provide abortions, and write in their spare time. They are currently working in Ethiopia and DRC for a global humanitarian organization. You can follow them on IG @drjuliamcdonald and blog drjuliamcdonald.wordpress.com.