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"The first two lines of 'Where the Streets Have No Name' . . . it's this inane couplet." — Bono

Like a Song: Breathe

@U2
[Ed. note: This is the 35th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]

Like A SongIt'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 latté.

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.



© @U2/Eskridge, 2009.