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hula hoop around your heart

Periarterial Prayer

by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

For Sade (and all of us)

The capillaries that connect your heart to your lungs are both airstreams and blood flow. Doctors call them periarterial. In the maze of small blood vessels that process oxygen no one knows where your heart ends and your lungs begin. Maybe there is no end to your heartbeat, your breathing. Even when the decade starts like this one did.

The past two years have challenged our breathing and broken our hearts in more ways than we can name. We have lost too many loved ones and then lost the chance to hold each other in our grief.  We have lost the way we used to live, the carelessnesses we didn’t even know we cherished.

A beloved community member of mine who rose up away from here this year is a beautiful young Black lesbian hula-hoop artist named Sade Williams. In the context of COVID’s pressure on an already unaccountable healthcare system, and the disproportionate risks faced by Black queer women, Sade’s lupus intensified to the point where her heart couldn’t take it. When she died from a heart attack, our community took the shock into our own hearts. We struggled to breathe through the unspoken expectation that we would live through this moment in history together.

Sade wasn’t my best friend. But in the blessed time of hugs she was a divinely huggable acquaintance. I saw her once a year at the Black Lesbians United retreat. She would get on stage with her glittery hula hoop, put on a popular song (one year it was “Suavaemente” by Elvis Crespo) and awe us all with her graceful presence, skillfully making the love that orbited her body visible. Every year I tried to keep my mouth closed, but without fail it would fall open. Eventually, it was all of us opening our mouths, screaming, cheering, dancing in our seats. What was I remembering in the radio edit miracle of a free Black woman dancing beyond her body?

Maybe I was remembering that it doesn’t end: Your heart. Your breathing. When we learned of Sade’s sudden passing, the family we call Black Lesbians United gathered across our computer screens. We sat and remembered and cried. It really did feel like my chest was ripping open when I heard the Black lesbian chosen mothers, who sweet daughter Sade had promised to care for as they aged, express their disbelief that she had danced away to where we could no longer see her. I put my hands on my chest and reminded myself to keep breathing, keep listening, keep witnessing.

That night, I went to sleep and when I woke up I stayed in bed with the blackout curtains down. What do you have to do to face a day where anything, anyone, any illusion of safety or future could disappear? I choose to meditate before I face each day. And some mornings it is harder than other mornings. That particular morning, I needed some meditative support. And so, still lying in bed, I clicked on a meditation from Body Land: Metaphor Medicine, a series of surrealist mediations informed by Chinese medicine that I would have never known about except that their creator Liz Asch Greenhill Instagram messaged me she loved my work: “I don’t know why I feel inclined to share this with you today” she wrote. I clicked on a meditation called “Bright Heart Cleanse” and cried when I heard Liz, a complete stranger, describe the heart as a diva, the empress of our bodies. Then Liz invited us to (I can’t make this stuff up) visualize our pulsing heart on stage, surrounded by a healing cleansing HULA HOOP. There it was again, Sade’s heart beyond her body. I let my tears fall back into my ears.

I don’t know how the electrician we call the universe connects the circuits we experience as consciousness.  Maybe the mathematics of divine coincidence live in the same convoluted space where the capillaries don’t care whether they are lungs or heart or both. All I know is that you, too, have experienced heartbreak this past year. You, too, have borne witness to strange miracles of your own. And the New Year will break us open again. And love will astound us in ways we can’t imagine yet.

If it will help you to continue to breathe, continue to witness, I offer you this periarterial prayer. Hold your chest while you read it. Say it out loud if you want.

Love is breathing. Love is breathing through and around us. Love is breathing with and as us. Love does not know the difference between this year and last year and next year. Love does not need a calendar to show up at the exact right time. Love does not know where the heart stops and the lungs start. What we call breathing, Love calls an older thing. What we experience as a ticking heartbeat lifetime, Love knows as eternity. We will see it in glimpses. We will feel it at breaking points. We will learn to know ourselves, each other, and our planet as love in orbit. Hula hoop around your heart.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer Black feminist writer and scholar and an aspirational favorite cousin to all life forms. Gumbs is the author of several books including Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals and the forthcoming The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde: A Cosmic Biography

Header image: theendup / Alamy Stock Photo

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