On breathing fire

I went through an awkward phase (as most of us did) when I found myself super self-conscious about how my breath trailed out in puffs of white whenever it got even just a tiny bit cold. It never seemed to be happening to anyone else, and I felt like a weirdo even when it was 15 degrees and everyone could see everyone else’s breathing, filling the air with fog.

It was just one item on a laundry list of things I hated about myself.

I hated my gut, hanging over my size 20 jeans. I hated my feet, double-wide and too-long, to carry my ridiculous height. My hair was thin and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I rarely wore make-up, and when I did, I did it badly. My eyes were okay. My braces were off. I didn’t see anything good about myself.

Standing at the bus stop, speaking to the few other kids who gathered there (when I could overcome my paralyzing social anxiety), I became hyper-aware of the smoke billowing forth from my parted lips, curling up from my flared nostrils, as I did something as simple as breath to stay alive, as speak to form bonds. No one commented on it; no one else seemed to be huffing these clouds into the air. Why was it only me? Why was it my hyper-heated mouth raising a fog over my eyes, floating off into a gray-clouded sky?

I held my breath. I gasped in air and turned my head to let it. (And yes, I realize now how stupid this sounds.) But it mattered to me. I hated myself for so many reasons, but I could hide most of them beneath sweaters and winter coats. I couldn’t stop breathing.

I was waiting for the train last Thursday — a January Thursday — and the temperature for the time of year was unnatural. There was a chill in the air, but it wasn’t cold. Breathing moisture-laden carbon dioxide into the air should not have yielded tiny tendrils of clouds, as it was not cold enough for the microscopic water droplets to crystallize and float.

I thought immediately of me, years ago, awaiting the bus in jeans I hated, desperately trying to keep the smoke from escaping. I hated myself, for so many reasons –all wrong reasons.

But now I realize that this steam is a symbol of my strength. It is the outpouring of the smoke rising from the fire in my belly. It is the dragon in my chest heaving heat into my being. It will burn and keep me warm, and it will burn and keep me moving, and it will burn and keep me glowing.

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