In writing ALL IS MERE BREATH, I aim to express what I and many others felt during the pandemic and to connect those feelings to timeless human experiences. In May of 2020, cooped up at home, scared and frustrated, I was reading Robert Alter’s translation of the Tanakh, The Hebrew Bible, searching for verses that might relate to what we were going through, and the beginning of Lamentations stopped me cold:
“How she sits alone, the city once great with people.”
Surely that had to begin my response: surely there is no defter evocation of the sense of defeat and desolation that stalked us, the cold profusion of distanced mourning. New York, first and greatest among cities, sat alone, and all the others too, full only with wailing, united only in grief.
But though that verse started the piece, it couldn’t be the core. That initial shock of loneliness colored our pandemic experience but didn’t capture it fully. What might? I thought of the subtleties of translation that drew me to Alter’s great work, and of his commentary on Qohelet/Ecclesiastes. “Havel havalim hakol hevel,” says the Hebrew, and the King James Version renders it “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” But Alter says no, that’s wrong: it’s not about vanity in either the modern or archaic senses of that word. “Hevel” means “breath” and we should take that both literally, as a concrete image, and metaphorically to signify the ephemeral and transient. “Merest breath, all is mere breath.” The idea has echoes in many spiritual traditions — think of the importance of contemplating ephemerality, and of meditating on the breath, in Buddhism.
And it’s an idea never so resonant as now. All is mere breath: the threatening breath of others whose air we feared to share, the life-sustaining breath denied those whose lungs COVID ravaged. All is mere breath: the fragility of civilization, the pandemic exposed, our illusions of a firmly planned future canceled instantly. All is mere breath: the necessity of inwardness, of meditative contemplation, to keep us sane and calm in our monastic distance through an insane and turbulent time. All is mere breath: the thing every singer learns must come first, the origin and backbone of the song.
So in a time of ersatz virtual choirs I reflected on how a real choir might sing of the breath and its spiritual meanings, and how solo singers might declaim and cry out about what happened to us, what we might learn from it, how we might memorialize it. ALL IS MERE BREATH speaks not only to the hardship of the pandemic’s beginning, but to the ambiguity of its progress, the aching feeling that rescue is indefinitely far away, the tempering of episodes of deliverance with the knowledge that another surge might always happen, that “whatever comes is mere breath.” I hope it can serve as a document of those feelings and a solace to those who may come to know through it that they do not sit alone.
— Nicholas Weininger