Some writers stay with us forever. The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn is one such. Whenever I read his prose poem ‘Freedom to Breathe’ I find myself renewed both in mind and spirit.
And since I cannot do justice to it in my own words I will let Solzhenitsyn speak for himself:
Freedom to Breathe
A shower fell in the night and now dark clouds drift across the sky, occasionally sprinkling a fine film of rain.
I stand under an apple-tree in blossom and I breathe. Not only the apple-tree but the grass round it glistens with moisture; words cannot describe the sweet fragrance that prevades the air. Inhaling as deeply as I can, the aroma invades my whole being; I breathe with my eyes open, I breathe with my eyes closed – I cannot say which gives me the greater pleasure.
This, I believe is the single most precious freedom that prison takes away from us: the freedom to breathe freely, as I now can. No food on earth, no wine, not even a woman’s kiss is sweeter to me than this air steeped in the fragrance of flowers, of moisture and freshness.
No matter that this is only a tiny garden, hemmed in by five-storey houses like cages in a zoo. I cease to hear the motorcycles backfiring, the radios whining, the burble of loudspeakers. As long as there is fresh air to breathe under an apple-tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer.
(From: Solzhenitsyn: Stories and Prose Poems: Penguin 1973).
Isn’t that just splendid? Doesn’t it speak volumes in terms of the quality of life that the former Nobel winner describes? Only someone who had undergone the kind of hardship and suffering Solzhenitsyn underwent could describe the freedom to breathe so accurately.
I was thinking this today while I was out working in the garden. Here in Dublin in Ireland the weather is splendid at present – 20 degrees in the shade – hot, but not hot unpleasant, but enough to make one grateful to be alive. While I work I hear the neighbors’ children laugh and I think how precious freedom is. Yet millions of children around the world never get to laugh, never know what it is to breathe freely in the way that children in the West take for granted. Every day we see images of children who have to scour rubbish dumps for items that they can sell in order to buy food. Every day we see children who are abused and forced to live like rats in order to survive. And somehow the West seems powerless to prevent the plight of these children. All this despite the millions of pounds/dollars/Euro spent in aid.
And so I turn to Solzhenitsyn to remind myself how precious the ‘Freedom to Breathe’ actually is.