Breathing Deeply

Heather J. Kirk

© Copyright 2018 by Heather J. Kirk 


Photo of lilies.  (c) by Heather J. Kirk

(c) Heather J. Kirk

Heather’s extensive travel experiences and the interactions among people of various cultures often find their way into Heather J. Kirk’s writings. Heather has studied in Mexico City, lived in the Dominican Republic and visited many other countries, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cambodia and Australia (among others). As a fine art photographer, Heather’s camera finds modern and ancient architectures, as well as flowers, trees, landscapes and seascapes of the Pangea she calls home. It is as if she “belongs” to both the Caribbean and the desert of her home in Scottsdale, Arizona, which due to the abundance of palm trees is ironically parallel.

Celtic Christians called them “Thin Places,” locations where the membrane between heaven and earth was thinner than other places. I found mine speeding across the Caribbean Sea, looking at waves reflecting the most amazing blue, against alternating sandy and rocky shores, edged with the protected, lush green forest of the Dominican Republic. Suddenly a combination of joy and peace touched the top of my head, filled me up, then with a whoosh, pushed out through sandy toes. It was as if the Breath of Life had just passed through me. Or, I had passed through it. The thought paired with this joy was, "I need to live here.”

As a 44-year-old single woman with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the task felt overwhelming. I spent the next six months praying for God to guide me and give me a sign, until it dawned on me I had already received my sign. When asked where I would be living, as if from the same illogical source as "I need to live here," I inexplicably answered without a thought, "Santo Domingo."

To understand how ironic this is, you must know that this is a two hour drive (plus a long boat ride) from Bayahibe and the Parque Nacional del Este where I had found my Thin Place. There are no beaches in Santo Domingo, as it was chosen as the place to build a fort and best defend the island by Cristobal Colon (yes, Mr. Columbus), because of the lava rock shores that would protect it from attacking enemy ships. And though it is a coastal city, very little of that particular color of blue water or lush green exists along the coast in this city of three million people (and it feels like nine million cars). I spent the next 8 months living in and learning many difficult and many wonderful things about Santo Domingo - but it is a strange answer for someone who made a decision to move looking at nationally protected beaches and forests.

I had one friend in the country, who happened to live in Santo Domingo, so I thought the blurted answer was logical at some level. But the timing was difficult. I saw him on the third day of my arrival, then not again for five months, as he was driving teams of aid workers into Haiti after the recent earthquake.

Within two weeks I had found a place to live, moved in, organized my space, and discovered that I spoke Mexican Spanish, not Dominican Spanish (enough of a difference to make life difficult), in a city with three million people, yet no geographical concentration of expats. I found myself very lonely and very far away from that “thin place” and God.

I struggled with loneliness and depression, questioning my decision to move. Did I sell my belongings and disrupt my life for this, to lie on a bed exhausted, staring up at the ceiling fan and wishing I could have afforded a room with air conditioning? With communication problems (interpersonal and technological), transportation constraints, monetary limits, college students striking nearby (resulting in tear gas wafting into my room), dangers of traveling alone as a woman, lack of friends, and getting sick whenever I ate out, I felt, to put it bluntly - imprisoned.

From the rooftop of my building I could see the ocean too far away for me to walk to, until I built up a tolerance for walking in the humid heat. I could also see groupings of trees here and there. But at ground level nature disappeared behind buildings and concrete. I saw only locked gates, high walls, roads full of potholes, vehicles pressing into all available space, and visible pollution spouting from tailpipes. I felt crowded in and conspicuous, with my tall blond head a walking target for deception and men seeking visas to the United States. My view was closed-in, fearful and limited – ‘tunnel vision of the heart’ is how I can best describe it. Other than gasping sobs of loneliness cried into my pillow, even my breathing became timid and shallow. I had become a different person – the confident, friendly, artist who arrived here was locked behind my own newly constructed walls.

Finally, with a visit to the botanical gardens (Jardín Botánico Nacional de Santo Domingo), I stepped into another world - a surprising paradise of open space, pretty, brick-patterned sidewalks, and sprawling ponds full of blooming water lilies. The map folded out larger and larger, revealing paths to many different botanical worlds waiting to be discovered. I noticed my constricted lungs releasing all my pent up sadness and anxiety. I was safe in a world I understood as an artist: flowers and landscapes, color and photographic opportunities. I breathed deeply for the first time in months. It was not a surprise to see printed on the map that I was standing literally in “the lung of the city,” a large protected area helping to clean the polluted air and provide oxygen to the crowded city.

Later, looking at the photographs I took, I saw my own instant transformation in the petals of the water lilies. From being closed up and alone, to feeling the breeze, being caught up in its motion, accepting whatever life has to offer. I saw beauty had always been there, even when my eyes were closed. In the garden, and in the images, I learned it was safe to open up and breathe.

A few days after my virtual lung transplant, I sat on an urban park bench a block from my rented room that I had sat on a week before. The park was actually a large, bricked median in the middle of a busy street. Above my head, large maroon and yellow flowers bloomed in columns from hanging vines that previously, I was sure, had been long, dried sticks hanging from a dark sky. I looked up at the immense green canopy above me, spreading from a giant tree, majestic and lush.

How could I have not seen the tree before? I confess I had seen its sprawling roots, but all those green leaves? Never. For the first time since living there I had truly looked up. I visited that bench often in the months that ensued, as well as walked side streets where I found balconies with bougainvilleas spilling over their railings, and plumeria trees peeking out of walled-in yards. But the shift of my mindset now placed me inside with the flowers, instead of alone and locked out.
A decade before, when disability took over, photography helped me redefine myself; and there in a foreign land my camera once again was the instrument that promised to find Thin Places and remind me to breathe deeply wherever I went.

Still, I like to live life on purpose, have answers and a specific goal to work towards. I had none of that, except to try to figure out ‘Why?’ I was brought there.

One thing I discovered in the heat and the relaxed culture is that sometimes we are supposed to just 'be'. Maybe the 'Why?' was supposed to come find me instead of me searching for it. But would I recognize it? Is it necessary to recognize it? Now there’s a concept to ponder - to fulfill a purpose and not even know you are doing it. But in reality, that must happen all the time!

Yet I expected that because the message to “Go” to the island was so clear, the reason ‘Why?’ would eventually become clear, and it did, mostly having to do with the people I met on my journey. Every day of our lives contains purpose and meaning. Instead of trying to identify and define it, constantly seeking and questioning, I needed to just live my purpose out day by day by being myself - because potentially every interaction, every conversation, is full of importance, at a level we may never understand. Who knows when and where anyone’s “Thin Place” will open up.

Faith is a strange thing, needing a place or a person to rest in. I learned I had to take my faith about my decision to move to the Dominican Republic out of a fleeting feeling on a speedboat, and into the hands of the God of all creation – otherwise I would not emotionally survive the many trials I faced. I could again recall the rush of spirit running through me, from head to foot, and remembered to breath – but this time I promised to find, and hopefully create, “Thin Places” for others, by carrying the Holy Spirit, the Breath of Life, with me wherever I went.

Contact Heather

(Messages are forwarded by The Preservation Foundation.
So, when you write to an author, please type his/her name
in the subject line of the message.)

Heather's Story List And Biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher