Dedicated to Lana Garland

Like the city I love, this city of tobacco and medicine, I have not yet learned how to breathe in the safest, most loving and sustainable way. Even before the pandemic, I was trying to train my breath to be possibility and not reaction. 

Before sheltering in place, I participated in a twice-a-week Pilates class in the basement of an office building in downtown Durham. Joseph Pilates, an asthmatic athlete, developed his method working with amputee survivors of World War I and believed that if we could breathe from our core, move from our core, we could become strong from the inside out.

I spent years thinking Pilates was a Kegel-based rebranding of yoga designed to keep white women skinny after they had babies. It took a Pilates teacher who was also a Black feminist artist, who I already loved and trusted, to get me to try the practice myself. And now I’m a Pilates evangelist. 

What does this have to do with Durham? Well, back in my first Voices column I talked about the possibility of a “motherful Durham,” an approach to planning that creates a more life-giving reality in the city I love.

On the basement floor, listening to all of us breathing, some of us sending oxygen into muscles we had never before acknowledged or used, I realized something I had never considered possible was happening: intentional movement. All this time I thought I was intentionally walking around, standing up, sitting down, dancing and prancing through life, but I had no idea how I was doing any of those things. And as a person with scoliosis, I was actually putting my body, especially my back, in the situation of just reacting to the daily actions of mostly pain-free mobility. Kind of like how, before I started meditating, I just reacted to the things other people said and did and the challenges I faced without any clue that I could choose my response and align it with an intention for how and who I wanted to be. 

For me, Pilates is an embodied meditation, which means, like other meditations, I’m mostly terrible at it. After more than a year of practice, I still mostly don’t know how to lift one leg up while keeping my hips even and leaning on my elbow without arching my tired and overstrained lower back to keep everything together. 

But I have reached the point where I know what I am not doing, and I am learning how to breathe into my abdominal muscles and contract them in a way that is more supportive to my back.

Pilates is a form of abdominal planning. I am sending resources, air, into my core. I am using repetitive practice and movement to strengthen the parts of me that all other parts depend upon. And now I am aware of at least half a dozen tiny decisions I am making about what to do with my muscles with each breath.

Could our city be like that—a committed practitioner of something we are currently terrible at?  Committed to learning to act beyond reaction, but with profound intention, with awareness of the smaller decisions under each movement of resources? Someone reading this could say, Alexis, this already happening, don’t you see the construction downtown? The installation of 5G? The new city hall, the parking decks? The fulfillment of the plan to make the geographic core of this city a hub of art, food, optimistic post-pandemic coworking spaces and high-priced real estate? We are investing in our core. And everything else will get the trickle-down benefits of good business. Right?

Maybe. If we understand the core of our city to be the mostly empty buildings downtown modeling the expense of waiting for a city’s population to learn to breathe safely together.

But if we think, if we know, that the core of this city, the muscle, the labor, the mothering that has made Durham inspiring, dynamic, and almost too attractive for its own good is the unceasing stewardship of the Occaneechi band of the Saponi nation, and the unending work of Black and immigrant families in Durham, then we are certainly not sending enough air and life, enough resources and support to our core. We are not moving sustainably at all. We are flailing, guided by our extremities, the people we hope will stay and the overfunding of worst-case government institutions like prisons and police. 

But what if we let our core guide us, especially in this time of relearning how to breathe, when the same people as always are doing the essential work? What if we trusted that if we took care of our core we would experience what I am experiencing: so much relief for the parts of us (in my case, my lower back) that thanklessly kept us in motion so long. Can we do that, Durham? Invest in the core, move from the core? If we do, we will learn, in the midst of one of the hardest challenges ever, how strong we actually are.


ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS is the author of M Archive: After the End of the World, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, Dub: Finding Ceremony, and co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Follow her on Twitter. Comment on this column at backtalk@indyweek.com.

Voices is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club.