I wish I had the right story to tell you. If I did, every word of it would sound like your mother’s steady breathing. It would sound like your best friend inhaling deeply on the first dewy morning of spring, like a child laughing until they’re breathless, like your own huffing and puffing as you climb a steep mountain trail. If I had the right story, it would feel warm like a lover’s sigh on your ear. It would feel like the time you finally asked that question, the one you’d been afraid to pose, and held your breath waiting for a reply. It would feel like your ribcage expanding big and round in relief after hearing the answer you wanted. The right story would smell like an earthy desert river carving deep sandstone canyons, feel like fresh snow balancing on naked tree branches, and taste like newly cut grass on a school playground. It would look like a clear, deep blue sky.
I wish I had the right story to tell you. If I did, it would boom with the authoritative, measured cadence of a newscaster announcing another red air day. It would hack and heave like the coughs of children echoing off a gym wall when the air quality forces them to have recess inside. If I had the right story, when you picked it up it would jerk and idle and honk at you like bumper to bumper traffic on I-15. It would sound like the beep and gurgling drone of your elderly father’s oxygen concentrator, like the rasping, labored wheezes of your niece reaching for her inhaler. It would taste like phlegm and reverberate like the word “asthma” rolling off a pediatrician’s tongue again and again and again. If I had the right story, it would emit a thick, malignant plume of acrid gray smoke, and it would smell like the absolute despair of watching someone you love suffocate knowing that you don’t have the resources to move away from the highway, from the refinery, from hopelessness.
I wish I had the right story to tell you, but I don’t. Instead, I’ve only got one story, and it goes like this: Three months ago I returned to Salt Lake City from Moab after spending six years away, and I brought my new husband with me. He’s never lived here before. It’s well known that Salt Lake locals often instruct newcomers to look toward the mountains to orient themselves with the lay of the land. I want to give my husband the same advice, but how can I when he knows about the thick inversions that hang like rancid milk around the city and dilute the sun to a pale, dirty brown? I want him to love Salt Lake like I do, but I worry that my descriptions of all the things I love about it—summer mornings spent at coffee shops in Sugarhouse, sunsets glimpsed from parking garages, autumn walks in Memory Grove, Christmas lights in Temple Square—won’t be enough to outweigh the fact that on some days we won’t be able to see the mountains at all. On days without their reassuring presence, I feel lost both in space and in spirit, and the low sky presses on my chest like a heavy weight. I know I’m not alone in this feeling, and I can’t help but wonder—what effect does this have on our collective sense of place, on our communal sense of direction? How does the pollution, the inability to breathe, shape our inner lives? Without the reliable visual of the mountains, how will my husband root himself in his new home? How will any of us?
The simplest truth is that ever since I first moved here 11 years ago—fresh out of high school with a full-ride scholarship to Westminster College clutched like a lifeline in my Latina, working-class, first-generation college student fist—this city has been shaping me. This city has been teaching me how to breathe. And this is what I’ve learned so far: On a basic level, clean air matters because breathing forms our most direct connection with our environment. With each breath, we expand to welcome the world into our lungs, and with each exhalation we push ourselves out into the spaces we inhabit. We don’t just live in polluted places—we live in polluted bodies. Clean air matters because our identities are inextricably bound up in the places we live, the places that we love. Our rootedness in place affects our emotional lives, and our sense of self depends on the health of our environment. We act upon each other reciprocally, tangibly and intangibly, individually and communally. Pollution affects our physical health, but it also molds our shared inner landscape—it shapes us as a culture and as a society. This is the psychology and sociology of place. Clean air matters because toxicity chokes our souls as surely as it chokes our lungs and invades our bloodstreams. Our souls, our hearts, our lungs, our collective love story with this city, depend on clean air.
"The Right Story" will appear in the upcoming chapbook Breathing Stories: Utah Voices for Clean Air. Learn more about the project and submit your own story.
Lauren Wilder is a queer, Latinx femme with strong working class roots. She grew up in Oregon but has called Utah home for over a decade. Her work has also appeared in the 2016 anthology Coming of Age at the End of Nature.