Josh clicked the pop-up alert and a live Instagram video started. He saw her, squinting at her screen, as if trying to read something. He’d watched several of her live videos before. Always enriching. Erykah Badu was a sage-mystic-philosopher on top of being an R&B artist. She stared at her phone for a few moments as if something were wrong. Josh waited for whatever Erykah Badu had planned. She turned to another person who was off-camera and said something in a muffled voice. Another woman came into view and looked more closely at her phone.
“There’s only one person here,” the other woman said.
It can’t be, Josh thought.
Erykah Badu took her phone back and looked at it again.
“Gotta be a fuck up,” said the voice of the other woman. “Let me see.”
Erykah Badu told her to wait a second, then squinted again at her screen.
“joshrock83? How are you on this exquisite day?” she said.
Erykah Badu was talking to him. Like, directly to him.
Josh started to type a reply.
His fingers were shaking.
Hi Erykah! I love you! Ur the best!!!
“Thank you joshrock83.”
The woman behind her said something about relaunching the stream.
“Listen Josh, we think there’s a glitch in the mainframe right now, so I’ll have to go. But I feel that the universe has put us together in this space for a reason. So is there anything you’d like to ask before we part ways?” said Erykah Badu.
Josh didn’t know how to reply. He had one of the most remarkable humans alive at his disposal for another moment or so. A chance like this might never happen again.
How do you keep evolving? he typed.
It was the only thing he could think to ask Erykah Badu.
“One breath at a time, Josh. Start there, with the breath, in and out. Then move outward into the universe. It takes time but you’ll eventually find new whole worlds to be a part of. But it starts with the breath.”
Josh scrambled to find a pen to write these words down before he forgot.
“I want to thank you for being here,” she said. “Remember the breath.”
The woman behind her leaned back into the frame.
“Just hit end. Then you can start another one.”
The screen went back to his regular feed.
He couldn’t believe it. Erykah Badu just gave him valuable life advice and no one was there to see it, except the other woman in the video.
The same pop-up alert came back. Erykah Badu started a live video.
He clicked the link again only this time ten, a hundred, two hundred, five hundred other people entered the live video stream. Erykah Badu said hello to all of them and proceeded with the announcement of a new tour with Anderson.Paak. She didn’t mention the little hiccup with joshrock83, but Josh knew he’d just experienced a special moment with an extraordinary person.
He told a few people at the office. They seemed to believe him but didn’t really understand the heft of the exchange. Mostly, they seemed to be surprised that Josh listened to any cool music at all. Veronica seemed shocked that Josh even knew who Erykah Badu was. She thought he was more of an Imagine Dragons guy.
At first, he didn’t really know what Erykah Badu meant by starts with the breath. Everything began with a breath, Josh thought. He started taking deep breaths before doing important things, like talking to his bosses or speaking up at a meeting. Jost started to find that the deep breaths did help, a little at least. They brought about a sense of calm that lasted for a minute or so, but his typical mid-grade anxiety would soon return. He felt there must be something more, so he googled Erykah Badu and Breath, which led to breathwork and breathing exercises. He learned about Buddhist meditation and method acting techniques for getting into character. Eventually, a fuller picture of what Erykah Badu must have meant was starting to emerge. It was not about the single action of breath but rather the state of one’s breathing. Taking a few big huffs before a meeting wasn’t going to help, but training oneself to regulate their breathing to mirror the desired emotional effect was what she meant. If you wanted to be calm, learn to breathe like a calm person, even if you weren’t. It made perfect sense.
And things improved. For example:
- Hey Veronica. Can I send you a Reel I think you’d like? If not, I can show you on my phone.
- Actually, I’m not really interested in switching my internet provider right now, but I’m thankful to you for informing me of other options.
- It’s okay, Dad. I forgive you.
- I don’t want to be one of those picky people, but I asked for no shrimp. Sorry, it’s a dietary thing.
It was all because of the breathing thing. Several times an hour, for every hour he was awake, he thought about Erykah Badu’s advice. He’d even say to himself, quietly so no one else would hear, Erykah Badu Stared a Live Video, and that would be enough to remind him of his breathing. It certainly wasn’t any Buddhist monk on the side of the mountain or anything, be he’d gotten to a sort of functional semi-nirvana. Mystical, almost. For a data analyst living in a suburb of Hartford, that was pretty good.
Five years later and Josh was living with his wife and young daughter. The wife wasn’t Veronica, though they actually got drinks one night after a long day at the office. Nothing happened. Josh’s wife was Theresa and their daughter was Masha, who was named after Theresa’s grandmother. They lived in an old farmhouse in Upstate New York, where Theresa was raised. Josh worked remotely, for a different company now. He’d forgotten all about Erykah Badu and her breathing recommendation.
Masha was having trouble sleeping at night. They’d moved her from her crib to a toddler bed and she wouldn’t stay in it. All night, she’d be up knocking on Josh and Theresa’s door. One of them, depending on whose night it was, would get up to put Masha back in bed, then sit with her until she fell asleep. Sometimes it would take 10 minutes, while other times she’d be awake until 4 in the morning and Josh would be on the verge of tears, pleading with his daughter to close her eyes. As Theresa had to go into the office for work, and Josh made his own schedule, he was the weekday warrior. After two and a half weeks of the up till 4 business, Josh was on the verge of a mental breakdown. His thighs were bruised from punching himself in the middle of the night.
- I’m not mad at you for fuck’s sake. I’m just exhausted.
- We don’t have time for this! Keep your shoes on your feet.
- We’re not lying… She hasn’t had a fever for like two days now.
- Our parents had us when they were in their twenties. No wonder they fucked it all up.
Josh threw a plate. Just a small one, but it smashed into a hundred pieces against the backsplash. Theresa scooped Masha up from her booster seat and walked her out of the room. Josh knew he fucked up and didn’t say anything as he heard Masha start crying halfway down the hall. She had been screeching incessantly about the TV and it flipped some switch in his brain he didn’t even know was there. A while later Theresa returned without Masha and gave him a look she’d never given him before. They agreed that he needed to see a therapist. They spent the next hour looking for someone in their network.
It took three months, but he was eventually able to see a therapist. Dr. Reyes-Jones. He told her about the plate, and the sleep issues, which by then had mostly resolved. They talked about his father for a bit, and his fears of ending up like him. They also went over coping strategies for dealing with his anger that didn’t involve the destruction of tableware.
“Have you ever taken any meditation?” asked Dr. Reyes-Jones.
Josh shook his head, no, then remembered his breathing thing and the Erykah Badu video. He remembered the feeling of zen that it gave him and how he thought that it would last forever. That he’d fixed everything. He laughed to himself, then told the Doctor a condensed version of the story.
“You know, that’s a really powerful tool for anger management. You should try to bring that practice back into your life.”
“I’ll try,” he said.
He listened to Mama’s Gun on the way home. It had been years. Years since he’d even listened to much music at all. Usually, if he had the opportunity to listen to something that wasn’t the Frozen soundtrack, it was some kind of crime podcast, and that was typically on the way to the grocery store. Many of life’s indulgences had been squeezed away with the arrival of Masha. As he listened to the record, it made him feel a little awkward. He wasn’t the same person anymore. It was as if he didn’t have the right to enjoy it for some reason. He thought about Erykah Badu and the exchange they had all those years ago. He thought about the version of her he had in his mind, the sage-mystic-philosopher, and how far his life had strayed from having that kind of connection to the mystical. Not that he was ever a mystical person, but he used to think that he could be. That he could reach out and grab it if he ever wanted to. Now the mystical was far out of reach. Josh wondered when his life stopped evolving and entered into this soul-stagnation. He wondered if he might spend the rest of his days locked into pragmatic toil and fulfilling responsibilities. He wondered if he might ever have access to the mystical again.
At home, he sat on the sofa and closed his eyes. Theresa was at work, and Masha was probably just getting up from her nap at daycare. He turned off his phone and sat quietly for a moment.
- Erykah Badu started a live video
- Erykah Badu started a live video
- Erykah Badu started a live video
- Erykah Badu started a live video
He tried to breathe. His lungs filled and emptied and he was a little calmer. The anger in his heart became visible to him then. An ugly little troll that just smiled and laughed at him. The troll looked like his father but not really. More like he did, actually. He kept breathing and the troll just kept laughing. When he opened his eyes, the laughing stopped and he was a little calmer. That was all that happened.
He stepped outside and looked at the cornfield across the street. A small hawk circled in the sky above the field. It wasn’t majestic or anything, there were hawks all over the place in Upstate New York. The hawk just circled and circled, slowly making its way across the expanse of the cornfield. Somewhere on the ground a mouse or a mole was rooting around in the soil. The hawk would eventually see the mouse or mole and swoop down to snatch the small animal with stunning violence. It would tear the little creature apart, eat its innards, then fly away looking for another mouse or mole to eat. While it was looking for another kill, it would shit out the remains of the previous one and that shit would land on the ground and eventually become part of the soil that future mice and moles would root around in. That was pretty mystical, Josh thought.