Breath, part 1 by Beth Bartlett

By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit, we are all one.

The air that is my breath . . .is the air that you are breathing.
And the air that is your breath . . . is the air that I am breathing.
The wind rising in my breast . . .is the wind, from the east, from the west,
From the north . . . from the south; Breathing in, breathing out.

So begins singer-songwriter Sara Thomsen’s song, “By Breath,” bringing together many elements I’ve been pondering in the last several days – breath, air, wind, spirit.

In cultures around the world, each of the four seasons is associated with one of the cardinal directions and one of the four elements – earth, air, fire, water.  In this season of winter, the associated direction is north, and the element is air. In these last few days of wild winter, the air from the north has indeed been making its presence known. The wind has been fierce, powerful, sculpting the snow into huge drifts and whipping up waves on the great lake, forming cliffs of ice on the rocks that line the shore.  It is as if these last gasps of winter are saying, “Air is my element and wind my breath. Remember the air is sacred.” 

The sheer force and power of the wind has often been associated with the divine. “And there went forth a wind from the Lord . . . “ (Numbers 11:31);  “See, the Lord has one who is powerful and strong. Like a hailstorm and a destructive wind” (Isaiah 28: 2); “Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: In my wrath I will unleash a violent wind” (Ezekiel 13:13). Or as novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote in describing the coming of the great Okeechobee hurricane, ““The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”[i]

So often on my winter walks, I find myself bracing against the wind, fending off the biting cold, made even sharper by the wind.  But in the course I’ve been taking on “rewilding,” one of the practices suggested for winter is to engage the wind, rather than buffer against it, and see how that shifts one’s experience of the season.  Indeed, on the day I participated in this practice, I found my spirit enhanced, lightened, inspired.  Spirit – from the Latin spiritus, meaning “spirit, soul”; inspire, inspiration – also from the Latin inspiritus, meaning “to breathe into, to inspire,” and in English – “to draw breath into the lungs.” Here is yet another understanding of air as sacred, as divine, as spirit, and as inspiration — the divine expressing itself through us. 

The Hebrew word for breath is the same as the word for spirit –ruach.  The spirit is invoked in the beginning — “And the earth was a formless and desolate emptiness, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit (Ruach) of God was hovering over the surface of the water” (Genesis 1:2).

The word ruach is feminine, and the Holy Spirit is often invoked as the feminine divine, which is so often represented in creatures that fly through the air and glide on its currents — birds. In the case of the Holy Spirit, it is a dove, but we have unearthed so many others in archeological digs and ancient legends – the Minoan bird goddesses, the winged Isis, the Sumerian Lilith, the Celtic Rhiannon. As artist Judith Shaw wrote in an earlier FAR post, “. . . from the great quantity of statues found and the symbolic marks carved on them, it is easy to believe that the Bird Goddess was seen as a divine being who nurtured and protected the world.” The ancient Bird Goddess also ruled over life and death – the first breath and the last.

To be continued tomorrow . . .


Hurston, Zora Neale. 1937, 1990. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Shaw, Judith. “The Bird Goddess.” Feminism and Religion Blog Post.  November 23, 2016.  The Bird Goddess by Judith Shaw (

Thomsen, Sara. 2003. “By Breath.”

[i] Their Eyes Were Watching God,  151-152.

Author: Beth Bartlett

Elizabeth Ann Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she helped co-found the Women’s Studies program in the early 80s. She taught courses ranging from feminist and political thought to religion and spirituality; ecofeminism; nonviolence, war and peace; and women and law. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including "Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant"; "Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought"; and "Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior." She is trained in both Somatic Experiencing® and Indigenous Focusing-Oriented trauma therapy, and offers these healing modalities through her spiritual direction practice. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, indigenous rights, and climate justice movements and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors. You can find more about her work and writing at

9 thoughts on “Breath, part 1 by Beth Bartlett”

  1. I love “By Breath”, which someone brought to my drum circle years ago. Thank you for reminding me of it. I am accustomed to thinking of Air in the East (North is Earth), but I can make an argument for any element in any direction. I look forward to tomorrow’s post.


    1. I know that different cultures associate different directions with the different elements. I was using the one form the Rewilding Wheel. I’m curious where you are located, just to know how far “By Breath” has traveled. It’s well-known here where Sara is in Duluth. I love that it has traveled far from here.


      1. I am in Canada, in Ottawa. The woman who taught it to us is blind. She plays guitar and is herself a songwriter. She taught us some sign language to go along with the words, which was like a dance. She no longer comes to our drum circle, and we haven’t done it since; we are drummers, not singers.


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