There’s a multiplicity within me that I can’t shake, no matter how much I try for the linear, non-corrupted career path. Some days, I function as a reporter, other days I’m writing short stories, creative nonfiction, and when the rooms in my house get sad and quiet, I read old poems, reworking the forgotten ones. When everything turns stale, I write jokes and perform stand-up. It’s a losing battle, since I don’t seem to be advancing in any specific direction, and yet I have writings in all these genres. This behavior is aptly mirrored by my hopping from one sport to another. My body wants to inhabit new physical challenges, just as my mind wants to inhabit new writing structures, influenced by emerging feelings and intellectual thought.
I’ve been doing yoga in the mornings for several years, even squeezing short stretches before running, swimming, or, in the colder months, ice skating. I practice the same sport throughout the month, depending on the weather, or how alive I’m feeling. Most people might frown at my constant switching, and my accompanying joke, “I’m an expert at not being an expert”—dissatisfied by the impracticality, and lack of shiny accolades for any single sport. One might argue, a person is a result of their accomplishments. They give us purpose, and a sense of urgency. After all, no one wants to be a shapeless amoeba.
If accomplishments give us purpose and structure, do we necessarily have to fall apart when we don’t find it? Or rather can we change and adapt? Amoebas are shape shifting and versatile. They exist in every major organism.
Recently, I interviewed older athletes within the outdoor sports community, and noticed their openness when altering their practice as they age, in some cases, switching to other sports. They are forgiving about not having devoted their whole lives to an individual sport. Shawn Brokemond, 55, coaches women over forty through her small business, Sports Adventure, and only began competing in triathlons in her late 30s, using skills from mountain biking, surfing, and other sports. Usually, as people age, they become more careful, Brokemond told me. “People lose their courage,” she said. “They’re just afraid.”
For a long time, the parenting consensus was sports specialization, sacrificing a good portion of their kid’s life. Gone are the days of “pick up” kickball or hockey, which had the spontaneity that organized modern sports lack. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “sports specialization has led to an increase in overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout.” Millennials and Gen Z are redefining what it means to practice sports, less tied to unrealistic standards, and more so, tied to joy and therapy, as evidenced by the renaissance of rolling skating during the pandemic. Millennials like me are attempting new sports they didn’t have the opportunity to try when they were younger, either due to economic factors, or lack of confidence.
I usually run in the mornings, or just before sundown when there’s a silvery orange hue. Running wakes up my legs and mind to see how far they can take me while getting a momentary nature bath. When I’m going stir crazy, I want the maples and oaks to restore me back to sanity. I run down the block, passing the noisy basketball court and kid’s playground, until landing in a forested park. My pièce de résistance is running up a steep hill, so I can reach the gazebo for shade. I’m occupied with observations: people walking their dogs, the daycare kids wobbling in pairs, tennis players striking, bikers whizzing by. Thoughts circle around, coming into focus then fading. Recently, I’ve been running on a paved trail, lined by trees with the DC metro in the distance. It’s sparse with people, so my thoughts run down craft methods, possible short stories, better endings, and, how does one create meaning?
Previously, I was running two miles, twice a week, but after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running, I realized I was stopping short, and not going over my self-imposed limit, in the same way, I sometimes skirt going beyond writing limits. Sure, not everyone can run Murakami’s 156 to 217 miles a month, but it’s about progression. I’ve started running three times a week, with two miles during the workweek, and four miles on Sunday, realizing I don’t have to be a speedy bunny. Social media’s performative nature tricks us into believing we have to meet certain wins to have value, rather than focusing on the process that may lead somewhere personally meaningful. It’s hopeful to note that Murakami didn’t peak as a runner until his late 40s, improving his time and focus over many years.
Before reading Murakami’s memoir, I never thought about the unhealthiness of writing, as more than the regular sitting-in-front-of-a-screen malady—less so about how diving into unsavory memories and characters resurfaces traumas, contributing to antisocial tendencies. The act of running becomes a way to reclaim lost energy, while expelling toxins, so you can keep a healthy, creative mind. There’s a popular misconception that we need hotel-trashing rockstar days for our art to flourish, otherwise our writing becomes stagnant. That might work for some, but the body also needs to be exhumed of bad spirits.
Albeit, running in the morning can be the worst form of punishment. Your leg muscles are collectively saying, why are you doing this to me? while people watch you sweat. It’s a mix of performance and torture where the struggle reveals a sense of clarity. Murakami writes, “If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as whole.
Going over my normal mile count recently, felt like I was crashing against a wall: my self-imposed limits. My mind was energetic and wanted to continue, but my legs were already folding, especially my shins. Years ago, I was at risk of a torn meniscus, and went to physical therapy, so I’m cognizant of any weird pains, and always stretch. But this was about my body needing to warm up, and me expecting it to perform without delay. You have to be willing to go over the threshold of pain in order to run on a clean slate, and then the distance becomes a matter of endurance.
Murakami writes, “It’s precisely because of pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling through this process, of really being alive–or at least a partial sense of it.” I want running to be painless and quick, just as writing, to have the perfect words, even if the subject is complicated. When starting an assignment that requires interviews and research, I meet a wall and want to turn back. My mind is syrupy, but my body is awake for typing, for making connections, just to start somewhere. When I meet a writing obstacle that requires a deep dive, it’s my legs pounding the concrete. To cross over that pain means to emerge in a place where you feel alive—a blank page where you can focus on the process. It becomes not about circumventing pain, but meeting it on the trail and learning from it.
I scan my ID and briskly go downstairs, excited to swim after watching some videos on varying techniques. Entering the locker room, I see wet bodies of different ages, and the shape of my body glares out in the mirror with its purple one piece. I semi-regret the color purple, now seeing my small plump tummy. The bodies on the deep side of the pool are the type of swimmers that use their swim caps to scoop water then plop them over their heads. A skinny lanky man with no body hair rotates his arms, like a windmill then dives in like a natural fish. An older lady glides underwater, flipping and turning, making me believe I can attempt these mermaid dances. On the left are the slower lanes with a section for moms and kids, and seniors practicing their water aerobics. I walk down the ramp, feeling the cold water slowly climb up my skin. An older lady tells me, “I love your bathing suit.” I smile at her, and dive in like an eel, under the red lane float dividers, popping my head when I see my empty lane.
The unsettling feeling of having my body exposed in public, made me think of Andy Jackson’s “The Change Room”
This morning, walking almost naked
from the change room toward the outdoor heated pool,
I become that man again, unsettling
shape to be explained.
Such questions aren’t asked to my face. Children
don’t mean anything by it, supposedly, so I
shouldn’t feel as I do,
as my bones crouch into an old shame I thought
I’d left behind.
Swimming pulls me away from the anxiety of not producing, of not putting myself out there, of seeing my savings dwindle as I embark on a home purchase. I visit my community pool to improve my freestyle, backstroke, and the one I call, froggy style (breaststroke). My goal is ten laps, but usually I keep going, forgetting I’m only allowed to be in the pool for 45 minutes. I’m focused on breathing out, how the bubbles sound underwater when pushing the air out through my nose. Sometimes I get distracted, causing a panic, that I won’t have enough air, but then calm down, timing my breaths in, taking notice of my legs, how they kick from the thighs, like flippers. The water glides over my skin, carrying my arms, as they extend forward, catching the water, pushing back, and coming up for air on the side. Staying with the mechanism allows me to temporarily freeze out the rabid pace that we must always follow. When I exit, I feel cleansed, emptied out, so I can be filled with words again. My fears abandoned under the water, floating out there with the bubbles dispersing.
There is something about remaining in that state of continuous stroking, breathing out and breathing in, that feels so robotic, it scares me. My mind gets lost in the repetition, and there is a fear of the unknown, of what would happen if I keep swimming this way forever, never being able to leave the water. When I reach the end of the lane, I inhale, then dive back into the water.
The last time I went snorkeling, panic invaded my senses, constricting my muscles, as I started swimming opposite of the shore. My fear may be a remnant from family trauma. My mom and aunts grew up scared of water after almost drowning on a beach in my native Peru.
Even with the scary moments I’ve had under water, or my family’s history, my body still wants to go back. The calming, but repetitive aspect of swimming becomes the process of crossing the pool. Ultimately, the act becomes an obsession, since anything is possible within that space of continuity. The unknowns I encounter when I begin a poem, work themselves into broken lines that reveal unexpected connections and truths about the self. The many unknowns of moving water become a story for how we survive.
I glide into the open ice rink, meeting the vastness. A layer of water glazed over fresh ice, after the zamboni has cleaned the scratches. There’s a slight trepidation getting on, not knowing if your feet will have a stable hold, but you pick up speed gradually, the balance becoming second-nature, like when you learned to ride a bike. The ice becomes familiar, a place where your skates are no longer frigid ice traps you strapped to your feet.
Once a week, I exist in my version of the arctic, a 200-foot long rink, where I loop around endlessly listening to a playlist, aptly titled, ice skate! I take in the sights, the spinning flamingoes, the kids in colorful helmets maneuvering through cones, the hockey skaters slicing in hyper speed, each one in their own universe level.
When I started skating lessons last winter, the gradual progression was comforting, similar to writing. A solitary image or scene emerges, then sentences that turn into paragraphs, until you have a story staring back in disbelief. That’s how it felt when I went backwards for the first time, after telling myself it was impossible. Each move is a catalyst, allowing you to build speed, and connect to other skills. Possibly in the same way genres bleed into each other, as much as we try to keep them apart. But then again, every skill deserves its own time. In ice skating, jumping from one skill to the other without mastering the first, makes you unbalanced for the next. Skating is a calculated performance, and not always so spontaneous, but I’m surprised by the risks my muscles take through intuition and memory, rather than careful planning. This forms parallels when writing an essay, letting intuition guide you, without necessarily having all the answers initially.
My parents’ idea of learning to skate was trial by fire. When I was eight they let me skate in a crowded Central Park ice rink with no adult supervision. I remember being alone, trying to find my footing. In high school, I went skating with friends, as a casual after school activity for nervous giggles and awkward dates. Rentals were abysmally uncomfortable, stabbing-pain-on-ankles bad, and the ones for sale were too expensive. It was only when I started working full time, that I thought about buying a pair. Really, the idea emerged while sitting by Bryant Park, watching people in old-timey outfits glide to Ella Fitzgerald’s, “Lullaby of Birdland,” and thinking, that could be me.
Ice skating has become a way to rewrite childhood fears, giving me courage, and a chance to find community. Seeing young people skate reminds me of my high school gymnastic team, going to after school practice, competitions, and how no matter what, the tribe was always cheering you on. As an adult, community is fleeting, especially with remote work. Forming a writing community has become a reality: attending workshops, conferences, and readings, giving me motivation that is often difficult to find when creating in solitude. During skating class, I met adults who were doing the same torturous one foot glides with me. We were all baby penguins defying gravity. Some parents had their kids in adjacent classes with their own group. “Oomph my daughter is already advancing me,” one mom said. “I did it just to keep her company, but now I kind of like it.”
In Wendy Wimmer’s short story, “Strange Magic”, the characters turn back time as they loop around a rink, their bodies get younger, they lose weight, but some gain back mental and body issues they left in the past. Writing can be a form of rewinding, going through the waves of old memories, conjuring traumatic feelings. It’s comforting to know you exist in the present, having gone through those previous loops. Rewinding allows you to inhabit an illuminating present, lightyears away. The upside is you’re not alone in the context of a rink, or a writing workshop—everyone is looping around, going forward, but also backwards—a sort of palindrome effect on our memories that allows writers to connect with distant parts of themselves.
The Lonely Desk
On the other side of these seemingly unreasonable, and perhaps wasteful activities, is my lonely desk, waiting for me to be exhausted, when I have no other option but to sit and write. It has become clear, I need movement outside in order to be still inside. I need my body tired enough to focus, as if writing during a blackout with a solitary candle. The functional repetition of physical activities absorb me, challenging my muscle reflexes and disconnecting me from the mental process of writing. Other writers can relate to this sentiment. In 1999, Joyce Carol Oates wrote how running disentangles the structural writing problems she sets for herself. A 2013 study found that “acute exercise may affect both, divergent and convergent thinking.” Not surprisingly, writer Fran Hawthorne conducts research by recording her observations while running.
Despite the setbacks and disappointments at not being a more successful writer, movement has been a constant breath. Writing in multiple genres is my antidote to getting burned out. The need to return to a particular sport, or a genre is less about the accolades, but more so, becoming reacquainted with the practice. It’s never too late to harness courage in any sport, to cultivate a sense of risk-taking even if not always under the best conditions. Getting back to the practice of writing takes courage, having to convince yourself, you can confront your fears every time.
Murakami’s best piece of advice for being a novelist is not necessarily focused on talent, since that can be short-lived, but rather training focus and endurance. Practicing sports reminds me to layer skills, as in the context of learning to ice skate; every skill deserves time. On the other side are the outcome goals tied to acceptance from peers. They are challenging to override, because they appear to give us purpose and urgency. But purpose is often found while you’re in the midst of writing, while you’re in the dirt, digging. Urgency is found through the constant obsession for your craft, which keeps you returning to the page, or rather the water, the ice rink, and the trail.