1. I’m fourteen years old and I’m flying. My feet hit the ground, sure, but barely; my legs carry me with ease around the soft curves of the track. It is a spring evening, the rain of the day has finally stopped, leaving behind a thick mist. Time passes in the pitter-patter of spiked shoes and the steady rhythm of breath of twelve girls as we round the track for the seventh time. The lights above the track and the blur of noise and people surrounding it are outside my reality. Things I know to be real: the swinging of the ponytail of the girl in front of me, the track beneath my feet, the burning of my legs and lungs. My body is uncomplicated. It is a tool, finely tuned for this moment. I will my legs to move faster, feeling the thrill of pulling even with the ponytail I have my eyes locked on. We move side by side for a few steps, then I shift gears again and allow my muscles to slingshot me forward into the final lap.
2. It has been four days since I last saw my body. The mirror version of my body, that is, the one where the imperfections glare out at me, the one I inspect for changes—changes which I inevitably find, changes that are always for the worse. I have forgotten that body for now, in favor of the one currently balancing a canoe on its shoulders, steadfast and resilient. This body: coated-in-dirt, bruised, sunburnt, sore from long days paddling on the lakes of northern Wisconsin and long nights with only a thin sleeping pad between it and the ground. Out here, I spread peanut butter thick like frosting on my Bisquick-flour-and-water bread which I cooked the night before over the fire. Out here, I battle for the last spoonful of scrambled brownies and I know that Magic Pieces, knock-off M&M’s that only taste good when you’re dead-tired and miles from civilization, give me wings.
3. Contact: when I wrap my arms around someone, the accidental brush of fingers or bump of knees, holding hands—no, not that—linking arms, a quick kiss (or a lingering one), a shoulder for resting on, skin on skin, little spoon, big spoon, when someone wraps their arms around me.
4. I’m woken by the first hint of light seeping over the horizon. The sun is not yet up, the Maine sky still a deep blue—the pink fringe on the clouds the only clue of morning’s arrival. I lift my arms above my head and curl my toes, shaking the fragments of sleep from my limbs. I am sandwiched between two friends, we’re here on a road trip before returning to school, and they stir as I sit up. The expanse of Acadia National Park spreads out below our mountaintop. My body aches a bit from a night of restless sleep on the pine needle bed, but I hardly notice. The three of us do not speak but wander from our resting place onto the rocks adjacent to us. We watch as the sun peers above the treeline, washing our faces with golden light. In this moment, I do not wish myself smaller. I do not want to take up less space—I want more. More! I wish to stretch myself up towards the sky, to expand myself to take in more of the view.
5. The best kind of movement for me now is when I hit an easy speed rhythm, fast but gliding. Biking is like that always, at least the kind of recreational cycling I do. It’s particularly good along Providence’s East Bay Bike Path, at the part where there is water on both sides of the pavement, when the sun is shining and it’s late afternoon and it’s warm, but not too hot, like the crisp spring day kind of warm where everything is possible, and you’re biking with your arms outstretched and the wind flirting through your fingertips and there is nothing that suggests that you couldn’t go on like this forever.
6. I am tethered to a rock wall—nothing between me and the dirt fifty feet below but a rope that’s just nine millimeters wide. It is essential that I trust my hands and feet, that I appreciate my body for what it is, what it can do. If I don’t I’ll be overtaken by fear, frozen and eventually I’ll tire and tumble back towards the place where the rope is clipped into a bolt in the rock a body length below me. Once I’ve clipped the rope to the bolt above me I will be able to relax, there will no longer be such a distance to fall. Until then, every movement I make is deliberate, a misplaced toe will send me lurching down. I’ll be fine, of course, probably. Still, I’ve never been more aware of my body than in this moment, I feel every curve and notch in the stone beneath my fingers as I carefully rock my hips in towards the wall, balancing my center of gravity above the tiny ledges where I rest my toes. Eyes closed, deep breath, clear the mind. Eyes open, look up, plan your next move. I let go with my right hand and sink it into a pocket in the rock above my head, coated in chalk to signal its use by climbers before me. The sureness of the hold is comforting, but I’m not done yet and if anything I feel my heartbeat quicken, adrenaline rushing through my trembling limbs. Hanging off the pocket above me, I let go with my left hand, pull up the rope below me and clip it into the bolt alongside my left shoulder. I let out a whoop of pure joy and relief, shake out my arms and get ready to keep moving up. This feeling never gets old.
7. What is it about cooking with friends that makes you want to dance? I am a terrible dancer. No rhythm and long awkward limbs that don’t cooperate with one another. But throw me in a kitchen filled to the brim with people and music and laughter and I’m a regular prima ballerina. Oldies work best, I think, or 2000s pop—the stuff that we all listened to in middle school. Anything that everyone can sing along to, tone-deaf and jubilant. I forget my body, my movement guided by the melodies. I grab someone’s hand and twirl them around. My joy flows out of the tips of my fingers, limb appending laugh, a whole body grin.
8. My therapist tells me to find the pulse in my fingers. I resist meditating. I am not good at clearing my thoughts from my brain, there is too much clutter in my head for there to ever be a clean slate. She says that’s okay, that I don’t have to try to empty my brain, that if I just focus on my hands the rest will fall into place. I am skeptical. She is right. Even the most sticky thoughts get crowded out by a steady pulse. First in my fingers, then my knees, my arms, my thighs. The edges of my form blur, the weight of my body not so important. Eyes closed, I can’t see myself. No, it is more like this: I can’t look at myself. I can see, can feel, can rest. My body.
9. It is morning and I am alone. I walk down the sidewalk along Lake Drive and veer right when I reach the dirt trail leading down to the shore of Lake Michigan. I am stunned by the beauty of the water, always. The sunlight glints off the cerulean surface, sand swirling beneath it. It beckons me. I have forgotten my swimsuit. I glance around for signs of company. Finding none I undress in the comfort of my solitude and slip quickly into the lake. The cool waves caress my bare skin as I float with only my face out of the water. I am weightless, drifting among the leaves scattered on the surface. If a girl swims in a lake and no one is around to see it, does she even make a ripple? In the absence of another’s gaze, I melt into the water. The surf laps at my forehead and from my viewpoint the distinction between the lake and the sky blurs. Lake and sky, lake and girl, girl and sky: boundless, inexhaustible.
10. Wet pavement, then soft earth. The sound of my feet slapping the ground becomes more faint. No one around, the trail empty, far from stadiums and tracks and spiked shoes. It is warm. I strip my shirt off. On many runs I have kept it on, fearful of judgemental gazes and prying eyes. This time, though, I am alone and I want to feel the breeze on my skin. The cadence of my breath quickens as I crest a hill and then I am over it, allowing my legs go free, my whole body thrumming with aliveness. I can’t help but let my arms fly open, momentum and gravity pulling them back as I careen forward. When I feel this—this breath in my lungs, this pulse in my soles, this freewheeled flight—I wonder how things ever got so mixed up.