Free Write Friday: Track


On rainy days they start in the smaller gym behind the high school, line up on the basketball court for drills: high knees, butt kickers. They stretch into a runner’s lunge as sweat beads inside their hooded polyester tracksuits. 

She heads out with the sprinters for a warm-up run, worn sneakers pounding on the asphalt. Up the street, past the 7-Eleven, winding through trails on the office business complex, then back to the track, powder blue with white accents, modeled after school colors. 

They run drills, the sprint coach standing on the football turf, stopwatch in hand. He shouts instructions, encouragement, critique of form. They stretch and socialize in between. She watches the teenage boys, tries to be nonchalant. Their skin is greasy, awkward bodies too short or too thin. The stench of dysregulated pubescent odor is far enough away to still render them somewhat appealing to her adolescent eye.

On meet days, her stomach churns, she hardly eats. She forces bites of bagels and grocery store fried chicken (someone told her chicken was good: protein) and Power Bars. Sips of Gatorade colored unnaturally green, blue, red make her feel athletic and replenished. Unfortunately, her events are always near the end of the meet. She has to wait in gastrointestinal distress, rushing to and from the bathroom, for the 400 meter dash, the 4 x 400 meter relay. 

Finally her turn, she strolls out to the starting blocks, placed with the stands mercifully behind her. She sets them up to her specifications, right foot back, left foot forward. She checks her spiked shoes, slim white with a neon green detailing and magenta Nike swoop. Her wide feet and long toes always feel overly compressed in the racing shoes, like she is trying to squeeze herself into something that doesn’t quite fit.

The gun sounds and she’s off, pumping arms, cycling legs. She’s ahead going into the first straight away. But they’re staggered, it’s deceiving. She never was good at pacing without someone in front to follow. She always goes out too hard, too fast. She sees opponents emerge from behind her: one, two, three. Heading into the second curve she begins to hear the crowd, their voices register in her ears as one dull roar. As if surfacing from underwater, the wave of sound is suddenly upon her, the cheers. 

Sometimes her dad stands small at the chain link fence, right before the final straight away shouting, “C’mon! C’mon!” She hears his words echo in her head as the lactic acid takes over, rounding the final curve. From behind more emerge: one, two. She slows. Out too fast again, there’s just nothing left to give. 

She keeps moving, somehow, to the finish line, crosses over without her legs giving way. She leans forward, hands on knees, lungs burning, legs screaming with fatigue. The release then comes, a dissolution of tension as the stress, now behind her, lifts. She always thinks after: I could have run faster, could have tried harder, could have given more. 

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Free Write Friday: Pool

2017

I hold her squirming, slippery toddler thighs, evasive like slick eels. She clomps her feet down, uneasy steps in the little pool, even with the extra buoyancy of the chlorinated water. She likes to open her mouth, like a great whale, letting the pool seep in, then out through her widely spaced teeth, two on top, two on bottom. She, surprisingly, exults in going under, seems to fall purposely: Oops! Silly me! Throwing her head back, eyes squeezed tight shut as she leads with her upturned chin, mouth open, nostrils flared, beckoning the water toward her until she is fully immersed, sinking, trusting that I’ll catch her, lift her upright to breathe clear air. As she emerges, a look of unadulterated glee followed by just the faintest hint of melancholy. A mermaid she wishes she could be.

1990

She is so thin and graceful, wearing an electric blue bikini, mousy hair. I’m surprised when she approaches me poolside. Overweight and awkward, I wear my pudginess like armor; it keeps me humble, it keeps me introverted. I long to be charming, liked. Don’t we all at this preteen age? (At every age.) I can’t believe it: friends with me? She’s inquisitive, chatty, polished. I feel more elegant just being near her. It is revealed eventually, this is the truth: I am just a means to her end, a conduit for connection to my tall, older brother. He has reached the golden age: past gangliness, past acne, post-braces. I’m in awe of him too. 

1983

I’m learning to swim in the side pool, previously a hot tub but converted to what we call “the baby pool.” A bridge of dark brown tiles, just an inch under the surface, divides the tiny pool from the larger. Like a stumpy appendage, a bleb of an outgrowth, the small pool protrudes. The older kids like to coast back and forth on their tummies, sliding like monk seals. I can barely touch the bottom, on my tippy toes I bounce along, suspended for just a moment, like a moonwalking astronaut. A perimeter ledge for seating, I leap from side to side arms outstretched with orange inflated “muscles,” skinny legs flailing behind me. Sometimes I sink under with the effort, sour liquid up my nostrils, eyes stinging from chlorine. I grab the a handhold of smooth tile, turn, and try again.

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Free Write Friday: Cliff

Note: This week I’m trying something new with the free write – a prose poem incorporating synesthesia. I was inspired by a Till writing workshop I recently attended, presented by poet Jane Wong. As always, feel free to use the photo above as a prompt for your own free write. Consider joining me in experimenting with an unfamiliar format this week. 

***

Crackling of palm tree, fronds brushing carmine in the breeze. Squawk and tweet of birdsong, just beyond ear’s reach, punctuating high above. The turquoise wash of crashing waves below, colliding onto ebony rocks stoic as the spray recoils, resorbed by the expanse. Memories of jumping off, sound muffled, then expanding beyond into the greater sea. I climb the cliff, handholds of familiar crevices. I swim into the current, decades of tracing the reef map a mind’s fingerprint of coral phalanges. Thick blades of grass underfoot infuse the yellow taste of papaya. Nenes swoop in, then saunter through air thick with humidity. Specks of snorkelers flap fins, return to lie beached, their skin leathered like dragon fruit. Cloud shadows caress the ridged mountains, marking them like a bruise, feeding them with rain. One drop, then two trickles. The sea turtles gulp the air then dive into dry sweetness. They disappear but I never saw them, only heard shells cracking from a memory decades old. Momentary waft of plumeria, ginger, coconut, lilikoi, banana leaves suspends in the air just long enough for it to roll on my tongue, breathe into my lungs, absorb through my skin leaving an imprint, marking me home. 

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Free Write Friday: Pier


Tourists flock to the historic pier, smart phones in hand, they extend their arms to capture snapshots of pink faces with emerald mountains regal in the distance. They stroll down the concrete walkway, flip flops flapping, gazing side to side. 

Slender sailboats dot the bay, punctuating the azure waters. Vacationers cool down with a swim or awkwardly attempt use of a boogie board to ride a wave. Children kneel on the beach, legs caked with sunscreen, industriously patting at the wet sand to form castles with heaped towers and scooped moats. 

On the other side of the pier sunset catamarans embark where the river meets the bay. Crimson kayaks coast toward the ocean at the outlet, stand up paddleboarders glide along the shoreline. In the distance, pods of surfers catch wave breaks in the hazy early dawn light. 

A roof offers shade at the end of the pier. People linger at the edge, waiting to see if the local fisherman will make a catch. Teens taunt each other to jump off the blocky corner. Signs warn: “Shallow. No Diving.” But they’re not seen, or ignored. The clear waters allow visualization to the sandy depths from high above.

Eventually, the revelers will meander back. Maybe grab a carne asada or fish taco from the food truck for lunch. Sitting on the south side of the pier, a half moon of ridged mountains astound. The pier juts silently into the breathtaking panorama.

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Till


I’m at a long weekend writing retreat so, ironically, won’t be posting a free write today. The space is lovely, set on a converted farm. I’m looking forward to writing workshops, long stretches of sitting in silence and conversation with the best kind of people. May your weekend be filled with the same. 

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Free Write Friday: Pain


I notice it gradually, while exercising one morning. It’s a familiar routine, but that day bending over to touch the floor, leg lifted behind, I can’t hold the pose and my back gives way. The pain is insidious, then persistent. I go to work, hobbling throughout my day. Coworkers ask: What happened? Do you need something? Then they suggest: Try my chiropractor. Try downward dog. Here’s a hot pack. This is the only thing that helped my sciatica years ago. They’re all trying to be helpful but I can only wince. I can hardly walk. The pain is shocking, debilitating.

As a physician, I see people in pain every day. Pain from overexertion, pain from chronic illness, pain from medication side effects, pain from heartache. But to experience it myself, the slowing of body, the unexpected twitch of muscle with a movement, the limitations imposed by a body that isn’t working as it should, by a body that is a conduit for pain rather than a vessel for function: it’s humbling.

I don’t exercise for a week, then two. It’s hard to explain to others who only see me as able-bodied. They don’t realize. I shuffle as I cross the street; my husband and children walk casually ahead, so far ahead, on the crosswalk. I feel slow, I feel invalid. I get massage therapy, apply heat therapy, ingest ibuprofen religiously. The pain, initially searing in my back, flares unpredictably, shooting through my hip as I rise from sitting, as I twist to respond to a question, as I bend to pick up my baby from her crib.

A week into the flare, I just want to lie in bed, not get up, not go out. Though I am loathe to just lie there. I resent the creeping sluggishness. I want to defeat the lethargy and, simultaneously, be enveloped in it. I can suddenly see how people succumb: to numbing medications, to despair. Pain steals all functionality until the pain is all that’s left. And then it becomes your only companion. It is a cruel tease. One day or moment might feel a bit better, hope rises. Then, cruelly, it dissipates as the pain roars back.

One day I wake and can sit up without wincing, can walk with only a slightly antalgic gait. Everyone asks: How are you feeling? I feel tentative. I feel better. I feel anxious that it might come back, might return to level me again. I’ve learned now, it’s taught me. Pain is a presence, but also a thief.

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Free Write Friday: Bridge


She likes to sit under the bridge after her appointments, down by the canal. The benches at the corner are a little too breezy, she brings a cardigan when she remembers. It’s right by the trail, the one that weaves through half the city, along the waterfront, through the industrial and suburban outskirts. 

She sits facing the water. She likes how the curve of the worn wooden bench feels beneath her. Cyclists whiz behind, along the paved path; she likes the sound of the spokes on the wheels lightly clicking as they pedal by. Sometimes there’s a rollerblader, a scooter. She hears the footfalls of joggers’ shoes, light conversation of two coworkers strolling on a lunch break. 

Across the way are small houseboats, some modern, some quaint, some barges. Kayakers and yachts pass under the steel bridge. When the big boats glide by she can hear their engines whirring, working hard to pull them along. A small fishing dingy passes and she thinks about how it’s dwarfed by the steely grandeur of the bridge, rusted sheets of metal bolted in, criss-crossed throughout. 

The locks are further down, she hasn’t been for years. She took the kids once, should take them again. It’s a marvel, really: all that water rising up, draining down. Carrying the fish, the seaweed, the boaters along with it. Each year the salmon run brings a viewing crowd to the locks; it’s a destination.

She hears the traffic on the bridge overhead and the next bridge down. Today the birdsong is bright and clear, outshines the highway traffic. It’s not rush hour, but still, it’s perplexing, that nature would reign in this way. 

She likes to see the American flags hung on the sail boats; a bolt of red, white and navy set against the creamy hull, the bluebird sky. She likes to see the freeway across the lake, all the cars gleaming in the sunlight and wonder: where are they going, where have they been? She likes to consider the seagulls gliding overhead, hovering on the wind; sometimes they’ll suddenly dive or take off, as if they just remembered someplace they need to be. 

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Free Write Friday: Speed Boat


My three-year-old calls it a speed boat, and it is. Wind whipping our faces, hair swirling behind, strands winding around each other haphazardly. It’s their first time on an inner tube. A long braided rope tethers the inflated donut to the sleek new vessel. The sunny long weekend, barbecue in our bellies, exuberant friends all contribute to the exhilaration. 

Even so, I’m surprised at my six-year-old’s enthusiasm, eagerly egging on the captain to go faster, faster, weave serpentine over the murky waters of the strait. She learned to swim, and swim well this year. But the bouncing motion, unpredictable and jolting, makes me cringe, watching her from afar. Any moment she could bounce high, bounce right off, face stinging into the green waters, choking on the unexpected douse. Gripping tight to the inner tube though, her smile is so wide, so unabashed, so gleeful. I can’t help but exult with her. 

My skin sun-kissed by salted air and pummeled by the wind, I feel taut, relaxed, satisfied. An early summer glow to the late afternoon, washing away months of rainy Pacific Northwest grey, particularly gnawing and extended this year. I rest into the warming sun, the exuberant children, the rush of air past my ears, pressing into my chest as we speed along, parallel to the rocky shore. 

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Free Write Friday: Relics


I’ve pulled them from the attic before, stored them in the basement closet. Now the youngest is standing, feeding herself, almost one. She doesn’t need the propping, the overhead entertainment. She’s outgrown the bedside crib, the Jumperoo, the molded foam seat that kept her back upright.

The equipment is garish or cutesy. It’s plastic and bright. It’s overwhelmed our home, fixtures that fade into the landscape, the background of a cluttered family environment. Still, it’s hard to say goodbye. 

I know it all needs to be tossed, given away. After three babies, or more since many were hand-me-downs, the stuff is all worn, outdated. I see the new moms today with sleek strollers that keep the baby situated as if sitting on a dais, the stylish bouncers that blend into a post-modern home. Our items are now obsolete in function and style. One of our old baby-propping cushions has been recalled for safety concerns. There’s no reason to keep these things around. 

I remember my oldest baby, now in kindergarten, loving the bouncer, thick legs pumping, broad smile punctuated by a high squeal of delight. Her wispy infant hair swaying with the movement like thick reeds of seaweed undulating with the tide. 

I remember my middle baby, he didn’t like to be confined; any seat with openings for his legs was too constricting. Instead he squealed for release, wouldn’t sit down even in his high chair, ate his meals standing on the floor or on our laps. 

I remember my youngest baby, how we couldn’t find one leg of the baby swing when we pulled it from the attic, rendering it useless. We borrowed another one whose motion was too gentle to soothe her squeaking cries. Eventually we gave up on the swing altogether. We finally found the missing leg long after she was able to sit up, roll over, stand on her own. We disposed of the swing, no longer needed. 

I gather the rest of the items slowly, sequentially, as they expire from their usefulness. I contemplate the memories held within with each passing on. There’s a sentimentality to these baby relics, covered with slobber, patted with the chubby hands of three active babes over the years. 

As I sort through, I wonder what the contraptions will be like when my babies have babies; how they’ll differ, how they’ll tap into the enduring infant affinity for jumping and rocking, squeezing and swinging.

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