Sometimes roads will shape our bodies. My mother grew up running along a path through the Chuckanut Mountains; her legs became firm and sturdy like the Douglas Fir that gave her shelter from damp wind rising off the ocean. She used to swim in seawater cupped in the safe hands of blue-knuckled mountains, her pulse rumbled in her chest as thin arms sprawled out into the waves. She would crawl against the sharp swells of water until she reached Dot Island. Then she would lie on the course rocks, with skin completely numb, legs studded with grey sand, knees scraped by barnacle bones, and a thundering heartbeat reaching into the corners of her wiry frame.
I grew up in a suburban city down south with freshly-laid roads of dark asphalt. Every day I would strap on my rollerblades and trace the ovaline-street that circumvented our apartment complex. I treasured the first moments of rain that dotted the cement and awakened the smell of the earth. I sulked when rain coated the streets and made my strides slippery and short. Somewhere in my body these circles are saved. My skates were my training wheels. It was the start of my addiction; the foundations of a sacred power I store beneath my skin.
Years ago a painting appeared on the credenza in my father’s dining room. I found it propped up against dusty porcelain figurines, tucked in a nest of unopened mail and grocery receipts: a picture of a boy with a loose jersey and a blonde bowl cut. He had one leg reaching out in front of his body, his torso was bent forward, and his arms were tense with anticipation as he waited for the smack of the starting gun. As soon as my father got home from work that day I asked him about the boy. That’s your brother he said, and the picture was painted by your mom. She used to be a coach for the Cascade Striders, a team my siblings ran for. Years later when I asked my mother about the painting over text, she explained that I was an honorary Cascade Strider; that she would push me in a pink racing stroller while taking the team out on training runs. I must have been younger than one at the time. She left my father and us kids before I had learned to talk.
As a middle schooler I struggled to find a way to live in my small clumsy body, to speak to others at a volume they could actually hear, to find friends in a sea of acne-spotted faces, in hallways hazy with cheap body spray. To me, trying out for cross country and track felt like passing on the baton, though I will never run like my mother did. One race permeates my memory like no other. It was an 800-meter-dash. I held my body the way I had been taught: with my right leg forward, my muscles engaged and ready. The start gun gave of a sharp little crack and I was huddling forward, passing a girl on my left and then on my right. Suddenly the track opened up in front of me and I was leading the pack. My legs kept moving and moving and soon I lapped the circle. All I remember thinking was this can’t be happening, this isn’t real.
I didn’t win that race, but for a moment I saw that it was possible.
I carry my mother’s chip with me—a round piece of scratched black plastic—about the size of a dollar coin. The silver words have startled to flake off, but I can still feel out the raised lettering with my fingertips. 10 Minutes. Meaning ten minutes of sobriety, meaning the kids were asleep the night before it was given to her; when she went down into the basement to summon spirits and she knew that it was wrong, and she knew that the things she was seeing were not real. I carry this chip with me in a hidden pocket just below my chest. Sometimes I forget that it is there, sometimes I hold it in my sweaty palm and wonder just how far I could run in 10 minutes. Other times I hold it like a young sparrow fallen from a tree, feeling hopeful that I can build a lifetime out of 10 minute chips.
Epigenetics is the scientific study of how the lives of our ancestors echo in our bodies. I wonder where their memories are saved. Maybe my great grandfather ran the perimeter of his family farm, dodging gopher holes, stirring crows resting in the shade of tall corn stalks, activating genes that help my lungs open more fully to let in the air. Sometimes I wonder how my mother’s path has shaped my body. The alcohol she fed me through an umbilical cord, maybe it created cracks in my brain that I will try to fill with pine needles and books of poetry, instead of bitter ale. For most of my early education I was a serial disappointment: a quiet problem child in the back of class whose mind was always running from reality. Now as a fourth-year English major, I still struggle to spell words like “permanence” and “antecedent”, and each essay I write comes to me slowly, the words trickling out late into the night, keeping me from sleeping. I don’t know if the cracks in my brain are imaginary, or real, tangible crevasses.
My dad loves to tell the story of he and my mother’s first run together. They had just begun dating and he was prepared to woo her with his overwhelming strength and endurance. As soon as they set off on the aged sidewalks surrounded by sun-bleached grass, my mother accelerated as if her body was not subject to the pull of the earth. He kept up with her for a few blocks before she became a small speck in the streets beyond. I suppose my dad could have found comfort in the fact that my mother continued to date him not for his athleticism, but for something much more significant, like his eyes, which are the color of nutmeg shells, or his unyielding capacity to love.
I didn’t learn the meaning of the word “watershed” until I was nearly twenty-one. It was in a geology class I took last autumn. My professor spoke of the ways in which a river’s body shapes the earth. He spoke of glaciers whose heads rest in mountain folds and whose toes dig into the coarse earth below. Glaciers flow like rivers in slow motion, their liquid bodies bending over themselves as they ease above the ground. And time is like a cool blade leaving meander scars, trails forgotten by water, and oxbow lakes where the curve of a river grows still, severed from the body by a buildup of sediment. In every watershed, the veins of smaller tributaries always find a way to meet. Like blood in the body, a healthy river is always traveling, moving rock, keeping the waterways clean.
Running is becoming clean. My blood moves quickly, rhythmically, as my feet find the earth again and again. This is something I learned recently, after moving to my mother’s hometown. My favorite route is south through the outskirts of the city, over the mumbling waters of Chuckanut Creek, and up the mountain to the tunnel of firs and songbirds my mother called home.
There is no end or beginning to a watershed. When tiny beads of water lift off the ocean, some of them find land, at which point they are dropped down and begin their journeys back to the sea. Addiction is like a watershed, with relapse and recovery tugging at the body ceaselessly. But today my mother laced up her dusty running shoes and took off around the block right about the same time I crossed the creek and climbed our mountain. Today we both drink the air with all of our bodies.