On Empty Spaces

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It’s 7:08p, and I’m standing motionless at the edge of the local university’s pool — gazing wearily below at the glassy waves, hoping for just a moment of distraction. I let out a heavy sign before collapsing onto the ground. My vision begins to blur as my eyes fill with tears, and my friend Ian immediately rushes over to give me a hug.

“It’s OK. You got this!” Ian assures me.

“I’m going to hit my head and drown.”

“No you are not. You have to trust me.”

“I DO trust you. That’s not the problem.”

“I don’t know what to tell you then. You have to learn to trust yourself, Marissa.”

**

Drowning is the first fear I remember having. In my dreams, I’m constantly being sucked downward — past the clouds and rooftops, well below the surface — by this inexorable pull.  

It’s a fear that has been with me from the beginning. A memory of holding onto the bathtub edge, firmly hoisting myself upright onto steady feet. I must have been a toddler, which makes me question the authenticity of this memory. But I still remember that sense of urgency. I wanted out. 

And yet, despite this growing fear, a good chunk of my childhood was spent in the water. When I was little, my father would take my sister and me out on Saturday mornings to the local YMCA. Here, in the pool, my father would sink into the water and instruct us to stand on his stomach. From there, my sister and I would float effortlessly past the breakers and into the deep end. We would laugh and giggle, waving at those we passed — until my father would inevitably shoot back up to the surface for air, consequently giving up our secret. 

From there, my sister and I took swimming lessons every summer. My memories of these lessons are exclusively physical. I remember the panic and the nervous splashing that would follow immediately after jumping in. The intensity of the rocks on the lake floor. The way my eyes burned for hours afterwards. I remember the aggressiveness of the water — the way it always found its way into my ears and down my throat. 

I remember always being terrified. Not just of drowning — but of being underwater. Of being unable to breathe. Of being uncomfortable. 

To say I didn’t take to swimming is an understatement. I hated it.

So, instead I played soccer. And then basketball. I rode my bicycle around the town, and even picked up horseback riding for a summer. And then, I was eventually introduced to my true love: running. I buried away my aquamarine memories of summer camp, and completely forgot about my ability of staying afloat.  

But then, I found myself injured and unable to do most weight-bearing activities. I could no longer rely on my legs to keep me upright and to push me forward into the word. 

** 

The distant grunts and hisses of the gym pipes bring me back. 

 I open my eyes and keep my gaze down, trying to bring my bare feet into focus. The water splashes against the edge. The world remains an encompassing blur. I take a deep breath and start to stand. 

“You ready?” Ian asks.

I nod, hesitantly. 

In order to keep sane during my forced running hiatus, I decided to humor Ian — a loyal friend, who happens to be an even more dedicated swimmer. He insisted that I would fall in love with the water after a few weeks under his tutelage. “I’ll even teach you how to dive,” Ian assures me.

And so, the past few weeks have been a chaotic blur of chlorinated air, too-tight goggles and skin tight bathing suits as Ian re-taught me the basics of swimming. Each Tuesday has been a different lesson: freestyle, breast stroke, back stroke, the butterfly. 

Tonight is my final lesson with Ian though, and there’s only one thing left to do: dive.

And just like I have been with the rest of my lessons, I’m petrified. 

**

I've spent most of my life battling this underlying wave of anxiety. From a young age, there was always a craving for control and perfection. In many ways, this anxiety pushed me to my highest achievements: graduating Magna Cum Laude with two degrees, winning countless cross country races and athletic awards. But the anxiety also brought with it panic attacks, depression and bouts of social isolation. 

This past few years were especially prone to anxiety: new jobs, company layoffs, fresh heartbreak, unexpected ER visits. And, let's not forget, my first running injury.  Panic often came without warning: in the space between pings of an email; while idly waiting for the subway; standing in the kitchen, staring at the nearly boiling pot of water. It was the periods of emptiness. The quiet moments. The empty spaces within my being. That is where the panic lies. That is where the anxiety always began. But what were once brief episodes, have become more frequent and intense.

And then I went on a trail run. And the trails forced me into these empty spaces. 

At first, they were brief, secluded moments of reflection on the well-manicured Bridal Path of Central Park. But as I started to run further and faster, I ventured out to the technical, rocky mountain trails of New Jersey and Upstate New York - joining various running groups along the way. I would return back to my apartment, muddy and exuberant. 

I established my most cherished relationships on the trails. Relationships with others and myself. I bought trail shoes and raced my first ultras. I figured out how to keep my pack from sloshing and used the word "vert" an inappropriate amount of times. I admired my body's strengths, rather than its flaws. I hollered on the downhills, arms flailing wildly. I peed in the woods and went camping before races. I fell in love in more ways than one. I found strength, peace and reprieve on the trails.

At first, running was a means of escaping the parts of myself I didn't want to face. But now, things were different. Trail running had forced me into the empty spaces of my being. It forced me to be present and alive. On the trails, I face my anxieties, fear and insecurities head-on - no longer challenging or hiding them. Just total acceptance. Acknowledging my anxieties as perfect pieces of my imperfect self. 

**

Vision clearing and heart settling, I make my way back to the edge of the pool. My knees begin to bend as I swing my arms up above my head. 

Thinking back on these crazy few years, I no longer feel burdened with expectation. I no longer feel embarrassed or ashamed of being a 24-year-old who never learned how to dive. Yes, I felt vulnerable. But I no longer felt weak.

Many of us pick up trial running as a way to grapple with our weaknesses and uncertainties - with the empty spaces within each of us. With the cracks and crevices in our being, that we so easily fill with anxiety. Trail running taught me to no longer run away. It taught me to plunge straight into the abyss. To find joy in these voids. 

Trail running has shown me the clarity in emptiness. The peace in my own insignificance. The limited space I occupy on this earth, and the deliberate ways I can choose to occupy it. It has completely shifted my perspective - teaching me humility and grace, self-love and patience. And more importantly, running introduced me to myself. To the woman I am in this specific moment. Not the woman I should be, nor who I will become. But who I am right now. And she is not defined by a sport. Or her anxiety. She is just a small speck in our vast landscape. A small, smiling speck plunging straight into the world in front of her. 

And so — smiling — I leap forward and dive into the pool water. Into the unknown.