There are, perhaps, few things in the world like gliding along on an easy wave, eyes directed ahead, undemanding, to the place where
crest of ocean water meetsrow of palm trees;a sloppy kiss,alternating gentle and violent in its fervor to taste, to devour--who is swallowing whom?
There are few things in the world, undoubtedly less thrilling and intoxicating, like the ability to breathe. I like breathing. Love it, even. I favor the freedom of choosing when and for how long to inhale and exhale.
But I also (sometimes) like to do things that scare me to prove to myself that I'm brave, that I'm alive. That I can be without breath and know that there is an other side.
After all, there is always an other side.
Last summer, in Costa Rica, with the encouragement of an extraordinary group of gals, impressive in their ability to withstand and welcome my immense fear of the ocean and its unpredictability, I surfed. Sure, I was pushed onto each wave, but no one stayed standing on my board but me, felt the rush of the tide underneath and beside as it swept me forward. I'd dive headfirst into the water when I missed my timing, and come up smiling and brand new, renewed, when mere hours prior, I was eyeing the vastness before me with little more than trepidation at having a toe in the water. While the unparalleled peace and joy in and after those moments were all mine, I felt it to be a genuine portal to nature, to the divine, to the rest of humanity and all of the animals above and below the sea.
As the day closed, I came to understand addiction. I signed up for another lesson, and told the owner of the surf company I'd like to please sign up for 50 lessons, as I'd be here for two more months, and I'd like to surf every single day. Visions of surf competitions and unthinkable success swirled in my psyche. I was certain it'd be a tale for the ages: girl in her late 30's overcomes childhood trauma of near drowning to become surf champion of the mid-leagues. Everyone would cheer me on as I quit work to follow this new passion around the world.
"Maybe you should start with, like, 2 or 3 lessons, and see how it goes," she said. "Sure!" I agreed optimistically. Made no difference to me.
Then the third and fourth lessons came. The waves were no longer my friend. Were they ever? As sure as I'd been that I'd become a professional surfer within two months, I was confident, in the middle of that fourth lesson, that I would die.
Sometimes, the waves are just a little too big and a little too strong, and I had not done enough healing around my experience as a kid to accept the capriciousness and strength of the water. If I learned anything that day, it's that I will not go gently into that good night. I am not graceful when I think I am actively dying.
Moments later, sitting on the beach in awe that I remained among the living, I reflected as much to my instructor. "Okay, yes, you did look a little... wild."
I think I may have given it one more tear-stained and hyperventilating go, but the damage was done. Fuck surfing, I thought. It'll remain a spectator sport for me, so I can laze in and out of a book while I tan and not have to claw my way futilely towards air. I want to just... live. Not fight to live.
On one of the more recent beach days with Juli, we stared wordlessly out at the water from the same beach we'd been going to since high school. Breaking the spell, she said, "Did you know that on average, the ocean is only about 3 miles deep? That's not as deep as I thought it'd be." "...That's still pretty fuckin' deep," I said. We laughed, and I took a breath in, grateful that I was on top of sand. Pema Chodron came to mind, her teachings on getting okay with groundlessness materializing. It's all fun and games when it's theoretical.
I remember how I felt in the days after the surfing lesson from hell, when some would urge me to go on and get past it. I thought they were out of their goddamn minds. Some people can strong-arm their way through the healing of something. Not I. I prefer low and slow. A nice, leisurely pace. What's the rush, anyway?
As sure as I was that I'd soon be champ, and as sure as I then was that I'd drown, I was sure I'd never submerge my body underneath the water again. Luckily, J showed up and helped me mend my wound with a beat-up boogie board and the patience and knowing to go not a millisecond faster than my body and spirit could handle. By the time I left at the end of summer, the water and I were friends again.
There's enough pressure as is, in this godforsaken place, without forcing oneself to stay in a heightened state of arousal in the name of bravery, when it's really not necessary. Getting over a fear doesn't mean I'll get over it forever. Maybe getting over it once is enough. Maybe I face some fears one at a time, and then never again.
Ride the wave to the other side, I often say. I don't specify how, exactly. It may be tumbling messily underneath, gliding above gracefully, or squealing with pure giddiness on a boogie board.
as always, with love and thanks,