Writing About Surfing

A Picture of Wind

I wish I could write about surfing.  I love it so much.  It creates the shape of my life. 

It’s easy to talk about a surf session, a break, a particular wave, or a board with other surfers, but writing about surfing is very hard.  It’s like trying to paint a picture of wind or describe love.  There are things that, when you wrap them in a blanket of words, they stop being what they are.  I can describe to you a picture of surfing, but how can I tell you what surfing is like?  It is motion.  It is pain and delight and infinite patience.  It is “stop” perfectly braided with “go.”

Can you tell me how to ride a bicycle?  Explain it to me.  What you say will not at all describe the actual experience of riding.  It is a thing you know in your body, not in your mind.

Heavenly Bodies

Surfing begins in the sky, with heavenly bodies—the sun, the moon, maybe even the stars.  The gravitational forces of the sun and the moon pull on Earth’s water, making bulges the planet spins through.  And then there are the storms.  Warm and cold air swirl in the sky.  Storms form over the ocean and, like kiddos jumping on the bed, cause the surface to bounce up and down.   These disturbances travel over thousands of miles of open ocean exactly the same way ripples radiate outward from the point a pebble tossed hits the water.  They arrive at the coast as sets of waves.

We wait for them.  It’s all very predictable.

A multitude of variables are constantly changing.

The Conditions

There’s not much to say when you write or talk about surfing except to describe the conditions.  The swell direction—as in where the storm was.  The size of the swell.  The wind direction.  The speed of the waves.   The time of day.  The water temperature.  The length of time between sets.  The height of the tide.  Whether the tide is rising or dropping.  The currents.  The number of people in the water.  Any time one of the variables changes, the entire experience changes. 

All of the variables are constantly changing.

You must pay attention.

Lessons

These are the lessons of surfing:  Wait.  Pay attention.   Commit.   Release fear.

Surfing Is Waiting

Most of surfing is waiting.  You wait days or weeks for a swell to come across the ocean.  You wait hours or days for the tide to come in or to go out.  You hope and wait for the wind to switch, stop, or start.  Right there we’ve whittled a lifetime into a few hours each week. 

You paddle out into the ocean and wait.  Wait for the set of waves.  Wait for a good one.  Wait for the best one.  Wait, if someone else positioned closer to the peak than you are.  Paddle.  Stay in position.  Wait.  It doesn’t make the most exciting photos.  Exciting photos are misleading.  Most of surfing isn’t standing on a surfboard.  Most of surfing is waiting, paddling, being ready, feeding brave thoughts to your heart.  Exciting photos are monuments to the best seconds.  

At Any Second

When the time comes to turn, paddle, and stand, you must be very strong, very fast, and very brave.  You cannot hesitate or fear.  This is why surfing is a lifestyle—because you must always be ready either to wait or to give 100% at any second. 

Then the ocean’s conditions interact with your conditions:  What you’ve eaten.  What you’ve drank.  How much you’ve slept.  How often you’ve surfed lately.  How happy you are or how sad.  How angry.  How much you love yourself.  How relaxed you are.  How afraid.  Where your body holds pain.  How much energy you have left.  What board you are riding.  How focused you are.  How quick.  How strong.  How brave.

All of the variables are constantly changing.

You must pay attention.

The Soul

The wave isn’t water.   The wave is something else.  It’s a pulse of energy, large or small, that moves through the water.  Water itself lies flat.  Waves move through it and shake it the way you shake your towel to be sure there are no scorpions hiding there.  Water is an element.  Waves are live moments that move through it.  Water is the body; the wave is the soul. 

We interact with them intimately.

From a Verb to a Noun

Somehow, waves and particles are the same thing in quantum physics.   Separated unto itself, I cannot understand this statement.  But in the context of surfing, it’s what we know instinctively.  A wave is all of its moments.  The wave is the swell on the horizon that you sense in the back of your eye before you can see it.  It is the bulge in the water moving toward you, forming.  It is the push behind you.  It is the sudden slope you are diving into as you leap to your feet.  It is the myriad of instants that shape and disappear over/under/around you as you ride.  It is the boom of whitewater as the wave empties its last energy onto the sand bar, or the gentle fading into calm water as it ends.  It’s not one of those things; it’s all of them.  Any of them, separate from the others, is not the wave. 

Get a camera.  Take a photo.  The wave turns into a particle.  It stops being a motion and becomes an image; it switches from a verb to a noun.  Long before you look at the photo, the wave doesn’t exist anymore at all.

You must pay attention.

These are the lessons of surfing:  Wait.  Pay attention.   Commit.   Release fear.

One Thing/Homework

When you love surfing, it shapes your life.  And so you love your life.  

It all becomes one thing:  Surfing, living, love, the water, the motion of waves pushing through it, waiting, the work of paddling, the courage to engage a mountain of water, what you eat, when you sleep, the coffee brewing at dawn.   The magical moment when you release your coiled energy into a push, a leap, and moments of flight—this is the highlight.  But surfing is everything you do if you love it. 

Love is everything you do if surfing is your teacher and you have done your homework.

Very exciting photo by Leonardo Pinero, Tamarindo Costa Rica

Obedient to the Moon / Obediente a la Luna

watch the horizon
move toward it when
arching water beckons
expect the unexpected
expect to have to try

rain falls on the jungle
even when you are sleeping
even after you die
then slides through roots
to the ocean

watch water
study how it pushes through air
fierce and gentle
all of this
obedient to the moon

 

Obediente a la Luna

mira el horizonte
acércate a él cuando
el agua se arquea, llamando
espera lo inesperado
espera deber intentar

la lluvia cae sobre la jungla
aun cuando duermes
aun después de que mueras
luego se desliza a través de raíces
hacia mar

observa el agua
estudia cómo empuja contra el aire
feroz y delicado
todo esto
obediente a la luna

Not to Hide

Silence

This is the end of a year of silence. I didn’t set out to experience a year of silence, but I also promised not to require anything of myself other than keeping my job and feeding the cats. A year of of much silence is what came to me. It was necessary and beautiful in a fearsome way.

Walking out of it, I feel nothing like the person who walked into it. I’m not sure how that happened, but it’s true.

 

2017

In 2017, I lost everything. Not “lost” like I don’t know where I put it–“lost” as in my whole life lifted off the planet like water vapor and disappeared into the sky. You know that story already. Until the beginning of June 2017, I had one life. It vanished and was replaced, first by another completely different life in a country with a language I barely spoke, and then replaced again. Replaced the second time by a life back in my familiar country but in a strange house with a reconfigured job, and a new silence.

So. Very. Much. Silence.

I learned to inhabit it.

 

2018

2018 has been a quiet year. Very quiet. Everything happened. Nothing happened. I don’t really know. If I try to make a cohesive, sensible tale out of all of it, my head begins to split down the middle, so I stop. It’s alright. I just tell you true stories as they come to me–maybe someday one of us will be able to make sense out of it all. Or at least some of it.

I have literally written volumes. Notebook after notebook, obsessively as if my life depends upon it. Maybe it does. Some of it is good, some of it isn’t–it doesn’t matter. I have to do it to keep from going mad. There is so much noise in my head and so much silence all around. Sometimes I start to cry and I don’t even know why. Sometimes I feel unnervingly happy. There’s just so much. So much everything. So much that is so important and so impossible. It’s a very big wind and I attempt to simply stand still in it. To take all of it and not fall.

And yes there is a book coming. Poems for the brave-hearted. It’s called “Certain as Afternoon.” Because everything that will happen is.

 

Fear

I’m not afraid.
I don’t feel weak, either.
I feel inexplicably strong.
Like one of those giant cenizaros that hum with bees when they bloom.
Like that.
A blooming kind of “strong.”

I literally do not know what I want.
Maybe I am afraid to want anything for fear of losing it.
That would be a reasonable fear for me to have, all things considered.
But I just said I wasn’t afraid, so what is this confession?
Not afraid, perhaps, of anything that can come from the outside.
But raw as as a fresh wound on the inside.
Yes.
That.
I’m more afraid of me than I am of you.

 

Resolutions

I don’t do New Years resolutions any more. When I used to do them, I always resolved the same things: to write more, to eat less, to be kinder. I don’t have any other ideas. But if I wrote any more than I do right now, I’d have to quit my job. If I ate any less, I would blow away in the wind. If I was any kinder, I seriously hope someone would tie me to a tree and go get help.

But maybe I do have a resolution for 2019. I resolve not to hide. Why do I feel like bursting into tears when I write that? Because hiding is safe and I am good at it?

Well I won’t do it.

I’m not broken anymore. Not most days, anyway. But I’m not sure I’m the same species of creature that I used to be. Something in me feels like it has the coiled strength of a waiting tiger–motionless and not at all delicate. And I’m pretty sure I have butterfly wings, playful, bright, and fragile. I don’t know what you call a thing like that. I don’t know how you be a thing like that. What does it eat? Where does it sleep?  Will people be afraid of it?

 

Water

It’s like surfing. Everything is. Life is. Every day you paddle out into it, whatever it is. Some days you wait and wait for absolutely nothing. Some days you get cold and you want to go home. Some days the sets are so big and so terrible all you can do is paddle straight at them with all your might and pray to God that the hit, when it comes, won’t be as bad as it looks. Some days you ditch the board and dive for the bottom. And some days everything is right, including you, and it all comes together so perfectly you can’t decide if you more want to laugh or cry. I like those days. I have some like that. I have all the kinds. You don’t get to pick.

You pick whether or not to get in the water.

I’m in.

Watch the Horizon (A Picture of Time)

I go out surfing in the morning. The ocean is warm and crystal clear–so clear I can see the ripples in the sand two or three meters below my feet as I sit on my board. Waiting. All I do is wait. I wait and wait and wait. I had no idea you could wait so long and still have so much time left. To wait.

The sun climbs. Sets of waves come. When I’m surfing I’m thinking about surfing. That’s all. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color that means the next set it coming. No more, no less. Most of surfing is waiting. For waves. For the right wave. For the right moment to paddle and stand. At least when I’m surfing, I know what I’m waiting for. Maybe that’s why it’s so much of a relief. Sometimes I surf well, sometimes I don’t. Sooner or later I’m thinking about breakfast.

I ride back to the shore and lay on the sand. Above me in the blue are clouds. I think about water. So much water. In me, around me, above me. I think about Pio and how he filled up with water. I think about how ashes are what’s left of a person when all of the water is gone. I wish it would rain on me right now and the water would be him. The same molecules. I supposed it’s not impossible.

Everything aches. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little.

Eight months have gone by. Compared to the whole rest of my life, it’s nothing. It’s already been an eternity. I wait and wait and wait. As if, if I wait long enough… What? He will come back? I don’t think so. He’ll send me some kind of sign? For what? I’ll die too? Well there’s hardly any debating that. But is that what I’m waiting for? I don’t know. I’m waiting to find out what I’m waiting for. It’s taking such a long time.

I look at pictures of us and we have the same eyes. We have the same hair. I look at us and now I see why some said we looked like siblings. At the hospital in the last days, Pio’s roommate thought he was my father.

Time is not obeying the rules. Or maybe I’m finally learning to understand it. It doesn’t just go, it stands still, thick as giant waves of salt water. A friend tells me I seem to be moving forward. I say I don’t know about that, but thanks. I say thanks because I can tell it was a compliment. I don’t want to move forward. I want to move backward and I can’t. I don’t want to do anything. So I wait. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m moving any direction. It’s the same day over and over and over. I wait for a different day, but every day when I wake up, it’s the same one. So I wait.

Waiting is hard work. When you don’t know how long you will have to do it. How hard it will rain, how much the wind will blow. When you don’t know what you are waiting for. But it’s the only thing that seems possible, so you do it.

I don’t know what “grief” means, how it’s different than just being sad. What it looks like. How you do it. I don’t know what “healing” means either, how it’s different than “feeling better.” I don’t want to feel better. Except when I’m surfing. It doesn’t go away, but you learn to live with it, another friend says. Wise words. I don’t want it to go away. I want to live with it. If my sadness goes away from me, there will be nothing left of me. I will be water vapor like Pio. Clouds and ashes.

I sleep deeply. On cool or rainy nights, the cats cry to be let under the mosquito net with me. We have the whole bed. I eat. Don’t worry about that. Then the morning comes and it’s the same day again. I don’t mean to say that I am bored or depressed. I don’t think I am either one. I’m drawing you a picture of time. Eight months. Is that a long time? I don’t know. It’s the same as 10 years. Is ten years a long time? Not really. Eight months is much longer. There’s no use asking how long I have to wait. Waiting is just waiting. Watching the horizon for a movement or a slight change in color.

    Pio and a friend waiting for waves on a flat day in 2009.

How to Make Mistakes

Where I come from, girls learn how to play the piano.  If that sounds Victorian, well, now you know something about where I come from.  I don’t have much to show for the time I spent and the money my parents spent on that endeavor, but it wasn’t optional.  Every week, from 3rd grade to 8th, I went to piano lessons.  I liked playing the piano when I was allowed to play what I wanted–but most of the time my teachers made me practice boring exercises and songs I didn’t know.  So, even though I wasn’t a terrible piano player, I was pretty terrible student. At least that’s how I remember it 30-some years later.

The most important thing I learned at piano lessons, I learned from Mrs. Swan, the elderly lady who sat 12-year-old me in her dark living room at her doily-draped piano after school on Thursdays.  She made me play the most dreadful drills.

Another thing girls do, where I come from, is play the piano in church.  This is an honor and a privilege, and it is freaking terrifying because all the older girls who have been taking lessons longer than you have and can play without ever making mistakes will hear you if you mess up.  Everyone will say you did great and it doesn’t matter if you made a little mistake.  But still.  Even the preacher will hear you mess up.

So one Thursday afternoon, I was playing particularly badly for poor Mrs. Swan.  She seemed so discouraged by my lack of love for her lessons, that I confessed.  I had barely practiced my lesson at all that week.  I’d been asked to play the piano in church, and I was madly practicing… “Whispering Hope,” I think it was.  This relieved and delighted poor, discouraged Mrs. Swan.

“Play it for me,” she said.

I gingerly began picking out the notes, pausing where I was uncertain of my finger placement, not wanting to fail at this as well.  When I got to the end of the song, Mrs. Swan gave me a significant piece of life advise which I have called on many times and repeated often.  Whatever the words she used, the message was this:

“Don’t you be afraid to make mistakes.  You just play that song with all your heart, and if you make a mistake I want you to make a big, enthusiastic mistake that everyone can hear.  No little wimpy mistakes!

Something to that effect.  She told me to play it again.  So I played it again, loudly and confidently.  I made some loud, confident mistakes and I had to admit she was right—it sounded a lot better, mistakes and all.

Mrs. Swan isn’t living anymore–if she were she would be 100.  And I can’t play the piano to save my soul, but I know how to make a good mistake.  Big.  Loud.  Not fearfully or shamefully.  I’ve had lots of practice and I’m fabulous at it.

I actually hand myself Mrs. Swan’s advice quite frequently when I’m surfing—who knew that piano lessons could speak to that?  “Don’t worry about making a mistake,” I tell myself.  “Make a giant mistake.  Take the wipe-out of the day.”

I do.

Mixed with my rides, I get me some almighty wipe-outs.  I consider them a success in their own way.  Sometimes going all in is more important than what happens next.

 

About Being Brave. Or Not.

I’ve always been perplexed by people who tell me I’m brave—or maybe I should say, I am intrigued by the things that people interpret as acts of bravery.

How many times have I heard this: “You live in Costa Rica?  Oh you’re so brave!”  Or in reference to me moving here by myself (even though I was coming back to friends) when I was 24, “That’s so brave!”

The thing is, it’s not brave.  Not for me, anyway.  How can you be brave if you aren’t scared?  If I’m not afraid of something, for me to do it requires no bravery at all.

My boss took the batch of us on a canopy tour, recently, where you harness up, hang by metal clamps from steel cables, and zoom through the jungle canopy from tree to tree.  It’s a lot of fun.  I’ve never been afraid of heights, so it requires no bravery for me to launch from the platform and fly through the air.  Some of the team members, however, were petrified.  For them to do the exact same thing as I did was a tremendous act of bravery.  I watched them struggle with their fear and overcome it (or not).

To be brave is not the same as to be fearless.  If I’m not afraid of the ocean and I paddle out into it on a surfboard, that’s not bravery.  If I am afraid of the ocean and I paddle out into it anyway, THAT is brave.

For me, getting on an airplane is brave.  Getting on the motorcycle is brave.  (I do it all the time, clamped for dear life to the back of my husband who is cool as a cumber.)  Living in Costa Rica?  Not brave.  Getting on a boat?  Not brave.  Canopy tour?  Not brave.  Spelunking?  That’s another story.  I will hang by my tiptoes from a tightrope before I crawl into a small space that I can’t see my way out of.  That would require me to be brave, and I’m not interested.  Call me a chicken.

Up until the end of July, surfing, for me, was generally not an act of bravery unless there were a lot of rocks in the water.  I have this inexplicable panic in the presence of rocks.  Duh.  Rocks.  But yes—seeing dark shapes under me, or feeling them when I can’t see them, has always just about sent me over the edge.  No idea why.  And then the crocodile thing happened.

It didn’t happen to me in the most literal way, but there are ways in which it did.  And I’ve been back surfing, since.  Gingerly, if there is such a thing.  It’s getting a little better.  But make no mistake—surfing, for me, has become an act of bravery in a way that it wasn’t before.  I think I speak for a lot of people in my town when I say that.  Whereas before, perhaps, we are fearless, we have now become brave.

Being fearless, which can be good or bad, is a characteristic, and who chooses their characteristics?  Being brave is a choice.

Where am I going with this?  A ninguna parte.  I’m just saying.  Fearlessness and bravery might look the same on the outside.  On the inside, they’re not.