As a wall of white water barrels towards me, I take a deep breath and allow myself to be engulfed. There is no stopping it. I might as well make peace with the fact that it will hit me, I won’t be able to breathe for a moment, and then it will pass. Sometimes when I stare out into the vast expansiveness of the cold Pacific Ocean, I’m struck with a sense of smallness. I am but a speck. A piece of ocean dust. This is not a bad realization.
I grew up in New Orleans. A city girl with one foot in the swamp. My childhood was spent around boats, fishing tackle and man boys who would seemingly prioritize fishing over just about everything. I loved being on the water. The serene rocking of the boat and the muffled echo that is only heard when submerged.
We moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged my home town. The flood changed everything, including my relationship with New Orleans. I once saw my home as place of constant celebration. It is a culture of drink and in good times or bad, alcohol is ever present. Therefore, it was natural that my alcohol intake increased after Hurricane Katrina. It was the coping mechanism that I had grown up with, and after the water subsided, I had an awful lot of coping to do.
I had always been ravaged by anxiety and depression. In the years following the flood, those feelings just got worse, and so did my drinking. At some point, drinking stopped making things easier. It tipped me over and spilled me out onto the floor. I no longer knew how to deal with my emotions. They were all over the place making messes. The second I thought I’d cleaned up one mess, another one would appear in a place that I thought was neat and tidy. In 2013, I quit drinking.
I began surfing in 2010. For the first three years, I dabbled in surfing here and there, but with alcohol no longer a priority, room was made for surfing to become a passion/obsession (there’s a fine line). I found myself arranging my life so that I could be on the beach as much as possible. I paddled out towards the waves, getting beat down repeatedly. Sometimes I never even made it past where the waves were breaking. The moments of triumph when I did make it out were often quickly tampered by the realization that I now had to surf the waves that I had just struggled so hard against.
I fell. A lot. Sea water would make its way up my nose, down my throat, blinding my eyes. I felt alive, terrified, frustrated and elated all in one surf session. I was learning how to improvise and how to follow my gut. It’s pretty hard to stop and ponder your next move when a six-foot wave is coming at you. You can’t stop it. You can’t change it. It just is. So, what are you going to do now? Quick, make a decision and commit. There is no time for debate or hesitation.
I began to know the ocean better. I learned timing and how to tell which way a wave is going to break. I learned how to roll underneath the breaking waves while keeping control of my long board so it didn’t get ripped from my hands. I learned how to work with the ocean and be in harmony with her. I also learned that ultimately, she is the boss and a partnership it is not.
Eventually, my Louisiana body adapted to my new passion and the cold Pacific Ocean didn’t seem so harsh. My arms, chest and shoulders got strong and I could paddle around for hours without quick exhaustion. Physically, I was in the best shape I had ever been in. I found that I was less emotionally volatile and that my death grip on the people and situations around me had been loosened. I no longer tried to control everything around me. The ocean taught me how to go with the flow, both literally and figuratively.
Surfing is jet fueled mindfulness. There is no time to stop and ponder, to dissect and overthink the circumstance, to strategize what “should” come next. You know what’s coming next? A wave. And after that? Another one, maybe bigger… I have no control. There is no pause button and no fast forward through the challenging or tedious parts. Only an attempt to learn from a power greater than myself. Right when I feel like I’m surfing my best and cockiness starts seeping in, the ocean smacks me hard, humbling me and reminding me that She is infinitely greater than me and my ego.
It’s been five years since my last drink of alcohol and 2 days since my last mouth full of ocean water. I am comfortable in the ocean. I love paddling past the waves into the safe zone where I can roll off my board and float on the surface hearing nothing but the muffled sounds of underneath, echoing my childhood. There is a whole world below me. Traffic patterns and pecking orders. I am small, yet I am part of it. I am in union with the water. I rise when she rises and fall when she falls. There is simply no other choice.
When I go home from the beach, I take that feeling with me. It seeps into my work as an abstract painter, my parenting style and my relationship with my husband. I no longer have an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. Daunting tasks don’t spin me into uncontrollable panic as often. I have learned that stress is optional, if I allow it to be. Sure, it can still pour over me so I can’t breathe for a moment and sometimes, it may even rip the board from my grip, but it will pass if I just relax and have faith that it is not permanent. I also know that there might be another wave right behind it. But it’s ok. The tides, swells, and currents have a greater purpose than me and my problems.
The ocean is vast, dark, scary at times, serene at others. The only constant is that it will change. So, I have a choice: Allow the change to happen and roll with it despite the effect it will have on me, or fight against it until my body is contorted, strained and I’m gasping for air. I’m tired of gasping. I’m thankful for the lessons that the ocean has taught me and I’m well aware that there are infinite lessons to come.
The ocean has shown me how to have faith. Faith that circumstances out of my control have a mission that I may not even know about (and that really may not be any of my business). Faith that the path of least resistance is one that has already been laid out before me by something greater than myself. By being willing to work within the path, no short cuts, no defiance, I will find peace, even if the moments I have to pass through to get there are chaotic and confusing. There is peace within the chaos if I allow myself to just be.
My husband and I are preparing for an empty nest in a few years’ time. We bought a van a while back and he has worked very hard to make it our surf home. Now we are working on an art trailer so we can hit the road wherever the surf may take us and I can make my art. I only have a desire to pursue happiness and the ocean has taught me to have faith in and out of the water. I am a mere observer in a sea of constant change and I can’t wait to see what the next swell brings.