“Please get better at surfing,” he said. “Please!”
We surfed that morning.
He shouted out, “Paddle, paddle, paddle!”
I shook my head, “No!”
When I managed to catch a wave, I struggled slowly to my wobbly feet, only to end up dumped over and laughing in the white foam.
I paddled back out into the lineup with a smile on my face…
I’m a horrible surfer. What I’m doing isn’t surfing. It is simply an elaborate abdominal exercise. In surf culture, I am known as a kook—a wanna-be surfer of limited skill.
It seems the learning curve for surfing is an arduous one for me. A few years ago, I would have quit already. I would have been intimidated and ashamed of my lack of grace. I would have traded my surf board for a pair of roller-blades.
I have always been a perfectionist. I grew up anxious—failure terrified me. I needed to excel at school, and I wanted to please others. This translated into safe choices. After college, I was invited to teach in Spain. The pay would have been non-existent, but the opportunity to travel and to write—to have love affairs and to stretch my very small limbs against a broader landscape—would have been priceless.
I wanted passionately to follow my pursuit of being a poet and living on foreign shorelines. Instead, I ended up married to my first boyfriend, living in the suburban town where I grew up and working a traditional nine to five.
I took the safe road because I was afraid to get messy, afraid to disappoint my parents, afraid that any choice that was not conventional was uncontrollable. I needed control to feel safe. For 12 years after college, I struggled under the burden of those fears and that rigidity. Twelve years—then I detonated my marriage and with it my identity.
It took me another four years to deconstruct the notion of control and perfection in other things—my job, my friendships, my parenting. I discovered surfing in the midst of this.
The first time I got out on a surfboard, time stopped. For the hour I spent wet and salty, I didn’t belong to anything or anyone. I was simply water, salt, air and experience. It was exhilarating.
I’ve slowly learned to control my board—how to sit on it without falling off and how to paddle through a break. I learned about tides, wind, peaks and protocol in the lineup, so as not to piss off the other surfers.
I caught a long left in Barbados that seemed to go for miles. I stood up a record four times the other day. Each little milestone makes me smile, regardless of how anybody else judges it.
This is progress—not just surf wise—but spiritually.
I am finally free from the shackles of perfection and the prison that can be. I don’t have to surf (or in my case pearl) for anyone but me.
I may never “get barreled” or “drop into” a wave bigger than me, but it seems irreverent to even worry about this. When I’m at the ocean, every molecule comes alive in me.
“You have to be free to be who you are,” a gorgeous surfer tells me.
We lean against our cars in the morning, pulling on neoprene. He shares a tiny bit of his life and his desire to help teenagers find themselves. I want to kiss him for this lovely simplicity. He articulates things I’ve ruminated on deeply. I want to lean into this conversation—how would it have been different for me if I’d had a teacher like him?
It isn’t always easy to shake off the burdens of religious, parental, societal, gender or peer expectations, but when we do—when we crack like sidewalks and dirty streets, and when we allow the flaws and imperfections not to wreck us—there is so much beauty.
I arrive at the sea, formless and open. I’m ready for whatever the day brings.
I am a kook—I surf, but not poetically.
The ocean is indifferent to this—she understands the impulse to break yourself again and again. She welcomes me.
Author: Kelly Russell
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina