If I were to invoke surfing as a metaphor – a risky invocation given the prevalence of cheeseball slogans centered around the sport – but if I were to write about the emotional turbulence of the past few weeks in such a way – the result would read like this:
Sometimes I paddle out thinking the sets will be challenging but manageable. Sometimes I push myself into a wave that scares me because it’s bigger or heavier or steeper than I am used to, telling my brain to stop flailing and my arms to keep paddling and my heart to just commit goddamn it as the wave lifts me up from behind and, amazingly, somehow, all the past experience embedded in my body manages to manifest in the drop, landing me on my feet, my weight shifting and my arms arcing up, and I’ve pulled off a bottom turn and the wave and I go on and on together and the experience is like a miracle except one that I’ve made possible by going and going and not giving up and this moment expands the collection of similar moments as the bliss bubbles up unrestrained and whole.
Far more often, I find myself navigating the currents, trying to hang on the corner of the channel, thinking I’m dialed in and then a bigger set appears on the horizon, blocking out the sky as it steamrolls in, standing up farther out than any other has before and everyone is scratching toward it, some hoping to turn and catch their wave of the day, some, like me, just wanting to avoid getting smashed, but that hope is futile because despite all my experience, the ocean is beyond my control – I know it is beyond my control and yet still I despair for a moment as I look up at the now-pitching wave that is coming down like a giant fist on my head. I have never learned to duck dive under the wave – I don’t have the right board for that anyway – and so all I can do is try to hang on enough to keep my board from ricocheting into someone else and in such a way that my shoulder won’t be ripped out of its socket when my strength is inevitably overpowered by the wave that has me tumbling like a rag doll underwater.
I know better than to panic. I know I can hold my breath, that people generally can hold their breath, longer than we think. This knowledge does not completely mitigate the fact that I would prefer, very much, to have my head above water and air coming into my lungs. When I arrive back topside, hand-over-handing the leash to bring the board back to me, I hopefully have a moment to get my bearings, paddle out of harm’s way and back to the channel. But sometimes, that first wave is followed by another and another – all I can do is keep taking them on the head, diving, surfacing, not panicking, until the cumulative power is spent and the ocean navigable once more.
Often these extremes happen within the same hour. I tolerate the despair and work through my fear because that’s the only path to rapture. There are other types of joy in the world – a good game of Frisbee can engross me without all the drama. My nature not that of an adrenaline junkie; I am hooked on the waves, not the fear. But I live in a place where the waves get big, so if I want to surf, staying within my comfort zone isn’t an option.
Still, I could use a breath.