“I know what I have to do now. I’ve got to keep breathing because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”
– Tom Hanks, from the film Cast Away
I stand in the parking lot in the eerie, predawn light. It’s a reverse twilight that paints the world in shades of silver, pewter, charcoal. Ghost palette. The moon in the west hangs like a burlesque dancer in the spotlight from the ceiling, one garter pulled up half way, messy and dainty, still young enough not to be old. She knows all your secrets.
I am vaguely aware that I’m not yet awake. Shards of dreams poke out of my awareness from some underworld I was drifting through just an hour ago. Before I open the car door, I can hear the surf.
She pounds like a hungry woman for bread at the door. She must feed the children. Waves skirt into view from the soupy fog, headdresses of the deep, shimmering tiaras of a late night drag queen tossed upon the sand.
Christian arrives, and we stand, shoulder to shoulder at the fence. He is properly caffeinated and talking about everything: What we should do. If we should do it. How we should proceed. I hear him through the mist, and marvel how the sound carries here when the wind is quiet. I’m totally asleep, and spacing out. I remind myself to listen.
Do I hear the call inside me to suit up and dive into the frigid sea?
Fuck no. I don’t hear it AT ALL this morning.
But also absent is the voice that made an appearance yesterday, the one warning me the waves are big, don’t go. A tug away from shore. Dangerous today. It is dangerous today.
That voice arises from the wild mind, the part of consciousness still untamed, ancient as earth, and out of a depth of certainty that is mostly absent from daily living, making sudden appearances out of nowhere, with simple instructions:
You heed your intuition out on the sea, or risk your life.
I don’t know what else to call it, that empty lens of consciousness usually filled with flitting butterflies of thought. They are scattered by urgency when there is urgency.
Call it intuition. Call it a hunch. But there is a knowing. And it moves with subtle magnificence just below the surface of your mind, rippling the waves of awareness, like the black crested spine of a sea creature. It appears. Then… it is gone.
As surfers, we lean on our intuition every session, even as we lean on our understanding. These are the two divine fins that hold us to the waves- bracing, carving, stabilizing:
Intuition and understanding.
Intuition is in the moment, arising spontaneously. Fluid sense.
Understanding comes from all directions: you know the spot and how the waves tend to behave; you study the surf report, you’ve looked at the cams, you have access to the tide graph data; you’ve seen it from above, from below, and somewhere in the center of your soul, it all intersects, standing before the break, watching the waves roll in.
Surfing is divine. Cosmic. It is pure belonging and daring all rolled together.
Surfing is not sport, it is religion.
Drunk on dawn beauty, we opt in. The sun hasn’t hit the water yet, and we walk together in an enclave of icy shadow across the sharp groaning wet stones that provide us with complimentary morning acupressure that hurts like hell. I prance and gripe with each step, ready for the freedom of my surfboard beneath me.
I’m a woman I do not recognize. Something that happens to everyone; I’m not that unique. You become someone else in the mirror, grey at your temples, and you see your mother there, your father, and it is shocking that this person you strove not to become, you have become so completely. Stop looking in the mirror. Paddle out.
We step into the sea. The waves peel toward us, enormous, soft, bent willows of water that coil and release pockets of opportunity.
An error is not a mistake. Every wave you miss takes you closer to the rides that teach you what is possible. The ocean is generous, I have said this before. She will humble you, and then she will redeem you with triumph in equal measure.
It is intuition, wed to understanding. You’re getting there, grasshopper. You will tremble before you fly.
Christian seems psychic. It kind of freaks me out, but I’m used to it: how he sees my entire thought process play out in my moment to moment decisions and calls me on it before I even know what happened myself. He knows what I chose to do or not do, he sees every tiny hesitation, whether or not I swim under or ditch my board as a wave approaches, in how I set up for a wave and my angle is off. He reaches into my mind and adjusts and cranks my thought process and I don’t have to say a word, because he does all the talking. He is the mind mechanic.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears. I did not expect my guru to be wielding a surfboard and a tongue like a whiplash. He is his own acerbic perfection. And he is always right, the motherfucker.
I came from yoga. Stable balance on land. I never imagined I would learn to surf at 40, and get this addicted to the salty brine, and the triumph of making a wave.
Gravity, light, water, the glint of sun appears and refracts in the fog as a warm halo hugs the horizon. I have never in my life seen a dawn this beautiful in California. It takes my breath away. The glass blown sea. How alive it all is.
Men drift in. Here and there, a woman’s frame crops up above a wave, submerges.
I catch a quick breaking left, and shoot down the line, crouching low. The wave spikes up, dies and then reforms and creates a hollow where I can stand and make the cutback.
I don’t want to hit the rocks, so I peel off and fall back into the whitewash. It’s hard to believe, but you get used to it, the time underwater, the way each wave drags you or tussles you and for how long. I feel the familiar yank of my leash and know the wave has passed, and I can surface, arm over my forehead to protect my face from a rogue surfboard fin.
Intuition is a voice, a feeling. This wave will back off. This one will move the way you want it to.
I’m frequently amazed that when I’m hit with a sudden urgency to paddle away from shore, I’ve sensed a big set rolling in without even realizing it. And each paddle stroke means I’m there to push over the waves, my board vertical in the water as I crest.
Be still and know that I am God.
Intuition haunts our wisest books. The instruction is there, coded inside us, more ancient than language (and possibly sharing an origin with the tides and the moon) and all the perceptions we have that arise from the world around us, so small, so easy to dismiss. It is an ancient source of instinctual truth. Intuition is from the Latin root tueri — which means “to guard and protect”.
“Intuition is knowing without knowing how you know.”
-Gavin de Becker, from The Gift of Fear
I watch the waves come, and we identify how they break. The swell is northwest and south swell combo today. And there are so many opportunities. Christian turns to me, “Go, now.”
I paddle, not hard enough. I miss that wave, but stay where I am so I’m set up to catch the next one, a right dash straight for the sand. I grab my rail and lean into the force propelling me faster.
Why do I surf? What calls me? A woman, far off, someone I’ve always wanted to be. Feelings I’ve always wanted to feel. Maybe some women feel this way on their wedding day, I have nothing to compare it to, the exhilaration, the power source that can be captured for an instant and transformed into joy and connection to the sea, and to yourself — a union of heart and source.
Christian spies the ride he wants, flips his board stern to prow — fin first — , and catches the thing backwards so he can spin his longboard around, mid flight, and launch free of the foam. He’s an aerial acrobat, even on a board that big.
My mind stays quiet — sensing — until the horizon scissors up, splits apart foreground lighter than background, a brushstroke of color difference as I rise up on the surface of one wave and the next appears from behind it, dark and steep, rolling in. This isn’t the one I want — not the ideal shape for my longboard positioning. I paddle to meet it, and it pulls me vertical, my 9 foot surfboard, tail to nose, pointed at the heavens. Like standing on the side of a ladder.
Where does fear become exhilaration?
We meet again. In between the forces of opposites: gravity and lift, intuition and understanding, fear and exhilaration. I am a woman, poised. Often confused, but sometimes, sometimes dialing it in.
I turn, swing the board. The one behind this one is my miracle ride this morning.
“Go left!” Christian calls out. “Paddle!”
I dig in, feel the board catch and fly to my feet. Thought vanishes inside it. Together, we glide, pivot, rise, skim.
That is why I come. Because surfing is flying. And flying is heaven. Flying is the cure for everything, but especially for over-thinking.
I throttle down the line, and punch out of the wave through the belly of the barrel. I scream in glee. I paddle out and swing around again.
This time, a right, to my feet, I grab the rail and lean into the wall of water, which is completely fluid and strangely reliable, as we are together in motion. I lean down my backside. The board flies. How do I know what to do? Something in me knows that is beyond any knowing. Something that is connected to the cosmos beyond words.
I stay low.
Christian rides one in, and ends up on the beach, then paddles back out as I see the next one coming. I go for it and dig in with my strokes. But then I hear Christian yelling, “No! No! No!” I sit up, pull out of the wave. He paddles toward me. “What the fuck was that? You had that.”
“You were yelling ‘No, no, no’.”
He hits his forehead with his hand. “I was yelling ‘Go, go go!’”.
I laugh out loud. We have this Ricky and Lucy dynamic. I know I drive him bananas. But we laugh. So much for thinking how well the fog carries our voices this morning. Hear what you want. I will always err on the side of caution, and I think that’s a forgivable sin out here. Even surfing has its comedy. The trail of water that streams out my nose all day, onto my computer, the counter of the bank in front of the teller, feeding the cat.
He tells me to paddle over. I paddle in and over. He hates it when I don’t do exactly what he tells me. He’s a precision whore, Christian is. This is the place that matters, though. He yells at me. I don’t mind it later, but in the moment I always cringe. Just a little.
I still second guess him. Because I question everything. I question myself. I’m still learning how to trust the liquid world. Trust myself. Even trusting my teacher is a stretch, but I’m good at stretching. Everyone should be. Because what doesn’t bend in this world, fucking breaks.
I veer hard left down the line, and find my feet gracefully. I stand for a moment, and then crouch, and at that moment, the wave curls up, stops, and I crest up, then slip down the line again as it breaks over me.
And I want nothing more in that moment than for that moment.
How often do you feel that? Wanting to be right where you are. We are mostly elsewhere. Drifting away and not toward.
I live my life looking back. Regret tugs at my sleeves constantly.
I turn toward the approaching waves, hoping there will be another send off that reveals what I’m meant to be doing.
Do we ever really know? Are we ever really certain, of anything but especially who we are?
It is not a command, but an offering.
Someone inside me has learned this art. The art of surfing. She is not the writer, or the daughter, or the mother.
She is a priestess, and a surveyor of love. Ageless, serene, connected, if only for an instant, before falling back.
All I know is that she reveals myself to me.
~ Kaia Alexander
Cowgirl Surf Chronicles is proudly brought to you by filmmaker, novelist, entrepreneur Kaia Alexander.
You can find Kaia at www.kaiaalexander.com
Watch the trailer of my new documentary short, Chalice: Wise Women Rise here: www.chalicemovie.com