I arrived with a 50-pound suitcase full of lycra and camera film. Two weeks prior, I’d quit my job as an English teacher and put together a graduate school portfolio. By the time I arrived, my applications had been submitted. I was doubtful of my acceptance but also lacking a back-up plan, so there was nothing to do but wait. Emotionally, I was nowhere, anywhere, drifting. Physically, I was in Rincón, Puerto Rico.
I had spent the past weeks at a makeshift desk in the corner of my apartment, feeling far too in my head and more disconnected from my physical body than ever. On a whim, I googled “surf retreats” and booked the one that started the soonest with the last dollars in my savings. The only thing I knew for sure was that I’d live in a tent. What I didn’t know was almost anything about surfing. I was out of shape. A poor swimmer. I’d barely passed my college’s required swim test with an expletive-filled doggy paddle across the pool. My most recent surfing frame of reference was Allan Grant’s photos for Life Magazine. They were taken in the 1960s.
I’ve written before about the joys of engaging with the physical task of developing film, particularly how it removes me from the hyper-speed of social media. But surfing makes the darkroom feel like spending hours on Snapchat.
Texts and emails and Instagram and Twitter were far from my mind when my instructor, Ivan, with his smooth, accented baritone that betrayed the rigor of his approach, bellowed to paddle faster, harder and to line myself up with the board’s center. “Up! Up!” he screamed, his voice reaching me over the thunder of the waves. For a moment I was standing and then I was under water again. I looked back at him, aching for praise. None came.
“Back on the board. Paddle back out. Find your center. We go again.”
In Rincón, I stripped myself of pretense and bullshit. It was easy. There was sand and salt and wind and water. There were wet bikinis and sunburns, missing toenails and roadside tacos. I woke and slept with the sun. The fear of graduate school dissipated as quickly as I learned to love the ocean, to be still as I thrashed underwater, to know I would come up for air soon enough.
I returned to New York City two weeks later, terrified that my newfound calm wasn’t a result of welcoming surfing into my life but the removal of everything else. It’s easy to extol the virtues of something when you’re able to enjoy it in a vacuum. But I was wrong. I soon discovered the same sense of calm when taking the A train to surf Rockaway Beach in New York (my phone in tow) that I did in faraway beach towns without cell service.
So what is it about surfing? I think I find it therapeutic because I’m not very good at it. I’ve made a lot of progress since Puerto Rico, sure. I don’t fall off half as much and I can paddle for an hour before wanting to amputate my arms. I can catch waves on my own and people who have never surfed before are impressed. But no one tells me that I’m good at surfing; I’m just not bad at surfing. And that’s a big deal for me. I’m a competitive perfectionist who has a hard time finding joy in activities I don’t excel at. It’s why I can only do Pilates in the privacy of my apartment, with YouTube and my dog as my sole witnesses.
But the ocean changes me. Unlike my other great passion, photography, surfing feels personal. While I love to take and develop photos and share them with the world (I find joy in that recognition, I admit), surfing is just for me. It’s public, yes, but anyone who is actually interested is busy watching the surfers with true virtuosity. I’m left alone.
I’ve never Instagrammed myself surfing because the photos aren’t that impressive, the waves aren’t that big and my “bikini body” is definitely just a body in a bikini. And that’s more than fine. I get to measure myself against my own progress and that feels novel. I am and have to be — bear with me — completely in the moment because any other way of being has consequences. At best, a wipe out. At worst, a deadly fall. The ocean cares if you pay attention. So I do.
Photographed by Kayla Tanenbaum.