How I Learned to Surf

Wait?  What?  Weren’t you just talking about running in your last blog post?  Why are you now surfing, in December?

Simply put, these days the waves are not made of water.

Many of us have been here, though I don’t hear enough of us talking about it.  You leave one era in life, for me teaching, with a less than concrete plan or goal.  If you’d wanted to, you could have forced a plan into being; one that was likely to be problematic because you’re not yet approaching life differently.  But for once, you decide that casting off answers a deeper need, follows a wisdom that does not fit into the category of ‘things I can explain’.  Thus, you step into the unknown, rife with all the complexities I’ve been writing about here for the last two years.  Sometimes your choice feels validated.  Other times you feel crushing waves of ‘what the fuck am I doing?’

My waves have differed in strength, duration, and size for the last two years.  I’ve had everything from momentary pauses to week long knock outs where I fear for my sanity.  They can be triggered by rational things–you go to a family gathering and someone asks you what your plans are with a face that earnestly expects an answer.  They can also be triggered by what feels like nothing.

The latest wave, started night before last while navigating home from work.  I only had one freeway to travel to get there, but suddenly GPS wanted me to exit.  It didn’t make sense, so I ignored it.  It asked me to exit again at the next off ramp.  Then I started thinking, “Wait, in my tiredness, did I get on the wrong freeway?”  I started scanning the freeway for clues, but decided I better get off just in case.  Fifteen minutes of weird turns later, when the GPS wanted me to take the same freeway in the opposite direction, I looked to see if my destination address was correct.  Somehow, another stop had been added to my route, one I don’t remember adding.  I was enraged.  “I COULD HAVE BEEN HOME ALREADY GOD DAMN IT!”  I spent the rest of the trip home thinking about how dumb I was.  How hard is it Chelsea to put the right address/es in the GPS?  Why can’t you do anything right, especially the things that are easy for most people?  You shouldn’t even have needed GPS for this trip.

I woke up drained the next morning.  My week was overly long, but this was the kind of funk that comes after beating up on myself.  I barely brought myself to weekly rehearsal for my improv troupe.  While I usually bask in the energy and quickness of people much younger than me, this practice just made me tired.  They are all doing things with their lives–visible, observable, explainable things–not this interior landscape bullshit I’m involved in traversing.  They are dating and buying houses and starting companies and working towards well defined outcomes.  How can I be taking this meandering time to clarify purpose and direction, when the whole rest of the world is hard at work?  I walked away feeling foolish and frivolous.

And now I’m here again, water breaking over me.  I know I’ve moved my life in the direction it needs to go for now, but it feels deeply lonely.

What do you do with being neither here nor there? How do you handle suddenly being a beginner more than an expert, trusting processes without many outward measurements?  How do you move with the weight of self-accusation: foolish! frivolous! unrealistic! selfish! What rubric do you use to remake your definitions of EVERYTHING so that comparison to others enters the picture less, or preferably, not at all?  What does it take to keep following the quiet persistence of your heart that says, ‘you’ll be ready when you get there, but not yet’? How do you trust the unknown?  How do you give up trying to control it all?  How do you give up secretly trying to control it all after you’ve already said you’ve given up trying to control it all?

The answer is, I don’t know.  When these solid towers of uncertainty rise from the deep to meet me, their inhabitants rarely get in a polite line while I deal with one thing at a time.  They show up mosh pit style–every question, doubt, fear, and awareness of my shortcomings–frothing, foaming, and fighting the beautifully colored fish for acknowledgement.

Nonetheless, here’s what I’ve tried in these rough waters.  None of it is earth shattering insight, but maybe some of it will resonate for you?  Maybe some of it will inspire you to make your own list, reflect on the ways in which your legs have grown strong, meeting the surfboard in rough transitional times?

1. Tell someone.  Preferably someone who won’t need to fix it, or be upended by someone in the grip of strong emotions.  Last night, it was my friend Kristy.  My basic message was that I feel like I’m failing at this, whatever this is.  Everybody else’s path looks different than mine and I am so confused.  She empathized and told me she loved me.  It “fixes” nothing, but my chattering head felt so much lighter after doing it.  I’ve been graced with many others who have held that same space for me in the last two years.

2.  Create something that has a form.  I colored a little this afternoon, deeply pleased by the contrast between navy blue and orange.  I’m also sitting here writing to you, my faithful seven followers 🙂  It even felt really fucking good to just take out the trash yesterday afternoon.  It was something definite I could do, and then have it be done.  You may be in uncharted waters, but there is no such thing as total chaos (believe me, if there was, my family would’ve signed up for a lifetime subscription already).

3.  Move your body.  This morning, I took every doubt, fear, and feeling of isolation, out to the trail for a run.  Tomorrow I will dance.  Maybe you’re like I used to be and you’ve never developed a partnership with or awareness of your body.  Maybe you’ve only seen exercise as a way to keep the belly flat and not smack your kid/boss/husband when they say something stupid.  But this body we live in, this ancient architecture, is astoundingly intelligent.  Most of the time, I know the answers.  Sometimes, I know them before the question is asked.  Moving will often light them up and shake them loose, whether or not I decide to listen.  It is the best way I’ve found to turn down the volume on repetitive recriminations and general all around freak outs.

4.  Give in.  Not forever, but for a little while, just let yourself really wallow in the feeling that you’ve fucked it all up, missed the meaning of life, failed at everything you’ve ever tried.  I haven’t yet needed it with this current wave, but it has worked wonders over the past few years.  Grab whatever you need to make it happen: sad songs, snack foods, excessive blankets, bubbles, the sky is the limit.  If you really think you may not come out once you start down that road, set a timer.  Bottom line: you’re doing something different, something you’ve never done before–you’re “allowed” to lose your shit from time to time.

5.  Talk to yourself.  Not in the absentminded, “Where did I leave my keys,” sort of way, but intentionally, like you would a friend that needed the best of your best pep talks.  I like to have three conversations: one with my heart, one with my mind, and one with my body.  Often, their needs and concerns are overlapping, but I want to make sure that no one gets left out.  Here’s part of our conversations in the last few days:

~Hello my sweet, sweet heart.  I know you understand where I am right now, even if you’re not yet sharing that with my mind.  I feel your patience, so I don’t worry about you too much, but I also know you are tired.  You’re tired from lending me fuel to advance my borders, from helping me show up authentically in community, and from directing the constant stream of new information and integration.  Please, please, please, keep nourishing yourself.  Remember how many ways there are to do that, not just the ones you secretly hope for.  Because your belief in us, in the beauty and goodness of the world, is like one of our best things.  If we lose that, if we sway and topple to cynical or uninventive, if we go back to hiding out, we’re going to be in big trouble when we get where we’re going.  You are our life raft when we’re drowning.  Thank you.

~Dear multi-story mind.  I know you want answers and you’re scared that I can’t give you any yet.  Certainty and clarity were how you used to make sense of a confusing world so we fit in a little better.  For a long time, I made you carry this work, all the work really.  You were the only place I felt safe.  It must be a big adjustment for you to not have to do it all in the last few years.  You have to share space with the heart and the body, and getting new roommates can be tough, especially ones with opinions and advice.  I still need you–but I don’t need your efforts at controlling life anymore.  This includes, but is not limited to, all your obsessive tendencies.  In fact, when you throw up these gobs of questions like you’re doing now, you take away from one of your best abilities, that of constructing and honing a singular, beautiful question.  And let’s be real with each other, some of these defensive moves of yours, well they’re not even logical.  The whole, “Just go back to teaching because then you had a plan,” speech?  Nope.  I have more of a plan now than I did then, as weird as that sounds.  At 22, I fell into teaching, happened to be good at it, and loved many parts of it for many years.  If there was a plan at all, it was watch the years go by, do things with students so I wasn’t bored, and stay there till I retire or die.  I love you brain, but I am watching you.  Be as scared as you need to, but don’t think I won’t call you out on your bullshit.

~Strong, sensual, beloved body.  You’re doing a lot of rearranging of late, aren’t you?  Starting to run has brought some of the same things to the forefront as did dance three years ago.  I don’t know why you hold this mixed relationship to power–both wanting to embrace it and being afraid of it, but the heart and mind are here to give you all the support they can, as you have always, always supported them.  What do I need from you during this time, you ask?  A strong right knee, stamina, help with processing the rest of the Paradox weekend, and a willingness to keep unclenching, at multiple points and every time, these new waves of doubt threaten to wipe me out.  Keep reminding me that life is here, right now, and is already significantly better than it used to be.  Also, please help me to remember to have fun.  You know I love to delight, but I can also be such a big ol’ serious face.  As I embrace you more, I know the travelling I’ve been doing is likely to increase–that’s a good time to sneak the funsies in, besides dancing or playing with kids, both of which put me much more in touch with you.

So again, I may not have any new advice for the less than textbook transition, but I have broken a lot of boards in some killer swells while learning to ride.  Don’t let the waves keep you out of the ocean my explorer friends.  I need you in there with me, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.