This dream of mine recurs like the tide: I’m in my backyard; it’s offshore; lines carve the horizon to curves. It’s one of those late-season hurricane swells; everything just comes together – no one out, eighty degree water, dead wind. Planets align. But my backyard isn’t an ocean, nor has it ever been. In fact, since I began surfing over fifteen years ago, I’ve lived no fewer than fifty miles from any salted body of water.
But I return to the ocean at any opportunity. Some seasons this is often. Yet in the grand-scheme of things, surely not often enough. To purloin a notion from Allan Weisbecker’s infamous surf-travel memoir, In Search of Captain Zero, the ocean – and surfing – has always signified for me, the search, the destination, that ever-elusive “end-of-the-road.” That search marks my vicarious type of living: a landlocked ocean-mindedness (I’ve certainly spent more time surfing cerebrally than actually). But over these past years, I’ve found that as my distance from the ocean has only gotten greater, so has my desire to remain attached to the sea, inveterately.
If you’ve ever picked up Thomas Pynchon’s somewhat surfy, psychedelic novel, Inherent Vice, you’ve encountered its epigraph, a piece of Parisian graffito, a transcription which in the troubled waters of 1968 captured the hoped-for freedoms of youthful imagination – “under the paving-stones, the beach!” It’s cryptic, allusive, and in landlocked Paris, that allusion is to a perhaps unrealistic-but-imaginative possibility of unrestrained freedom. That desire permeates the novel’s hippied-out Californian air, almost apocalyptically; and it’s one that for me, recalls my own youth. In our scrawny grom days, my siblings and I would scheme absurd plans to “go surfing.” My brother began painting surfy subject matter; we’d substitute asphalt for water; live off Surfer and Surfline; camp out at the Sebastian Inlet and pray for waves. At one point, in the throes of desperation, we even entertained the idea of building a wave pool in the backyard (those dreams). Surfing was alive in our minds. It was “the dream.” In retrospect, I realize that I even delusionally portended my hometown as Pynchon’s now-bygone Gordita Beach: “some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town.” Surfing was a round-the-clock obsession, and fueling that obsession was our one aspiration. That aspiration has certainly not dissipated over time.
When I went away to college, two ambitions drove me: to succeed academically, and to do so within reach of a promising surf spot. The tension between those two desires has yet to resolve. In fact, they have ended up influencing one another inexorably. In my fledgling days, I would time my surf sessions with razor-thin margins, returning to campus damp and sunburned, but knowing Joyce’s impact on European modernism. My professor was impressed. I was more impressed by the fact that he’d just driven over from his beach house to teach our class; it just so happened to correspond with the less favorable tide. In a rather naïve moment, I envisioned by career path (one that I’m still following): professor – literary expert and mind-molder by (…whenever), surfer and beach house owner during all that other “free time.” But I’ve come to an apt realization since then. Time is certainly not endless; but ambition is, and patience needs to be. As any longtime surfer knows, whether you’re anticipating the destination, the swell, or the set of the day, ambition and patience are imperative. These virtues are universal. And they’ve driven me to stay ocean-minded, even when my career path has taken me, physically, far away from any ocean.
This is definitely no complaint. And I can’t lie, being dedicated to academia has without question afforded me some irreplaceable experiences across the globe. But the ocean continues to seep into all of these experiences, even into the work and teaching I’ve done. Often, during bouts of work-related inundation and removal, I’ll recall a poem by Grace Nichols entitled “Island Man.” It recounts a Caribbean expat relocated from his tropical climes to London; but amidst the city’s wintry drear and cold clamor, “he wakes up / to the sound of / blue surf / in his head / the steady / breaking and / wombing.” I see myself in this man. The sea remains his origin, his present, and likely – his terminus. He is a symbol, an example: sometimes we must realize that removal, for whatever necessity, is an exercise in sacrifice. As surfers, we can’t even conceive of “the search” without some kind of sacrifice, and patient endurance.
As I’m writing this, I look down and see two things: a dissertation file on Irish literature and a video clip of Mullaghmore, Ireland. The video has nothing to do with Irish literature. It’s footage of a “fifty-year storm” that just recently brought a 28-34 foot swell to County Sligo, Ireland’s “wild west” as it were. Again, the proximity yet distance between my work and my life-beyond strikes me. But more than that, it reassures me that ocean-mindedness extends to some very unlikely places, including the west of Ireland, where surfing is perhaps just entering into Ireland’s centuries-long love affair with the sea. Truly, in the words of Kate Chopin, “the sea is seductive.”
Someone once remarked to me, not long ago, that being drawn to the ocean (and surfing) while remaining distanced from it, is akin to unrequited love. That’s poignant. It’s also a universal; there’s something attractive (like in love) about the chase, the anticipation, the possibility of failure – and, of course, the hope of utter fulfillment.
Lately, and more than ever, I’ve found myself going to Google Earth and travelling to some far-flung region of the Atlantic, zooming in on some potential mysto break – Mullaghmore’s slab reefs, the desert(ed) sandbars of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, Iceland’s unforgiving cliffs, places almost uninhabitable and totally unassociated with the banality of “surf culture.” But there are loners out there, chasing and sacrificing for their passion, and guided by ambition and patience, hoping that sooner or later, their timing is right – and that they’re requited. Let’s end by returning to the notion of the “end of the road.” In Allan’s denouement to Captain Zero, it’s telling that he employs what we in the literary field might call an anticlimax. He suggests that it’s not the final destination wherein he finds some kind of fulfillment, or even trivially, some kind of dream wave. Rather, it’s on the road, in particular moments of the journey – during the search itself. It’s a trope that’s as familiar as it is sincere. The “end of the road” is only a moment; the way there, a lifetime.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t in fact say that my relationship with the sea is, or ever will be, a matter of requital. Being ocean-minded is simply experiencing the sea for what it is – endlessly elusive, brutally beautiful. Chopin has it: “the voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander […] in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.”
I’ll keep listening.