Surf School

Surf School


Summer 1995.

I stand at the edge of the water at Broadkill Beach in Delaware. A few days before, my brothers, parents and I all packed into our wood paneled minivan to make the trip from Upstate New York to this little paradise. I was uncontrollably excited for the beach as we tightly packed the road trip games, cheap beach towels, and coolers into any remaining crevice we could find. So much so, that I delighted my parents to multiple “Are we there yets?” the whole way down. But now as I shift uncomfortably and look out onto the water, I realize the vast blue ocean outnumbers the beach by a long shot. I watch my father from a distance as he takes turns loading my twin brother and younger brother onto a neon boogie board and ships them into the oncoming waves. They laugh and scream as they glide towards me standing on shore, their pale white skin streaked with sunscreen that surely won’t do it’s job today. Brendon rides one in nearby, hits the sand a little too hard and looks up at me smiling, “What are you doing just standing there?” I narrow my eyes at him. “Collecting seashells, duh.” He barely lets me answer before heading back out into the water with the board in hand, “That doesn’t even look that fun.” I manage to get out but he’s already shifted his focus back out towards my Dad and Jonathan.

I look back down and catch a glimpse of a few seashells as the water rolls them back out towards the ocean with him. Many girls (and boys - equal opportunity) my age would be happy collecting shells on the beach, but I’m not happy, far from it. I’ve always been able to keep up with my brothers and the neighboring boys next door. In fact, most of the time I lead the excursions into the woods to build tree forts and organize the games of manhunt running barefoot through the neighbors backyards at dusk. But here, I’m out of my element, and it bothers me. Jonathan was always the swimmer. Always so comfortable jumping feet first into the water at swim lessons while I sat on the edge with my floats, arms crossed, nose held high - refusing to budge. I liked solid ground. I later played soccer and ran track. Jonathan got up early to hit the pool before school for hours, the water pouring over his body lap after lap, then again after school. That sounded like a private hell to me. I needed fresh air to breath and earth to pound beneath my feet.

Summer 2018.

I sit in a circle of about 15 young women in a small (quite beautifully) refurbished garage on the West Side of Los Angeles. The light is softly diffused by the candles burning in front of us and we sit crosslegged on top of cream colored furry rugs that would make for a very ‘gram-worthy West Elm inspired shot. At the head of the circle sits Gwen, a women I met just a few weeks before at the Mindbodygreen Revitalize retreat, after mistakenly thinking we knew each other from somewhere else. Gwen is a breathwork coach and facilitator of these bi-weekly Moon Circles, a gathering of women in LA who come together to share stories, struggles, triumphs, and emotions to empower each other and make the love/hate existence of LA just a little less turbulent.

I’ll stop right there. If you’re reading this like, ‘Wait, what is this witchery?’ I hear you. I not only thought Moon Circles were a bit odd but completely disregarded the moon as having any effect on our humanity for most of my life. Don’t get my wrong, a full moon always captivated me - I had nights in Brooklyn where I’d go up on the roof and lay there for hours gazing up at it, pondering life. But did it effect how I was feeling, my intentions for the oncoming weeks, or even my idea of what it means to be a woman with hormonal shifts? Hell no. It’s the moon. Not birth control. 

Gwen didn’t sell me on the moon though. She sold me on breathwork. In our first conversation we shared what we’re up to in this vast world of wellness. As soon as I heard breathwork, I froze. I was taken back to my first, and last, breathwork experience after moving to LA. A new friend invited me when I shared I’d been unsuccessfully sorting through a host of emotions. It had helped her find so much peace and clarity. So being as clueless as the rest of us, I thought I’d give it a go and experience total bliss as my reward. It was hosted as a meditation studio, and since I’d never done a minute of meditation in my life, why not jump (actually walk because I like solid ground references) right in.

In my usual approach, I held nothing back. The room was dark and quiet. We laid on our backs and the instructor told us about the healing benefits of breathwork. All I had to do was follow her lead and breathe, how hard could it be? We started to breathe rapidly and I followed her every command. This lasted for an entire hour and during that time my hands clamped up like some sort of demon taking over my body, I had all kinds of crazy visions, got quite emotional, and basically hyperventilated for the duration of it. At the end, I could barely stand up to walk out of there and ended up sitting in my car for an extended period of time trying to gather myself. As I sat there, I was brought back to a time in high school when I pushed past the crowd at a party after everyone refused to hit the gravity bong that had been cooking for so long the smoke was almost black. My lungs (and tolerance) were strong, I thought - 'I can do it.' I breathed the entire thing in, held it and let out the thick cloud of smoke to total silence as everyone in the garage waited for my response. Just like the breathwork, I played it totally cool, but only long enough so that I could stumble outside to the back porch alone and wheeze for six hours (Im really not sure how much time passed but it was light out when we left) as I tried to calm my panic and visions of the morning newspaper coming out about a high school girl dying of an asthma attack. 

Ultimately, like I felt that night on the porch but in a worse kind of way, all I could think was, “Wow. I’m so fucked up.”

I shared this experience with Gwen (minus the part about the marijuana) and to my surprise, she had a very similar experience her first time. Unlike me though, she recognized that as an indication to stick with it - to lean into it and see what she could find there. I ran from it.

So when Gwen reached out after the conference to invite me to give it another try I thought why not. I’ll try anything twice. Plus I trusted her, and I trusted myself more now than those first few months in LA on shaky ground.

Stay for a little longer.

We’re going around the circle and each girl is stating her intention for the oncoming weeks. I had spent all of my anxious energy that day preparing to breathe and had not accounted for this question. As the voices get closer to me I glance up at the large piece of artwork behind Gwen. Art has always been my answer. This time, I take notice that it’s an abstract painting of beautiful blue waves. The girl next to me concludes and I start to speak. “My intention for this month, and for the last several months, has been to sit in the uncomfortableness. To stay a little longer when I want to run.” Gwen smiles, “That’s beautiful.”

After some more discussion about the moon phases and it’s effects on our moods, cycles, and energy, Gwen says something interesting. As humans, we are more than 70% water. If the moon affects our tides and creates waves, how can we argue that it doesn’t affect our own bodies. Sometimes, just having that scientific explanation instead of all the woo woo magic is enough to make things click for me. We are all just cucumbers with anxiety.

Before long, my next challenge is up. Loose leaf paper and pens are being passed around the circle. We’re to make a list of all the things we want to let go. Things that are no longer serving us. And in a few moments, we’re heading outside to the fire pit for a ceremony to release those things into the burning flames. Most of the girls write quickly and fluidly. I hover over my paper and think, ‘Shit.’ I have something immediately come to mind but I don’t feel ready to send it into the flames. There’s a lot of ink on the papers around me, multiple numbered lists and bullets, but mine is blank. After a few more minutes I look around to a near empty room. It’s me and one other girl. I know what I need to write. So I scribble it down and pause. It feels too real. She walks out and I grab my paper to follow.

Standing in the circle around the fire I’m entranced by the things the other women are releasing. Self limiting beliefs, old relationships, old resentments; I’m almost startled when the voice next to me stops. I hold my paper up and begin to speak. I notice my voice tremor a little and I feel a wave of emotion come over me. But I stop it. I’m skilled at that. I tame it, push it down and steady my speech, “This has been a long time coming. 16 years in the making actually. But tonight I’m releasing a relationship that’s been on and off since I was a teenager. A relationship I thought I had healed from but had to revisit one more time to get it right. It was so powerful, so passionate, and so addictingly imperfect. My first love, but somewhere inside I was afraid it’d be my last. I’m letting go of the idea that I’ll never feel like that with anyone again. That I’ll never love so deeply again.”

I sent it into the fire.

Surf School.

The last and final act is the breathwork. I’m feeling lighter but still slightly anxious about it. Before we start, Gwen explains the breath. It’s a 3 part technique. First, the inhale to fill your belly, then moving that air into your chest, and finally exhaling out the mouth. She describes it like the wave - swelling, cresting, and releasing.

This sits with me. We start to breathe. I picture myself standing on that beach in Delaware, afraid of the waves. Afraid of my own emotions and discomfort. So instead, I stayed on solid ground. When the waves crept up the shoreline, I tried to capture them and contain them. I tried to put my arms around the sea and stop it from crashing. But there’s an ocean of waves and only so much ground for me to stand on. I couldn’t control the waves. I had to learn to understand them, move with them, appreciate them even. I had to uncross my arms and get off the concrete edge of that pool and learn to swim.

I breath some more. Slowly at first, then I pick up the pace. I step out into the water and wade out. I see a swell rising in the distance. I look back at shore thinking maybe I can make it in time. But I decide to stay. It grows tall and dark, emotions start to rush over me. Tears roll down my cheeks. I feel my feet leave the sand at the bottom of the water and my body become weightless. I swim with it until it starts to crest and crash, carrying me with it. I wash up to shore with a sense of relief. But instead of continuing up onto the beach, I make like my brothers and turn to head back out. I know there’s another one coming. Maybe it will be awhile, maybe it won't be as easy as this ride, but I can handle it now. I'm learning how to surf.

Graduate Program.

The following weekend I’m hiking in the hills of Los Angeles on a hot Sunday morning. My AirPods are dangling from my ears. On the other side of the conversation is Nick, 3 hours ahead on East Coast time. He’s been on the other side of that line in some form or another for 16 years. This conversation is different though. It’s not like the last breakups, full of resentfulness and hurt. It's deeply painful, but the healing kind. The good pain. It's the hardest and purest one we’ve ever had. I make my final decision and as the Pods double beep to signal the end of the call I start to spin. I feel the waves so strong I reach out for a tree to steady myself. My breath starts to become erratic as my emotions surge but I go back to that beach. I inhale into my belly, move the air into my chest, and release it. I’m not afraid of the waves anymore.

Life by Design was born out of a need for my own self-healing after decades of unresolved illness. It wasn’t until finding the courage to look within that I discovered it was my own belief system holding me back from experiencing a truly thriving life. We all have access to that thriving life. We just need to rediscover our power and ignite the healing-self. Only then can we unapologetically live a life by our own design.