The Inertia

A few years ago, my fiancée Ali and I abruptly left New England, ostensibly so she could pursue her PhD in Oceanography, but also because we both felt restless. Since then, living in California has created a kaleidoscope of memories, many of which feature surfing. And what goes better with surfing than music, right? So these are my reflections on our move from the East to the West Coast using some pretty prolific songs. Enjoy.

A crisp spring breeze ruffled the breakers, a line of surfers sat pasted to the horizon. For once, though, I wasn’t checking the surf. I was tuned into my mom’s smile, the memories long hidden behind her eyes.

A trip to California when my mom was 17 widened her perspective and created a new frame of possibility. The imprint of a turbulent childhood was lightened by the realization that she could, and would, experience things she’d never dreamed of when growing up in small town Rhode Island. Visiting the West Coast was life changing, she said, smiling as she looked up at the cliffs behind us, golden in the sunlight.

She never shared those inspiring recollections until we stood there, feet in the sand of my new home. It makes me wonder about the stories we keep bottled up as our lives bloom. It makes me wonder why some stories get told, and some never do. It makes me want to hear every story.

Our last few months of summer were hijacked by chaos: packing and renting our house, fixing a leaking garage at the last minute. By the time Ali and I dragged our stuff into a cramped studio across the country, the Pacific was calling, its voice of escape and mystery.

Ali rushed off to school and I borrowed a heavy, yellow women’s bike from our landlord, put my plane-damaged board under one arm, and set off. I quickly realized that the brakes didn’t work as I skidded down steep hills, dodging traffic, dragging my feet to brake until I reached the vast green shine of the ocean. 

A surfer commented on my Rhode Island-made board and pointed down the vast shoreline, naming the dizzying array of reef breaks. His kind words disappeared into the spray. The sun cracked like an egg across the sky, I felt for the reef with my feet as I set out. Only one wave sticks in my mind, a gliding left that, for a second, masqueraded as endless. But I clearly remember leaving the water at dusk, full of the slow burn of elation. 

Months later I wasn’t walking, but running into the sea, fueled by the constant swells and warm water. A remote spot had been recommended in the lineup, and I followed instructions: a long bike ride, a mile-long jog. Behold: a firing left scrubbed clean of people. 

As I waded in, the kelp swarmed around my legs like angry eels. Suddenly, a white-hot jolt soared up my leg. “What the?!” I jumped on my board and paddled, hard.

When I got out past the breakers, fresh red blood leaked from my ankle. I spun around a few times but in the dying light, all I saw was a longboarder gracefully trimming his wave hundreds of yards away. 

My breathing slowed. The stinging eased. Waves passed, unridden. With no idea what awaited me: the toe-burning jog and bike ride, the tequila and “other liquids” I would desperately douse my ankle with before recognizing the magic of a simple bucket of water…I caught a wave, then another. Surfing that day made time stop – at least until I got out of the water a few hours later and took off running through the darkness.

Just as memories morph into fiction, they can also become clearer with time. What I initially forgot about this surf collision was how as the morning ebbed, the waves became angry grey walls marching towards us, blotting out the sun. Offshores hissed, breakers pummeled the inside with echoing booms. The crowd grew rowdy.

I was in the wrong when I collided with this dude, but something exaggerated about his reaction which threw me on the offensive. I wonder now if he was having a bad day, a down week, a shitty month. Hey, we’ve all been there, man. I’d like to go back and change my actions and reaction; but that’s how life works. We don’t get to go back and fix our worst moments and we don’t get to revisit the thrill of our best rides. All we can do is keep growing, with the scars on our shoulders to remind us of what we pick up along the way.

Paddling to the peak on an overcast Saturday, I heard a tremendous slap on the surface of the water. Thinking it was a surfer kicking out, I spun around just as the fin disappeared beneath the water. “He almost landed on you,” someone called out. I’m certain now the dolphin was playing a trick on me, and I know he must’ve enjoyed the shock on my face. 

I know it’s normal out here, but New Englanders do not get to surf with dolphins. Every time they visit, their silvery skin dipping in and out of the sea, everyone in the lineup is tugged closer by an invisible leash. Surfers who’ve been giving each other the evil eye suddenly bow their heads and smile, witness to something otherworldly.

I wasn’t a surfer before I came to California. The match had been struck, but it hadn’t blazed. Sure, I surfed, but I wasn’t dreaming about waves as I fell asleep, as I used to with soccer or snowboarding. I wasn’t running into the icy tides as soon as we got back to New England so I didn’t miss a day. I wasn’t analyzing tides and wind every dusk and dawn and poring over new boards I can’t afford to the extent that Ali thinks I “might have a problem.”

Most importantly, I wasn’t riding half as many waves, trying to decipher what the ocean is saying each time I drop in. When I don’t surf for a couple of days now, I feel robbed of something I never knew I had. 

When we make drastic life changes, there’s a fine line between sticking to our roots and reinventing ourselves. We’ve found a new rhythm here, even when someone at the beach is certain that Matunuck, RI is actually Montauk, NY, or I lose the only car key inside our old Jeep’s dashboard after surfing – only to be bailed out by a kind stranger.

It’s the nods and smiles as I jog the beach at sunrise, board in hand. The taste of the fresh fruit from the market down the street after a dawn session. Taking in a smoldering sunset from our little ramshackle deck, heading up to Mammoth to explore, catching local bands. Watching Ali unearth new ideas beneath the surface of the sea and expand her mind at school.

Our recollections begin as sturdy snapshots, yet over time they morph and fade. Luckily, we’re able to keep hold of some of them. The best memories, whether experiences shared, or stories told, have the power to bind us together.

Surfing, too, has the immense power to not only pause time, but heal us. A glassy morning calms my worries and provides hope, as it did when I got laid off last year, as it does when I’m struggling with my work or feeling down.

In the same way I now look back to past neighborhoods in Rhode Island, Boston, Colorado, I wonder how I’ll remember this slice of my life. How will I recollect these brilliant, beautiful years? Who will I stand next to on the shore and share my stories with?

The future is hazy, but I know I’ll still be surfing, thanks to a good dose of some California Soul.


Only the best. We promise.


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