August 8, 2022

Blog @ Munaf Sheikh

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Lighting Up the Sky: Finding My Ocean

Home is Calling.

–  Will Beall, Screenwriter, Aquaman

Atop a surfboard, there is something so comforting about being pushed into a wave. There is someone behind you, waiting for just the right time. To push you forward. And to let you go. How can you not feel gratitude for that? 

That’s what I’m feeling when Rod pushes me into the waves. Comfort and gratitude.


The first time the ocean saved me, I was 17 years old. 

The backstory isn’t important. I’ve written about it before. I’ll write about it again. But, by the time I was 17, already there was nothing about my life that I liked. I hated myself and I wanted out. 

I’m not going to get into details. I will only say this much: I was sitting in my car, which was parked in an industrial neighborhood in West Berkeley, when I made an attempt at suicide. While Berkeley does border a bay, I had no view of the water from where I was parked. Yet, shortly into my effort, something happened that made me think of the ocean. The thought was a quiet whisper in the back of my mind. 

The waves. Can you see them?

And I could. In that very brief moment, I could see the waves. That is what penetrated my stubborn intent. Metaphorically, I’d suddenly gasped for air. I was able to stop what I was doing and get help. 

It wasn’t so much that I loved the ocean. It was just that when I thought of it, the size of the world became so much bigger than my despair. So, I wanted to see waves again. I wanted to smell salt water. In that one quick moment, I wanted to be alive. And on that day, one second of wanting to be alive made up for all the days prior that I’d wanted to die.


Do we live and breathe the things we love, even before we know them? I’m not sure, but maybe we do.

I grew up in Northern California, always within an hour’s drive to the ocean. I’d gone to the beach many times, but not as often as I could have. It wasn’t my favorite place. Sand was gritty and the water was cold. The temperamental rip tides frightened me. 

But in that one brief moment when I was 17 years old and poised to die, the ocean saved me.

In the years immediately following, I continued to find the ocean soothing. When I was overly distraught, I would drive up and down Frontage Road in Berkeley. The road is sandwiched between Highway 80 on one side and the San Francisco Bay on the other. I always took these drives at night, with my radio turned up and my windows rolled down. Because it was dark out, the only sign of the water beside me was the reflection of the moon and an occasional headlight. But the ocean was there, I knew. In this way, I drove through romantic heartbreak, irreconcilable fights with friends, and many other types of pain. 

On that road beside the bay, I didn’t need to be in the water or even see it. I just needed to know it was there. In the presence of moonlight and soft waves, I was small once again, and so was my heartbreak. I could carry it for another day.

My life is segmented into befores and afters. Before I got married. After I got married. Before my son was born. After My son was born. Before my mom died. After my mom died. Before sobriety. After sobriety. And before and after John. There are more, these are just a few. Most are punctuated by the entrance of people or the loss of people.

Every delineation has shaped me into someone new. I have moved forward with changes that were like a string of pearls draped around my neck. I am this pearl and I am that pearl. On the best of days, I know that I should be handled tenderly and held dear. But, not all days are the best of days.

In 2017, much of my life stopped. It was an agonizing place to get stuck, so I did everything I could to move forward. I let myself cry. I saw a therapist. I made art, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I broke down. I held years of anger in, then I sat with the consequences of letting my anger explode out all at once. And then I leaned into others who held me while I tried to build myself back up. 

 I did and did. I tried and tried.

But much of my life remained frozen, no matter what I did or tried. I was grieving and for a long time I described my grief like this: I was filled with boulders of sadness, regret, guilt, and the hopelessness of yearning for something that was forever gone. Everything was heavy. Years went by. The grief was no less heavy, but the muscles of my broken heart had grown stronger and for a while they could hold everything.

Last spring though, I was tired of holding all those boulders. I was tired of waiting for them to become lighter. It was time to lay my hopes for healing down. There would always be this part of me that was too heavy to carry, and there was nothing I could do. It was time to stop trying to heal, and to instead accept my brokenness once and for all. 

I believed I would never again feel brave. I would never again be strong. My life would now be dictated by ‘never agains’, instead of courage or something new.

Last April, I believed that moving forward meant accepting that my life had stopped. So, that was the acceptance I strove for.


In early May, I went to Aptos, a seaside town not quite 80 miles south of San Francisco. I was with friends, but I was still edgy and sad. I tried my best to hide it. These parts of myself are nothing new. Others shouldn’t have to suffer through my sadness just because I do. 

During that weekend, I went to Target. I needed to purchase pasta sauce for our dinner that night. Several of the women, including my friend Caitlynn, came along. Everyone else needed something or other, too. 

We dispersed when we got there, and then we reconvened in the part of the store that held racks of bathing suits. Some were colorful one piece suits. Some were bikinis with frilly tops and bottoms. I didn’t have a suit and I didn’t want one. I wasn’t interested in anything colorful or frilly.

Sullen, but trying not to show it, I didn’t notice when Caitlynn rounded the aisle to join us. What I did notice was what she was holding. Wrapped in cellophane, it was a white boogie board. 

There were no considerations on my part. There wasn’t a debate in my head, good or bad. I had one thought. I need one of those too. 

When did my grief begin to step aside so that I could step forward? When did my capacity for joy return? When did some part of me decide that it was unacceptable to accept that unhappiness would be a part of me forever? 

I don’t know exactly when those things happened, but I can tell you this much:

Four years ago a part of my life stopped. It froze under the heaviness of all the grief I didn’t have the strength to carry. And then one day last May, I was in a Target Store, holding a bottle of Ragu in one hand and a cheap Styrofoam boogie board in the other. 

That was the day my life began again.

I want to tell you all about my childhood which was full of trauma, but the stories are long and they all end in the same way. I felt dirty, I believed that I was at fault. At three years old I thought I was at fault. At six years old I thought I was at fault. At eight and nine and eleven, and on and on. I could tell you how and why I believed those things, but that writing is for another time. What’s important is how desperately I wanted to be someone else, something else, somewhere else. Just anything other than me.

When I was a little girl, sometimes I’d dream that I could fly. I’d glide through the air, weightless, with the wind in my hair, knowing that I didn’t have to land until there was something safe and solid beneath me. I could go anywhere I wanted. I didn’t have to be me. I didn’t have to be anything at all. I was Tinkerbell and Peter Pan, a fairy and a hero, too. I was brave and lovely. I didn’t need saving when I was flying through the air like that. I could save myself. 

It was impossible for me to think that something of this world could be as exhilarating and hopeful as flying through the air. I had no context with which to work when it came to believing in something powerful that I could reach out and touch.

My mother was mentally ill. It was the 1970s and my parents were hippies. I grew up in Berkeley and it seemed like all the adults around were on LSD. No one noticed my mother’s illness. Maybe they thought she was on LSD too. My father was rarely home and the rest of our family lived in a different state. I was surrounded by people who had no interest in protecting me. When it came to safety in the real world, I had none.

My dreams of flying only lasted so long. Inevitably I would wake up. I’d be back in the same muddied world that I’d wanted to escape. It was so sad to wake up that way. Eventually, the sadness took away all that was good about the dream.


I am not sure how old I was the first time I took a drink or used a drug. I know I was a child. Six years old? Seven? I remember being disappointed that beer didn’t taste like 7-Up, and I remember someone giving me a joint and telling me to inhale as deeply as I could. I coughed so hard, I thought I’d never stop. Alcohol and drugs confused me, but they were always around. 

At some point the drinking and smoking began to be appealing instead of baffling. I was 11 or maybe 12, when I started drinking in earnest. Not all the time. Just at some friends’ houses and at most parties. Some and most. That was all. What did I drink? Which drugs? The answer has always been the same. Some and most. 

I am sure I had all kinds of reasons for drinking and using drugs. I can’t pinpoint just one. The reasons are a mishmash, just as they are for most alcoholics and addicts.  However, I can tell you what kept me drinking and using, at least for the first few years.

I’d figured out how to fly again. 

Addiction is crafty. It will rip you up and tear you apart, but first it ensnares you with seduction. I’d drink or get high, and everything about my life that had felt dark suddenly seemed to be light. I liked that. A lot.

12 years old, 1982, Berkeley, California

I spent years hoping that alcohol and drugs would make me feel like a fairy and a hero. I wanted to be brave and lovely again. I wanted to be flying. I still wanted to be anywhere other than where I was. But just like the dream so many years earlier, soon enough no matter how much I drank or used, I just couldn’t exist in the fantasy anymore. 

For close to a decade I tried to survive by drinking. Then I tried getting sober. But, I used drugs. Then I stopped using drugs. But, I drank again. So I stopped drinking. But then I started using drugs again. There were periods of sobriety but they didn’t last long. I wanted to believe that I could switch this, or stop that, or change something, and that all would be well. I was in search of a cushion, but everything remained hard. I desperately wanted something magical to save me, but nothing ever did.

And surely there’d be no saving me if my feet were planted on something solid. There’d be no loveliness, no courage, and no hope. I could see no way around it.


Before I go on, I want to say this part:

Four years ago is not the first time that grief shook my world and left aftershocks that I thought would never subside. I went through that same kind of grief 19 years ago, too. 

More than once I have forgotten what held me. The people. The places. The things that are worth coming back to. More than once I chose being weak over believing that I was capable of being strong. Alcoholics and addicts forget important things and we make heartbreaking choices. 

But the truth is, 19 years ago I got a brief reprieve from my heartbreak and my addictions. And I got it when I was surrounded by water.

Everything is lighter in water, even grief.


It’s funny the details we remember, and the ones we choose to let go.

My mother took her life in April of 2002. When my brother called to tell me, my four year old son was home. I don’t remember what my son was wearing that morning. His pajamas? Had I already dressed him for preschool? But, I do remember that he was eating breakfast and humming the theme song to the Spider-Man tv show. 


Does whatever a spider can!

I can’t remember the words my brother used when he told me my mother had died, but I remember that the moment he spoke them, the air I was breathing tasted different. It was bitter, and cold too. I remember that. The cold. Suddenly, it was everywhere.

I still think about it. When a woman becomes a motherless daughter is there some warmth inside her that is forever extinguished?  If so, I remember the moment it happened.

I’d suffered loss before. But it wasn’t until my mother died that I fully understood what it meant to have a piece of me die alongside someone else. 

My mother had struggled with depression and anxiety for years. Her death ripped away from me the hope that she was going to be ok one day and that then I would be ok too. When I lost my mother, there was nothing in me that knew what to do. I had no internal compass to guide me through the pain. I was bereft and devoid. 

I had nothing.


Honestly, that grief was so intense, I don’t know if I would have lived if it weren’t for a woman I worked with named Mary. I didn’t know her that well, but a few weeks after my mother died, Mary told me that she was going to take me to the ocean so that we could surf.

I was 32 years old and I’d never surfed before. I would have thought that learning would be impossible. But my mother’s death seemed impossible. The world was not what I thought it was. What was the point of assigning anything to categories of possible or impossible, anyway?

So one day, Mary and I made the two hour drive from Oakland, where we lived, to Capitola, a beachfront town just south of Santa Cruz.

I will always remember that day. I remember that the board that Mary lent me was close to 9 feet tall. I was certain it was too big. There was no way I’d be able to manage it, I just knew. I asked Mary if she thought that it would be better if we rented me a shorter board.

“Nope,” she answered. That was all she said.

When we got to the beach, Mary stopped and scanned the water. 

“There’s a channel right there,” she said, pointing.

I had no idea what a channel was, but I followed her nonetheless. As we got closer to the water, I was nervous and began to slow down, but Mary just kept walking. If anything her stride became more forceful. More determined. We were going to walk right into the ocean, without looking back. 


I took all my cues from Mary. When she laid her board atop the water, I laid mine down too. When she hopped on her board, I did the same.

I felt strong and weak, both at the same time.

“Paddle!” She instructed. So I did. When the first set of waves came in, Mary kept paddling forward, but I hesitated. When you are laying prone on a surfboard, a wave headed right for you is a formidable thing. I froze.

The first wave lifted my board up by the nose and flipped me backward. 

Mary looked back, turned around, and paddled to my side. My board was now upside down and I was clinging to it and coughing. Obviously, surfing wasn’t a good idea. What had I been thinking? I couldn’t even paddle my board past the waves.

“Turn your board over and get back on.” Mary instructed. 

“Arch your back. When you are going over the wave. Arch your back, and keep going,” she said, laying her hands flat on her board and demonstrating. 

And with that, she turned back around and continued to paddle out. So I did the same. When the next set of waves came in, I arched my back. 

There is an exhilaration in gliding over the top of a tall wave. Your body and the wave and the air have all conspired to keep you moving forward. 

It’s magical.


I was a duckling that first time in the water. I followed Mary, paddling after her, wherever she went. She didn’t waste words. If I did something almost right, she let it be. If I was being tumbled or falling over, she’d give me specific advice. “You’re too far forward.” “Lean this way, not that way.” “Don’t look at the board.” 

When it was time for us to turn our boards around so that we could start surfing, Mary continued to give me advice.

“Paddle! Paddle!” She’d yell, encouraging me to keep moving. “Pop up!” She’d yell, at just the right moment, so that I knew when to stand. “Yes!!!” She’d yell, if I made it to my feet. 

Mary was my coach and my cheerleader at the same time. 

In no small way, when my mother died, I lived because I found out that I could do things that I never would have thought possible. I didn’t know that impossible things could happen, until then. During that time in my life, I stopped drinking. I stopped using drugs. When I was in the water, I stopped breaking apart and breaking down.
Nineteen years ago, I knew nothing about healing. I lived through that time because I followed Mary to the ocean and I let her teach me.

Honolulu, Hawaii, 2002

And then I did what all good alcoholics and drug addicts do. 

I decided that there were better things to search for than healing.

By that time, I’d already learned how to skate around the worst of my alcoholism and addiction. I was always pretending. Living with trauma makes you a good pretender, by necessity. So I knew how to do it. During my early thirties, I spent a lot of time crafting the person I thought I should be. I created art and I made brownies. I volunteered at my children’s school. I joined moms’ clubs and played bunco and drove my son to and from Little League games. I knew what I wanted my life to look like, and on paper I was passing. 

Just like now, I wrote. Much of it was true. But it was never the whole story. I never wrote about my persistent feelings of brokenness. What would be the point? I didn’t want anyone to know those things about me. I told very few people about the ways that suicide had touched my life. 

I was always tired. Lying and pretending can be exhausting. And it rarely works for long.

In my late thirties, I didn’t want my life and I didn’t want to be myself anymore. I wanted out. I’d plan dinner parties and water the houseplants one week, and I’d land in a psych ward the next. I couldn’t shake this thing, this wanting to die.

No matter how good I looked on paper, no matter how much I espoused enlightenment in my writing, I couldn’t keep it up. The hurt and unhealed parts of me kept tapping me on the shoulder.

Paper is good for collecting ideas and wishes, but it is not a foundation. 

Early into those years, I stopped going to the water. Mary told me she was worried about my distancing myself from this thing that had been so important to me. I was frustrated with her words and the intention behind them, so for years we didn’t talk. 

I’d moved to the suburbs. Too far from the beach, I told myself. I was so busy with other things. Too busy to surf, I said. I’d loved my surfboard, but I put it in the garage where it grew dusty. After a few years, I sold it at a garage sale, alongside worn out clothes and chipped casserole dishes.

Looking back, I think the reason I let my attachment to the ocean go is because the water was so healing, and I didn’t believe I deserved to be healed. 

I didn’t want healing, I wanted to be numb. So, in my thirties, my psychiatrists became my drug pushers. I didn’t complain. As my life began to crumble under the weight of my drug use, I didn’t care. I didn’t want my life anymore, anyway. No art related accolade, brownie made from scratch, or Little League game was going to change that.  



Eight years ago, I finally got sober. No more drinking, no more drugs. No more switching one thing for the other. Eight years ago, I became willing to listen when my heart and mind worked together and said: no more. 

I want to tell you that I came to my senses and decided to be more healthy. But that’s not what happened. I want to tell you that therapy and medication and psychiatrists positioned me mentally to step into sobriety, surefooted and ready. But that is not what happened either.

What happened is that I died, except I didn’t.

I often call my second attempt at suicide ‘the miracle of a few minutes.’ I was 44 years old and the attempt was much closer to being successful than my first had been. It was only because of CPR that I lived. 

The details of what led up to that attempt aren’t important. It is what happened afterward that matters. For the first time, I realized that the drugs and the self hatred might actually kill me.
I’d been suicidal for over a decade. It took nearly dying for me to realize that being suicidal can be fatal. 

I was out of ideas and I had no more stories to craft. I’d tried it all and nothing had worked. I had what we, in recovery circles, call a hard bottom. It took losing everything for me to pry my fingers off the hope that I could be someone else. I didn’t slide or step into recovery, I came crashing in. Everything about the first couple years of my sobriety had to do with rebuilding. Myself. My relationships. My faith. My hopes. 

I did not do it alone. I could not do it alone. I was angry and scared the first year. But, a lot of people stepped in and supported me. Other recovering alcoholics were everywhere. They recognized that one alcoholic talking to another is one of the greatest gifts of recovery. So they talked, and I listened.

The people around me wouldn’t stop telling me that I was a miracle. That my life was a miracle. That my getting sober was a miracle. I don’t remember exactly when, I just know that there was a day when I started to believe them. The miracle of my sobriety and my life. They’d been given to me. 

In my second year of recovery, I lived in the middle of that miracle. Everything that felt hard had become softer. I went to therapy and got help, specifically for the PTSD that was attached to my childhood. As each day went by, I became more convinced that if I could get sober – then I could do anything. 


I fell in love with John during that second year. He was also an alcoholic in recovery. And years earlier his brother had died by suicide. We had that kind of heartbreak in common. We understood each other and were pulling for each other, always.

Our relationship was so sweet sometimes, and not as sweet at others. But it was real. The way we loved each other. How hard we tried. All of it was real.

Everywhere in my life I was surrounded by astounding reclamation. Love, circumstances, recovering addicts and alcoholics. I believed that every life could be reclaimed anew. I’d been given a second chance. I could do anything. Couldn’t we all?

No matter the situation, everything was going to be alright. I just knew.


I’ve written about John many times. I will write more about him, I am certain. But much of his story belongs only to him, and I have no right to tell it. So I won’t try to do that here. What I will say is that our love for each other couldn’t slay the worst of his demons. 

John was bipolar, and we met and fell in love when he was stable. By the time he was unstable, I was all in. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I had my own struggles that I was working through, and he told me he wasn’t going to leave me, either.

Nothing has to make sense when you love someone and they tell you they are not leaving. I believed him. 

He struggled, but he was going to be ok. We struggled, but were going to be ok, too. 

Miracles happened. I knew.


John took his life on a rainy Sunday in April of 2017. Two weeks after he died, I would sit with the weight of the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death, as well.

The rest of that year, I didn’t want to die, so much as I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want to take my life, what I wanted was to be with John. I didn’t want the world to end, I just didn’t want to be in a world without him.

There have been a few times in my sobriety when I’ve questioned whether being sober made anything better. This would be one of those times. Even today, I can’t tell you if it might have been easier for me that first year after John died, if I’d just been drinking.

What I do know is that if I’d started drinking again, things would have been worse for the people who loved me. It would have broken the hearts of my closest friends. John’s family was so torn apart, and my  drinking would have torn them apart even more. And I know, if I’d started drinking again, it would have destroyed my son.

So, with many arms around me, I did what John couldn’t do at the end. I stayed sober and alive, for the people who loved me.  

John Macaluso, Ocean Beach, San Francisco, California, March 21, 2016

Because many hands helped me to get sober, I had an idea of how to get past the worst of the pain when John died. I found other people who were enduring suicide loss. I sought them out. I talked to them. I listened to their stories. I told them mine. Hope breaks apart easily but if you are tender with the pieces, you can still share what you have with others. 

I shared the hopes that I had, and people shared with me their hopes in order to guide me through the hopeless places where I found myself. I don’t know that there is any other way to heal from loss. It is done with one hand holding another. We become the net that is cast when others are falling. 

So I became an advocate. I began writing about suicide prevention. People told me that my story of recovery went beyond trauma and alcoholism. That it included the distinction of being both a suicide attempt survivor and a suicide loss survivor. 

They told me that I needed to change my story from one where people were lost, to one where people survived. 


Last spring, it started with the boogie board. There was no way I was going to surf again. I was 52. It had been close to 20 years. Wouldn’t those boulders of grief, not to mention my boulder of a middle aged waistline, keep me from surfing? A boogie board I could manage. A surfboard, not so much.  

Sobriety is full of gifts. One of my gifts is that eight years ago Mary came back into my life. She is my true north when it comes to friendship. Whether I am at her doorstep laughing or crying, I am always invited in. When standing beside her, the things that feel so wrong in the moment become right again. Mary is my purveyor of right moments. 

But she has children now. A bustling career. A busy social life and many hobbies. The beach is no longer her number one go-to. 


Stirring up people who were willing to drop everything to go boogie board with me was challenging. So some days I would go alone. Being in the ocean was still amazing. It was where I needed to be. I knew the ocean could be fickle at times, some days willing to play, other days the tide and wave height made it less welcoming. That was ok, I could be patient. I’d learned that even when the ocean pulls away, it always returns. 

My brother-in-law, Sean, is a real surfer. He goes several times a week. Sometimes my sister and their children (they are all my ‘chosen; family) join Sean so that they can have a beach outing. One Sunday in August, I joined them too. I brought along my boogie board and had fun in the waves as usual. 

When Sean and I were back on the shore, he turned to me. “Why don’t you try my surfboard?” He suggested.

I didn’t have to think about it for long. It was like that day in Aptos a few months earlier. Yes, I wanted to try the surfboard.

Sean waded into the water with me. I was glad because I could barely hop on the board. Sean could tell by my nervousness that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do this, after all.

“Look, you don’t even need to stand up,” Sean reassured me. “Just hang on.”

Those were the words I needed to hear. I didn’t have to think about what I couldn’t do. All I had to focus on is what I could do. So when a wave came, clinging on to the board is exactly what I did. 

I held my breath when I went hurtling toward the shore. I was not underwater, but I was not standing on the ground either. When I got closer to the shore, the board did what it will do when it slows down. It became unstable, rolled over, and dumped me into the water. I was fully immersed and everything was the sea in that moment. I could taste it and smell it. I could see nothing but bubbles and light. 

I didn’t know I should be surfing again when I was clinging to the board. It certainly wasn’t any kind of finesse or skill that told me. 

It was when I fell that I knew I wanted a surfboard of my own. I was baptized in that water when I was rolled off the board on that day. I have no other way to explain it. I came to the surface gasping for air. An automatic response, as was the relief I felt when I could breathe air once again. 

Coming up from underwater with the air reminding me that I have what I need. The thought is innate.

Oh good. I am going to live.

Linda Mar Beach, Pacifica, California, August 15, 2021

I think I should tell you something about how I surf today.

I’m no good at it. Well, no good if you are talking about the technicalities of the sport. If you are talking about perfection straight out of the gate, that’s not me. If you were to look at the line of people in the water, I’m not the one you’d think was ‘a natural’.

When I am working on techniques, I tumble and tumble. My legs bruise and my wrists strain. My back pinches. I have swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater again and again. Once, I had dinner with friends hours after I’d gotten out of the water. Sitting at the table, I turned my head to sneeze, and it was ocean water that came running out of my nose.

I am not particularly pretty in my wetsuit. I am round and bulgy. I look even worse in the water. If I am not falling or tumbling in a wave, I am clinging to my board with red eyes and snot on my chin.

If I were surfing in order to look good, or if I had a timeline for being adept, I would have quit long ago. 

But looks and competency are not my goals. And thank God for that. My ability to set those things down means that I get to come back to the water again and again. My efforts are not about being good.

Today I am getting back in the water with bruised legs and a runny nose because all of this, to me, is about not giving up.

Still, I know that one too many back strains and I’m not going to be able to lift my board, much less take it into the water.


I need help. Specifically, when I am in the water I have trouble going from lying down on my surfboard to standing on it. The ‘pop up’, it’s called. So I head to my favorite surf shop.

I purchased my wetsuit in this shop. The board rack for my car. Clothing, board wax, chapstick, and more. I’ve come in just to ask questions. Why do my eyes sting? (The saltwater.) Why do my surf boots smell bad? (Also the saltwater.) How do I get this suit over my midriff? (Tug. Hard.) How do I get it off my legs? (Also tug. Hard.) 

So far, they’ve been able to answer all of my questions. But this time, I need more hands-on help.  

“Talk to Rod,” the man at the cash register said. He nodded toward a man at the end of the counter. 

Rod is tall and lean with strawberry blond hair. He looks like California, in all kinds of good ways. He is also a former competitor at the invitation-only Mavericks big wave surf competition. And when he wasn’t competing, he was a member of their wave patrol. He knows surfing. And if worse came to worst, he’d be able to rescue me if I started to drown. With Rod, I was in good hands.

When it comes to surfing, I need all the good hands I can get. 


We walked to the beach and I let Rod decide how far down the shoreline we went. When he stopped, we both laid down our surfboards. Rod stepped on the back of his and wedged its fins into the sand below so that we could use his board to practice.

Next, he laid down on his board and demonstrated the rudimentary pop up. After, he stepped off the board and waited for me to try.

I stared at him. Then I stared at the board. Then I stared at him again.

I took a deep breath and laid down on the board, belly first, just as he had. He suggested I start by pretending to paddle. That part I could manage. After all, I knew how to paddle.

Rod waited for me to do the pop up that he’d just shown me. But I couldn’t remember the sequence. I tried, but I just couldn’t.

Let me tell you more about Rod’s good hands. He was patient. He was persistent. He managed to make me feel like he believed in me. And he was determined to find a way to help me ‘get it’. 

We practiced on the shore, which is how surf lessons are done. It’s important to understand the basics before you get in the water. Rod tried demonstrating while I stood and watched. He tried standing and watching me when I was down on the board. He tried laying down next to me to demonstrate. He stood on one side of the board to help me, then he tried standing on the other side.

I was having particular difficulty figuring out which foot I should use in the front position on the board. 

Despite Rod’s expertise, no matter what he did I couldn’t manage to be consistent with which foot to use. I’d try this foot, then I’d switch to the other foot, then, just when we were certain we’d figured out which foot was my best one, my own body would rebel, and I’d use the other foot by accident. 

“Wait – are you goofy footed or not?” He asked me.

“I don’t even know what that means.” I replied.

He explained that goofy footed meant right foot in front. Well, maybe I was. So we agreed I would use my goofy foot. But then, inexplicably, I used the left foot again.

“Ok,” Rod said patiently, “maybe you need to use your left foot after all.”

I nodded. That had to be the problem. But then I’d try again, and it would be my goofy foot that I’d lean on first. At times I was tripping over my own feet.

“No, no… never… never cross your legs when you are popping up…” Rod explained, stating the obvious.

He demonstrated for the 5th time and then 6th time and then again showing me exactly what I should be doing. He did everything he could. At one point, I wanted to give up. I was pretty much done. 

Perhaps I should take up long distance running instead? That’s what I was thinking. Or better yet, backgammon. Maybe I should perfect my game of backgammon. Because I was done thinking about surfing.

Maybe I was done thinking about the water entirely.



If nothing else, Rod and I were in sync in our frustration. Eventually he lay on his back on top of the sand, looking up at the sky and shaking his head. 

“This is the most memorable lesson I have ever had. I will never forget this lesson,” he said, which was kind. He didn’t say that this was the most irritating lesson he’d had, or that I was the most hopeless student. He said the lesson was memorable. 

Somehow, in bemoaning the challenges I was having, Rod made me laugh. Actually, we both laughed a lot during that lesson. It was the laughter that kept my tears at bay while we were on the shore. Ultimately, laughter kept me from giving up. 

After a while, we both sat on the ground behind the board. I was looking at my feet. Rod was scrutinizing the board, no doubt thinking about a new approach to teach me. I was thinking about 19 years earlier when Mary taught me. I thought about the first time a wave flipped me over and what Mary said when I was ready to give up and turn around.

“Turn your board over and get back on.”

And then I realized something. It was counter intuitive and not the way that new surfers learn, but it didn’t matter. Suddenly I just knew.

I looked over at Rod.

“We need to get in the water,” I said.


Nineteen years ago, I didn’t learn because Mary described the process well. Nineteen years ago I learned by feeling my body in the water. The first time I made it over a wave, I was driven by the exhilaration, not the technique. 

Rod’s skill at teaching carried over in the water. He praised what I did right. He told me when I was paddling out well. He said he was impressed that I could turn my board in the water without instruction. At one point I sat up on my board and used an egg-beater motion with my legs, to turn it around.  

“Good, good.” Rod said.

“Yeah, I forgot that I remembered how to do that,” I replied, laughing.

When we began to practice the pop up, I was still struggling, but the struggle mostly had to do with balance and my timing. Rod never complained. He patiently pointed out what I needed to adjust. 

He remained the consummate cheerleader. From behind me, he pushed me into wave after wave, ensuring that I always caught the right one.

“You’re doing well. You’re falling off in the right direction!” He said at one point. He meant it. He actually made me feel proud of the way I was falling off the board. It wasn’t perfection he was encouraging, it was the incremental improvements. It was the fact that I kept trying.

Rod didn’t have his own board in the water. Teaching me was less cumbersome when he wasn’t managing his surfboard at the same time. So after I would catch a wave, he would have to return to my side from far behind me. I didn’t look at him when he was doing this. He would get to me so quickly, I’d often still be trying to jump back on my board. I just assumed Rod was swimming. Fast.

At one point though, I did turn around and I watched him as he returned. He wasn’t swimming at all. He was body surfing. I’d never seen anything like it before. At the sight of him, I dropped my jaw and held my breath.

Rod was perfect in that moment, with his body propelled by the beautiful ocean that I love so much.  

Body surfing was the closest thing to flying that I’d ever seen. I thought of when I was a little girl, except Rod was the hero, not me. He was my own personal Aquaman. But the reason I’d held my breath wasn’t because of the way he body surfed back to me. It was because of the words that I heard in the back of my mind when I watched him.

I want to be able to do that too. Those were the words.

It was a ridiculous desire – but it was the wanting, not the likelihood, that took my breath away.


When Rod reached me, he pointed something out.

“You’re goofy footed,” he said definitively. “That’s the foot you keep using in front. So that’s where your foot wants to go.”

I marveled at that. My mind hadn’t been able to figure it out on the shore. But in the water, my body knew what to do. 

I successfully popped up once during that lesson. But I was so happy. It wasn’t so much that I’d done it, it was that I knew what I should be practicing when I was at home, laying on my kitchen floor. I knew which muscles I needed to strengthen, I knew what to do, moving forward.


When we got out of the water, Rod shook his head.

“I’ve never met anyone who goes in the water, so that they can learn how to practice on the shore,” he said.

But I wasn’t thinking about surfing. I wasn’t thinking about paddling out or popping up.

What I was thinking about was my mother and how I found solace the year after she died. And I was thinking about John and my belief that I’d never really experience joy again. 

I’d forgotten this one important thing about healing.

My body remembers what to do.


With Aquaman, NorCal Surf Shop, Pacifica, California

At the end of the lesson, Rod and I headed back towards the shop we’d come from an hour earlier. We walked slowly, navigating the rocky ground beneath us. Before we were off the rocks, Rod stopped and pointed toward the end of the accessible beach where there was a row of weathered wooden docks. There, just in front of one of the docks, a lone man stood in ankle high water. He wore long pants that were rolled up and a fisherman’s jacket, though there was no pole in his hand. 

“See that man?” Rod asked. “He’s here all the time. He just stands there. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t do anything. Just stands.”

I watched the man. It was true, he was perfectly still.

“I get it.” I said. “Look at what he’s staring at,” 

Rod smiled. 

And I do understand. After all, I’d stare at it every day, too, if I could. It is such a beautiful thing. This part of our world that is a world of its own at the very same time.

The ocean.

Honolulu, Hawaii, September 2002

I want to tell you that there was one moment that began to lead me back to the water, but for me, inspiration was not born of one thing.

I believed I could do this because 19 years ago, the first time I fell off my board Mary told me to get back on and keep going. 

Five months ago I got back in the water because my friend Caitlynn rounded a corner in a Target store with something in her hands that reminded me that the ocean is meant for playing and healing. 

Two months ago I bought a surfboard because my brother-in-law Sean reminded me that I didn’t have to stand up, I just had to hang on.

And I come back to the water, in no small part, because of my lesson with Rod. I have a huge schoolgirl crush on his surfing knowledge, that’s true. But that’s not why I come back to the water. It’s not because Rod looks like California (in all kinds of good ways). And it’s not because of the comforting way he pushed me into the waves, either.

What I remember most from that lesson with him is the way he returned to me after I’d caught a wave. I remember Aquaman body surfing through the water. 

The reason I return to the water over and over again is because of that moment when I thought to myself, I want to do that too.

I want to be alive. I want to participate in life. I want to wake up in the morning so that I can stand on a shore and look at the people on surfboards, the ones who are already out there. 

Whether I am looking at someone who can stand on top of a board with grace and determination, or I am looking at someone who has been sober for many more years than I have, or if I am looking at someone who is moving forward with grief and yet finding joy in their lives at the same time – I live for that thought, the one that takes my breath away:

I want to do that too.


I know that surfing isn’t going to save everyone. I know that it won’t even interest some. But I believe that we all have an ocean. Even if yours isn’t a beach or the sea, go find whatever it is. The thing that makes you feel like you are glad to be alive. Go find your ocean.

I found mine. 


With Mary Halpin, my favorite surfer girl:

Top Left: Hawaii, 2002

Top Right: Pacifica 2021

Bottom: Hawaii 2002

With Sean Leake, my son RJ, and Caitlynn Wakeman:

Top Left: Sean Leake, my favorite surfer dude
Top Right: Caitlynn Wakeman, who changed my life in a Target Store

Bottom Left: My son and I at Nor Cal Surf Shop in Pacifica, California

Bottom Right: My girl in the curl tank top made by Caitlynn Wakeman

Nor Cal, the best Surf Shop this side of California:

*I am so grateful for NorCal Surf Shop and their helpful staff. If you need something surf or skateboard related, head their way. They are located at 5440 Pacific Coast Highway in Pacificajust steps away from the beach.

And I can’t say enough about Nor Cal’s surf lessons. They provide group lessons, semi private lessons, and private lessons. If you are in Northern California and you want to learn, head to Nor Cal. Ask for Rod Walcha, and tell him Chel sent you.


On October 6, 2021, I celebrated 8 years of sobriety. I wasn’t able to get sober on my own. 

If you are struggling with alcoholism or addiction and need help, you don’t have to do it alone either. Reach out. No matter where you are, there are people who will give you a hand. If you need more information, let me know. 

We do recover.

October 6, 2021

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