I’ve often fantasized about burning all twelve of my Molskine notebooks in a ceremony during the fall equinox. I’d go out to the Olympic National Park, make myself a cup of coffee on my camp stove, and scan through each book to find the page of writing that makes me cringe the hardest. I’d take each of the twelve cringe-worthiest pages, crumple them up, and engage the flame from my lighter. Once it caught, I’d toss the crumpled page towards the fire and watch it glide like a little meteor. As it crashed into the fire, I’d be imagining my new world, now free of writing, to be abundant and full of ease.
Once on a chilly September morning on the Washington coast, not so far from where I imagine burning my notebooks, I felt such an abundant ease, and it nearly killed me.
It was the end of my first summer surfing and I caught the biggest wave of my life. I didn’t really want to, but I was out there and it crept up on me. With a mouth full of hair and salt water, I pivoted on my board and kicked my legs up as I paddled for my life. When I popped, my neoprene boots skidded on board wax. I got the feeling of a falling elevator as I dropped in, and I was telling myself to look not down at my board but down the line—parallel to the shore, along the wave with which I was now dancing.
When we think of waves, we often think of them as blue or green, and white. Perhaps you hear the thunderous roar as the waves crash. If you close your eyes, you might see the white water that is made when the waves break and think of the last time you fell asleep to the white noise of the ocean. But before the wave breaks—from the time it’s just a teasing bump offshore until just before it peaks and begins to crash—it’s silent. There is no white.
The last stage of silence is when you drop into it on a surfboard, ideally. And, on this day, kind of like getting high for the first time after several times of smoking weed, I understood that I’d never actually caught a wave correctly before. I thought I had, but this was something I’d never felt. In that silent moment, my fears, desires, and focus were in alignment. I was afraid to die, but also aware that by looking down the line and holding myself in the present, I had the best chance of survival. I was no longer myself but part of the ocean and everything that meets it at its edges: the fog on the shoreline, the seagulls on the sand, the rocky jetty behind me—I was all of them.
The wave began to break. It went from silent to thunderous crash and I was present to every new step of sound in between. I got scared and looked down, which is when the ocean invited me under, telling me that I was on my own again. My skull pounded from the rush of icy water to my face. Every molecule of air in my lungs became more precious than it had been a second ago. I started to wonder what out here was going to eat me and why the hell I was not scared before now, before I put myself in a position to be at mercy of something so much more powerful than myself.
But the first breath of air after the ocean let me go brought tears to my eyes—and not in a bad way. I found my board and scampered back on top and did it again. I couldn’t stop, and still can’t. Remembering that I am temporary and part of something greater than I can control is liberating, and has always encouraged me to take risks for things that force me to remember this.
Writing and I do not have such a harmonious relationship, which is why I can’t stop thinking about burning my notebooks. I can’t decide if writing loves me back, as the ocean does. I want to quit writing, but I can’t because—at least as far as I can tell—I love writing, and I foolishly believe at any moment, we’re going to make a relationship breakthrough.
One problem is that writing and I don’t have the same love language. So, it’s always been hard to tell if we’re on the same page. I get mixed signals—just enough to make me stay, but not enough to make me feel good about the relationship. Whereas I communicate my feelings in a wordy, touchy-feely kind of way, the only things writing ever does for me are little tasks and favors like getting me dates online or letting me into grad school. I appreciate that writing is useful sometimes, but by showing up at all and still being so cold, I’m often confused about its intentions.
It didn’t start that way, though. At the beginning of our relationship, writing drew me in by being a source of innocent comfort. As a young child carrying around notebooks, I eased into a trusting relationship with writing that I did not realize would be so one-sided. Growing up an only child in a rural town, writing was always there for me. As soon as I could afford it in my adult life, I paid professionals to help me understand why I can’t quit this relationship. One therapist told me that when I was growing up, writing allowed me to explore a world inside of my head because I felt there was nothing on the horizon in the real one.
It seems logical to me to hate the ocean for continuously reminding me that I could die anytime. It also seems logical to me to feel more in control of my relationship with writing because I know it could never kill or harm me. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, though, it’s that love is not logical. In a battle of the brain and gut, the gut always wins.
The ocean may try to kill me, but until it actually succeeds, it’s a give and take relationship—harmonious. It takes my false sense of comfort and security and gives me the gratitude of being alive. I respect it enough to understand the power it has, which helps me rest on a feeling of wanting nothing more than to be present to whatever is happening now. Writing may not be able to kill me, but I’m beginning to think it’s controlling me in other ways. I can’t burn my notebooks even though I want to. Sometimes, I can’t sleep at night because writing tells me that if I go to sleep, my thoughts will vanish into air like boiling water thrown outside into the Antarctic air. And, without my thoughts, what will my existence mean? While the ocean may be trying to kill me, writing is keeping me alive.
Erika Davis has been obsessed with words and language since childhood. Writing took her to college where she filled her notebooks about mystical experiences and alternative politics. After graduation she threw caution to the wind and spent five years traveling and teaching English in South America and Asia. When she’s not tapping on her laptop, she surfs on the Washington coast, practices yoga, and enjoys cooking healthy treats for her loved ones. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in counseling psychology and writing essays about what she has discovered about the human psyche (including her own).
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