from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

surfing 2: surfing for writers

When you know what's happening in Libya at the moment, with air strikes and machine guns turned on the people, or when you can imagine the wreckage of lives post-earthquake in Christchurch NZ, it's hard to know how to respond. There is something exceedingly superfluous, indulgent even, it seems to me to carry on blithely with a blog, as if nothing has happened. And yet – tending the fires of attempting to live creatively, wisely, kindly, just carrying on, may be all we can do; the only sane response to the horrors.

'My religion is kindness,' says the Dalai Lama.

So, although this is not a post about kindness, it is about carrying on. I am going to carry on, and post another extract from a chapter in my Writing the Bright Moment that uses the metaphor, again, of surf. This is from 'Catching the Wave'.


Years ago I was learning to surf. I love water, but my preference is to be on or near it. Being in it, though exciting, holds a bucketful of fear for me if it’s deep and wild water (which, it being the North Devon Atlantic coast on which I was brought up, it was). I also love waves; but being tossed and thrown by big breakers a long way out of my depth, with my head continuously thrust underwater, is a terrifying experience.
So since surfing involves – in my experience! – a great deal more immersion than buoyancy, you can imagine how I was pushing my fear threshold every time I carried the seven feet of fibreglass which represented my notional terra firma down over the sands. And, though the exhilaration of catching a wave is unlike anything else, and worth all the duckings, I found it quite hard to get myself to the stage where I could let go into it. I’d shiver on the shoreline, dig my toes into the sand, allow myself to be distracted by shells and pebbles – anything rather than notice how the undertow pulled at my ankles, and just how many hundreds of miles and billions of gallons of water swayed deeply and horribly between me and America, with only the three miles of Lundy Island to break it... (The procrastinations, of course, were a precursor of my life as a writer.)
Slowly then you edge towards the water, wading until the surf is beginning to break against your knees, then creeping up your thighs, and you’re raising yourself on tiptoe or jumping to avoid that first cold slam of water against your lower belly. By this time you’re far enough out to launch yourself belly-down on your board and paddle out past the waves. Then you meet the first serious breakers roaring towards you, enormous as you’re lying prone, mountainous glassy walls about to crash; and either you breast them into a moment’s stillness the other side before the next one towers, or they pour their icy weight over you. And you paddle and duck, paddle and duck until finally, eyes stinging, arms tired, you turn, pausing in the quieter waters, keeping an eye out over your shoulder for a promising swell. It’s tempting to stay here, where it’s calm. This is where the waves are born, first as gentle undulations, then rollers, then the fearsome elemental breakers, which charge the shore and dissolve, before sliding back home to start the cycle again.
The aim is to catch a wave just before it breaks. As a likely looking swell rolls towards you, you paddle like crazy towards the shore to be travelling at the right velocity to catch the wave just as it peaks. If your timing’s off, you will be thrown, tossed under like flotsam, separated from your board and tumbled, flailing in cubits of opaque choppy water; of no more note than the bladderwrack with which you might share this tumultuous break of water. You’re trying to catch your breath and the board before the latter catches you; ribs can be broken, temples smashed, eyes taken out, even, by the hooked fin that stabilises and steers the board. You wonder – in between fighting for air and desperately struggling to get your head above water – why you ever thought this might be fun. You wonder whether you’ll drown.
But if you catch it, you’re borne in like a bona fide part of this watery world towards the shore, sweeping in like a sea god(dess) on this flimsy piece of board. And – like after childbirth – you forget the terror.

Writing’s like that. Every time it’s an assault on the unknown, a venture into exciting and potentially terrifying territory. You may float; you may get knocked back; you may catch a wave; you may not. You may lose your board. You may go under. You may not come up. You’ll fall off the board over and over. You may only catch damp squibs: little waves that break up just as you are about to stand up. You may catch one and live, briefly, in another world. Sometimes you break through into a calm, still place with the ocean rippling beneath you. All the time it’s just you and the sea. 

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