One of my daughters learned how to surf during the Covid 19 quarantine.
It created a new amazing routine where we get up early, put the surfboard in my car, and go to the beach. I sit and watch in awe. I sit and watch the waves and the dance she dances with them. Catching them, missing them, being defeated by them and riding them.
I watch her and I think of the waves of intense emotions that the quarantine has been creating in me. Despair, happiness, gratitude, sadness, fear, loneliness, tenderness. Sometimes all at once, and sometimes only just moments apart.
I am reminded of an absolutely stunning essay written by an incredible young soul whose name was Ruby Campbell. Ruby tragically was killed in a horrible car accident when she was 17 years old. This extraordinary, talented human being was stolen from us way too early. The name of the article she wrote was “OCEAN.”
Ruby, who battled with depression and OCD, compared her feelings and emotional struggle to the ocean. She ends her essay with these words:
“Finally, I come up for air once again, strengthened by the oxygen rushing through my lungs. I wonder, will the next wave come? It feels both inevitable and impossible at the same time. If (when) it hits me, will I go under again? Will I struggle for air against the ancient rage of the sea? Or will I swim fast and strong, slicing through the last wave to the place beyond the breakers? Will I float on my back under the summer sun and listen to the waves crash in the distance? This would be a peaceful life, a good life, and I will only have to brave one more wave.” (You can find link to the full essay at the end of the blog.)
As I sit on the beach, I watch the waves. I think of the waves of my life and the waves of this bizarre reality we are living in now. I think of my students who are battling the waves of their existence every day. One said to me recently, “Ms., it goes and then it fucking comes. Just as one thing leaves, you think you can breathe; the next thing comes and throws you down. It never fucking stops.”
“Yup,” I say. “You need to learn to ride the waves.”
“How the fuck can I do that?” she asks, a little annoyed with me.
“I ain’t no pussy surfer,” she adds. “No, you are not.” I laugh and say, “What I know about surfing is that you have to have balance.” I add, “Figure out how to center yourself so you can ride the wave.”
“Sometimes, man,” one student leans into the Zoom and says, “You gotta let that mother fucker pull you down. Then you gotta hold your breath until you can come up for air again.”
I look out at my daughter and her friends being thrown around by the waves.
When the waves push them off the board, I hold my breath, watching them disappear into the ocean, only to exhale when I see their heads pop up, laughing, having the time of their life.
“Ms.,” she says. “These waves of my life, they are motherfuckers. I got no idea how to find balance and ride them.”
“Girl,” another student answers. “You are riding them by living. You got me? You are riding those damn waves by getting up in the morning, staying clean, doing the work, and not living the crime life. That is life, girlfriend. When I was locked up, I used to think all I need is to get out and then everything will be easy. I just need to get out. Then I got out, and there are bills to pay that come every month. My baby daddy is annoying as fuck, and I gotta fight DCSF to get my kids back. It’s a fucking lot, but it is my life and I’m living it. I am trying to love it.”
I share with them Ruby’s story. I didn’t really know her I tell them. Her family attends my synagogue. I know that she learned how to battle the difficult ocean of her life and had found peace. I then shared with my students that she and her brother Hart were killed in a car accident. It became dead silent.
I tell them that I can’t imagine a harder or more difficult wave than that. I share how with absolute admiration, respect, and wonder I watch the parents of these two kids get up from that wave and find a way to live, love, be activists, and fight for good in this world.
“Fuck,” one says quietly.
“You get up. You breathe, one day at a time. I don’t think there is anything else you can do,” I say.
“I told you,” the friend says. “These fucking waves will come. They will go. Sometimes the tide is low, so they stop. You can rest. Sometimes those shit faces come so hard you can barely keep it straight. Some pull you down and you think fucking hell it’s my time. I am done, but it ain’t. You get up. You keep going and you praise the lord for another day. At the end you say, Wow! I rode all the fucking waves. I did it and you know you’ve lived this life good.”
I am quiet. I find myself getting a little emotional.
I think of Ruby and Hart’s parents.
My heart aches.
“Maybe I am a surfer, after all,” my student says.
“You definitely are,” I say, “We all are in our own unique way, surfing and swimming in our own private ocean.”
“Well, if I’m goanna have me my own private ocean, I’m in, Ms.” And she smiles.
We all laugh knowing that today we rode the waves together and that, well, that always makes things easier.
Naomi Ackerman is a Mom, activist, writer, performer, and the founder and Executive Director of The Advot (ripple) Project a registered 501(c)3 that uses theatre and the arts to empower youth at risk to live their best life.