Jennifer Armbrust

Reclaiming Happiness

This piece also appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Actually People Quarterly.

When we go to the beach to surf, it’s usually just me and Liz during the week. And then the whole family (which includes me) goes on the weekend. When it’s just Liz and me, we put down the seats and throw our boards in the CR-V. Liz likes to look at the waves so we drive to C Street, then Parking Lot and The Point and then we go to Mondos to see where the waves will be best for us. Liz always asks me where I want to surf and generally I have been deferring to her because it has taken me a long time to even see the differences in the waves. But, the past week or so I have been able to see the waves and so then I could have an opinion on where to go. At C Street, you have to paddle out far and usually it’s pretty populated with good-ish surfers. I only surfed C Street once and I got a fat bloody lip when I pearled on a big wave. It was exhilarating and exhausting. Both. When I got in the water there, a man looked over at me paddling and told me to “make every stroke count”. It was condescending but also helpful.

I have been liking Parking Lot best for surfing because you don’t have to paddle so far and it’s quite wide so there’s room for all. The waves are pushy there though and I’ve been tumbled many times. Two weeks ago, when we went out, I managed to get my board in front of the green waves twice and rode in on my belly. It’s the sensation of holding on for dear life and hoping nothing goes wrong. Like sledding really really fast and hoping you don’t have to stop yourself by steering into a snowbank. I often don’t know how to get off a powerful wave once I’m on it. The whole experience is one of letting go. Or at least, that’s what I know when I sit here and write about it. The whole experience when I’m in it is one of holding on and making so many fast small adjustments and trying to remember everything Liz has told me and just praying that I don’t pearl or crash into someone or get pummeled into the shore or the rocks.

Usually we surf at Mondos, especially when the whole family piles into the Sprinter. We turn on Old School 95.9 FM “Jammin’ the 805”, and we get on the 101 and cruise north two exits, getting off at Emma Wood State Park and then driving north a few more miles until we get to the parking area next to the train tracks and across from the surf spot. Styles always asks me how fast I think we’re going on the freeway and I always tell him I don’t know to which he replies enthusiastically, “Over 100!” Styles is 5 years old.

I didn’t like Mondos the first time we went because I thought I’d be able to catch a wave and then I didn’t. But I now know that had to do with me, and not the spot. I think when I arrived in Ventura I felt entitled to catch that magic wave but now that I’ve been working my butt off for a month, I no longer feel this entitlement. Now, I’m much happier with small successes and if I could just stop pearling, I’d feel like a fucking pro. Mondos is great though. It used to be really easy to access, just walk down a little rocky path to a nice sandy beach. But then the storm came and washed out the shore and now it’s a lot harder to get to the ocean. I have to walk down a steep, rocky embankment with my board. I usually put my board down a few feet and then step down to meet it, then put it down a little lower and step to meet it. I’m not confident as a hiker/climber in these situations so I take it pretty slow. I don’t mind being slow. Once, my brother and I went backpacking together in the North Cascades and there was a really scary part where we had to hug a giant boulder and take two steps on a small little ledge above a really big face. On the way up, I didn’t notice it but on the way down, I was paralyzed. My brother knew of this spot ahead of time. When I realized what the situation was, my palms got instantly sweaty and I had to stop. And it was such a beautiful and instructive moment. Impatience runs in our family, so I thought my brother would be rushing me along or pushing me to be brave or ignore my fear or whatever and instead he was like, “You got this. Take all the time in the world.” So, it took a while. But I made it. I think of that when I try to get down to the beach and also, sometimes I think of that when I’m getting out of the ocean and the beach is rocky and my legs are like noodles and I barely have my balance. I think of my brother giving me permission to go really slow. It helps.

Mondos is beautiful and a beginner beach so people are generally friendly and forgiving. Behind the beach is some sort of low desert mountain range. In front are the Channel Islands and the ghost ships which look quite ominous and which my intuition says have something to do with oil. To the right and left are swaths of fancy beach houses. The parking area runs parallel to the train tracks and sometimes when we are unloading the van, an Amtrak cruises by and we wave at the imagined passengers. After scurrying down to the beach, we take time getting dressed. Getting a wetsuit on and off is its own achievement. My wetsuit finally got a little hole in the armpit last week so I now have reason to get a softer better one, as soon as the money rolls in. One thing I have learned in California that I maybe didn’t know in Oregon (because I was only surfing in the white water) is that surfing is all about paddling. If there’s one thing I’ve been doing the past four weeks it’s paddling my little brains out. Paddle paddle paddle paddle. And now that I’ve been at it, my shoulders start to twitch if I’m out of the water too many days in a row. My body is on auto-pilot and building those muscles has quickly moved to the top of the priority list. Jumping waves, paddling out, paddling out further. Paddling. Sometimes I just keep going, paddling all the way to the farthest outside region just so that I know I’ll be safe from any breaking waves so that I can rest—so that I can sit on my board and breathe and gather myself.

The past few times I’ve been out, I’ve been sitting on my beautiful blue-green board and looking down at it and at the picture of Yoko Ono I asked the shaper to resin onto the nose and I ask her to talk to me. My internal dialogue in those moments is something like, “I don’t know why I’m here, tell me what I need to know.” And then I will look at the ocean with a similar sentiment. “Work with me. Talk to me.” I haven’t totally figured out how to befriend the ocean. We’re still working out the kinks. I know she can be very powerful and frightening. I know she invites respect but I also know that she is ultimately friendly, if I can honor where she is on any given day. Once I paddle out, I usually sit up and stretch out my arms and shoulders and take in the horizon. At Mondos, sometimes a kelp bloom will float by. Also, there’s a lot of beach grass which will tickle my toes. I can tell if I’m caught in fight-or-flight mode because the sea grass will feel threatening to me—I’ll be scared of what it obscures, of what might be in there that I can’t see or don’t understand as it brushes my feet. In this moment I remind myself to let in the pleasure of the plant between my toes. To notice. The sun, the birds, the waves crashing to the west, the air, the fact that I am sitting in and on the ocean, that I am alive and the sea grass is tickling my toes.

There is a lot of time spent sitting on my board. I often get scared once I’m out in the waves and also there’s the fact of being old and not fearless and of knowing my body has limits. I’m not the strongest. I haven’t spent my life in the ocean. I’m 37 years old. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to get injured. I don’t want to injure someone else. These are the facts. So once I get out in the ocean past the breaks, time becomes no time. I’m not sitting there watching for the perfect wave. I’m usually deciding if I want to get completely out of the line of fire so that I won’t have to go for a wave when I’m not ready, or else I sit on the shoulder so I can watch people at precisely the moment they catch a wave because I still don’t understand the mechanics of paddling, thrusting your board forward and popping up all in a three second window. Or, sometimes I just sit and look at the ocean, noticing the birds, looking for seals or dolphins. I look down at my feet in the ocean. It’s warm enough that I don’t have to wear booties (unless we are at Parking Lot where it’s rocky and we wear them for protection), so often when I’m sitting on my board, I look down and spread my toes, noticing the color of the sea on my skin. The ocean here is a beautiful blue-green color with a lot of yellow. I think it is the same color as my eyes which are also blue with yellow around the pupil.

Liz and Roy take turns surfing so that someone is always hanging with Styles on the shore. Whenever I do something good or bad or triumphant or defeating, I scan the beach and the sea for Liz and Roy. Usually they are keeping track of me. If I do something good, like catch a wave, I can see Liz and she’ll pump her fist at me in support. Roy is less interactive but I know he’s paying attention. Yesterday I popped up on a small wave and when I came in, Styles rushed up to me excitedly, “Jenny caught a wavie!!” We feel like a family. Last week at dinner Styles pronounced that I am the 3rd tallest person in their family. This is making me weep as I type this.

When I thought of coming to Ventura for a month, I thought I would come down here and fall in love. I had hoped that I would have a budding romance and begin, finally, in earnest, a long-term relationship that could grow into a family. Because this is what I think every time I start dating someone. But such was not the case with the person I imagined. After so many miserable months in Portland not feeling settled in my apartment and looking for a place to belong, my time in Ventura has been a reminder that home is rarely a place but a people and a feeling and an experience of being in love, not being “in love” but dwelling in love, being surrounded by love, being IN LOVE. That has been the experience of living with Liz and Roy and Styles in Paradise. We get to exist together in love. In the ocean. In the sun. In nature. We get to just be ourselves. It’s almost been so overwhelming that I haven’t been able to let it all in. The past week I’ve felt sort of sarcastic and dismissive (in just a very small way) and I think it’s because I’m terrified. To let all this love in. Because what would that even mean? It’s so confusing to be in a love with a family and a place and an experience and one month of time. Like, what if I really was a part of their family? That feels terrifying. Won’t they get sick of me? Won’t I interrupt their lives? Won’t they want alone time? What if they already want alone time and they’re just being polite and nice to me because they have good manners?

I came to Ventura to fall in love and I fell in love with this little family. And what do I do with what? My time here is closing out, with just 5 more nights (they talked me into staying an extra day. I think if Liz was alone she would invite me to stay forever). Where do I invest further, what threads do I follow, how am I to proceed? Well, I guess I go back to Portland and pack up my life and try to find a sublet in L.A. for May and take it from there.

I am tear-stained and the church next door is playing Hark to the Chimes like it does every hour, on the hour, and now I know it’s 9 a.m. and I want to go to yoga in 10 minutes with the beautiful 70-year old Iyengar teacher in the class where there will be 3 other students and we will stretch together. So, that’s all for today. For now. That’s enough for one life, even, I suppose.

Written on February 25, 2015


© 2015 Jennifer Armbrust