You don’t remember learning the sea. Your memories of it start on the shore of Embassy Beach: a small stretch of sand and sea and people rolling in drunk after mass on Sunday, all squished in between cliffs and blaring merengue. It’s your childhood church: eating cooler-cold cheese-and-pickle sandwiches, digging your heels into the sand, running into the chop. You and a sandy-haired friend stand side by side, facing the waves and using your Power Ranger moves to blast those suckas out of your way. You’re annoyed when your friend’s dad tries to crouch down and ask you two questions about your methodology, smiling and intruding as the waves roll in: are you the pink Power Ranger or the yellow one? Listen, we know we’re just playing a game, Andy. Fuck off and stop ruining our magic.
You don’t remember being afraid of the washing machine of the waves, though you know you must have been. Slammed into the ocean bottom, back scraped open, lungs burning — but you learn: if you cannot get up after this wave, you’ll be up after the next. Or the next. A set always ends in a lull, and you’ll get your lungful of air.
After what feels like years and years of not being old enough, Dad finally takes you into the caves to the west: kick, kick, kick, and once you’re in, reach as high as you can to hold onto the craggy mouth of the cave. It cuts your fingertips and your noodle arms grow tired, but you watch the cave inhale and exhale waves and feel like you’ve stepped into something sacred.
Years later, Dad teaches you again: to hook up your octopus and check your pressure and hold your mask to your face as you exit the dinghy. Ungracefully, back first, fins flailing in air. The tanks drag you down and it’s all a fumble, but then you’re there and this is falling in love all over again. You take your first breaths underwater and you are home.
That comfort under the waves doesn’t always transfer to land, of course. As you grow and move further and then further away from your little coastline, you do not do as well at floating with uncertainty.
You excel at extending your arm and dropping your temper onto situations. You like the fresh morning air of beginnings, so you grow good at goodbyes, catching your emotions before they leave your mouth and swallowing them back down. It feels like a good way to wipe the slate clean: start again, pretend you did not fuck up the way you did. Shut a hurt you must have deserved into a closed chapter. If you do it properly, if you are the Kenza you need to be this time, then everything else will fall into place, won’t it? You’ll get it right this time.
You know there are no guarantees in this life, so you don’t even look for them — instead, you work on making yourself someone who doesn’t need them at all. Blast those suckas outta your way.
I wish I could say it came like a lightning bolt realization in the middle of the night, a shock of electricity mid-run, a switch that flipped. But it’s only time that brings the realizations. There is nothing we can control outside of our boundaries, just ourselves. You can only learn how to dance with those events, see them with different eyes, breathe into them.
When a wave scrapes you against fire coral underwater, you don’t blame the wave or the coral or yourself for the burning rash over the next week — you just do your best to avoid that wavy little fucker in the future. When the waves drag you down, panicking will only be your undoing, and life follows the same patterns. Fear is natural. If you give into it, if you always keep an arm’s distance so you won’t get hurt, you might actually succeed: congratulations, you have protected your heart. But you will also never enter the cave, you will never breathe underwater, you will never find the sacred that lies beneath the surface of the everyday.
None of us are born swimming, and no matter how well-prepared we grow, there is never a guarantee that this swim won’t be our last, that we won’t get hurt, that we won’t be afraid. Your actions will never be able to control the ocean around you and you’d have to be delusional to expect it. But if you can relax into uncertainty, if you can come back after you’ve been stung, again and again and again, you’ll realize failures aren’t endings — just chances to learn, to sink further into yourself, the only constant you carry with you through every situation you wade into.
Splitting ways with a friend in Vancouver, he handed me a note, and it’s one that’s lived well-folded in a notebook ever since. I wish you joy, curiosity, pain, struggles, accomplishment, and everything else a full and meaningful life should contain, he wrote, and I remember thinking that at least two things on that list didn’t sound like especially pleasant things to wish a good friend.
Years later, though, I think I finally do get it — and so I wish the same things for you. I hope you swim and sink and learn along the way. I hope you make loads of mistakes. I hope you’re able to sit with your discomfort and stay with uncertainty, that you can see precarious situations as opportunities rather than threats. I hope you know that every breath and success and misstep will bring you closer to home, deeper into yourself and every single ocean you’ll come to swim.
And who knows? Years down the line, you might forget you were ever afraid at all.