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Diane Cardwell on Surfing, Falling Over and Over Again, and the Danger of Saving Yourself for a Future that Never Comes

by on July 7, 2020

Diane Cardwell was in her mid-forties when a chance visit to Rockaway Beach altered the trajectory of her life. A successful journalist for The New York Times, Cardwell was at Rockaway for a story, but found herself transfixed by the surfers on the beach. That fortuitous encounter caused her to sign up for a surf lesson, and soon Cardwell was spending every spare moment at the beach, forging friendships with other surfers, and eventually buying a home there so she could more seriously pursue her newfound passion. Her memoir, Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life, charts Cardwell’s journey of self-transformation through surfing, providing not only a bighearted exploration of Rockaway, but also exquisite sports writing that plants the readers on top of (and sometimes under) the surfboard. Kirkus Reviews hailed Rockaway as “a joyful celebration of physicality, friendship, and the art of surfing,” while Library Journal called it “an unusual story of personal triumph, insight into what makes a community stronger, and a reminder that perceived limitations are often self-imposed.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Cardwell via telephone on June 17th, 2020. Photo credit by Nina Subin.

Where were you in your life when you found surfing?

I was still in the throes of rebuilding myself as a single person after a divorce. I had emerged from the depression phase and was very much trying to figure out what to do with myself and how to make myself happy going forward. I literally had this chance encounter with surfing on the beach, working on a story in Montauk. In retrospect I can look back and say I think I was primed for a change, but it was just so random and sudden and complete that it still surprises me that it led me down the path it did.

It seems that your path to surfing was not only this series of seemingly serendipitous events, but also you saying yes to opportunities as they presented themselves to you.

Sometimes I say it was sort of stubbornness that got me through, but I was just determined not to continue to live a life that felt empty and unfulfilling in some way. I’m not saying that I didn’t enjoy many of the things that I had, but it was like a chafing around the edges, something wasn’t fully right, and I didn’t want to live that way. That’s part of why I was much more willing to try new things and let them take me where they would.

I’m also conscious of the fact that what made me able to do that was I had a great, but very flexible, job that allowed me to not always be in the office and to travel—luckily to surf destinations, strangely, even though I wasn’t writing about surfing. (laughs) Also the marriage had fallen apart and I didn’t have children. I didn’t really have obligations to anyone but me.

What attracted you to surfing, as opposed to any of the other pursuits you could have taken up?

There were several reasons for it, but one, from the very first moment of seeing those surfers on Montauk on a small, mellow day, it just looked accessible to me in a way surfing had never looked before. I was fascinated that you could have that experience with water in that way. It reminded me of how important the beach and the sea had been to me as a child.  I had always associated that with a freedom and the ability to roam where I wanted, which is not something I had growing up in New York City in the 1970s, when danger lurked everywhere. (laughs) But also I loved that feeling of glide in surfing. I had done some other sports. I used to ice skate when I was a kid. I had tried to learn to ski a couple of times, and I love that feeling of “swoosh” that you get. With surfing, once I actually tried it, I realized, “Oh my God, it doesn’t hurt to fall, so you can fall over and over and over again.” If you’re not surfing a scary reef, but a mellow beach break like Rockaway, you’re not going to get hurt. It takes all of the fear out of the equation.

With that sense of glide that you talked about, is that similar to experiences you’ve had writing?

Well certainly the sense of cosmic flow that you get. That’s the other thing about surfing that’s so specific to it: you are literally riding a motor that’s formed by storms thousands of miles away, energy passing through the water. You’re tapping into it. There’s something that feels so incredibly elemental about that and the connection to nature—not a static nature, but the actual motion and energy of nature. I would say sometimes when I’ve been writing something— especially it’s something I’ve had trouble  cracking the code on and then I do—I get into a similar flow state, where I’m not even that conscious of the act of writing, but I’m just in it. In Misery, Steven King has that metaphor where the writer finds a hole in the paper and jumps through, and then he’s in the world he’s trying to create. That’s the similarity I felt.

In terms of surfing, did you see yourself applying lessons that you were learning on the board to other areas of your life?

I would say the biggest one is living in the moment. The best example I can give is there was a moment when I was out surfing and I was looking at the horizon,  trying to figure out, “Where’s the wave? Where’s the best entry? Where should I be going?” Far out I saw two different waves developing; one was much further than the other. I thought, “Maybe I should go to that one?” I went back and forth, “No this one! No that one!” Then suddenly I realized there was a perfectly fine wave right on front of me. I spun around and tried to catch it, but I was too late. I missed it. And the other two ended up not becoming much of anything anyway. For me that’s kind of a metaphor for not spending so much time thinking about how things are going to be, and to pay attention to what’s happening around you. That was very much how I felt like I was living my life in my marriage, constantly saying, “We think our life is going to be this, so that means we need x, y, and z,” and saving things or saving yourself for a future that never comes. That’s probably the single biggest takeaway for me from surfing into my life.

You give the reader this immersive look at the surfing world, from its etiquette to its specific vocabulary. What was it like diving into this totally new subculture?

It was intimidating at first, because there was a lingo that I didn’t understand, so half the time I was like, “What?” (laughs) That was challenging, but it was also just really fun. I like to learn new things so it gave me a new kind of obsession. I got to stay up late, tool around on the internet, and try to learn about boards and fins and how waves are made and Rockaway’s history. The thing about the etiquette, it’s obviously there so people don’t run into each other and more people get to go on more waves. It’s this concept of sharing the stoke. This is a really fun thing to do so. You should yield to the person who has the right of way and you shouldn’t be the person who’s always trying to hog the wave. Those are values that we can all apply to our everyday lives that would make us all feel a lot better. (laughs) Let that other person have that seat on the subway.

Surfing seems like such an intimidating sport to take on. What made it accessible to you?

One thing was it just made me feel good. I took a lot of lessons. I didn’t start going out on my own until quite late in my surfing adventure. Being surrounded by people who were incredibly positive and supportive helped make it accessible to me. My teachers were all so nice and really invested in my succeeding. Part of it is that surfing is such an obsessive sport that many people get excited when they see the excitement of a new surfer. Most of the people I came across were like that. Plus, I had this group of other women who I was seeing every weekend practically. We would cheer each other on. It became more of a full life experience. And then of course, working out with a trainer, because I knew that if I was going to pursue this sport I would need to get my body in shape for it.

Can you describe Rockaway, in terms of how it compares to other beach communities?

I think the fact that you have a kind of marine wilderness at the edge of one of the most densely populated cities in the world sets it apart. It’s technically still part of the five boroughs of New York City, yet feels completely different. It really is a beach town. That said it’s still an urban beach town. We have all sorts of vulnerable populations out here. It’s very socioeconomically mixed. It’s different than how you would normally think of [other surf towns] like Malibu, and certainly different than Hawaii, where surfing is just part of the culture and there’s more of a concept of Aloha.

Your writing about the history of Rockaway is fascinating. It seems more of the punk rock beach town, especially with your descriptions of people surfing on ironing board back in the day.

That’s definitely the other thing. Surfing was actually illegal for most of its time here so it’s always had this outlaw edge. You hear tales of people staying out in the surf until after dark so the cops can’t write them tickets. That’s more a relic of the sixties and seventies. It was legalized for about a minute in the late sixties and then became illegal again until 2005, I think, when they re-legalized surfing. Plus Rockaway has this history of urban neglect. Vast stretches of it were allowed to go into decline. People talk about how you would find abandoned cars, spent needles on the beach, broken glass in the parking lot, or people lying in wait to mug you while you were struggling to get out of your wetsuit. So it took a different kind of dedication then maybe it even takes now.

I feel like Rockaway’s sense of community really shone through during your experience in Hurricane Sandy. Can you talk about what that was like?

The storm itself was terrifying, and I hope never to see anything like that again, but it was amazing to me just how quickly my neighbors rallied to help each other out. I think it was by the next afternoon my friends who I had spent the night with had set up a camp fire and a camp stove in the community garden. Everyone was pooling food. Their porch became a repository for cleaning supplies, canned goods, what have you. You saw that thing spring up all throughout the peninsula. People would set up tables on 116th street, which is a major thoroughfare, with piles of coats and socks and food. There was people offering you food everywhere.

That kind of resilience was something that really impressed me, because Rockaway is a community that has been through so much. There are many firefighters who live out here and they lost many, many firefighters on 9/11. A month later flight 587 crashed into somebody’s house in Bell Harbor, and then Sandy. But every time, these people fight back and come back stronger. That sense of “we can do this,” I think part of that comes from, “No one but us going to do this. They’re going to ignore Rockaway like they always do, so we’re going to need to fight for what we need.”

It’s so poignant reading how generous your neighbors were to you, particularly because you had only moved into your house six months earlier.

I think part of it too is that for many people who move here, it’s like a wondrous thing. You’re like, “I can’t believe I get to live here. It’s so beautiful. There are whales breaching in the water, there are cool fun people, there’s a community garden.” Everybody also understands what a big commitment to live there, especially if you have a job in midtown Manhattan, as I did at the time. It’s kind of like, if you’re willing to make the commitment to this place, the place commits back to you.

One of your first instructors told you, “You never want to leave a session looking back at the ocean.” Can you talk about what you think he meant by that?

I’ve always thought that he meant that you want to surf yourself out. You don’t want to leave looking back at the ocean thinking, “Should I stay a little longer? Is that a better wave than the one I just caught?” Writ larger, it’s a sense of giving it your all while you’re there, because who knows when you’ll get back again? You don’t want to be thinking about, “Should I have?” You want to be, “Okay, I can’t surf another wave. I got the best wave I’m going to get and I’m going to go in now.”

Finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

It’s been a huge role. Growing up, I spent many a weekend at one or another branch of the New York Public Library, researching a term paper, or looking at old books or old maps or what have you. They’ve also provided me with a safe place to work when I’ve been sick of the office or my own room or sick of my own thoughts. (laughs) Just to have a space where you can go and be with other people, but also focused on your own work is incredibly valuable. I spent a lot of time at public libraries when I was writing this book. One, because I had left my job at the Times and was working from home and sometimes I wanted a different place to work. I would pick a different library each time and get to know it better, which was really fun. I did quite a bit of research at the mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library. Especially looking at old maps of Rockaway. I was able to almost feel the history coming off those old dusty pages.