Memory is fickle. We cobble together mental records unscientifically, an imbibement of experience coloured by context, mood, and relationality. Details, truths, half-truths, they're reached for and distorted even in the most familiar experiences. So when it comes to the sublime, the stuff that transcends the everyday, our fleeting encounters are fickler still. The intangible is vainly grappled with, perhaps half understood, then awkwardly categorized into signifiers and codes in the cerebral archive. I think in most transcendence—moving live music, epic nature, deep conversation, the timeless stuff of human experience—a good deal of the essence is left on the continuum, on the playing field, so to speak, ours to feel with varying degrees of consciousness in the moment, but not to have in our records to revisit at our leisure. No pictures, sir, if you please.
It was a gleaming December morning, and the air, cold and sharp, seemed to lance through the foggy softness of yesterday’s mild coastal evening. There’d been ice on my puddle-pocked driveway when I awoke before sunrise. Both the sun and zeroesque temperatures were rarities at this time of year, effects of a high pressure system moving over a usually humid and temperate pacific rainforest. CBC’s On the Island morning current events show burbled away on the radio, blithe, especially compared to the Toronto show I’d grown up on. I half listened. Part of me missed the intensity, the pomp of a metropolitan life—not that amidst the laid-back Island attitude there is no intellect, work ethic, or seriousness. It’s just… very different. Culturally, geographically, Vancouver Isle is worlds apart from the panache of Metro Morning. There was a pause on the radio, as if to underscore my thoughts. “Well, I guess we don’t have that audio clip available right now,” backtracked the host, laughing unconcerned. "Guess we’ll cut to the, he paused for emphasis... Supermoon!”
Setting down my tea, I thumbed up the volume dial. Yes, today the moon was full and closer to earth than it had been all year. Well, I thought to myself, the night will be bright, the skies will be clear, guess I’ve gotta put some time towards my graduate dissertation: a self-directed “Triple H” program in health, happiness and having fun (subject of specialization in sublime memory creation and encoding theory). From a very quiet office, I shot out a barrage of texts to the usual suspects, my study group, the go-to-surf crew I knew would be endlessly game. It would be cold, it would be challenging to, in the moment, make ourselves do it, but the affirmative responses rolled in. Kev was in. Ariel was in, Trav was in, and so forth. Tonight, we’d moonsurf.
Now, even the the laziest “Triple H” students know that the first step in a proper outdoor evening activity with friends in and around the ocean is a campfire. Especially, in winter, in Canada. And what’s a fire without food to roast, beer to slake our thirst and whisk our spirits preceding a moonlit coldwater immersive study? The fire planning had become pseudo-ritual after a summer and fall of casual beach cookouts. But the surf and cold factors injected into our team’s planning and actions a subtle vibrating stimulation…we were stoked! It was all coming together!
The fire, however, didn’t light as planned. “Cleverly” I’d split what I thought to be ample kindling at the house and put it in the tote with larger firewood. In spite of four grown and self-proclaimed outdoorsy men kneeling in the cold, wet sand, blowing and gasping, muttering new insights about fire lighting strategies, the disparity in both size and quantity of our kindling and logs was simply to great. The kindling was now gone and we were left with a few smouldering logs on life-support à la newspaper fan. If only I’d brought the damn hatchet from my woodshed, we could chop up these brawny fuel logs into a more manageable size. The air was damp and cold. And, salt in the wound, the girls were coming!!!! Heaven forbid they arrive to a much-hyped muy macho bonfire and nightsurf bearing inedibly large portions of humble pie! I shivered and looked at the pile of surfboards, glistening in the clear and frosty evening.
Then, deus-ex-machina, an idea dropped as if by wire from the fly loft onto the stage of my mind… I have an old hatchet under the seat of my truck! I told you memory was fickle. It had been there there for months, so unused it became forgotten. I breathlessly returned, hatchet in hand. The fire was cracking before long, smokies sizzled, and the beer poured in earnest.
Sometime while we inhaled smoke with our faces blowing inches from the coals, the moon had risen, and had born zen-like witness to the categorically un-zen imbroglio below. I was caught in its gaze, almost off-guard, looking up to see it hovering in silent amusement above the trees, bathing the beach in gossamer, that ancient and phantasmic half-light. The wet sand was sparkling. And beyond the beach glistened the crests of small waves breaking over the inside bar. They were a safe size, tiny by daylight standards, but the light adrenaline coursing through our bodies and minds was on par with surf of a considerably larger size. Plus, we were now full, buzzed, warm-faced and pleasantly sedate from the roaring bonfire. The last thing a body desired in this state was leave the fireside cocoon of wool and down to wriggle into clammy neoprene and enter the scrotumtightening sea. I checked my watch: 10:35pm.
The others were already suiting up, hoohaah-ing loudly in a nameless and paradoxical mix of shocking icy discomfort and adrenaline drenched excitement. I paused for a moment to take in the moment—a bunch of stoked friends giving eachother leg-ups over a motivation threshold unsurmountable alone. Now, neoprene clad and steadily on the other side, there was no turning back. Wetsuit booties sprinted towards the gelid North Pacific.
There’s something spooky and otherworldly about the half-light of a full moon. Unlike those inky black nights when we fumble in obscurity, a shimmering, cloudless evening gives one a more-or-less complete view of the forms known by daylight. They’re the same places, but different now. Quantitatively unaltered, but taking on a new quality all together, one that’s slippery and seems to disappear if you look straight at it. The world in moonlight is like seeing some other dimension, the shadowlands, where angels and demons enact supernatural folly. It’s magic can augment any experience, from the electricity of a lover’s kiss to the solitude of a contemplative walk on a sleepless night. But tonight isn’t for that kind of poetry… no, tonight is for surfing!
The waves are small enough that they don’t stir up any sediment or generate much foam, leaving the icy water crystal clear. And not long after running and splashing through the shallows with the guys do I become entranced. The water is placid between sets, and floating on my surfboard, I can see both my legs treading below the surface, illuminated, and beneath them, the sand. Dreamlike. I inhale mindfully, long and deep, as if to internalize the crisp salty evening by visceral instead of cognitive means. I exhale a cloud of tiny crystals, steam in the moonlight. Outshone, but no less impressive is the dazzling starblanket I’ve come to know and love, hundreds of kilometres from any serious light pollution to the east, and to the west, nothing but cold and dark ocean. A loud “YEEEEEWWWWWW” pulls me from my musings. I can’t place who it is at first but then recognize Travis’ tall figure, already gliding smoothly along a liquid shadow, small and clean. I spontaneously spring to my feet though I’m just floating, nowhere near a wave, bounce into a penguin dive while responding with my own hooting surf cry, upping the energy level and establishing that tonight there’d be no boundary between the moon the sea and me.
Everyone is getting amongst it, commenting periodically on the surreality of it all. “Profound” is even thrown into the mix. But after a while, we run out of adjectives, or rather, acknowledge that they’re just human signifiers struggling to capture the divine. The waves are miniscule, but this is a good thing for everyone’s safety and comfort. We realize, among the revelrous reverence, how easy it would be to lose someone out here. Magically, dangerously, it’s hard to even distinguish who is who. I do a quick headcount, but further off it’s hard to tell what I’m even looking at in the half-light, where nothing’s for certain.
I see the lines of what might be phantom set waves standing up, their faces dark on darkness, crests glistening, ghosting toward me. I paddle to where I know (or believe I know) the peak will be. For the first time tonight, I’m right. Angling shoreward, I give a few strokes, quick and strong, and I feel the familiar hill begin wedging beneath me. The water first lifts my feet, then my board, and I start to slide. I stop paddling and, having connected with the wave’s energy, I savour the moment of just slipping in, spreading eagle arms wide and flying with my head only a few inches above a glistening night sea. I bring my wings back in and glide to my feet, leaning into a quick bottom turn; the wave is well-formed but small and I must make efficient use of it’s limited real estate to draw the cleanest line. I set my toe-side rail into a glassy moonlit face. My waves up to this point have been crumbly, mushy, exciting only because of the special occasion… but this one is a proper wave, and I’m right in its hook. I feel its steepness generating small speed hollows with which I move, unthinking, intuitively, pumping along. At this point I zoom out from the small wave, connecting with the scene around me. The shimmering shallows, the silhouettes of the mountains forming a symphonic arena around us against the bright winternight sky. And here I am, perfectly aligned with this small wave. I feel it deep in the heart, along the blood. It might have been something of rapture.
Eventually we all get too cold to stay out in the midnight sea, and hover back to the fire, moth-like over the sand, which is definitely now glistening with frost. We don’t linger or talk much. There’s not much to say that would seem appropriate and our group’s usual garrulity seems to be momentarily subdued. It’s damn cold out. We slip the rubber off, kick apart what’s left of the fire, and scamper up to the trucks. We’d just surfed many hours after dark, under the supermoon, in December, in the North Pacific. And those fleeting ecstatic moments of surreality, grounding yet transcendent… they seem to both sear and evade memory. Monks in the moonshine, thieves in the night.
I promised I’d not let these ones get away, but despite my best efforts, the more I try to write meaning into the memory, the more I realize its true essence may be left in the moment, some unremembered pleasure, to sacred to be scrawled in the mind let alone a computer screen!