Let’s take that state line. When I was in school, I didn’t learn that the 36th parallel, the line that separated Virginia from North Carolina, was drawn by King Charles II (Carolina means “Province of Charles”). After regaining the throne, Charles II partitioned off the southern section of the colony of Virginia to reward a group of loyalists called the Lords Proprietors. They were eight rich fellows who had, one way or another, helped him regain the throne after a period of exile. They were granted land that others (both human and more than human) had lived on for thousands of years. The Lords were not expected to live on the land (although if any one did he would automatically be governor). Instead, they were to avail themselves of the wealth that could be extracted and brought back to England. In other words, the state line along the 36th parallel, one of the foundational boundaries supporting my identity, was drawn by a man who was presiding as the devastatingly powerful designs of extractive capitalism, the African slave trade, not to mention “whiteness,” were taking hold. I learned that I was a North Carolinian, that I was from the city of Durham and a county by the same name. I learned these lines but not why they were drawn, where and who they had been drawn by and through, and from whom they were meant to separate me. I accepted these markers of myself without question, critique, or revision.
Despite a lot of study, I didn’t learn the foundations of the history of who/where I was until I learned to surf.
Yes, I said surf, as in waves, in the ocean, on a board.
But first, let’s back up for a second. As a young adult, I became an artist, a photographer, and that meant, among other things, that I developed a deep appreciation for the power of design— of shape, of shade, and, especially, of line. I learned something about the world in the ways we encourage young people to do so, with human teachers, in classrooms, where the lines were clearly drawn. But I learned even more by escaping from that same process at every turn, in the shoe-sucking muck and cattails of the neighborhood swamp, or perched on a rock above the chaotic tumble of water in a nearby creek or, a couple of times a year, down at the coast, jumping waves with my family. I began to discover that there were patterns hidden everywhere. Over time, it became clear that lines, shapes, shades, colors, light, all of them guide and alter perception, often without our awareness. And line, especially, in our culture, can wield a profoundly determinative power. We have poverty lines, soup lines, race lines, red lines, and party lines. We even have life and timelines. Our linear view of time means “earlier” comes before “now,” which precedes “later” before receding in a riptide of “remember whens” and “never agains.”
While there were (and doubtless still are) parts of myself that lay undiscovered, I was, as I said, firm in my identity as a North Carolinian. And I was most certainly not a Christian with all that faith in an invisible force rewarding and punishing, dictating and deciding.
But I never seriously attended to or questioned who benefited from the separation and drew the lines between, the ones that told me who I am and who I am most certainly not. This despite the fact that I appreciated, even revered lines in the photographs I made. And this despite the fact that I worked at a liberal arts college, that I was a politically engaged, progressive citizen of my country, my state, my county.
But then I decided to learn to surf and I began to question every line and even began to question the tenacious power of “the linear” in my thinking.
Surfing, after all, is made of about 2% wave riding layered on 100% staring at and reacting to water. It became a discipline— learning to read water and the waves of energy I was increasingly able to ride. We call the approaching swell “lines” but they aren’t really like other lines. You are looking for a visible manifestation of an invisible force. The lines that force generates (and that you might get to ride) shift and disappear and, occasionally support an ecstatic, mystical moment of connection. You can’t hang your identity on those lines but they contain something transformational. I became profoundly confused. And I fell deeply in love with all of it.
Now, all love is responsive and, as a surfer, I gradually began to understand what response my body needed to effectively match water’s call. And, somewhere in that devotion to an emergent, wordless, call-and-response practice among those shifting, propelling lines, I discovered that the lines that formed the very architecture of my identity were reinforcing the systems I claimed to be most earnestly working to revise. I came to understand something important, as an article of faith, as I floated in (and receiving the occasional pummeling from) that literal, oceanic higher power.
I had a conversion experience. And I began to believe this:
There are two universal solvents.
love and water