On Belonging and Being in Water

The North-West coast of Ireland is weathered by relentless storms. Growing up there I felt an intimate connection to its raw, wild, hard edges. There, in a small corner of the bay, I know I have found my belonging. But in the rest of the world, even in my own primary school 3 miles down the road, I felt like I didn’t quite fit in. It was quite possible that I did not belong anywhere but the sea.


Credit: Chris McClean


Surfers are seekers. We search remote, forgotten coastlines, watching patiently for hours, days, weeks. We read changes in nature, looking for the smallest signs that the next
wave will be the one. We make ourselves available to possibility.

As a child, we’d go on family road-trips and camp next to the breaking surf. My little sister and I curled up between our parents
in the back of the van, the waves crashing on the reef. I remember staying up late to listen for a rise in the sound of the waves signaling a shift of tide or the arrival of a new swell. I learned about the reef, the swell and tides from time spent in rock pools, observing what the sea left behind when the tide ebbed and watching them fill in as my father timed his surf for the flooding tide. The sea taught me that life is a continuum, a constant, moving energy with no set beginning or end, no hard destination or pressure to arrive at a certain point in time.

As we grow older we are told life exists somewhere between binary extremes, between black and white choices, and a set time to decide. For me it was surfing or science, activism or research. But I found belonging in the space in between.

Still from upcoming movie ‘Be Like Water’ // Credit: Chris McClean


We seek community because we seek belonging.

But like a surfer who tries to force her line on a wave, we make no headway on this quest if we do not first allow ourselves to break free from the dualistic notions of who we’re supposed to be in the world and who we are.

I’m often asked what it feels like to find belonging. I give the same answer to the question of what it feels like, as a surfer catching that perfect ride – when she lets go of the need to control or impose her will.

It was the winter solstice, close to sunset, the light was soft and golden breaking through the clouds. The wind died while the swell peaked just before dark. I felt the biggest waves I’d ever been out in and the sense that I was right where I was meant to be. I was fully present in nature, on the edge where sea collides with rock. I found life in this temporary place of practice and action. At its apex, at the height of its speed, I catch the wave.

I am struck by the sound. Through my hooded wetsuit I can hear a deep rumbling intensify into a roar like all the world has become sound. It darkens as the wave opens up, breaking over my head, blocking out the weak winter sunlight. Nothing exists but total awareness. In this moment, I belong. I feel all of who I am. I have arrived. I am home.


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