AN INTERVIEW WITH MARY MILLS (AKA "SURF SISTER")
SoCal, USA, January 2014
Interview by Ken McKnight
Mat rider, Mary Mills, known cleverly as Surf Sister, takes nothing for granted. She walks the walk and talks the talk when it comes to riding waves. There doesn’t seem to be much B.S. with her and she calls it like she sees it. Everything about her oozes life and energy. And that’s a good thing!
A devout student of our many water oriented disciplines, Mary dabbles in everything surf. From mats to surfboards, she attacks them all with equal vigor. Mills uses the same bravado in her other pastimes like skating a ramp or playing music. She seems to always give it 110%. Surf Sister lives a full life, at breakneck speed with a smile on her face and a great attitude.
Surf Sister lives in Los Angeles and has been known to search every nook and cranny in the County for the best reefs or sand banks. She has an uncanny knack to see thru the thin veil of the human vernacular with love and respect and keep her feet firmly in the moment while respectful of the past. She does this all with tongue firmly planted in cheek and eyes wide open.
I was talking to Andrea Siedsma of www.saltwatermedia.net in the lineup the other day about Surf Sister. Andrea is a super stoked surfer and a good friend of Mary’s. I asked her to pen a few words about our intrepid mat rider and this is what she had to say:
“I vividly remember one of the first times I surfed with Mary Mills (aka Surf Sista) – she was speeding down the line on a 4th Gear Flyer surf mat on the north side of Scripps Pier in La Jolla, flashing that trademark smile, dreadlocks flying. The many hoots from her fellow seafarers, of course, followed her ride. I could tell she was screaming for joy. Mary’s sea stoke is infectious and I knew we would become good friends. I have had a few surf sessions with her since that day (on fiberglass and canvas) and the experience has always been the same – lots of laughter, fun waves, and pure stoke.”
Besides sliding in the sea, this soul sister brings her style and grace to the sidewalk and skate bowls. The 50-year-old also has a penchant for percussion (drums), pistachios and a fine glass of Chianti. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the cowbell!”
UKMS – Hey Mary, What’s going on? Should we call you Mary or Surf Sister? Or is there maybe another nickname?
Surf Sister - I answer to both names. I’ve also been known to answer to the nickname Board Whore. Greg Brady’s famous “Hey, Groovy Chick” might make me turn my head. No one’s tried that one yet though. I answer to Mom as much as I answer to anything else.
There is a dumb guy at one break I frequent, a guy who smokes way too much weed, who told me on several occasions that he was going to call me “Brown Sugar”. I have yet to answer to that.
UKMS - Since I don’t know much about you personally can you give me some background on yourself? Pretty much who is Mary Mills?
Surf Sister - What I am: a 50 year old black woman who surfs, rides a mat, skates my backyard mini-ramp rather badly, lifts weights, runs when being chased—not really . . . about the being chased part and plays the drums.
UKMS - How long have you been riding mats?
Surf Sister - I’m not even sure when I started. Let me go and look at my blog. You know, the reason I started my surf blog was because of my bad memory. Its initial purpose was to allow me to track my progress as a surfer. I came to surfing and the ocean somewhat late in life. The blog has stories to tell about events in my life that are long forgotten.
I looked in my blog and it was no help at all! I think I got my first mat in 2008. I remember reading the words “surf mat” in some article and being immediately intrigued. Mind you, I’d never seen a surf mat; I had no idea what a surf mat was. Still, those words stuck with me. I knew I had to have one. Then, of course, I couldn’t figure out how to get one. I remember looking for one on eBay and seeing bona fide pool toys. I knew those wouldn’t do. Somehow, though, I found Paul Gross. At the time, he was in the Pacific Northwest, living in the town, believe it or not, where I’d gone to college. We immediately hit it off because we both truly hated that place. Anyway, he made me a 4GF Standard. The rest is history.
UKMS - What is it that you love about riding a surf mat?
Surf Sister - I find it difficult to articulate. Although I primarily ride surfboards, I readily admit that what one experiences while riding a mat is far better than what one experiences on a surfboard. I’ve had my mind completely blown while riding a mat, blown to the point of being rendered almost speechless. That doesn’t happen when I’m on a surfboard even though I thoroughly enjoy traditional surfing.
UKMS - Where is home now and how often are you in the water?
Surf Sister - I live and surf in Los Angeles, California. I average about four or five sessions a week at this point. Unfortunately, the crowds have gotten ridiculous of late. That makes it harder for me to ride my mat, especially with all of the kookiness in the water these days. I don’t mind matting in a crowd of decent surfers; they are skilled enough not to run me over or to get out of my way when I’m flying down the face of a wave. It’s the inexperienced surfers, who pose the greatest risk, and they now outnumber the experienced surfers, it seems.
UKMS - What’s your typical wave like there and what about the super days?
Surf Sister - Well, Los Angeles, like so much of Southern California, has a lot to offer in terms of beaches. There are both beach breaks and points or reefs. The beach breaks tend to have the worst shape. I will mat a beach break, but I generally do so either for exercise or because I’m tired of riding my surfboard. I can’t say that I enjoy matting a beach break. It’s the points and reefs that the mat loves. The goal for me is to always try to mat those spots before the crowds get too thick. That means arriving at dawn or gambling that a spot will be working even if the forecast is to the contrary.
UKMS – Didn’t you surf today?
Surf Sister - I surfed L.A.’s most famous break again today. There were only a few of us there who really knew how to surf. We got the long rides. I would really love to ride that wave on a mat though. That will never happen during daylight hours. Ever. The lifeguards don't play that.
On a good day, a really good day, a point or reef will give you a face that lets you hit those fourth and fifth gears. Those are the days when you will hear the surfers on the inside hooting for you. Those will be the same folks who were giving you stinkeye when you kicked out to the lineup. Once they see what it can do, and what you can do on it on a big wave, their attitudes change.
UKMS - Just how big of surf have you been in and where?
Surf Sister - I have no idea how big. My ability to judge the size of waves while on my mat is pathetic. As the saying goes, everything is overhead when you’re riding prone.
I’m one of these people who don’t really care about the size of a wave! I’m all about shape. Obviously, for a mat to perform in the ways that I’ve described, you need a wave with some size, probably five feet or more.
I don’t name spots in public. L.A. is crowded enough. I don’t like to say where I surf or mat. I might tell people during a face-to-face conversation or perhaps while talking to the mat-riding group on Facebook (since that is a secret group that can’t be seen by anyone who’s not a member), but I generally don’t broadcast my spots. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out swells, tides and crowds. I do the work to make my sessions count. I don’t give that information away lightly. So, I’m not going to say where I prefer to mat and surf.
UKMS - What inspires you to mat?
Surf Sister - I’m not sure. I guess I like that it’s different. Believe it or not, I’ve never ridden a boogie board. Ever. I’ve never had an inclination to do so. But the mat . . . now there’s something you don’t see every day. A black woman in the water? You don’t see that every day either, do you? A black woman in the water on a surf mat? The looks I get are priceless. People can’t believe their eyes. The surf mat and I are a good team. Any stereotype that folks have about who and what they’ll see in a typical surf session is completely obliterated when I’m on my mat.
UKMS - How has mat surfing changed your ocean life or has it?
Surf Sister - I don’t think you can seriously ride a mat and not have your attitude and perspective change. I think my wave knowledge has been helped immensely by riding a surf mat. Waves look a lot different when you’re down there watching them form. I’ve also found that I’ll ride larger waves on a mat than I will on a board. I have a fear of getting worked and hit by my board in larger waves. There is no such fear when I’m on a mat. My feeling is that you’re already down there, so it’s not like you have far to fall. You’ll get worked, but the mat’s not going to hurt you.
UKMS - How has the mat world changed over the last five years with the push of Social Networking?
Surf Sister - That’s a very good question. I suppose social media has allowed the tribe to connect more easily. If nothing else, Facebook and the Surfmatters blog in particular have allowed all of us to literally see what’s going on with mat riders in other parts of the world. We don’t have to wonder whether there are others out there who are riding mats. They are posting videos of the sessions they were having while the rest of us in a different time zone were asleep. Social media has an immediacy that is invaluable. Someone can ask about a certain brand of fins and get answers from all over the globe within a few hours. That impresses me to no end.
UKMS - What is your go-to mat currently? What’s in your quiver? How often to you go to other mats to try them?
Surf Sister - I have a quiver of Fourth Gear Flyers. I carry four mats and two pairs of fins in my car at all times. My favorite mat is the Omni. If a mat can be perfect, this one certainly is. My quiver is composed of a first generation Omni, a second generation Omni (which is my daily driver mat), a 5GF and a Lotus 7.
I have no interest in trying other mats. The 4GFs work well for me. I’m one of those people who truly believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
UKMS - How are your inflation rates these days? What is normal and comfortable to you and how often do you adjust inflations?
Surf Sister - After the second mat meet, I started running my mats at a lower inflation. At some point during that meet, my mat managed to make it to shore without me. Andrew Buck grabbed my mat, took some of the air out and said, “You’re ready to move to the next level.” He told me to start riding with less air in my mats. And that’s what I do.
If the wave is big, I’ll run the mat with very little air. You can easily fold the mat in half. I generally run at that inflation level unless the wave is on the weak side. That’s when I’ll do the standard amount of air that results in one being able to fold the mat at a 90-degree angle.
UKMS - What fins are you using and why? Have you tried a lot of different fins?
Surf Sister - I have a set of Viper V5 fins that I like a lot. They don’t have as much propulsion for me now that I’ve gotten much stronger in my kicking. I’d planned to get a pair of V7s until I stumbled upon some Duck Feet at a sporting goods store. I’m now wearing those when I mat. I love them.
I’ve tried a few different brands of fins. One issue for me is my narrow foot. I can’t wear Churchills as a result. And I don’t like fin socks. I don’t like socks period; I never wear socks when I wear shoes. The Vipers and Duck Feet are comfortable. I don’t have a need for any other fins right now.
UKMS - I’ve found that over the past two years mats, and their designs, seem to have subtlety changed, at least for me. How about you? What’s different and what’s the same?
Surf Sister - I don’t have enough knowledge of mat design to know. I’m a relative simpleton when it comes to things like that. I don’t care about a mat’s design. If it works, I’m set. I have no interest in why it works or how it works. I’m not ever going to make my own mat. If I have a question, I turn to Paul Gross for the answer.
UKMS - Tell me a little about your travels in the past five years.
Surf Sister - I’m relatively poor. I’ve never surfed or matted outside of California. I don’t have the funds for travel.
UKMS - Do you find it difficult to tell others that don’t mat what this bag of air is all about and why it is so much fun?
Surf Sister - You know, I don’t really bother to try. I don’t care if people don’t get it. Surf mats are way too confusing for those who only have one view of the wave-riding paradigm. I’m actually quite surprised when a surfer turns and says, “Hey, you’re on a surf mat!” I don’t get that reaction often though. Generally, folks just stare.
UKMS - I’m told you’re a musician, a drummer to be exact. Are you any good? Are you in a band? What type of music are you into?
Surf Sister - I’m told I’m pretty good. I’ve only been playing for a couple of years. My skills are still developing. It’s difficult to find time to practice when you have a kid and a job, but I manage to squeeze in some time.
I think I’m in a band now, yes. I recently put an ad in Craigslist, looking for other older musicians who want to jam. I got quite a few replies. I hooked up with a guitarist and grabbed my friend for vocals. Now, a fellow surfer has said he wants to sit in on bass. I’m not sure what to call this. I think it’s safe to say it’s a band though. I also have a jam session once a week with a friend who plays the bass.
As for the music I like to play, I seem to default to James Brown beats when I’m simply sitting at the kit for the fun of it. Clyde Stubblefield was so rock solid with his beats. I love his playing. When I’m with the band, we play rock and roll. I’ll know my skills have truly improved when I can play something like Led Zeppelin’s “Out on the Tiles” with ease.
UKMS - What about your blog? http://surfandthefury.blogspot.com/
Surf Sister - Oh, you mean the blog with the ever-changing title? I started writing it in 2005. I rarely post anything to it now. I’ve run out of things to say about my surfing journey. I’m at the point where I’ve learned so much and surf so much that I don’t feel a need to record all that happens. For many years, though, the blog was like a close friend. It really reflects a lot of the wonder that surfing held for me. There’s good, bad and ugly in it as well.
Even though it’s a blog about surfing, people who are considering, or who have had, a knee replacement, have really read it quite widely. In 2009, when I found out my knee would have to be replaced, I made a conscious decision to allow the blog to tell my story to the outside world. There was no paper trail for me to follow when I was desperately searching for information. I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to surf again after the surgery. I was worried about the pain. I had many, many questions, and nowhere to turn for answers. I decided I would leave a paper trail for younger athletic folks who would eventually follow me down that joint replacement path.
I think that alone has made all those years of blogging worthwhile.
UKMS - And what was the reaction? Did People/athletes/surfers come back and give you feed back?
Surf Sister - I got a great deal of feedback during my recovery from the knee replacement. Obviously, the surfing community was closely following my progress, not so much because they had any interest in knee replacements but because people cared about me. Blogs, during their heyday, helped people connect with one another. Now, of course, we have Facebook and Twitter and the like for that. Before social media, blogs were the way that many of us communicated with our respective tribes. I can’t even tell you how many friends I’ve made as a result of my blog. The people who followed the blog closely were communicating with me throughout my recovery.
I’m not sure how long it was after the surgery that I began to hear from both surfers and non-surfers who had found my blog. Many people wrote to me for advice and support, which I gave freely. Several surfers contacted me, thanking me for what I’d written, saying it made them less fearful about their futures. Knowing that I’d had the surgery and had returned to surfing rather quickly made them less hesitant to get the surgery done.
I also heard from non-surfers who had questions or who expressed appreciation for the blog. There is a widget on my blog that lets me see what search terms led people to the blog. Most of the time, people get there through surf-related searches. There are, however, many searches that pertain to knee replacement questions. I could easily have kept my pain and suffering—and that is not an exaggeration—to myself. I wasn’t fishing for sympathy or anything. I just figured that sharing my story would help a lot of other people.
UKMS – The Prono Paradiso meet in Australia seemed pretty cool? I noticed on your blog that you had a link to it. The video was done really well. Weren’t you in the last couple of mat meets here in Southern California? I think there was one at Cottons Point and another at Leo Carrillo. How were they and what did you come away with?
Surf Sister - The Cottons mat meet. Good times . . . once I realized I would live to mat another day. The best thing I got out of that mat meet, other than having that mat riding epiphany when watching Mattitude drop into a bomb, was a photo of me being absolutely crushed by a wave. I didn’t find it amusing at the time; both the mat and a fin left me when that wave struck. Now, I look at that photo (below) and hoot with laughter.
The other mat meet was a day of perfection. We had so many people out there on mats.
Dirk rode his mat like a boss and filmed the meet. Matt was there showing us all how to truly dominate a wave on a mat. Andrew Stephen Buck, who can and does catch everything, was doing his thing. It was a great day in the water. I remember laughing a lot that day.
I think it’s almost impossible to have a bad session with other mat riders. That’s probably because mat surfers are very supportive of one another.
UKMS – Do you ride all those other surf vehicles as well as mat?
Surf Sister - I’m pretty much a two trick pony. I ride surfboards. I ride mats. I have a handplane. I’ve tried to ride paipos. Those things don’t give me the thrill that I get from the mat and single fin surfboards. I’m a big believer in making the best use of one’s time. I’m happy to stick to mats and boards rather than trying to master something else.
UKMS - Did you grow up surfing, knee boarding, Boogs. Etc. and where did you ride your first wave?
Surf Sister - I didn’t grow up surfing. I grew up wishing I could learn how to surf. I’d see surfing on Wide World of Sports and just be captivated. I didn’t really learn to swim well until I was 23. I was 38 when I finally started surfing. I’d been a competitive cyclist for years prior to that.
UKMS - How do the crowds handle mats in the LA lineups? Are mats taken seriously?
Surf Sister - I don’t ride my mat in a crowd. Doing so is pointless. I don’t have a death wish. There are a couple of spots where we will go to get away from the crowd and mat in peace. We can’t do it often though because it’s a bit of a hassle, in terms of time, to get to these spots.
It doesn’t matter what you ride in a crowd in L.A. You are going to get dropped in on whether you’re on a surfboard or a mat. That’s the problem with living in a big city where too many people fancy themselves surfers.
UKMS - In such crowded lineups how have you dealt with others? Steve Senese’s son, Corey, surfed with you in the Malibu area last week and he had to comment to me about it cause you had such a big smile on your face?
Surf Sister - Prior to that session, I would have said that crowds truly put a damper on my mat sessions, especially if I’m at a spot with a small takeoff zone. I need to rethink that belief now. A few days ago, Clay and I mounted a dawn attack on an L.A. break that is perfect for mats. This was probably the first time that I willingly battled with surfers for waves. I don’t surf with anger. I never have; I hope I never will. I do, however, get irritated when people continually back paddle us when we’re on our mats.
We were getting good rides before the crowd got thick. Once the takeoff zone had more than 10 people, it got difficult to catch waves. I don’t get mad. I know there’s not much I can do in retaliation on a mat. What helped today was that there were two experienced surfers who were out there just killing it. One of them told me to feel free to jump on a wave when he was on it. See, it was one of those days where the lineup was extraordinarily kooky, so these guys kind of set the tone for how things were going to go even though they never said anything negative to anyone. They were taking every wave they wanted to take and the other surfers would get out of the way. These guys would get their rides without anyone dropping in on them, but we weren’t given the same amount of respect.
Well, once that guy told me he was willing to share, it was on. He and his friend had set the tone for the session. Waves would come. He and his friend would take them alone. Then, more waves would come and every kook in the lineup would start paddling. I normally won’t go then. I don’t trust the abilities of folks who buy pointy boards, but can’t surf them. Still, the waves were good and I was not willing to admit defeat. At one point, a wave came and I decided to go. Someone even called me into it. Of course, quite a few others went as well. I got it. You know what the best part was? I took out two surfers on that one wave. One was on the inside trying to paddle for it while I was already on it. I had nowhere to go and ran into, on top of and over him. That stopped my progress enough to run me into someone to my left who was up and riding. I inadvertently banged into his legs and took him down. And you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed that. I am probably one of the most polite people you will encounter in a lineup. I wait my turn (whether on a board or a mat). I call others into waves. I cheer for others. I enjoy my water time immensely. I’m happiest when everyone in the lineup is having fun. But, hey, if people want to keep disrespecting me—or, in this case, us—while we’re on our mats, I’m not going to take that lying down. (Pun intended! AHAHAHAHA!) The guys are more apt to get in there and mix it up with surfers while we’re matting. I’m not normally one who will do that. Today changed all that.
To answer your question more pointedly, I’ll admit that I truly dislike surfing or matting in crowds. I do my best to go where the crowd isn’t. In any case, I’ve grown accustomed to the crowds. You can’t live in a city of this size and get away from crowded lineups. When being in the water with the masses starts getting to me, I take a day off and do something land-based.
UKMS – How hard was it for you to ride a mat initially? Did you get the “Magic” right out of the gate or was there a steep learning curve?
Surf Sister - The word “flail” comes to mind. I did a lot of flailing. That’s why I didn’t ride the mat much at first. I could not get the hang of it. I didn’t truly take the mat seriously until after my knee replacement in 2009. That surgery made me appreciate all that I have physically and all that I’m able to do. Your attitude about life changes when you realize the things you love can be taken away from you at a moment’s notice. Had I not gotten my knee replaced, I’d be disabled by now. Once I got the new knee, I never looked back. I’ve always been athletic. The knee issue made me realize that my body will eventually wear out, so I need to make the most of my good health while I have it.
UKMS – Where did you learn your technique? Was there an Obi-Wan mentor or just trial and error?
Surf Sister - The technique has come from both my own trial and error as well as from watching others. Actually, one mat moment that sticks in my mind clearly was from the first mat meet. The waves were big! I was scared to death. I nonetheless got myself out to the lineup (without knowing how to duck dive) because I knew I needed to see people ride mats up close. I remember being next to James when a bomb came. He offered to let me take it. I quickly declined his offer, so he took it. I can still picture him dropping into that wave. See, I had no concept of how you actually got into a wave on a mat. When I saw James bend that mat over and drop in, it was a true Eureka moment! That’s when I began to understand the mat.
I really enjoy watching Matt Pierce ride a mat. I think some of my mat riding style comes from trying to emulate his riding style, too.
In the end, I figured it out on my own. There was a day when it finally clicked. I sent Paul a photo from that session, not thinking much of it. The subsequent Surfmatters blog post had that picture and a question: “Who are you and what have you done with Surf Sister?” Those words brought home to me the fact that I’d figured out how to ride my magic towel.
UKMS - Are you a solo session mat rider or are there other mat surfers in your immediate area?
Surf Sister - I prefer to ride with others, but generally have no hesitation about going it alone. Tremor and I have shared many a session on our mats.
We laugh about the fact that I almost always run him over during a session. In our last session, we accidentally played bumper cars on one wave. I then decided I would try to knock him off a wave if I got the opportunity. A good-sized wave came. We both dropped in. I remember looking at him, flooring it and then slamming into him at full speed. Of course, it was a mat-against-mat slam that resulted in us both howling with laughter. I think we both got knocked off that wave by that collision. It was great.
These days, I mat with Tremor and Clay, a friend who took to mat riding quickly. We seem to be our own little mat riding crew.
UKMS - How much has Paul Gross given to you in terms of advice and mat tips?
Surf Sister - My relationship with Paul transcends mats. He and his wife are two people to whom I’m very close. Yes, Paul is the reason why I was finally able to get on a mat. He’s also the reason why I’m on the hulls that I surf. He’s the reason why I no longer fear the lifeguards (since matting in L.A. County is technically illegal).
He’s even the reason why my drumming has gone as well as it has since I started playing two years ago. Paul told me early on that I needed to take lessons to keep from developing bad habits. He was right.
In terms of mats, it’s nice to have mats that are tailored to fit. Paul customizes my mats to fit my stature. I don’t even have to ask. He started doing it automatically early on. That kind of voluntary attention to detail never ceases to amaze me
UKMS - Do you lose your mat much?
Surf Sister - I rarely lose my mat. My inflation is low enough to allow me to keep a good grip on the mat. I’m quite talented at pearling on my mat though.
UKMS - Current mat buzz... Thoughts?
Surf Sister - Is there a current mat buzz? I’m actually somewhat out of the loop. I don’t keep up with all that’s going on or being said in the matting world on a day-to-day basis.
UKMS – What would you like to see happen in the mat world in the near future?
Surf Sister - I’d love to see mat meets where we’re able to take over a break and completely dominate it. That’s what we did at the mat meet in L.A. some years ago. We actually outnumbered the surfers at some point. That was an empowering experience for all of us, I think. I’d love to be able to do something like that at least once a year.
UKMS – Mary, many thanks for giving us your time.
(Ed. Note: Special thanks to Andrea Siedsma of www.saltwatermedia.net
for her words and background on Surf Sister.)
Waves to Wisdom Interview: Surf Sista Mary
Surf Sista Mary: What you don’t understand about being black or being gay or being, you know, Latino or Muslim is you’re always reminded of it. So if you’re white, you can just go through life and be white. But if you’re a different group something is always reminding you. The president says something or there’s something on the news or somebody goes to a mosque and shoots up the place. All those things remind you, oh you’re not like everybody else, even though you are. But when I surf I could just sit there, and I know I’m black, and I can tell by some of the stares, people are going, “Oh, look, a black woman.” But I can just sit there and shut down for a bit. That’s nice.
Maia: In a 1970 interview with the late great Nina Simone, the interviewer asks what freedom is. Simone says, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me, no fear… like a new way of seeing…”
This interview was recorded in the summer of 2019. A lot has changed since my shared sessions with Surf Sista Mary. The day I am recording this introduction is June 19th, 2020. That was unintentional but welcome coincidence. For anyone who doesn’t know its Juneteenth— a holiday that commemorates the day in 1865 when a Union general announced to the African Americans of Galveston Texas that they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had signed two and a half years earlier. Word spread quickly among Texas’s black population and previously enslaved people released themselves into the promise of freedom. In so many ways that promise was and still is that promise was delayed, and then just outright betrayed, through a combination of many legal and policy decisions, outright terror and violence, and all kinds of cultural currents and habits.
It feels to me like, in just the last couple of weeks, something 7changed. It has begun to feel like there is hope. Like there is reason to believe that the promise of an America of the people, by the people, and for the people might have some life left in it yet. That liberty and justice for all could be, after 400 years, a thing we on this land between two seas move towards together.
In other words, it’s started to feel like we white people are waking up to a world, and to a possibility that has been right here all along.
This episode was initially scheduled to come out in early March of 2020, but I decided to delay this season’s podcast. It didn’t quite seem right to be talking about all of the benefits of surfing at the beginning of a global pandemic that would clearly reduce everyone’s freedom of movement, including access to beaches and the joy they bring to those of us who surf. And then came, Amauhd Arbery, murdered while he was jogging, Breonna Taylor, murdered while she was sleeping, and George Floyd, murdered while he was pleading for air. The Black Lives Matter movement has garnered the attention it deserved all along and we are in a time of what feels like long-overdue national reckoning.
None of this, not pandemics, not police brutality, came up when Surf Sista Mary and I shared some fabulous waves in Southern California. We were, as far as I know, thinking about what surfers think about— waves and rides, rides, and waves. But while thinking of riding the ocean’s energy we knew the feeling we were chasing, and although there’s no good word for it, perhaps one that comes close is freedom.
Unlike early March, this seems like the perfect time to release Mary Mills’ voice into the world. What does surfing have to do with black liberation?
Simone’s eloquence and evocation come close to describing my experience as a surfer. Learning how to ride the waves has been the most liberating, empowering, and transformative practice of my life. Anybody who’s paying attention can’t ignore the fact that African-Americans are massively under-represented in almost all Surf lineups in this country. The history of modern surfing is inextricably intertwined with the history of colonial exploitation, of the subjugation of native people, of the systematic removal of African Americans from recreational access to the water over a period of generations. In other words, when Sista Mary sees surprise in the eyes of those who note that “there’s a black woman”, it’s no surprise that it’s a surprise. So few of my fellow surfers perceive that fact as a problem.
I have long believed that I understand why some of the most violent white and police instigated riots against African Americans during the civil rights movement happened during peaceful attempts to integrate beaches. If you want to keep people from loving one another, from coming to feel deeply tied to one another, from understanding how little separates us and the powerful, intense connections that come through shared, immersive joy, you’d better keep them from playing together in the water.
For my part, I haven’t pushed the issue as much as I could have and, let’s face it, should have. Surfing is the most liberating, instructive, deeply freeing practice I’ve ever experienced. As I’ve said many times in these interviews, it can dissolves artificial barriers in our minds, our bodies, our hearts, our lives. I didn’t learn to surf until I was 40. Breonna Taylor died when she was 26. It should go without saying but saying is necessary and not nearly enough. Everybody, no matter how much melanin, should be free to live and breathe and learn to surf if she chooses.
It seems so straightforward. But that freedom might require a radical restructuring of lots of unseen forces and assumptions and habits that have allowed me, and others like me, to throw ourselves headlong into this deeply rewarding and creative endeavor without much thought for who’s missing from the line-up. There’s a contemporary African American painter named Derrick Adams who painted a series of black bodies at play in the water. He notes that it is precisely when black bodies are shown or seen at leisure that white supremacy is most likely to rear its ugliest Hydra heads. Adams believes that the black body, freely engaged in leisure, at play in the water after and in spite of all the collective historical trauma, is a profoundly political, deeply radical portrayal.
In a 1976 live concert recording, Nina Simone sings
I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Wish I could break all the things that bind us apart
Wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see
Everybody should be free
Because if we ain’t then we’re murderous
Welcome to Waves to Wisdom.
Maia: Okay, ready?
Maia: Awesome! OK, why don’t we start, if you are comfortable with you telling everybody your name, your age, and how long you been surfing.
Mary: I will tell you my surfing name, Surf Sista Mary. I am 56— I just turned 56 last week and I’ve been surfing 17 years.
Maia: Fantastic, okay. And we are parked on the side of a winding road in San Clemente and we can see the Pacific from where we are, the sun is out [gorgeous!] so gorgeous and will you tell anybody who’s listening a little bit about what we just did.
Mary: We just had a really good session at San Onofre. I didn’t think it would be good I was thinking I don’t know if I want to go is supposed to be windy and then it was gray when we got here, it was raining on the way but the waves were pretty darn good [laugh].
Maia: Holy cow it was so fun! You know I’m used to East Coast breaks and we just don’t have waves that go on and on like that. It was, there were such long rides.
Mary: That’s the best surf I’ve had in months.
Maia: And you know one of the things that’s such a treat for me is seeing people like the woman we saw who must’ve been in her late 60s who was just rippin’!
Mary: Which one? The one with the white hair or…
Maia: The one with the white hair I’m thinking but there were a couple out there, weren’t there?
Maia: Fantastic, well you live in Los Angeles [yes] and this was our second session this morning we’d surfed earlier right at one of your usual breaks, El Porto, and I found you because of a blog that you wrote for several years. Your blog is entitled “Black People Don’t Surf” …
Mary: That’s the final name, the name alternated [okay] depending on my mood.
Maia: Fantastic talk a little bit about your moods and your rotating blog names.
Mary: Well, I like William Faulkner so originally it was The Surf and The Fury and then I got bored with that and I think I changed it to a different Faulkner title. I think he had a book called Light in August and I change that to Surf in August. But always people remark about me being black and surfing and, you know, the stereotype is black people don’t surf. So finally at one point I just changed it to that and left it.
Maia: It, uh, it speaks quite eloquently just, just like it is I think [laugh] and you really, eye-opening and you really you chronicled your, your surfing adventures for several years and almost session by session. What was the motivation to start a blog that you kept up for that long?
Mary: Well, I like to write. At the time I remember blogs were just starting and they were featuring them on Surfline and I thought I want to be featured on Surfline so I started a blog. And they did feature it on Surfline. That was part of why I did it because I wanted to be noticed for my writing and I also have such a bad memory that I wanted to be able to look back and see what I did when I was surfing and learning to surf. And when I look at the blog now I think, “I don’t remember that, at all.”
Maia: It’s good that you kept track that way. And something that you talked about earlier today which I find so fascinating is that moment when you first decided to learn to surf and the fact that it coincided with another really important event in your life. Will you tell that story?
Mary: Yeah, [laugh] now I’m laughing. Okay, I used to be a competitive cyclist so part of my route depending on where I was training would be to just ride slowly down the bike path and enjoy the ocean. And one day I passed a table that had a brochure for a women’s surf class and I thought “Huh, I’ve always like surfing I want to learn to surf and I finally know how to swim.” So I stopped and got the brochure but a little voice told me, “You can’t call them. Not yet.” And I took the brochure home and was going to call them the voice could tell me “You, you can’t —you can’t surf yet.” and it turns out I was pregnant.
Mary: Yeah so I had to wait until I had the kid in the three months after I had him I started taking classes.
Maia: So let’s just let me just pause for second so you had a three-month-old you had just given birth to your one and I believe only child [correct, one and only] to your son and then you started to, to surf. And was that class a good class? Did you feel like you became proficient as a result of that?
Mary: No, not at all the class was good. I did not become proficient.
Maia: It takes a while, doesn’t it?
Mary: Yeah I think it was mainly to get women in the water it was run by Mary Setterholme and she was a former US surfing champ and I think she was just trying to get women in the water but was not proficient. I was good at popping up— they told me that.
Maia: And did you fall in love with it right away?
Mary: I think I fell in love with it when I was a kid? [You did?] Yeah, I wanted to surf since I was little.
Maia: And talk a little bit about that, where you first see surfing?
Mary: ABC’s Wide World of Sports! I think it was was it in black and white? No I think it was probably in color by that point but I remember having a crush on Shaun Thompson from South Africa.
Maia: He’s a cutie!
Mary: Oh my God. And I met him and he kissed me on the mouth and I almost died.
Maia: Did he really? Wow!
Mary: Yes, he did! But ever since then I kept thinking I want to surf but I’m a black kid with straightened hair and I don’t know how to swim. So I didn’t think it would ever happen. But then I grew up, cut off all my hair, learned how to swim and it was time to learn how to surf.
Maia: It happened.
Maia: So you saw surfing on Wide World of Sports. Were you tempted to learn then?
Mary: No! I couldn’t swim! And black people surfing? That’s not a thing! I mean I was little— probably like 10. Maybe, so, mm-mh.
Maia: So you saw surfing as a child you really wanted to surf as an adult he finally just happened upon this opportunity yes at that point you had learned how to swim
Mary: Yes at 23 I decided, Okay I need to learn how to swim because I wanted to do triathlons. So I chopped off all my straightened hair. I was never into hair and into all the trappings of what make you stereotypically attractive as a woman.
I’ve always been athletic and obviously I have always been black and black women are acculturated to straighten our hair and then you’re a slave to your hair because you don’t want to get it wet you don’t want to do this. And now women wear weaves but I always just wanted to go outside and play so 23 because I wanted to learn how to swim I chopped off all that straightened hair I just had a short Afro and it’s been on ever since. I have never straightened my hair again and never will.
Maia: You don’t miss it?
Mary: Oh, no! Why would I? I can go do whatever— I don’t even look in the mirror barely. Because I don’t wear makeup and I don’t do anything with my hair. I just get up, shake my dreadlocks and I go.
Maia: And you’re ready…
Mary: Yeah, and my man loves it so what’s the problem?
Maia: Well, it’s pretty fabulous the dreadlocks are pretty fabulous, I have to say…
Mary: And he said that he likes that I don’t wear makeup because of course then you spend all your time going, wait, I have to get ready. If he wants to go do something I’m ready.
Maia: You just go do something…
Mary: Yeah, [more freedom…] if it rains, it rains! just did is we just go more freedom if it rains, it rains.
Maia: Part of, part of what I’m doing with this podcast is trying to share what I believe I’ve come across which is this wisdom that surfers seem to me to accumulate from their embodied practice of immersing themselves in this more than human medium, in this dynamic environment. What did surfing teach you as you were learning? Mary: As I was learning? I think it taught me some humility. I’ve never been stuck up but I’ve always been a very good athlete so whatever sport I turned to I was good and boy surfing was different. So it teaches you patience. It teaches you humility and it teaches you you’re not in control, the ocean is in control. You can only control you, you can’t control that— I’m pointing at the ocean. You can’t control that. So at some point you have to give yourself over to it and you have to know when you can get in and you also have to know when you can’t and I think a lot of people don’t learn that. If the oceans angry you need to keep your little happy— do we swear? [we can we can beep it] you need to keep your little happy butt on land.
Maia: Yeah, yeah, it’s, it really is— and I don’t know if this is true for you but I tend to be a pretty anxious and controlling person at times and so that as you say giving yourself over to this powerful force, that for me, I have to practice that over and over and over again. It’s never something that I feel, I, I’ve got this now. I’m done. I need reminders all the time and surfing is so good at giving those reminders.
Mary: I don’t have that though and I think it may be because I’m black. I— there’s so little I can control— I can’t make people treat me equally and most people are nice to me so I’m not saying, “Oh I get treated badly because I’m black.” I get treated very well because I’m me. That’s what I’m told because people say you have a good attitude you have good energy. So people are always nice to me but as a black person and as a black woman I feel like I don’t control much of anything. So surfing is just part of me going alright, I can work within the structure I have but I try to control very few things.
There are so many forces at play when you walk out of your door. How can you control any of it? You know, people try to use their money to control it but that’s a good thing about surfing and I’ve said that elsewhere, the ocean doesn’t care you can have all the money in the world you can have all the privilege in the world, you can have all the beauty in the world, if you don’t know how to surf and respect the ocean, you’re not going to do well.
Maia: It doesn’t make any difference does it?
Mary: It doesn’t make a difference.
Maia: No, not one bit— and it is, I don’t know and, in my experience, you know I walk through the world occupying this body and it’s probably different from your experience— I have found that at many breaks once people figure out that you are competent, they treat with a certain measure of respect [they do]. Yeah, and it’s it’s [agreed] interesting because there are— we were discussing last few days I’ve surfed at Malibu and there’s about to be this huge contest there which means there are world-class long borders there, most of whom look like they’re between 20 and 30 and, you know they’re all of course, beautiful and, and showing off for each other, as is their job, that’s what they do, they are pro surfers and for the most part they, they ignore me but they’re also, really when it came to a point where I was in a position where I couldn’t be ignored I was treated with respect every single time and that doesn’t always happen out in the world.
Mary: Right, exactly, it doesn’t always happen at Malibu, so I’m [so I’ve heard] yeah yes so I was shocked!
Maia: I think the pros didn’t have anything to prove to me, that’s for sure.
Mary: One of the aspects of your outlook on life that has really been intriguing to me as we’ve had conversations over the last couple of surf sessions is your orientation towards work and I’ve said elsewhere in the podcast that I spent a lot of time in this little village in Costa Rica. And so I I’ve been lucky enough to befriend to be befriended by several Costa Ricans. And your attitude towards work comes closer to their attitude towards working than just about any American I have come across. [really?] Yes, of our age. Would you talk a little bit about your relationship with work?
Mary: American culture says if you don’t work you’re lazy. Well I have 3 degrees and I’ve had jobs. But sitting in an office typing in front of a computer— for what? I mean really for what? To make money and then to make money for what and for whom?
Maia: That’s a good question.
Mary: You know I’m the job I have now, I don’t get paid much— my boss makes tons of money so really I’m helping him. I mean, I’m paying my bills but it’s really— my attitude is you’re getting the best hours of my day to help you make money and really I’m not getting that much out of it. So I don’t I don’t understand why work is that important. We should be living. I mean yes we live in the United States, we have bills, we want housing so you have to work but you don’t have to have a career. I’ve never had a career. My kiddos my career.
Maia: And what a meaningful career that is!
Mary: Yeah, it’s the best job ever!
Maia: And what are your 3 degrees in, if you don’t mind me asking?
Mary: A BA in English, and an MA in English, and a law degree. And I hate work, that’s what’s so funny but I didn’t know it at the time when I was getting all the degrees. I thought I was setting myself up for a career and then I got in the working world and hated it from day one.
Maia: My Costa Rican friends who I know who, for example, are surf instructors they don’t hate their work at all but they do it in order to support the important parts of their lives where are their children, and their families, their parents— they live close to their parents as do you, you make that choice and there are other people of course you have grimmer jobs who have different attitudes towards them, and we have, you know, there are precious few jobs I think that don’t keep people like you and me hemmed in physically to a point where we’re just miserable [right] especially if you’re a thinking sort of person you get channeled into these jobs that involve sitting in a desk…
Mary: Yes it’s awful— luckily I have a standing desk now and I work in front of a window but if I didn’t have those two I would’ve quit. I’ve been there a year– that’s almost a record for me.
Maia: And you’re writing professionally now, right?
Mary: I guess, is it writing I don’t know, what I do, they call us technical writers [OK] yes so who cares? I mean, really when I meet people I don’t say to them, “What do you do for living?” [right] I don’t care what you do for living [yeah]. It’s not important, so it irks me when people say “And what is your job?” Are you gonna judge me based on my job? Who cares what I do! I go to job to make money to keep food in my kid’s mouth and, you know, pay the electric bill and all that but other than that and it doesn’t define me!
Maia: Yeah, yeah if you were going to answer that question in a way that that felt right to you, what do you do? What would be the first few answers you would give?
Mary: I always tell people, well before I have this job “I’m a mom.” [Absolutely] Yeah, now I say, I okay work for this company and write technical manuals for airline compliance, who cares? And then I always say, “Who cares?” (23:38)
Maia: Who cares— do you ever say you’re a surfer when people ask what you do?
Mary: No, in terms of a job, no.
Maia: It’s interesting because one thing I’ve noticed about surfers, American surfers is that if you asked them what they do many of them will answer with their job. But if you pay any attention to their lives that’s number 2. Unless they have a family, in which case maybe it’s number three. What they do first is sometimes family, sometimes what they do is surf. The job happens, it’s not like we’re not responsible but if that surf forecast is good enough, that job’s gonna wait.
Mary: Right?!? [yeah] That’s why working part-time now because I have an 88-year-old mom, I’m the only child. I have a 17-year-old kid, I’m a single parent, and I work full time I was not surfing, there was no time for surf. I finally decided I can’t do this. I need me time. So now I’m starting to surf again. I don’t have benefits anymore— I don’t care. I should care but my health is basically good so I don’t care and I’m going to get married in a year— I hate to— but you have to think that way I’m an American— I’m gonna get married in the year that I’ll have my husband’s insurance so I can hang on.
Maia: Yes, yes well and it’s interesting, insurance does not keep you healthy.
Mary: No, not at all.
Maia: But having a reasonable lifestyle— that can maybe keep you healthy [yeah]. So what other lessons has the ocean or surfing taught you?
Mary: That’s a good question. I don’t know it’s kind of what you were talking about— how people don’t judge you as much— if you could surf, you’re cool. So I’ve never had any kind of run-in with anyone based on characteristics that I can’t change. So nobody’s ever said, “You stupid woman” or “You stupid black person.” No, I can surf and people are, “Hey how are you?” That’s nice, that’s very nice.
Maia: Is that different from the rest of your life?
Mary: I think with surfing I can turn off my brain and that’s why I like it. That’s different from the rest of my life. One thing I tell people is, “What you don’t understand about being black, or being gay, or being you know Latino, or Muslim is you’re always reminded of it. So if you’re white you can just go through life and be white. But if you’re a different group something is always reminding you— the president said something or there’s something on the news or somebody goes to a Mosque and shoots up the place. All those things remind you you’re not like everybody else even though you are. But when I surf I can just sit there and I know I’m black and I can tell by some of the stares people are going “Oh, look a black woman.” But I can just sit there and shut down for a bit. That’s nice.
Maia: It’s a wonderful state, isn’t it? [Yeah] There’s a neuroscientist named Arne Dietrich who studies the neuroscience of flow? He’s looking into that and he said something really interesting in a podcast interview that I heard him give which is that states of flow and a lot of the states that we call “higher consciousness” are actually reduced consciousness. They’re states in which we can turn off the part of our brain that is always analyzing and always anticipating.
Mary: That makes sense. [Yeah] That makes perfect sense. Because when I first started surfing I would overthink everything— overthinking, overthinking brain going brain going. And as I got better it got more and more quiet. And now I just shut down pretty much and just surf. That doesn’t happen on land. I’m always thinking— overthinking always going.
Maia: It is a— I think at this point in my life and I have, of course, like everybody an evolving sense of what is working and what’s not working and the world that I move through but that tendency that you just described is one of the motivating missions of this podcast— that I think so few American grown-ups have that regular kind of a fully embodied immersive experience and it’s so important if you have access to it and it doesn’t have to be through surfing right but it looks to me like surfers have a pretty good handle literally they can grab a hold of and maybe more easily than some other sorts of athletes or practitioners but it really does feel so important especially now as computers and automation and robotics are taking over more and more of our physical existence to have some sense of connection and relationship and, and worth that comes through who we are as these human animals is just so important.
Mary: As just people! Not connected to your career or your things none of that matters I should be a Buddhist. I’m not but I should be a Buddhist.
Maia: There are aspects of what you say that, that strike me as very Buddhist to the extent I understand what that means.
Mary: I have little attachment to things like when my board got stolen I was mad because I like the board bag you know. I can get another surfboard, it’s gonna cost me something but I really like the board bag. But of course, most people would say the important thing was the surfboard but who cares. Whoever stole it , you better ride it well. I just feel like people are important things are important.
Maia: We were talking our way to San Onofre this morning and you were talking about your— let’s call it an ambivalent relationship with Southern California where it’s— I have to say I have has been here working but completely on my own schedule and able to control when I move around and still the traffic is untenable. So I can understand your impulse to want to move away from here when your life circumstances allow. And you said something on the way to San Onofre this morning which surprised me but, but shouldn’t given your non-attachment orientation which is that when you move away if it’s necessary to give up surfing you would. You would happily do that.
Mary: Oh yeah. I mean I’m trying to teach my son life is about balance and as much as I would love to serve forever I’m also 56. Which means I’m getting older and I’ve been athletic my whole life so my body is now I can start to feel it starting to fall apart. But I’m still in good shape! But I also have met the one. I mean he is the one. I want to go where he wants to go and neither one of us wants to be here. And I just want to be with him and I want to get old with him and die with him to be truthful. So if that means we don’t live near the ocean I give up surfing that’s fine. I’ve surfed! I’ve had a good time but my life is going to move in a different direction especially physically. I’ve have had a knee replacement I have an ankle with three screws and a plate. I’m getting older so I don’t even think I’m going to surf forever. So I’m ready to move on if I have to.
Maia: And I find it fascinating that your surfer journey began as your motherhood journey began and your son is now 17. So, you’ve done a really good job and he’s probably going to move on in the next few years and that these journeys might be paired and
Mary: I didn’t even see that I didn’t think of that until you mentioned it.
Maia: Yeah, maybe letting go of both at the same time even if you keep surfing and keep mothering— they’ll be different than they were.
Mary: Right. Oh yeah! I mean, you love your kids but once they hit this age you’re thinking, “OK you can go do your thing now.” Because you want your freedom and I’ve been a single parent for the last, I don’t know four years, five years, and that’s rough!
Maia: It seems nearly impossible from my perspective.
Mary: Well, he’s a great kid so it hasn’t been that tough but I think he wants his freedom. I want my freedom. We love each other to death but it’s it’s time.
Maia: So if there’s a segment of my audience, which I think there is, that feels like they would love to have some sort of disciplined play practice— cause surfing takes some discipline— but they haven’t, for whatever reason, they’ve they’ve allowed life or life has gotten in the way. What would you say to them?
Mary: It’s time to put yourself first. People don’t do that. They think they are supposed to go get that career, go get that money, go, that’s not putting you first. That’s putting what society tells you is supposed to come first. What do you want to do? Maybe you want to open a woodshop and just work on wood? Why don’t you do that? I mean I think part of it is Americans are fearful, we’re fearful. And there’s something in me, I don’t know what it is that doesn’t have a lot of fear so I’ll jump without a safety net. I’ll quit a job I don’t care. Now mind you I’m never going be homeless because my family has property but I can be moneyless! But I do… we’re not going be here for that long so you have to think about what it is you want out of your life. I don’t have a bucket list. If there’s something I want to do I do it and if I can’t do it then it’s not on the list.
Maia: That’s part of that letting go of control isn’t it? [yeah] So interesting! Yeah, it is fascinating sometimes to watch especially multi-generation families where it looks like everyone is sacrificing for everyone else— the kids are suffering trying to please the parents and the parents are suffering trying to take care of the kids and somehow we’re were missing the whole point of being alive and appreciative and grateful…
Mary: And you know let’s face it that comes with some privilege. Now if you’re an immigrant who was come here to make a better life for your kid or kids and you have to work, work, work and your wife or your spouse or whoever has to work, work, work, then you really don’t have the freedom like I think you do. But maybe you can take a little bit of time for you, you know… I get it. There is privilege. Even though I’m black I know I have privilege. I have middle-class privilege and I don’t deny that. So I can take these leaps of faith and know I’m not going splat on the ground. I’ll survive [absolutely] And I think other people need to know that too— you’re, you’ll survive. [Yeah] You will Believe it.
Maia: Yes. It’s Yeah It’s a really good point. Depending on who you are and what your circumstances there’s sometimes fear is not baseless but.. And many times it is.
That there, there is. And I don’t know if it’s cultivated in us or if we do it to ourselves but we do really have this “It’s Never Enough” orientation I think as a culture…
Mary: I guess, and for me it’s— I always feel like “That’s too much. I don’t want all that. I don’t want all those things. Which is why I want to get in the Class B with my man and drive off. We have this little box with four wheels and we have each other.
Maia: What else do you need?
Mary: Done. Good enough.
Maia: So beautiful! My gosh I hope that happens for you!
Mary: I think it will.
Maia: As I myself have moved out of working for someone else and began working for myself over the last couple of years I definitely have had a little bit of identity panic
Mary: Of course, you’re an American.
Maia: Which has been really interesting to see that in myself. I don’t think of myself— I’ve always been a little underemployed relative to my peers, if not a lot underemployed but it really has been fascinating to watch this and, and to see what I do when I’m not pushed with my time and I definitely rest more. I definitely take better care of myself. I eat better. I cook more but I also have this amazing capacity— and talk about privilege it’s such a gift— to follow an idea down and follow it right down to the ground if that takes a week or a year. And beautiful things are coming from that like finding you and your blog [thank you!]. You know I never would have had this incredible experience of of these days that we spent together and learning from you and, and seeing the way you interact with this environment and navigate all this nasty traffic and, you know, and talk to you about your delightful son whose, you know, whose growing up in a lot of ways is chronicled in that blog. [He is!] He’s not the center of it but he is right there in the center of it, if that makes sense.
Mary: He is— he was a little kid, now he’s grown. 6’1” 120 pounds, string bean, [laugh] hair on his face. He’s a great kid. I’m very proud of him.
Maia: He also writes, is that correct?
Mary: He does. He wants to be a writer and I spend all my money at Barnes & Noble. Either I spend all my money on food, even though he ways 120 pounds or taking him to Barnes & Noble to buy more books and how do you say no? “I want to go to Barnes & Noble and buy some books.” Okay. Alright.
Maia: Stomach food or brain food for that growing man.
Maia: So what else have you learned in your life as a surfer or as your life as a surfer has interwoven with your life as a mother or a daughter? What have you learned from surfing that you could share with the audience?
Mary: What haven’t I learned from surfing? That’s really what I’m thinking! What have I learned? I don’t know, my life changed quite a bit because of surfing, because of the blog. I tend to be, as I’ve told you, a lone wolf. I tend to be a homebody but surfing took me out of my shell and got me some attention that I hadn’t expected. So I don’t know— surfing has changed me. It’s made me a little more open to being out in public, I guess. Yeah.
Maia: Well it’s interesting to some extent you are a little bit of a public figure in the Southern California surfing scene…
Mary: I think, was… I don’t know if I still am but I used to be. Yeah, but now we have a generational shift so young people don’t know who I am They just know oh, there’s that black woman who surfs. Older people know me from the blog or just know me because there weren’t that many other black women surfing. There was me, there was Andrea… That’s about it. But now it’s changing.
Maia: It’s changing for the better?
Mary: For the better. I’m seeing a lot more black people on social media who surf, and people in the water, now I can go to a beach and go “Oh, there’s a person, there’s a person.”
Maia: Do you feel, I may be projecting here but [Okay] do you feel like you might in some way have played a part in that cultural shift?
Mary: No, I don’t.
Maia: It feels to me like you were a leader.
Mary: I don’t think I was, no because there was always a Black Surfing Association and that predated me o, no, I don’t think I had anything to do with it. I think I was the one who was vocal and just said, “Hey! We’re out here.” But I don’t think I caused anything.
Maia: I was walking, uh, I have a dear friend who was down visiting me at my house at the coast in North Carolina and we were walking across the Boardwalk to access the beach and I didn’t notice It but there was apparently this little girl, six or seven years old and my friend said, “She saw that surfboard and she watched you walk 100 yards towards her and then stopped and turned around and watched you walk away.” [Wow] Well, I wonder, you know, if that interaction right there with this older woman carrying a surfboard changed that girl’s life [I bet it did]. Like suddenly she sees a possibility and so I bet that happens all the time with you and you don’t pay any attention to it cause, you, you’re looking at the ocean!
Mary: Right! I know it’s happened a few times where I’ve seen black people just stop and look, “You surf?”
“Yeah, I surf.” Shock. Shock and awe. And maybe (or women?] It inspired some people, women, yeah, but then again here I go if they have straightened hair, they’re not going to go get in the ocean [Right]. So we need to get black women to let go of the hair. I’ve said to people if black women stop worrying about their hair you’re going to see some surfing! You will see black women in the water.
Maia: That’s so interesting.
Mary: It’s all about the hair. Yeah.
Maia: Okay. Well, I think your hair is fabulous!
Mary: Thank you, so do I!
Maia: They are wonderful and we’ll be sure to post a picture of you and your fabulous dreadlocks on the blog. Is there anything else that you would like to say to an audience, I would imagine primarily of non-surfers that you’ve learned in this long delicious chapter of surfing?
Mary: I would say stop taking work so seriously. What are you working for? I mean, I know what you’re working for. To get the house and the cars but what are you doing to feed your soul? It’s not your job. So you need to figure out what it is.
The End. Thank you very much.
Maia: Thank you very much! I really appreciate your time and especially appreciate the shared waves— so much fun!
That was fun. You should have caught that last wave with me though!!
Maia: If you enjoyed this interview, please consider sharing it with a friend and taking just a minute to give us a rating.
Like many people, I’m in a period of intense learning and recalibrating my priorities around new ways of seeing. To some white people I know, this is a little overwhelming. To me Ii’s a relief. It feels like we are finally willing to think together about dissolving the artificial barriers of race that have been reinforced for far too long, especially near the water. Racism and white supremacy, in our hearts and institutions, brutalizes our love and our capacity for connection, even when there are no batons or guns anywhere in sight. Even when we are at play, on a beach, waiting for the next beautiful wave.
To find links to ways to make a contribution of your energy or money to the crucial efforts to address racial disparities in comfort and safety near and on the water, visit wavestowisdom.com/SurfSista.
INTERVIEW WITH SURF ICON AND MOLD BREAKER, MARY MILLS.
For those who haven’t heard of Mary Mills, she is the one of the first documented, black female surfers. She started skateboarding in the early 80s before most of you were born. She is a mat surfer, a drummer, an individual whom proudly flies her freak flag, and is knowaagble beyond her years.
Textured Waves did a great interview with Mary regarding surfing and life CLICK HERE. So, we decided to interview her regarding retail and the industry.
BTR: When you were a teenager you saw surfing for the first time on a T.V. show called the Wide World of Sports. Not knowing how to swim, you gravitated towards skateboarding. What was the first core skate shop you went to and how was the experience?
MM: Like so many black people from my generation, I am a product of busing. In Los Angeles during the 70s, there was voluntary busing rather than mandatory busing. So your parents could send you out of your neighborhood if they so chose. I ended up at a high school in West Los Angeles. About two blocks away from that school was Dogtown Skates (at least I think that was the name) skateboard shop on Olympic. Since we were allowed to leave the campus during lunch, I was always at that shop drooling and dreaming. That place was cool. I’m sure I was a curiosity to them. I don’t remember anyone being dismissive or critical of me there. (That was over 40 years ago so my memory fails me.)
BTR: The surfing itch never left and as you grew older it became time to scratch that itch. You’re known as one of the first documented, black women surfers along with Sharon Schaffer and Andrew Kabwasa. It’s fair to say, you didn’t fit the surfer stereotype . How was your first time going to a Surf Shop? Did you feel welcome?
MM: I don’t fit any stereotype. I’m a bona fide weirdo. I proudly let my freak flag fly. You know, I don’t remember ever feeling unwelcome at a surf shop. I don’t exactly remember the first time I went to one. I do remember, in my early years of surfing, surprising people at shops who assumed I was a newbie and then realized their mistake as they talked to me. No one was ever unkind. They just made assumptions. Frankly, I think that’s understandable. There weren’t, and still aren’t, a lot of surfers who look like me, Sharon and Andrea out there. But, you know, once I started surfing and hanging out at a particular surf shop, I was always welcome and accepted. More importantly, I learned a lot about surfing and the surfing culture from hanging out at surf shops. My favorite shop was Just Longboards in Hermosa Beach.
BTR: I feel like Skateboarding has become accepting of all types of people. No matter your gender, race, sexual orientation, body type, financial situation, you’re a skateboarder. Surfing is getting better at acceptance but I still feel there is a stereotypical surfer. Do you think surfers can learn anything from skateboarders to break that mold?
MM: This issue with that is that skating has always had a largely counter-culture reality and aesthetic. It took awhile for Hollywood to notice it and Hollywood movies can never do it justice. Surfing, on the other hand, became a big part of the culture in the 60s with the Beach Blanket movies and the Beach Boys. Surf magazines furthered that racial narrative of surfing being a lifestyle and pastime that only white people enjoyed. That exposure unfortunately created the surfing stereotypes that still exist today. Skating was harder to sell to the masses, so it remained underground and, in some ways, gritty. It’s easy to romanticize riding waves. It’s not so easy when your sport involves a lot of hitting the ground, losing skin and breaking bones. American culture never got a chance to ruin skate culture to that extent. It will take another generation or two for surfing to truly break down the racial stereotypes within the culture. Thankfully, social media allows people to see that surfers come in all shapes, sizes and colors. And let us all remember that surfing came to us from Polynesian cultures, from brown people. The surf media might forget to tell people that but I won’t.
BTR: We have talked a few times on social media and you’re a huge supporter of independent surf shops. Who are some of your favorite surf shops now and why?
MM: There aren’t a lot of surf shops left in L.A. I’m not a big fan of corporate shops. I stick to the small ones. I want my dollars to go to people rather than corporate profiteers. The two shops I go to are ET Surf in Hermosa Beach and Rider Shack, which sits between Culver City and Marina del Rey. ET is my favorite, to be truthful, because Just Longboards was a part of ET. So I know and love the culture of that shop. I watched Rider Shack grow from a tiny room into a beautiful surf shop. Jeff and Lacey, the owners, worked hard to establish an independent surf shop. They’ve done a kick ass job, too.
BTR: Back when I was a road rep there was a shop in Santa Cruz called Paradise Surf. I would talk to Sally (owner) about the problems with being a women surfer. She would tell me that brands don’t make products that are sized for women… they are sized for little girls. I read somewhere that you get your wetsuits from Reunion for that same reason. Fortunately, Reunion will size you and make custom suits to fit. Unfortunately this problem has led you to find a solution outside the shop. Do you run into this issue with any other surf products? What advice would you give brands that are designing products for women?
MM: The corporate surf brands are quite narrow in their focus. I don’t see how any grown woman can fit into any of the wetsuits that are churned out. I tend to blow out the shoulders. I mean, if you surf, you’re going to have shoulders that are wider than the norm. Why don’t the wetsuits accommodate that fact? I’m also somewhat curvy. Branded wetsuits just don’t fit my body. Frankly, I don’t think the corporate brands care what real surfers think so I have no advice for them. There are other, smaller brands that recognize female bodies vary in so many ways. It’s just a matter of them being heard above the din that is corporate surf brand advertising.
BTR: Lastly, Do you have any advice for all the young ladies out there that want to start surfing or skateboarding?
MM: Not really. Again, I’m kind of my own little, determined force of nature. I’ve always been athletic, so I’ve always been driven to do things that let me have fun outside. Now would be a good time to start surfing or skating though. There are so many newbies in the water that one more really won’t make much of a difference. I guess I would advise someone to, first, ask about the rules and culture. Costco has sent all of these kooks (a word I hate, but damn it fits now!) into the lineups, much to the detriment of the sport because these folks just don’t care to know that there are rules and a history to surfing. Second, go on Instagram and find other women who do the thing you want to try. Look at their accounts and learn. This is really the first generation to have role models that they can easily find. I have surfed with little people, folks with the use of only one arm, folks who had some form of blindness, etc. Just know you’re not the only one. You can find your tribe.
Do You Know Mary Mills? Well you should.
If you’re lucky, you’ve stumbled upon the badass photo of Mary Mills skateboarding circa 1983 or 1984-an iconic photo from the 80’s showing a hip African American woman doing a power slide on her skateboard. This woman is a role model for Textured Waves and as punk rock a they come. She is always going against the grain and doing her own thing. We caught up with Mary as she was taking down her skate ramp of eight years and got to chat with her a bit about hair, skating, and surfing.
Tell us a little about yourself. We've been following you for a little while on Instagram but we don't know a ton about you. How did you get involved in surfing?
I wanted to surf since I was a kid. I think I was a teenager, and you're too young to remember this show, but I used to watch Wide World of Sports on TV. I saw surfing on there and I thought, “I want to do that.” But there were a few things holding me back. Number one , I couldn't swim. Number two , I had straightened hair. And number, three I was a black kid. So I was like, “Well, I'll never do that.” Surfing never left me, although I think I was either 38 or 39 when I finally started. It was three months after I had my son, and he's 17 now. I'm 56 and fabulous by the way!
Yes you are fabulous!!!
Do you find that it is a trend of African American women who surf to start later in life?
I don't know that many black women that surf, but yes I think Andrea Kabwasa started in her 30's and Mimi Miller may have started in her 40's.
You are definitely one of our surf sheros here at Textured Waves. We know a little bit about the mysterious Andrea Kabwasa but were there any other African American females surfers when you first started surfing that we might not know about?
Yes there was one other that I can think of. Her name is Sharon Schaffer. I don't know if you've heard of her. She was actually a pro shortboarder. It was just the three of us that I consistently saw out there.
You three are some of the first documented African American female surfers, right? We can’t think of really anyone who comes before you guys. So in our minds you guys are like the Queens of African American female surfing.
Yeah, probably the first documented ones because of the internet. We are like the elders. Even though sometimes I think I can't be an elder, but then I catch myself because …yes I can.
You mentioned taking down your skate ramp today, do you still skate and when did you start skating?
I don’t skate anymore, because for one thing, I have a knee replacement and the turning and kick turns tend to irritate my knee. Also I don't want to fall. The water is forgiving, but ramps and wood, and all that… no…mm mm. I started skating as a kid, but I had to hide it. My parents wouldn't let me and all I wanted to do was skate. I would just read skateboard and surf magazines all the time. Of course when I was a kid I got accused of trying to be white.
Right, I think we’ve all been there, it's that old Oreo complex reference that people ignorantly use.
You have been blogging about surfing since about 2005 and lack of representation in surf media. Do you think there has been much progress in terms of representation since you first started surfing?
Only because of social media, but I can’t really speak to surf media. When I first started, there was one women's surf magazine; I think it was called Surf Life for Women. But in general the surf magazines were then what they are today. They were mainly geared towards white guys. I can't really say that there has been much progress; I don't really look at surf magazines or surf websites anymore.
Where do you see skateboarding and surfing headed for women of color?
I’m seeing quite a few black women competitive and pro skaters on social media and there's Nique Miller and she's a professional stand up paddle boarder. In terms of the future, until black women deal with their hair, our hair, nothing will change. It's all about the hair. It's not about ability. It's about hair.
I'm so glad you mention hair, because Textured Waves was formulated partially around this idea of combating black women's attachment to hair and how that relates to involvement in outdoor activities and our relationship with the water. Much of what we see online regarding black women and hair, whether it's straightened or natural, is about taking selfies and preserving an unrealistic look.
I wanna ask you about your locs and how you decided to transition from straightening your hair to having locs and how being more involved in outdoor activities influenced that?
Well I have always been athletic. I joke that I came out of the womb running. My hair was a huge culprit in holding me back from participating in things like swimming, and just life in general. It wasn't until I was about 23 that I decided that I needed to learn how to swim. I really wanted to do a triathlon, and I just cut it off and sported a short Afro. Although my hair is really wavy so it didn't quite have that Afro shape. If I could grow a big bushy natural Afro like my son, I would have the biggest Afro right now. So it was at twenty-three when I cut my hair off, learned how to swim and never looked back. I made a commitment that I would never straighten my hair again. EVER.
The natural hair movement is kind of one of the catalysts for black women accepting ourselves and exploring things that previously held us back in regards to our hair. We are seeing more black women in the outdoors, swimming, surfing and doing things that have been deemed “untraditional”. Do you see those parallels too?
I do and it’s funny because you don't really see it that much in my generation, I can't believe I'm a part of a different generation! But when I cut all my hair off, it was different. It’s hard for me to look at society overall and say how people looked at me, because I've always been a lone wolf. I've always been kind of a weirdo and I've always done what I wanted to do.
Right! You’re punk rock and you were a skater and doing your own thing!
So how can we combat our issues with hair?
Here's my thing, and I haven't told a lot of people this but I look the way I look. I'm not ever going to be the prettiest woman in the room, I'm not ever going to be the one with the best figure, but I like who I am. I cannot reach this pinnacle of light skin, straight hair, make up and I don't want to do that. I am never going to be that, so I didn't even try. And I gave myself the freedom to just do what I want because all I wanted to do was go work out, and go outside and play! Even though I did get grief from people throughout my life about this, I just didn't care because I was doing what I wanted to do.
You seem to dabble in a few types of wave riding how has this been important for your connection to the ocean?
Truthfully, I was reading one day and I saw something about a surf mat and I was intrigued. I really wanted to try it. So I looked into it and now I'm riding surf mats and I do the Instagram for account 4th Gear Flyer, the guy who makes my mats. When the waves are terrible and I still want to get in the water, its fun to have a mat. About 95% of the time I ride longboards. There are days I look out there and don't feel like getting in the shore pound with my longboard, but I can take it on a mat! It's still a workout because you're working out your legs instead of your shoulders. So I'll just flop around and get a good laugh.
Your wetsuits seem to always be custom made. Why do you prefer custom suits? And who makes them for you?
I can't fit those little white girl suits off the rack. (Laughs) In fact, most white women can't wear them either. I don’t think the suits you find in shops use actual grown women as fit models. Those suits often don't take into account the various curves women have. I wear Reunion wetsuits and the guy who makes them is here in Orange County, but he's from Japan. So I tell him what I want and he goes to Japan, and brings back a bunch of wetsuits.
That so cool, it's kind of a rad way to maintain your individuality out there although it's kind of hard to get lost out there.
Here's the thing that I noticed once I started surfing: I don't blend in. As much as I want to, and as much as I have always been kind of shy and pretty reserved, I have found that people wouldn't really leave me alone when I was out there. They would always stare or want to come up and talk to me and say, “Hey, you're a black woman who surfs.” So then I thought, “What the hell! If I can't blend in I’m going to stand way out.” So if you're gonna stare at me, you’re going to think “Look at that wetsuit! Why is she on surf mat!?”
Most recently you can be seen on an advertisement located on the BART and in bus stations across California.What is this ad for, how did you get involved?
I’m not even sure how they found me but it's for the California Coastal Commission. They just asked if they could take my picture and told me that it would appear in advertisements around tax season to ask people to donate to help protect the coastline. It is also about representation. When I have a chance to represent, even though I prefer to be anonymous, I usually try and step up.
One of the questions that the California Coastal Commission asked me for the ad was how would you like us to describe you? Each person in the ad gave some descriptors and one of the things I said was put “stereotype buster” and they kinda laughed at me. But they ended up using it.
You definitely are!
We respect that the elders, for the most part like to remain anonymous. Just because you surf doesn't mean you're required to be an advocate. But your voices are greatly appreciated by the younger generation and especially the women of color that surf; because we are looking for those role models. I personally have always been looking for that. Someone who looks like my mother, aunties, or sisters that surfs.
Surfing is my time, but what I will do is show up so people can see me, and if they need to take my picture that’s fine. I have allowed myself to be present because like I always tell folks, I don’t want anyone to ever say that black people didn’t surf.
Surfer mary mills
Salt Water Media Maven
Andrea is an award-winning writer, content strategist and media maven with more than 25 years of experience.
She has inked several articles on topics ranging from general business to high-technology, life sciences, energy/clean technology, defense/military, health care, education and popular culture. As part of her role at UC San Diego, Andrea helped promote the Jacobs School of Engineering as one of the top engineering schools in the United States through various collaborative PR efforts.
As a seasoned business writer, Andrea helped launch a financial services industry trade magazine called Best Practices magazine. While earning a B.A. in journalism from San Diego State University, she learned the quality broadcasting ropes at KPBS radio, where she became a freelance reporter. These days, she combines traditional journalism writing with new media. Andrea has exceptional written/oral communication skills and can articulate easily understandable and compelling content. She also loves everything social media and has developed and implemented successful campaigns via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
While deadline writing feeds her addiction to Cheez-Its, Andrea also fuels her creativity with surfing, yoga, hiking, and camping.
Salt Water Media Sister Mary Mills
Mary Mills’ mantra is “Spellcheck is not your friend.” With a sharp eye and creative flair, Mary harnesses her copyediting and proofreading skills to help clients produce crisp and clean copy, and to catch mistakes often not found through spellcheck. Her wordsmithing skills have landed her gigs with large companies such as Mattel, BCBGMAXAZRIAGROUP and Big 5 Sporting Goods. Mary – who holds an M.A. in English from Loyola Marymount University and a B.A. in English from Whitman College – specializes in copyediting and proofreading large and small documents, such as brochures, white papers, technical manuals, web site copy, legal documents, newsletters and ads. The former part-time English instructor has also penned various articles for publications such as The Inertia, SurfMeisters Blog, Liquid Salt magazine and The Skateboarder’s Journal. Her musings on the Southern California surf experience can be found on her blog “Black People Don’t Surf.”
Before launching her 14-year publishing career, Mary, who earned a J.D. from Loyola Law School, spent 15 years working for some of the top law firms in Los Angeles, mainly doing paralegal work, deposition digests and proofreading.
To release some steam and to keep her creative juices flowing, Mary gets her kicks surfing, skateboarding and playing the drums.
Mary Mills and April Banks
00:03 I'm Mary Mills. I'm 56 years old. Today's date is Friday January 24th 2020. The location is Santa Monica, California. The name of my interview partner is April Banks, and we don't really know each other yet.
00:23 My name is April Banks. I am 47 years old. Today's date is February 24th. 2020 location is Santa Monica, California. I am interviewing Mary Mills and I am a curious failed Surfer.
00:46 So hi Mary, how are you? I'm great. I'm happy you agreed to come even though we don't really know each other. I am an artist here working here in Santa Monica on a project about black history or African American history and is a part of that. You know, I feel like we should be celebrating the ocean celebrating nature. And so I decided I wanted to talk to you lack Surfer and then when I heard about you I was like, yes, she's who I want to talk to you. So that's kind of how we got here today. And so yeah, let's just let's just talk about how you got started then and like what your experience has been like cuz we know that needs to pretty rare thing. We're just calling you a unicorn black woman Surfer. So yeah.
01:46 How did you get started in?
01:48 I had wanted to serve since I was I don't know 11:12. I saw it on.
01:57 ABC's Wide World of Sports you're probably too young for that and I was just captivated but I didn't swim and have straightened hair. So how is that going to happen but fast forward decades later. I've cut off my hair. I've learned to swim and I've decided it's time to learn how to serve and that was almost 18 years ago.
02:23 So I've been surfing ever since.
02:26 Nice and do you is there like a particular place that you that you like to go? Do you go up in all up and down the coast here? We have a focus bad I go up and down the coast of La I'd like a true server. I'm not going to tell you where I search local break you want to respect the locals respect the break so yeah, I surf between
02:59 County Line and then further south that's all I'll say. Okay. So as we are walking in you I asked if you had gone surfing this morning and he said that the tide was too high. So, you know, this is where I'm really showing my ignorance about like how do you I've heard of like a surf cams and other things but like, how do you how do you judge the water? Like what's your relationship to the water in that way or you know when you start surfing especially when you start as an adult, you know anything so you don't know Tides you don't know Direction. You don't know what swell Direction works for what beach but if you're Vigilant and you really care to learn you'll learn so right now we have a full moon which means we have big titled swings and that's not helpful for surfing for the most part if you serve for the bee.
03:59 Freddy can I know you're going to want to see the look on my face closer on this and you can't surf that if you have a low tide it's further out but there's usually no shape. So you just going up and over so for Beach breaks, which is mainly what i surf you want to admit tied. So when I went out this morning that tide was up past 6 feet and still climbing. There was nothing I could do with that. So on days like that to you so you just leave or do you hang out on the beach?
04:40 Most days. Well, I only serve one day a week right now. I'm working stiff single parent. So you got to do what you got to do most days that I serve. I would go home and come back. But today I had to be here. So I went home and lifted weights instead nice. So if you come once a week, does there certain time of day like you have a preferred time of day to Surf I prefer to surf in the morning and it's usually better in the morning that's good for the wind gets on it, but I dropped my son off and then I go to the beach and then I have to go back and pick him up. He only have half day. So I'm private so
05:19 Everything right now in my surf life revolves around my kid and my job. Does he start with the board swallowed some water?
05:34 He was done and I respect that he might come back to it. So I know you don't.
05:44 Talk about where you go surfing but like the culture of Surfing do you do surf alone is it a group of people that you typically served with like what is what is that Community like
06:00 I go alone, but I don't surf alone because if you are a regular Surfer people know you so even if you think I'm just going to go to this break and quietly he married. Hey, hey, so now I do drive there alone, but I usually know somebody if not several people in the water at this point my life and especially living in La which is so crowded. I would prefer some quiet in the water and you can't get it anymore. We have too crowded here. And is it because there is a tourist location or is it this locals mostly people everywhere even at the beach and every time you turn around there's people everywhere.
06:53 Surfing is not as much of a getaway or as it used to be. So what is the etiquette of like sharing sharing the water sharing the way?
07:07 Audi R8
07:11 There is etiquette that a lot of people don't follow.
07:16 Usually you take turns if you're following me out of kid, if if I get a wave I don't paddle back out to the lineup and turn around and get the next week cuz I let other people get that.
07:28 If several of us are paddling if I'm the first one out for the first one the one closest to the curl, it's my wave. That's the etiquette we should follow that that is followed. Okay. So especially if you're Surfing With Friends, you just jump on each other's waves nobody cares and then you yell at each other after it's fine. So you said when you go sometimes people say hey Mary, but I also know you have the name sir sister. So where did that name come from? Is that like a on the water named versus like on the street name? Like, how did how did the to work my pen name and some people know my real name?
08:20 When I first learned how to surf I took a Class A woman surfing class and there was this one woman there.
08:29 I remember her voice, but every time trying to remember what it was about her. She was trying to be cool if she was trying to be and I was the only black person in the class and she would always whenever I get away should go sister Surfer sister Surfer did this bottle so I finally just took the name surf sister and she send that I started writing a surf blog in 2005 mainly to keep track of my progress cuz I have a terrible memory. So soon as we leave this booth. I won't remember one word I said and so I started a Blog to keep track of my progress and I took the name sir sister.
09:10 Yeah, I found her your Vlog online. When I when I did find it. I was seeing things like that. You like to be on a mat. So like what's the difference? So I'll just say that I'd like to bodyboard but I've never successfully surfed and I see them is like two radically different things. But you know, maybe you can explain the the range of things. I know you both mad and surf surfboard you you like both of those. Well, this is where the True Unicorn comes out. Okay. I think 95% of the world doesn't know about surf Matt's. Okay. So here you have a black woman Surfer on a surf map. So you want to get people to stare at you.
10:04 Oh and I wear custom wetsuits. So I might be in a light blue wetsuit brown skin dread locks on a surf map There You Go, the whole beaches staring at me, but can you describe the surf mat? It's an inflatable surfcraft. It's like a bodyboard but better because it's malleable and even if you manipulate the air in it in order to ride the wave it's just fun really fun really fast and really different that you could probably tell I like things that are different different different.
10:43 Surf boards different wetsuits
10:46 So what makes the what's the difference in your experience being on a surfboard versus being on the mat?
10:55 The mat is more visceral. You can feel the wave you're right there with the wave. So you're laying down or standing up I want to say I prefer the map but I like them both. So if you're beginning Surfer is one easier to approach now, the maps difficult is harder than a bodyboard because it's not stiff. So if you don't know what you doing, you're going to hate it, but I like a challenge. So I love it.
11:35 So I was saying earlier that the the one of the most difficult part I had about surfing was like actually getting out like, you know, I'm not a super strong swimmer and then like some healthy fear of the ocean and like all the the natural elements so
11:55 How how did you kind of overcome he said you were late to surfing but how did you kind of like adjust to your swim skills and like what it takes to be in the ocean. And if you had me fear years I had even though I could swim when I started surfing I had serious anxiety about trying to get in a big board past the breaking waves out to the lineup and it lasted.
12:26 I want to say almost 10 years.
12:30 And for the first few years, I'm just stand there had the water's edge just terrified. Yeah, and I could serve but then I'm just terrified and now I still have some anxiety that I just got like shrug my shoulder just go.
12:48 But I still have a little bit of it where I'm just
12:51 Those waves look a little big. I don't know if I can do this and of course I can do this after 18 years. So you're just work with your fear. You should be afraid of the ocean. I want people say I have no fear in the ocean while you're stupid kill. You know, she won't hurt you respect. That's my main thing just respect the ocean cuz there are days when it's really big and especially guys will say yeah, let's get out there. What are you scared right here in the parking lot where I'll be safe, you know. So the one thing about surfing is to learn to respect the ocean and know your limits.
13:39 That's okay to have fear always.
13:43 So in respecting the ocean, I know a lot of people kind of have like a spiritual practice or they feel like it's a ritual to be in the ocean. And then for other people, it's just purely sport Whittier your where do you fit in that Spectrum or do you even feel like that's an accurate way to consider it?
14:08 That's good question.
14:12 You know, I'm one of those people just do it. Just go don't overthink it.
14:17 So I don't I don't even consider that kind of thing. Now. I just go surf that's what I left. It makes me feel good. I'm good at it. So you get a little
14:31 Positive reinforcement but spiritual if they too many people in the water for it to be spiritual. Okay, cuz just when you think it's quiet here comes somebody paddling by here comes somebody yelling are there are two people over there fighting nerds.
14:46 So it's just surfing is just surfing and I think sometimes people make more of it than it is just you and the board and waves will but if you've never experienced that it's hard to to know exactly what that means. So what could you describe like the feeling the sensation of it? No, no, it's just so it's just so like a part of you now an over-thinker.
15:21 I'm getting less inclined to do that as I get older cuz I just don't care of 56. Like I've seen it all experienced it I don't care but I still have all these thoughts going in my head like everybody has but when I get in the water, they get quiet.
15:39 Now I also meditate and the thoughts don't get as quiet when I meditate and they're not supposed to you. Just you know, but in the ocean I can literally just shut off my brain.
15:54 And that's one thing that I love about surfing so I don't sit there thinking I'm going to do this and I feel that I just sit there.
16:03 And then here comes a wave. Okay. I'm going to get this wave. Okay, I'm going to paddle back out but that's about it. And then you know, there's a little
16:13 Ego if you get a good wave. You think it's did anybody see that we all
16:27 Do you know any other black women Surfers? I do I know but it's okay. We are a bunch of unicorns. I do there's Andrea who you will never see but she's a fantastic Surfer here in Southern California. So that's why I always step up because someone has to represent.
16:58 Yeah, and so that that's a great a great Point like representation visibility. I know there have been a few films like walking on water 12 miles north. What's the other one?
17:13 Whitewash. Yes, whitewash wood in your late. They really focus on access to water learning how to swim when even one of them. I think it was in whitewash even kind of put forth this theory that that black people have an aversion to water because of its like the historical trauma the relationship of you know, the transatlantic slave trade and like and then you know, I'm more obvious one is like segregation and denied access to pools and I see you're you're having a reaction. So Twitter Twitter, what are your feelings about? Like why why there's so little representation and visibility of black people and people of color and surfing and
18:00 What can we do about it?
18:02 Well social media is already doing a lot cuz I thought they were just a few black Surfers. Then I got on Instagram and people popping up right left their black Surfers all over the place. So, you know, we don't run the commercial media. We don't run the the surf magazines not going to show us that they only show certain people to a certain demographic. But even though I hate social media and I am on it, it's pretty Democratic. So if you want to be seen you get seen
18:41 I forgot what the question was what the question was. Yeah just about visibility. And and how do you feel about these theories of why there so few black people in surfing? Well, what do you think is the reason?
18:59 Well for one thing I think they're more that we know of cuz you know, we've always said black people of service. Do you have this whole continent of Africa most of which is surrounded by water and you mean to tell me nobody there Gets In The Water? That's bull.
19:16 Now my theory about American Surfers is yes, we've been cut off from it. I meant black American Surfers cuz how many black people really live by a beach have had historical access to a beach now lot of blacks in Santa Monica did it because then it's Santa Monica was black before we were all kicked out, but I think black women don't serve because of the hair. I'm almost certain of it.
19:48 Because you know blessed be truthful black women have this thing about got straighten my hair my hair has got to look perfect. You're not going to go to the beach and mess that up. So it's changing.
20:02 You were just talking about how there used to be black communities, you know by the beach in Santa Monica and Venice and that's kind of how I come to this project as an artist. I'm working on commemorating a community that was displaced and it was there and yes, they had a you know, the few historical images that we have. There's like he do black people enjoying the beach laying out in the beach. There was a beach club where people from the rest of La could come and bring bathing suits and an even shower so we know that you know, there used to be a culture and like more visibility of of black people on the beach and so I'm super interested in and reminding all of us, you know of this history and that we do have a right to the water into nature. And so yeah. I hope that this conversation can add to that represent.
21:02 Ocean visibility of of black people and people of color in the water. Will you know what? It is all history. Nobody's telling our story.
21:18 So if you don't get to voice our story, we're invisible. So as far as America knows we don't swim we don't go to the beach. We don't need to know all these list of what we don't do what they were black people doing all these things the whole time.
21:36 Yeah, and then we were just talking about Nick Gabaldon earlier. And so what and I and I I I only knew of him or learned of him recently and I'm doing this project and that there's even a day to commemorate him but
21:53 Tell us a little bit about him again. I don't know the whole history. I'm mainly fascinated by the fact that he couldn't physically step on the beach at Malibu. So he would take his board from Santa Monica and paddle all the way to Malibu.
22:14 That's like a superhero. I just am blown away by that. That's why the title that film 12 miles north and he's literally paddling 12 miles up from where he could enter at. You know, it's known as Inkwell Beach, but the that's also considered derogatory.
22:33 Long flat Seducer disagreements about that but Bay Street beaches, I think the official name. But anyway, he would enter there and then paddle 12 miles up to to Malibu. That's like unbelievable and he's the considered the first documented African American and Mexican surfer in the United States and also died while surfing and so sad at the city of Santa Monica has a day usually the first Saturday in June to commemorate him with so few people know the history or even know about the stay. So again, this is another thing that I want to like bring visibility to and amplify and so
23:16 Did he when did you learn about him? And did he have any kind of sense of Pride? And he's anything like how did how did you learning about him effect affect you and when did you hear about him? I don't remember. It's been years.
23:34 Of course, there's Pride how many people can paddle that far?
23:40 Like I said, he's a superhero.
23:44 It didn't affect me so much because
23:50 I'm not sure where my intersectionality plays.
23:55 What's my surfing sometimes to me? It's more important.
24:00 To uplift female Surfers. Sometimes it's more important to upload Black servers and it's all a jumble for me. He's one of many but for me, he's not the only one so
24:17 He still superhero. Yeah, I don't know.
24:27 This is a random question. But what do you eat till I feel you like out there in the water. I know it takes so much energy on an empty stomach can't work out with food in my stomach.
24:45 So I ate nothing and then afterwards I just
24:56 I'm not anorexic. You're looking at me see that I just don't care about food.
25:02 So where does the energy come from?
25:06 Dinner, I don't know. I've been athletic my whole life. I mean, I'm 56 and still athletic. It's just all of this is natural to me now. It's second nature. I just work out and then when I'm hungry. Late
25:24 So I saw that you are also cyclists or soccer player. Who's all these other. Yeah. Yeah. So I do all this world tell us about all the other athleticism in and how did it help with surfing
25:41 Well, I've been atletic literally my whole life. So while surfing was not easy to learn to do the athleticism it took was not to call so I could immediately pop up on a board. I could paddle put pretty strongly but I could not read those ways. I never knew when the paddle and pop up and just sit there but yet because I've always been athletic. I can shift gears to anyting athletic. So I'm going to go. All right, but just
26:19 Luckily, I don't know. It's just second toe surfing did not come easy because you have to learn the ocean will just think about it. Everything's moving. You're moving the boards moving. The water is moving. They have to learn but in terms of just athleticism and being able to stay out there. That was easy. I could do that.
26:43 So do you feel like you have to be a flag to be a surfer? No, but it helps if you doing it, right it's taxing. So you need to be athletic to be out there and do it for hours and it helps to swim.
27:06 Cuz people say well I have a leash on what if your lease breaks and leashes break.
27:17 Was looking I remember what I was looking up something when I was looking you up and it took me to some other random things. I think maybe I was looking up here and I saw this thing that looks like a bridge like a flexible bridge that goes like up and over the wave and people literally walk to it. And then so is that like a cheat to get out to the with that is it's not, okay. Yeah, I seen that.
27:46 I have no idea. Yeah, I was like is that something like a training tool for newbies? Is that just like a tourist thing? But yeah, it just seemed like a it's a easier way to get out out to the waves and other than paddling most of us have to paddle. I think where you saw that it must be Rocky or dangerous. So how do you know when there's Rock Casino? The coasts here has a lot of rock. How do you how do you know where is where it's safe people tell you to go?
28:25 Some places a rock if there's one spot that I love and I surf all the time and my feet tell the tale of stepping over those rocks getting my feet cut. I've got scars and
28:39 You just know but you have to be careful getting in and getting out cuz you follow these two people get hit and dropped their boards. You just learned that's part of Surfing. It's part of the culture you learning speech.
28:54 So if you could
28:57 Tomorrow next week just like
29:01 Pop-up in on any beach in the world. Where have you dreamed of going? I've never dreamed of going San Diego.
29:15 And remcon I've always served in California. You reach a point where you think?
29:23 I'm fine. This is this is good. So I haven't dreamed about it. I'm supposed to be going to Hawaii later this year for my honeymoon, but I don't even care if I certify I just want to be with my husband really well. Congratulations on your your upcoming marriage.
29:45 Yeah, any any questions you have for me?
29:50 When you going to try surfing again, just put me on the spot.
29:58 I don't know maybe somewhere warm. I I found it really difficult. Like I said, I'm not super strong swimmer the cold water and then like the wetsuit, you know, I'm trying to to literally swim was just so I don't like this is must be easier and warmer water, but I don't know. I'm just making an assumption and maybe I'm making an excuse and maybe you just have to show me but I do have a really healthy fear the ocean. So I think it's like a combination of all of those things. Although I love the ocean always have was drawn to California for that reason, even though I grew up on the East Coast always went to
30:40 The Atlantic Ocean like Virginia Beach and all those and it's but it's warm and fairly calm and so on a boogie board bodyboard. I was fine and I would spend hours and then so that's why I thought like when I get to California, I'll try surfing and totally different totally different and I think it just yeah kind of shocked and intimidated me and I haven't gone back and tried it try down here. Cuz where you were the water was colder. I'm sure you had on a really thick wetsuit wouldn't have been possible to pass. But if you try down here, you still need a wetsuit. But Elite dinner. Are you nice to go to Hawaii? We all need to go to Hawaii?
31:28 Hawaii I mean I can think of lots of places that I would love I mean, yeah, I spent a lot of time in Senegal and I know they have a surf culture there I did not try surfing there.
31:45 Yeah, I think.
31:49 Oh, I know the question about your about your blog and writing. Are you still writing? And do you think that helps?
32:00 With I know you said you right, you know for your own cuz like recording your own process and you're just your own experiences, but do you think that helps with visibility or is it just a totally personal reason that you do it? I don't ride it anymore. And I think it did help and does help with visibility. That's another reason why I wrote it because I don't want anyone to ever say they were never any black women Surfers.
32:35 And I'll leave it to you know, if I die tomorrow the block is still there. So no one can say we did we weren't here at surfing. Yeah, that's exactly what this project I'm working on is about as like recording history telling stories telling personal stories and then how they feed into a larger Collective history. So yeah again, it was like super important to me that this be included in that that history and you know just have that conversation so I know
33:10 Today is the first time we're meeting in person. And I really appreciate you taking the time and yeah, just sharing this with everyone. This is such a great.
33:20 Thing that we all should know about so, thank you. Thank you.
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Mary has broken her leg badly. She is in pain and in need of your help. Because she lives in the most advanced and wealthiest country on Earth she is not able to access free medical health care (like all us socialist societies of Western Europe where we give the North Koreans a good run for their money when it comes to wearing green tunics and crying over red stars).
Mary is in need of our help and though I am unemployed and scrapping the barrel of funds I intend to start this donation off.
I've never met Mary. I've never even spoken to her in person. I have had the privilege of getting to know her through our regular email exchanges and from her writing on my blog www.surfmeisters.com. I know her to be one hip, funky, kind and lovely person and know that if the shoe was on the other foot she would do what she could to help. So here we go.
Let's raise some money so that, at the least, we, her friends, can collectively relieve some of the stress and despair that is no doubt going through her mind as she contemplates the very real and tough decisions that come with trying to pay ridiculous costs in a land that cries freedom and then shackles the 99% with prohibitive health care costs. Let's help her to not have to face every waking moment deciding between bad options. Let's give her cause to at least raise a smile today at the idea that her fellow surfers, and others beyond, care enough about her well being that they are willing to put their money where their mouths are and donate a little bit of cash to help her in her time of trouble. For she is, in short, a dudette, a mother, great roll model and someone we all call friend.
Help raise a surprised smile today.