The full-length version of J.D. Kleinke’s review in the current print edition of The Surfers Journal(Oct 2018)
Name-dropping in the lineup is always a risky move, especially if the name is “God.”
Given the weaponization of God’s name – throughout all history, of course, but with a growing ferocity in the current American civil war – saying it aloud is especially fraught when you have no idea who’s surfing next to you or what new nonsense perpetuated in God’s name is headlining the news back on shore.
But for many, the rapture unleashed by breaking waves is as profoundly religious as anything found in a mosque or cathedral. It is also profoundly difficult to describe to people who haven’t experienced it. Even the most articulate surfers struggle to explain the transcendent sensation of riding a wave, for the same reason that many authentically religious people have difficulty describing what happens when they disappear into deep prayer. Because transcendence transcends language too. [NICE]
But not for a lack of smart surfers trying.
The latest long-form attempt is Jaimal Yogis’ new book, All Our Waves Are Water: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment and the Perfect Ride (HarperCollins, 249 pp). In this follow-up to his Lost Surfer Boy memoir, Saltwater Buddha, the San Francisco-based author charts his looping, surf-driven spiritual journey around the world – and around the inside of his own head and heart – in short, breezy prose.
While he does as good a job as any writer at examining surfing’s spiritual side, Yogis’ religious epiphanies actually occur on dry land. And most of his Big Moments have nothing to do with surfing – or with American Transcendentalism, the sprawling literary canon for our national religion of wandering off to some spectacular natural setting, usually alone, to hear, feel and taste what organized religions call “God.”
Yes, there are plenty of surf trips to exotic locales in All Our Waves, but Yogis’ wildest rides run through some of the world’s more charged religious settings: remote villages in the Himalayas; the chambers of a Franciscan monastery; the ancient stones of the Western Wall. He seems blithely unaware of the evils of cultural appropriation, and readers with a hair-trigger for such stuff might be repulsed by its shameless “spiritual tourism” and abandon the book early .
Which would be their loss. Because Yogis’ quest takes us to some extraordinary places – including some of the world’s great surf spots in Mexico, Hawaii and Indonesia. Of course, a lot of what he’s looking for are answers to the questions that torment everyone in their early 20s. Why am I here? Why can’t I make these relationships work? What am I going to do when I grow up?
The thing is, if you’re going to sulk about your future – and Yogis does plenty of sulking in here – why not do it in between copping your first tube while camping at Puerto Escondido and facing down “blue buffalo rearing hooked spines” with your ex-pat buddy in Bali. The relatively mundane problems tormenting Yogis through both books would grow tedious if not for his subtle, self-effacing humor. He seems to be aware that his are indeed first-world problems, which makes them no less vexing to their bearer while adding a layer of guilt and inspiring still more self-deprecation – a conundrum he does not wisecrack his way out of so much as wander away from.
After enough of these zigs and zags, Yogis – like any young traveler seeking to find himself by running away – does not run away at all. No matter how rarefied or sublime his encounters with what he calls “the G-word,” he keeps bringing us back to his inner turmoil. How to reconcile the quest with the nest? How to keep surfing while somehow also figuring out how to adult.
In the end, Yogis shows that God might truly exist deep in an Indo barrel, but He also lives on the beach, in the mad mess of humanity.
Because the greater joy of this book resides in the many compelling characters Yogis meets along the way: the young, indefatigable Tibetan, displaced from his family and country, with an unbreakable, infectious spirit; the hardened hip-hop artist, displaced from his San Francisco neighborhood by gentrification, still howling in protest, still a cop-magnet; Robert Thurman, the brilliant scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, whose expansive lectures come to life in these pages; the aging surfer who found that rare way to survive, long term, on the margins; and, finally, an assortment of eccentrics, hard cases, and survivors in a group house next to Ocean Beach, where Yogis’ travels finally wind down.
Each of these people has something to teach Yogis, and us, about endurance, gratitude, humility, and love. We see this in the growing affection Yogis clearly has for them, and in how they start to crowd him out of his own story, as he finally comes to settle down in a place where he can marry, have kids, and still surf across the street.
What makes All Our Waves so delicious is Yogis’ voice. He seems to have followed the best advice anyone ever gave me, after plowing through a very rough draft of my first and very formal novel: Just write like you’re telling your stories at a bar. This book feels exactly like that, like you’re sitting at a cantina after a good session as Yogis spins his yarns: about some faraway surf spot, or the heartbreak of some on-again off-again relationship, or this amazing kid he met back in India, all while stumbling his way, if not to enlightenment, then at least to adulthood, parenthood and a sense of belonging somewhere. You keep wanting to put the book down to give the guy a big hug.
But then you look out the window and see that the wind has switched offshore, and without saying anything – because who can describe the feeling of God in the lineup? – you grab your boards and head back out for another wordless conversation with eternity.
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J.D. Kleinke is a writer, musician, surfer, and yoga teacher in Encinitas, CA. He is the author of three books about the U.S. health care system, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. His latest book is Dudeville, a novel about snowboard mountaineering.