This summer, I began to engage in a secret ritual. In the wee, dark hours of morning, I would rise from my bed and drive to Malibu, a short 20 minutes before rush hour. There, I would park on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway, pull on a wetsuit, shoulder a surfboard down to the water, and paddle out as the sun rose. Surfers call this dawn patrol.
Let me be clear: I am a beginner. The question I am most frequently asked out in the water is: “Are you okay?” But something about the solitude of my mission—and probably also the wetsuit, if I’m being honest—made me feel like a f-ing superhero. My mornings crackled with excitement and electricity.
One morning, a few weeks into this, I posted a picture of my surfboard with a timestamp on Instagram Stories—the kind that disappears within 24 hours. I didn’t regret it immediately, but I did when I opened the app later that day, and saw how many people had seen the post. I share a lot of things on social media, from the mundane and silly to the deeply personal, but in that moment I felt oddly exposed and realized, maybe this was one thing I did not want to share. Maybe it was because I was afraid of being labeled a cliché (the New Yorker who moves to LA and tries to surf), a poser (I’m not any good), or a kook (yes, that’s a Wavestorm). Maybe I was worried my colleagues on the east coast might think I should have been working at 8:30am EST, or that I would fail publicly at something I’ve failed privately at, off and on, for years.
Or maybe, I just didn’t want to extinguish the secret magic of doing something only for myself, before anyone knew I was even awake. I didn’t post any more surfing pictures.
When my boyfriend left town for a week, I ramped up my routine, loading the car the night before, edging my alarm closer to 5am each morning, and chomping a peanut-butter slathered English muffin as I charged west on the 10 freeway. In the grey light of the early morning, I was paddling through the glassy water—and sometimes even standing up—as the waves rolled toward shore. Before the mist completely burned off and traffic started to thicken, I would peel off my wetsuit to drive back home, salty and sandy. An hour later, I was showered and online for work at the same time as always, no one the wiser.
My covert morning routine colored the rest of my day. I couldn’t decide if I felt like Clark Kent, or like I was having an affair. The morning mist from Malibu seemed to hang around my head, and the physical exertion left me no energy for unnecessary stress. I didn’t mind being cooped up at my desk, because I had the memory of the morning secreted away, like a seashell in my pocket.
There was no question in my mind whether I was doing it for bragging rights. No, the glee I felt was pure, unadulterated, and all my own. The joy of sharing on social media, it seems, has given rise to a new joy: the joy of not sharing on social media. Last year, I shrieked with surprise when I saw a friend’s pregnant belly at a gallery opening. It was for precisely that moment—and the many others like it—she said, that she had purposely kept her news off Facebook.
“It’s fashionable in the internet age to complain that no one has any secrets anymore,” wrote my colleague Sarah Todd, in a recent essay. But of course, she wrote, we all do. And in the age of oversharing, there’s something special about guarding a ritual, hobby, or endeavor solely for oneself. A secret.
Dawn patrol may have been just one of mine.