The Art of Doing

Reset: From Perfect to Imperfect

How a New York Times reporter’s life went from perfect to imperfect and just right once she learned how to ride the wave.

Diane Cardwell New York Times Reporter surfing in Rockaway Beach. Photo by Josh Gosfield

For our blog we’ve wanted to write about some of the people we’ve come across who have changed their lives in profound or unexpected ways. Diane Cardwell is one of them.

If you had met Diane Cardwell just a few years ago, you would have thought her life was perfect with the prestigious job as a reporter at The New York Times, the handsome, ambitious, NGO-ish husband, the beautiful Brooklyn Brownstone they actually owned and land upstate to build their dream home someday. But when her marriage fell apart, Diane told us, her life no longer made sense to her.

Ejecting from that comfortable existence, Diane did some of the more predictably unpredictable things: She had a fling, took a sabbatical and went cross-country (and drove back alone), camped out in Death Valley, had another fling, accepted rides on the back of motorcycles and began to closely examine her life, wondering, as she put it,

“What to do with this thing, this life that I held in my hands and for the first time in a long time felt like was mine alone to direct?”

One afternoon while on assignment for the Times, watching the surfers off Montauk on New York’s Long Island, Diane said to herself, “I think I could do that.” And Diane being Diane, she followed through.

Now two years later, she’s traded in the Brooklyn Brownstone for a tiny fixer-upper beach bungalow in Rockaway, a New York City community as far from Manhattan culturally as it is geographically with its lack of services, funky, ethnically-mixed blue collar populace, Popeye-like shanty bungalows, looming housing projects and surfers attracted by what they call its “finicky” wave.

Starting to surf in her 40’s has forced Diane to abandon her usual aim for perfection. Her surfing goal, she says, is to one day just be okay. But being by the beach in the ocean has reconnected her to something that she hadn’t even realized she’d lost—a profound sense of happiness she’d felt at the beach with her mother when she was a kid.

Now Diane goes out several mornings a week before her 90-minute commute to work. Gradually, she’s been welcomed into the ragtag Rockaway surf community with a plot in the community garden and invites to Surf Movie Night that’s projected on a wall. And when Hurricane Sandy tore through the area, causing fires, floods (submerging Diane’s basement—her boiler and electrical panel—up to the ceiling) and knocking out power in the area for what was to be weeks, Diane waded across the current in the street to a neighbor’s and rode out the storm with new friends.

Diane, like others, could have left the area post-storm, but she didn’t. She said, in fact, she is even more invested in her new life:

“I realized that out here we’re all connected in one way or another with this thing, the ocean, and that being part of the community has really changed me. On a personal level it’s made me have to break out of my weird solipsistic shell and learn to ask for things, ask for help, relate to people in a new way.”


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