Why Surfing Matters

Filed in Out of Our Head by on July 12, 2013 5 Comments
My 5 kids and I after the lesson.
Yesterday, while on vacation with my family, I got to take a surfing lesson and try that exciting sport for the first time ever. It was exhilarating to be out in the waves and water trying to understand the timing of each wave, get on the board and coordinate my body just right to jump up, keep my balance and ride to shore. It’s really rather a simple exercise on one level, but naturally, I went deeper and thought of so many things that were important to me about that three hours in the sun, far beyond the enjoyment of the actual experience.
I love the beach and have jumped in the waves and body surfed and boogie-boarded for years. However, though I’ve always wanted to try surfing, I was pretty fearful as we headed to the surf shop. I think my most fundamental fear was that I would just fail. I would not be able to do it, so why pay the money and try if I would probably just look silly? I also feared my middle-aged body and mind. It gets harder to take risks as age and experience settle in, and I knew it would test me hugely: Would my chronically painful hips be able to handle it? Would I be strong enough to stand up so quickly or even get my board out to the waves? How bad does it hurt to wipe out? All these things were on my mind as we drove the short distance to the next beach from where we are staying, and it would have been easy for me to back out. 
Thankfully, because I’m me, curiosity and the longing feeling I’ve often had while watching surfers won out over fear and I squeezed into my wetsuit (btw, I was actually rather pleased at the natural figure control a wetsuit affords and may swim in one all the time from now on), picked up the gigantic surfboard assigned to me, and headed, rather clumsily, for the beach. My arm wasn’t long enough to hold the board the way the instructor did, so even just walking along in a goofy, neoprene kind of way, I felt less than competent as I struggled to keep this big thing off the ground. Fortunately,  I was with all of my kids, and that was motivating. I wanted to both set a good example for them as well as have this memory with them. Plus, I really do like learning new things, and eventually, as the experience unfolded, the fears quieted and I had plenty to concentrate on in the moment. I loved that.
The instructor broke the process down into simple steps, which, as a teacher,  I appreciated greatly. He did a fine job of focusing on what is most important, then he reviewed multiple times. We had exactly 30 minutes of instruction before heading to our watery final exam. By that time, I felt eager and, while not confident exactly, armed with the tools I needed to at least try.
And of course it was great. It really was.
Ironically, the fact is that my fears all came true: I did look silly. Very. I have the pictures to prove it. There is a large visual gap between me and the grace of those surfers I love watching. I also failed most of the time. It’s a significant mental challenge to time the wave, turn around, get up to speed, think about body position (which is absolutely critical), stand up in the right way, and then keep the balance, all while moving rapidly at the mercy of a huge amount of stored solar energy. I was not strong enough in my upper body so it was hard to pop up quickly. My kids got to standing and riding much more often than I did. I am seriously sore, and felt afterward like I’d run about 10 miles, no joke. My hips did not hurt, which was a pleasant surprise, but it does hurt to wipe out. It’s also a little terrifying every time as you tumble around under the water.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t fail every time. I had 2 or three absolutely thrilling moments where it came together. I needed help from the instructor to get the timing, but after he got me going,  I did everything right at the right time and experienced true childlike wonder at the fact that I was actually surfing. That may not seem like much, but my goodness, those seconds and minutes were fun. Each time I did it properly, it made me want to try again.
I feel a bit wobbly even yet this morning as I write, but I also feel wonderful, like maybe I made progress toward reprogramming the part of my brain that lets fears stop me from moving forward. I’ve mentioned that I think too deeply sometimes, and what surfing did for me was put me in a position to be able to think deeply about just one thing-those waves. I get the “zen” of surfing. It’s rhythmic and completely absorbing to stand or float and watch the waves, analyzing how far they are, when they will break, whether there is enough time to turn and catch one, then there is the full concentration required to get to the standing and riding. There was no time to think of anything else, least of all what I was afraid of. I enjoyed that total immersion and sense of the world falling away.
Just like Gwen, I’m in transition. I’m moving to a new and very different phase in life, and sometimes it scares the living daylights out of me. By trying something new and realizing that the good far outweighs the bad, and that the moments of real beauty are found in and among many more moments of total and utter imperfection, I feel excited for what the future holds. I have a little more confidence to put myself out there and let people know I’m ready to work more and do new and different things. I can call on this experience to remind me that riding a wave is not all that surfing has to offer.
At one point, I felt so dumb that I apologized to my instructor. He turned and, in a stunning departure from his sunny, easy-going manner,  firmly told me, “Don’t you ever say sorry to me out here.” I took that to mean that there is no failure when you’re doing your very best and it’s hard and you just can’t quite get it. As long as you stay out in the waves and keep looking for the next one, it’s a win. And that matters.
Yep, that’s me!
PS. Thanks to Surfari Surf School in San Diego and our instructor Kelly for a great afternoon.

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