I had a monumental realization this week; I’ve been in a very long, very bad, relationship and I’ve decided to end it.
We have relationships with people in our lives. We also have relationships with “things” in our life, our surroundings, our world. The “bad” relationship I’m ending, beginning now, is one I’ve been involved in for most of my life and one that came to me not wholly on my own terms. This relationship has been based on awe, respect, and mostly, on fear. I’m okay with the awe and the respect, and while many believe that fear is related to awe, and, in some cases, respect, and that fear, in the right circumstances is inherently good, I’d have to disagree. Fear is paralyzing. Fear is limiting. Fear is numbing. Fear is blinding. Respect and awe, separate from fear, can accomplish what many rely on fear to do; keep them reasonably safe and provide the impetus for exercising caution, if due.
I love the ocean and find a visit to the shore to be calming, soothing, centering and inspiring. I will often find myself, alone, on the beach, entranced by the power and the rhythm of the crashing waves. I, however, never venture more than knee deep into the water. I watch others swim, body surf, skim board, and surf, and desire to experience some of those activities, but never have. I’ve never really looked at the ocean, from the safety of the beach and thought, “I am afraid.” But I was, it was so ingrained, as part of my upbringing, that, perhaps, I never fully acknowledged it as anything more than “extreme respect”. Until this week.
As a parent, I fully understand the motives of raising our children to remain safe. As my own children are now adults, and as I find myself in close relationship with my own mother these days, I see the flaw in this design. Fear as a parenting tactic is flawed. My mom used it on me, and, I’ll have to admit, I used it on my own children, but, I think, I hope, to a lesser degree. My mom raised me to be terrified of the ocean, to love the ocean (beach), but to fear the water, the waves, and the surf.
From the earliest of my recollection, venturing more than ankle deep in the surf would render me helpless to the “undertow”. If more than ankle deep, I would be helplessly swept away and my body, likely, never recovered to mourn over. My funeral would be delayed until it was reasonably certain my pruny, briny corpse was forever lost, which would be both very costly and more painful to those surviving me than having my salt-watered drenched, limp, lifeless, form in hand. A casual mention of “going to the beach” would (and still does) result in the following litany of warnings, “stay away from the cliffs”, “watch out for the undertow”, and “watch out for sharks”. Sigh. I’m on such high alert the whole time I’m at the beach, I barely notice the birds and the seals, the tide pools and the ships on the horizon. I am not laying blame here, I am merely making an observation and an acknowledgement. And a change.
As a youth, yes, I lost friends and acquaintances to “the ocean”, which was a great, big, cosmic “I told you so!” Never mind that I’ve lost dozens more friends and acquaintances to automobile accidents, and yet, I drive like Mario Andretti on a daily basis. I’ve lost friends and acquaintances to alcoholism, diabetes, and heart attacks, but I enjoy my beer and wine, and carbohydrates, bacon and butter, with reckless frequency. In case it hasn’t been put quite so bluntly; we are all going to die, no one gets out of here alive. Take some chances, take some risks, and actually live your life. Merely existing for eighty years is not the same as living fully for fifty. More isn’t always better, as evidenced by those lost too soon to alcoholism, diabetes and heart disease.
I like to consider myself fairly adventurous. At the tender age of 52, there are many, many things I’ve always wanted to try, to do, to experience, that I haven’t. This week, I had the opportunity to do something I’ve never done, that, in spite of some ingrained fears, have always wanted to do. Surf. I won’t say that I successfully surfed, but I did become enough acquainted with surfing that I’d like to do it again. And again. Until I actually master it. This requires venturing into the ocean a bit beyond ankle deep.
My guy, who has surfed since he was fifteen years old, offered to take me surfing on his day off from work. We’d rent a couple of surfboards and head to a popular, local, beach, and, he’d teach me to surf. Excitedly, and without hesitation, I said “YAH!!!” And I hummed Beach Boys tunes in my head for the rest of the day and all through the night. I ate dinner in front of the surfing channel on YouTube. And, ever the optimist, I had visions of a sunny, sandy beach with our cooler of local craft beer, and perhaps a chilled Pinot rose from the Carneros area with the subtle, salty taste, reminiscent of a seashore breeze, definitely a charcuterie plate accompanied by a local blue cheese. I imagined we’d paddle out into the surf from said sandy beach and by the end of the day, with luck, some loving instruction, my athletic prowess and my characteristic tenacity, I might even manage standing up successfully on the surfboard for a moment or two before falling, gracefully, into the water. I’m such a romantic, I know.
We had one large format beer on ice, which we, in fact, never removed from the cooler in the car until we got back home. We did rent the boards and head to the beach. We decided against the seaside charcuterie and wine and cheese and planned to wind up, post surfing, at a local café. Even better. We parked near the “beach” access and found no beach. We knew it was high tide, but in this particular spot, that meant all tide and no beach. The waves crashed mercilessly against the seawall. We carried the surfboards, which, I’ll add, is not nearly as easy as it looks, back to the car and headed for another access point southward. We could see “beach” there from our original and treacherous vantage point, and figured that would be optimal for my beginning surf lesson.
Again, we parked the car, grabbed the boards, and headed towards the “beach”. It took me a few attempts to really organize myself; I had shoes, shorts, sunglasses and a cell phone, all of which I had to return to the car to jettison, as they are not ideal surfing accessories, and, there wasn’t actually “beach” immediately accessible for our totes and towels and cooler. Nope. The beach was north of the access point, and, again, waves pounded menacingly against the seawall between us and any tiny sliver of sand. I was briefed on the carrying of the surfboard through the crashing waves, along the seawall, towards the sand where my first paddling instruction could be carried out. I dutifully followed, awkwardly carrying the long (very long) board. The wind kept trying to force my board sideways and I struggled to muscle it into a more reasonable position. We made our way into the water, a bit more than ankle deep, with wave after wave surging towards us, making the water more like knee deep. I glanced ahead and saw it was going to get deeper and dicier before we reached the refuge of the beach ahead. Twice, unbeknownst to my worthy guide, the waves knocked me completely down. I scrambled upright, repositioned my grasp on my board and forged ahead. We reached a point where we’d either have to get fully into the water and avoid being smashed by the surf into the seawall, or we’d have to negotiate our way, longboards in hand, along a narrow passage between the seawall and the cliff, managing the oncoming waves as they landed. To add to the degree of difficulty, the “path” was over large slabs of broken concrete and large, wet, slippery rocks. I hadn’t really acknowledged my fear, yet, of the ocean, until now. I am afraid of the ocean, and, well, here I was. And, at precisely this moment, a very large wave crashed into me and sent me sprawling across, over, against and eventually, straddling a rough, jagged piece of broken concrete that jutted out of the water at a forty-five degree angle. I wasn’t just straddling it, I was facing the opposite direction we were headed and was only attached to my surfboard by the ankle leash. I had to regain control of my board, right myself, turn around and begin moving, quickly, before the next wave fell. My heart was pounding, I was breathing hard with effort, I was shaking, my eyes were probably as big as dinner plates, and I kind of hurt. Probably from being smashed against concrete. I managed to get up, get straight, and move on. We made it to the beach and I was instructed on how to paddle. It was while I was lying on the surfboard, on the beach, that the blood became apparent. I bled from my knee and my ankle, all over my lovely, pink, rental surfboard. I was shaking, not from the cold water, which, for Northern California, wasn’t very cold at all on this particular day, I was shaking from pure, 100%, unadulterated, adrenaline. A fear response.
A few minutes later, my guy took off, leapt onto his board and into the surf and paddled. I was to, at some point, follow. I got up, strode over to the edge of the shore, and waded in; ankle deep, shin deep, knee deep, thigh deep waist deep. I could feel the undertow, I’ve felt it before, but I paid little mind to it at this moment. Instead, I flung myself prone onto the surfboard and began to paddle. I made my way a short distance and a big wave approached. I remembered what I had just been told, “they look bigger than they are”. It began to swell, then crest, and then it crashed into me in just such a way, in spite of my recent training to push the nose of the board up, caused the board to turn sideways and plow me all the way back onto the beach a few, short inches from a concrete surf break. I grabbed my board, took a steadying breath, set my brow, and stomped back into the water. My second attempt was marginally better, I made it a little further before being slammed back to shore by a bully of a wave.
We paddled to a spot just on the other side of the concrete surf break, and I was finally able to experience some level of aptitude in paddling. I learned to sit up on the board and watch the sets approach, to quickly turn around and lie down on the board to catch a wave, which, at some point in my future, perhaps minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months from now, I’d be able to assume a crouching position, momentarily, before being plunged into the sea. Someday, perhaps, I’d stand up all the way, like the half dozen other surfers nearby. At this point, though, I was calm, I was in some semblance of control, and I was having fun. So much fun! At this point I knew I really, really wanted to pursue this sport, I wanted to return, I wanted to learn. I’d been fairly certain of this even from my fearful vantage points, for five plus decades, on the safety of the shore. And now, being confident in paddling, our return to the beach access was easy, we could paddle right up without having to walk along the seawall and the pounding surf.
The day being considered, by me, a fantastic adventure and a complete success, we did eventually retire to the restaurant, nearby, for a lovely lunch and a very welcomed beer. It was at some point hence that it occurred to me; I’d only, actually, ever been in the ocean, up to my neck in water, once, ever, in my life, in Maui, thirty or so years ago, and, no, my mom didn’t know about that.
Today, I’d been in the ocean, under the ocean, and, in fact, I still had some ocean in me! I’d inhaled, snorted, and swallowed salt water, involuntarily, of course, during the day’s adventures, but, I was no worse for the wear. Other than a few scrapes and bruises from the brutish concrete slab I got intimate with, I was in no way hurt or harmed by the ocean, the waves, any cliffs, the undertow, or sharks. I am, and always will be, in awe of the ocean. It is awesome. I do have respect for the ocean, I know it is inherently dangerous, like driving and crossing the street and skydiving and eating refined sugar in large quantities for prolonged periods. But, I have overcome my blinding, numbing, fear. I have ended that very bad relationship.