The most powerful things in our lives are the stories we tell about ourselves.
Not the cocktail hour entertainment we trot out for guests, but the tales we keep quietly and turn to when life throws a curve-ball. The parables that we have worn smooth with time, shining with a veneer of myth.
We treasure them the same way we love photographs, safe in an album where they can be taken out on occasion, viewed for a laugh or a smile or for the memory of a moment we don’t want to forget.
The best and most powerful are the bright talismans that we hang around our lives – the time we conquered, the time we failed and tried again, the time we lost and survived, the time we surprised ourselves with courage or strength or bravery. The time we loved and lost and somehow learned to love once more.
When our stories are damaged – too harsh, filled with lies, without the strength of true self-realization – we tend to be as well. When our stories are honest reflections of life’s most important moments, they are the foundation around which we build our joy.
Let me tell you one of mine.
I’ve wanted to learn how to surf for a long time. But it was always in kind of a lazy way. I talked about it to friends as an ongoing joke. It occupies a humorous line on my twitter profile: “aspiring big wave surfer.”
I discussed it the same way one discussed becoming an astronaut, or giving up your job and moving to Maui to run a margarita stand, or playing in the NFL. Everyone is in on the joke which is why it is funny…”it’s not really going to happen but wouldn’t it be nice” is the understanding behind the punch line.
Life in your thirties is a focusing affair. It has a tendency to place the “put up or shut up” in your step. With some time off after the November elections, the sound of “put up or shut up” was a chorus following my every move.
Which is why I signed up for surf camp in Costa Rica.
Getting to Pura Vida adventures was a journey in and of itself, which added to the feeling of a great quest being undertaken. It took hours on a plane to get to Costa Rica first, and then a trip on “Nature Air” – the country’s domestic transport system of prop planes fueled mainly by prayers upon take off – to finally find myself in Tambor.
The journey to Malpais, where surf camp was located, was one hour along a dusty, unpaved road that traversed small lakes without bridges and acres of farmland filled with animals both familiar and absurdly exotic.
The payoff was miles upon miles of the most pristine ocean I have ever seen, with waves stacked as bright, frothy promises kissing the horizon.
Falling in love with Costa Rica was as easy as breathing, as comfortable as bare feet in the grass on a summer’s day.
I’d like to tell you that I was a natural surfer from the beginning but that would be an amazing lie.
I spent the first five days of the trip learning the ropes in the whitewater – the frothy bubble bath that exists after the waves have broken.
In the beginning it was all about learning how to stand on my enormous foam board. If you’ve never had a surf lesson, understand that most people practice on these large, unsinkable floating platforms that accommodate even the most uncoordinated of people.
I spent literally 48 hours falling off of mine (and broke a tooth in the process). Even the baby waves that you encounter in the whitewater seem like giant rumbling monsters when you are first learning how to surf.
Considering that this practice takes place in about a foot and a half of water, wipe-outs are particularly hilarious. I had a tendency to emit this little “yelp!” whenever I found myself on a wave that was slightly bigger than I anticipated. It was a sound I have never made before in my life and I have really no idea where it came from.
Our instructors – Helen, Annie and Ale – were blessed with patience in abundance, humor that sparkled like the bright frothy waves, and real strength of body and spirit that you could not help but want to emulate.
“Bend your knees in!!”
I heard these instructions yelled at me a hundred times, but somehow I would almost always forget one or two things I should be doing.
When the instructors videotaped us after the third day of surfing the whitewater, my clips included three rides where in every single one I was looking at my surfboard (instead of the beach) with my zinc covered face scrunched up in tight concentration, as if only I could THINK hard enough then my surfing would improve.
“Don’t look at your feet to make sure you have your stance right, let your body feel whether it’s right or not…you will know without looking,” Annie noted to me after the 8,000th time I rode a wave with my gaze plastered to the board.
I refrained from replying that I basically knew when my stance was off when I ended up in the drink, and by then it was too late.
After five days, though, I was improving. More importantly, perhaps, I was having more fun than I could ever remember. I lived for surf lessons every day. I was inevitably the last camper in the water every session – it was like being a kid again, only this time it was the surf instructors instead of my parents telling me it was time to get out of the ocean.
I had forgotten what it was like to go to bed every night with the kind of physical exhaustion that can only come from having played so hard you wore yourself down. There is this happy weariness at the end of a day of surfing – the feeling of which is a memory I lost somewhere between the ages of 12 and 20.
I welcomed it back like an old friend.
One morning we drove down to a neighboring beach and I rode wave after wave in the whitewater, and when we finally got out, the instructors had bought us all coconuts with a hole drilled in the top and a straw in the hole so we could drink the juice.
I never tasted anything so good in my whole life.
It would occur to me, from time to time, how far removed these moments were from the life I normally lead. Anne Caprara, sitting on a tree stump by the ocean, face covered in zinc, sipping juice from a coconut after a long few hours surfing would present a hilarious picture to the lobbyists I used to brief on Senate races in DC.
But there were a thousand moments like these in Malpais, filled with a happiness so basic I wanted to bottle it up and bring it home, and take it out again when life turned weary once more.