Our instructors had offered a hilarious analogy for choosing a wave to surf earlier in the week during our surf lessons. It was like choosing a man. Some are too slow to ride. Some are too fast. Some are angry. Some offer no thrill. Some break too soon (pun intended)…
You get the picture.
Anyway, Annie and I waited for the one that was “just right” and, after what seemed an eternity to me, one appeared on the horizon.
“Ok,” said Annie calmly, “Start to paddle. Hard.”
The epileptic pelican started flapping again, and to my mind, didn’t seem to get anywhere. But Annie was behind me ready to push me into the wave and as the sounds of the swell reached a fever pitch at my back, Annie yelled, “Pop-up and look right!”
Then I was in it…and then I was pitching right over the top, my board flying out from underneath me, and me executing a perfect forwards somersault into the water.
I have wiped out in the ocean before. I remember boogey boarding in the Outer Banks one year, right after a hurricane had come up the coast, and taking a wave so big that I momentarily thought it had cracked my spine when it crashed on top of me. I wasn’t afraid of falling into the water. In fact, NOT being afraid of falling in the water was what I had attributed my success so far to.
But suddenly I was getting tossed around in that wave, not really able to figure which way was up and failing to remember to protect my head as the instructors had taught us.
When the ocean finally spit me out with a little panicked gasp, I looked around for my board, pulling it to me by my leash guard. Immediately I could feel the pull of brimming energy behind me and, with Helen’s admonition to “never turn your back to the ocean” ringing in my head, I spun around to see another wave bearing down.
“Turtle roll. Turtle roll!” I said in a quiet panicked voice as I hastily executed my turtle roll, just as the magnetic whoosh of the wave spilled over on top of me.
I surfaced again…and again, another wave was waiting.
At this point, I could feel my breath getting fast, my thought process getting more and more panicked.
“It’s not giving me any time to recover!” I irrationally screamed in my head.
Just a few yards to my right I could see Annie had come in to make sure I was okay. It would occur to me later that I was never actually in any danger; it just didn’t feel that way at the time.
Wave…turtle roll…surface. And holy shit there was another GODDAMN WAVE.
Annie could see I was panicking and as I gave a pathetic little “Annie!” to the wide blue yonder, she turned and looked at me and said very clearly and calmly, “Anne! You know what to do!”
As the third wave in as many minutes threatened to crash on my head, I kept reminding myself that she was right. I did know what to do and now I just needed to do it.
Easier said than done of course, but I managed another turtle roll while thinking that if I could just gain my breath back I would never silently ridicule the breathing exercises in yoga ever again.
At some point the ocean let up for a moment and, recognizing my window, I paddled as if a Great White Shark was on my tail.
Once again on the outside, Annie offered me a big smile and encouragement: “You got caught on the inside and made it out! Take a breather…”
Paddling past the lineup of surfers, I collapsed onto my board – the sound of my heart pounding totally out of synch with the returned tranquility of the ocean. I spun to the horizon and sucked in air until I calmed my pulse.
It was a shock how quick things in the water could go from panicked to serene.
“I can’t do this,” was my first thought. Followed immediately by its friends: “You aren’t ready. You are not going to be able to get up on a board in these waves. Paddle in, go back to the whitewater, today is not the day.”
I could FEEL myself coming unraveled. There were so few times in my life when I had experienced fear of that kind – just basic, raw terror and certainty that I was in over my head. It was absolutely out of proportion to what had actually occurred but I seemed to be able to do nothing to stop the icy grip that was squeezing my insides.
I have a tendency to talk quietly to myself when working through a problem, and my isolation at the moment lent itself well to this. I kept repeating, “Get it together, Caprara” over and over, as if saying it made it so.
Every five minutes, Annie or Helen would call out, first asking if I was doing ok and then gradually starting again with the “Do you want to try a wave?”
The first few times they asked, I shook my head furiously in the negative and went back to ignoring the lineup. Initially I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get back to the beach.
Gradually though, I could feel myself beginning to calm down and a new fear started worming its way into my head.
I knew, with absolute certainty, that if I went in after that initial wipeout, that there was no way I was giving the outside a try again on this trip. I knew my resolve would leave me. I thought about the queasy night I had spent the evening before and I was certain that if I tried to get out here again tomorrow, I’d never make it.
I thought about how disappointed I would be if I went home without riding a real, outside wave when I knew I was capable of it.
I thought about practice.
Not practice riding waves, but practice facing fears.
No one who knows me would say I am a person driven by fear, but I know me…and I know there are a lot more things I am afraid of then I cop to.
I thought about how, at 35, I was more afraid of things than I had been when I was 25 and 15 and 5. I thought about how fucked up that is – that fear is not a natural state. It’s not how we start life. We acquire it as we move along, almost like a disease you don’t know you have until suddenly you are bobbing in the ocean, wanting badly to succeed at something you’ve always always wanted to try, and there is fear, staring you back in the face, trying to rob you of it.
I stared at the horizon, thinking about all of this, with Allen Iverson in my head (“We talking about practice, man?”), and I remembered a time when I lived without much fear. I remembered the kid I used to be, the one who made her mom sew a white super hero cloak with a star on it because she wanted to be like She-Ra, who jumped off high dives and ran into the Atlantic every summer without the slightest moment of apprehension.
I thought about how sometimes when you practice something enough the body picks up on things that the mind isn’t even conscious of. I thought about what part of my own happiness lay beyond fears both big and small. I considered whether I was willing to live with not finding out.
“You’re not afraid,” I said to myself. It was a lie. I was. But I could pretend I was not and maybe that was the trick.
I turned my board back around and headed over to Annie.
“I’m ready now,” I said.
A few minutes later, another set appeared on the horizon.
“This is your wave,” said Annie.
“This is my wave,” said Anne.
The epileptic pelican started again…I knew Annie was floating behind me ready with that push. I could feel the energy of the wave at my back, the lift of the ocean, the roar of the impending crash…and then suddenly I was caught and gently nudged forward.
The ease of my pop-up was such a surprise that it almost knocked me off my wave before I even got going. But then I was standing up on the board and the wave was taking me in and I was correcting my stance while gazing with single-minded intensity at the beach.
I rode my wave all the way into the shore. The swell that had seemed so angry just a half hour before – the ocean, which appeared to toss me around with such ferocity, as if to remind me who was in charge – was now a cheerful playmate.
I don’t know if I can put words to surfing. Everything I write seems inadequate.
I can only tell you how it made me feel. It’s the rush of adrenaline when you first learn to ride a bike; it’s the high that comes when you take off on your fastest sprint; it’s that little whoosh in your stomach when you have a crush and learn that crush likes you back; it’s the first sip of a cold beer on a really hot day; it’s your hardest, deepest laugh that only ever emerges when something is intensely funny and you guffaw with great bubbles of happiness. It’s falling in love in the summertime.
When I jumped off the board, it was with a laugh. A deep, rolling laugh that seemed to say, “Why were you so damn scared?”
When I finally paddled back out to Annie, my grin stretched all the way across my face: “I want to do that again!”
I caught four awesome waves that day. And by awesome I don’t mean perfect…I need to learn to turn on the board and chase the green water across the face of the wave. I didn’t manage to paddle myself into any of those waves without a push from the instructors.
But I was the last one out in the water and when, in the final half hour, I paddled out to meet Helen and Annie once again, tired and water logged after riding another wave, I greeted them with a smile and a “This is so fucking awesome!”
When we finally went in for the day, the feeling of having conquered those terrifying three-foot waves was this large, happy thing inside of me. It bubbled up and out in huge bursts, a tide of joy I didn’t know I was capable of anymore.
“This might have been the best morning of my life,” I proclaimed to my fellow surf campers sometime during lunch in Montezuma that day.
I think it was.
We’d ride the green waves again the next day. At some point I would accidentally drop in on a local riding a wave (a screaming breach of surfing etiquette that is akin to jumping ahead of the TSA line at the airport – it was a genuine mistake) and I would wipe out again. In fact, ALL of the things I was afraid of happening when I was learning how to surf (save facing an actual shark) happened those first two days.
But every time something new and scary surfaced I just thought, “Practice…we talking about practice, man.”
It’s such a cliché to talk about “finding yourself” – a concept that has somehow turned into a big joke. (“Find yourself?” I can hear my Dad saying in my head. “Where did you go?”)
When you stop to consider it though, we lose ourselves in a thousand different ways as we grow old. We hedge, we curb ambition, we guard our hearts from enemies and friends alike, we stop seeking new things, and people and experiences.
We mistake fear for caution, and the fullness of a real, unfiltered life for danger.
When I booked this trip for Costa Rica, I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “You’re so brave, I could never do that!” I thought at first they were talking about the surfing, but I soon realized they weren’t. They were just talking about traveling to another country alone for a surf camp!
To a person, that was lie too. I’m not brave to take a short trip to a new place where I was guaranteed to meet new friends. And all of those people who commented to me have the wherewithal and abilities to do the same thing.
We can’t change the nature of being human. Fear will creep into our lives no matter how we try and stop it. But the PRACTICE of identifying it, facing it, and conquering it should be something we value.
Think about what terrifies you…and then imagine me on the other side of that fear, bobbing on a wave, waving at you to paddle harder because the water is warm and the waves are fine (or imagine Brad Pitt – whatever gets you going.)
We are just talking about practice, man.
All I know is that floating out there on the ocean after riding that very first REAL wave, I could remember ME for the first time in the longest time. I could remember the kid who came to the beach and went in the water as soon as she could put down her towel and had to be dragged out at sunset. I could remember the girl who once went boogey boarding with her mom at 8 am, who was always the swimmer farthest out from the lifeguard stand.
I could remember what it was like to make friends because we were in the same place at the same time doing the same fun thing. I could remember picking out a bathing suit to wear because of how it would hold up in the waves and not because it’s the one that makes me hate my thighs the least.
I could remember that fearless kid. The one who lived to touch the bottom of the deep end of the pool and ride the tallest ride at the water park. The one who wanted to be a super hero. The one for who fear was such a far off concept.
So that’s the story of how I learned how to surf. And how I found this little piece of myself that I didn’t even know I had lost.
I told you that the stories we tell about ourselves are powerful, that once woven into the mish mash of our existence they can be the architects of our own joy.
I keep this tale in its proper perspective…I lead a privileged life that allowed me to find courage on a wave, as opposed to a tank in Iraq or a burning building or a street corner homeless. I’m filled with gratitude that this lesson came within such a gentle, happy context – I’m overwhelmed I got to live it at all.
And I will.