Last year I decided that waiting for the day when I might be facing death was a horrible time to begin knocking items off the good ol’ bucket list. I had witnessed some of my bravest friends fight great odds against cancer, and something had ignited within me.
I spent many winter mornings watching the surfers of Long Beach don their thick wet suits, hoodies and boots, embrace their boards and head out into the frigid water. I was mesmerized by their synchronous movements, and the delicate yet athletic dance that they performed with the waves.
Inspired by the beauty and compelling call of the water, I started with number #1 on the list, Learn to Surf. As romantic or cliche as it sounds, I had waited my whole life for what was within my reach.
I was equal parts inspired and terrified.
Sometime in the last decade, I developed an irrational fear of sharks. I could work myself into a tizzy imagining how I might die at the hands-er mouth- of a shark.
Death by shark attack. I’m sure that there’s a whole wealth of meaning if we were to psychoanalyze that one; an insanely violent death in the place where I feel the most zen. Hmmm… For another time.
The ocean has long since been the place where I feel closest to God, to a creator that feels so present in every breaking wave and crashing shoreline. I go there to fill my soul and I can find my center and a modicum of peace. I was sure that my love of the ocean could help me to face my fear.
So I set myself to the task of learning to surf. I remember falling asleep the night before my first lesson thinking, “Please don’t let me get eaten by a shark tomorrow morning.” When I woke I immediately felt a crippling sense of fear spread throughout my body. My mind began to race with a dozen different reasons that I could use to cancel my lesson. A picture flashed in my mind that a friend had recently posted on Facebook. It was a wall with the words, “Fear is a liar” painted in large, bold letters. It became my anchor.
I dragged myself out of bed and took a long hard look at myself in the mirror. I could feel my insides trembling and a surge of adrenaline spread outward reaching my fingertips which then began to shake.
I looked at myself again, and spoke the words, “You.Have.Survived.Worse…”
I decided to try to ignore my fear. I could easily let it take over, as it clearly had intended to do. But I had been through much, much worse and this was not going to be how my story played out. I was not going to be the girl that caved to fear. I went to my lesson. I showed up. Because that’s how we get past the stuff that scares us, that traps us into a state of stagnancy where no growth occurs and our spirit slowly begins to die.
On the sandy shores of Long Beach, I learned the art of popping up onto the board, and that I’m clearly a goofy foot. I spent about 15 minutes practicing this until the instructor and I both felt that it was time to try it in the water. I awkwardly carried my board out to the water and pulled myself onto my stomach when the water was deep enough. I was at a particular vantage point where I realized that I could not see anything below me in the water because I was looking outward, toward the incoming waves. I listened to the instructor explain how to determine which waves were worthy and which were not going to be able to carry me at all. I heard his words, and although I understood what he was saying, I heard a voice (Fear, no doubt) carry over his instructions. “You can’t see the sharks.” I instantly felt the surge of adrenaline push through my veins like a sick and toxic drug.
I’ve struggled with anxiety throughout my life, and I wish that I could tell you that there’s a great trick I’ve developed that helps me in times like this. I had nothing. I looked at the instructor’s calm and gentle face, full of this zenned out expression. He was clearly stoked that I was about to catch my first wave.
Amidst the pounding of my heartbeat in my ears, I dug as far down as I could to salvage any remnant of courage that I had left. I found myself coming up empty.
I looked up and saw his face again. Smiling this knowing smile that suddenly held so much more meaning than before.
“Go, on. Paddle out!”
I don’t know what happened in that moment. I looked out at the ocean and as I watched the waves coming toward me I noticed that the arms next to my board were pushing through the water so effortlessly, propelling me forward and into the blue.
There was such grace in the arms that had a sense of purpose beyond the levels of anxiety my mind was trying to trap me in. I looked at the hands as they cut through the blue and followed them back to the arms.
Pushing through the water, breaking the waves and allowing my board to sail into the cresting waves; my arms led me. I grabbed the sides of my board as a very large wave came under me, and pulled it toward my chest. I was under the wave.
I was IN the wave.
I was… Free.
I pushed my face through the surface in what seemed like forever but was truly only an instant. I instinctively began paddling out again. I looked over my shoulder at my new surfer friend who had somehow cracked his face into an even bigger grin. He motioned for me to turn my board toward the beach, so I did, and realized that this was it. I was going to, either on my board or on my ass, ride this incoming wave into the shore.
I don’t know what it was about the paddle out into the ocean that day.
Some moments in life don’t have explanations, they simply fall into the beautiful simplicity of just being.
The paddle out had given me breath, and I found a rhythm that was not my own but belonged to the sea.
As the wave approached I watched it over my shoulder until I had to furiously paddle toward the shore so that I could catch it. I felt my grasp on the board and pulled my legs up under me in a swift, albeit awkward first pop up.
I was standing.
I was moving toward the beach.
It took a moment before I realized that I WAS SURFING.
I heard the proud whooping noises made by the surf instructors that were teaching the lessons that day. When I finally fell from my board I turned around, somewhat embarrassed by the attention. About ten instructors were waving their hands in the air and clapping over their heads. I had gotten up onto the board on the first try. Although I knew that I must have looked like a brick heading into that shore, their love for the sport and the stoke spread throughout my body taking the place of the fear.
The only thing left to do was turn around and paddle out again.