Surfing

I’ve mentioned before that learning to surf is the number one item on my bucket list. It’s been on the list for years, and really there haven’t been any huge hurdles in front of me, but arranging the lesson, transportation, and lodging, and the risk of looking stupid in front of people who know what they’re doing always left me on the shore chasing my tail. But all that is why J is the best partner for me: I told him I wanted to surf, he booked a room at a hostel where surfing lessons are offered, and he got up with me to take my first lesson.

It wasn’t anything like I expected. I knew better than to think I’d be able to stand up on the board on the first day, but I hadn’t really contemplated what falling off would be like, or getting knocked off and tumbled by a wall of water as big and unforgiving as an SUV.

I had worried a lot about the mechanics of standing up and balancing on the board, but I had never thought about how much hard work it is to just get out past the break, something I never do even without trying to ride and steer a heavy piece of foam longer than I am tall. I’m not much of a swimmer and ten push-ups is still a struggle for me, so the paddling was tough. Paddling and getting rolled and finding myself back on shore time after time was enough tougher. I’d always thought surfers looked really graceful, but I looked and felt like a cat in a bathtub.

learning to surf in Dulan, Taiwan
I looked like a sea witch most of the time. I got knocked around so much, my hair tie was pulled out and swallowed by the ocean. This picture was taken after 90 minutes of trying to catch a wave, so the board was lying somewhere else on the shore while I took a break.

After a few unintentional underwater acrobatics, I started to ask myself the big existential questions: Why do we surf? What’s the point of surfing? How do people surf? What happens when we die surfing? Are there sharks nearby? I experienced the futility of cursing at the ocean as I watched the wave the was going to knock me over and somersault me four times rising big and irrefutable in front of me. There’s actually something magical in being able to see even just a little bit into the future: I am going to lose my grip on the board, touch the ocean floor with my toes, and inhale and swallow just a ton of seawater, but I am probably not going to drown.

What an obvious metaphor for life.

But I wanted it, I want something that can’t be dodged by filling out the right paperwork or having an IRA, I want to fight, I want use my body and my brain to figure something out. The ocean doesn’t make it easy to learn to surf or swim, it just gives you opportunities over and over again. But you can learn, even as the tide is coming in or going out and every single wave is different.

I’m really interested in the idea of flow, which is an idea that productive people and people who like to read self-help books will know by name. Basically, you have to get yourself in the zone where your skills are up to the challenge you’re facing, but you have to be full engaged to succeed. It comes from the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Basically, I think the biggest hurdle right now is that I can’t experience flow at this level: there isn’t a level between getting knocked on your ass repeatedly and being able to get past the break with some dignity, you just have to keep fighting and struggling until it clicks. Then you learn how to paddle more effectively, you get stronger, you learn how to get past each wave as it comes, you learn how to sit on your board and wait for a wave worth riding to come up. Then once you put yourself in a place to take advantage of those opportunities, you have to get a lot of waves, and mess up on a lot of waves, before you learn when to pop up, and how to stand. And even then, you’re just cruising back to the shore before you really learn how to carve a wave, or whatever. I’m not an expert.

surfboard as an accessory
Carrying a surfboard like a giant, unwieldy accessory. This is actually right after I thought I was going to crash into some rocks and die like I’ve seen in movies, and J was taking pictures of my big day of learning to surf because he didn’t know, and I was actually really worked up because I am a big baby.

Everyone I met in Dulan was so casual about learning how to surf because it’s such a regular and important part of their lives. They’d invite us to join, to watch, to go in the morning, to go in the afternoon, tell me I could surf on the west coast of Taiwan, or that I could move to Hualien and surf there, and they’d talk to me like I was the kind of person who could just decide to surf one day, and I almost felt like I could be, one day, even though I am 33 and an English teacher who can’t do a pull-up.

I loved hearing them talk to each other, but they were always noticing that there were better waves further down the shore, at another beach, yesterday morning, the one they just let go. Just like we had a great time, but we missed the big nights, the ones when everyone stayed up until dawn, and there would be a party the day we left, but we’d miss it by a couple of hours because we had to get on the road. That’s how it goes, there’s the good stuff, but you miss the better stuff, you fall down, you choke, you get up and keep moving, trying to keep your head above water as you paddle past the break. You put yourself in the right situation and–sometimes–inspiration comes, the right wave comes, the right people come, the universe provides whatever it is that you needed, but only if you’re ready and waiting. That’s life.

I’m way out of my element writing about this, just a noob who spent a few hours over a few days in the water with a big, cheap foam board. But it’s amazing to have a dream, to have a goal for ten or fifteen years, so that just having this almost-secret little fantasy makes you feel good, and then to get out there and actually experience it. I didn’t learn to surf, but I learned what it would take, and I learned that I could do it with time and practice, that I just have to put myself in the right context.

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