Twice in my life I have tried to surf. The second attempt helped me to conclude my exploration into this form of adventure, but one strong boyhood surfing lesson floated up after a talk last week with another principal. He described his week as surfing a monster set on a broken board. “The waves just keep rolling in.” he said.
That image took me back to my second and final attempt at surfing. I was at a Southern California beach with six of my friends. Waves that day were a bit bigger than usual. I know now that I was a boy with something to prove. A perfect set up. I went out on a borrowed board, tall talking like the best of them. Sure. No problem. A cinch! I had this one in hand. When I pull up the memory now, I see me, paddling out, soaked, skinny-legged, shivering. Indeed!
One big wave smacked down from above. Stunned, I hung on to the board. Then, though I paddled hard, but I couldn’t paddle fast enough. The second wave slammed down and I went under. In seconds I bobbed up to see the borrowed board with a red stripe washing on to shore. To my left, my long-haired friends looked my way smiling, saying ‘come on’. Behind me, waves three, four, and five rose up. My lesson was not yet complete.
A few things about waves: They roll over everything and tend to grind away at the shoreline, rocks and other solid things. Waves also originate from the deepest parts of the ocean and travel for days before reaching the shore. A wave can’t look back and doesn’t like to stop. If you find yourself paddling out, facing a set of big waves, you also find focus or else you float in face down.
I got knocked under by the fifth wave and can remember rolling into a slow-motion tumble along the sandy bottom. In that tumble, I controlled little. However, caught out of my element, I knew to swim, kick, swim, kick, repeat. I don’t remember the next seconds except the moment when I found I had come close enough to shore to stand up and walk. Even through my pride, I got how lucky I was.
I picked up the red-striped board, carried it next to a big rock, and stayed put until my friends came in an hour later. In that hour I dug my toes into the dry sand, leaned back against a big rock outcropping, and just felt air coming in and out of my lungs. Seagulls circled in I-told-you-so spirals above me. Waves ground away at the shore. I knew I belonged on land.
What I carry forward from this time is a stiff-lipped respect for the grind of the waves – whatever those waves may consist of. Relationships, wishes, churning hopes, big plans – all that we would cling to – waves polish the hardest rocks, and carry away drifting debris that no longer serves. The moment taught me that one can hold on only to the most essential – and not one thing more – when big waves start rolling in.
For me, time under water brought me closer to who I was and how I was meant to go forth. As of now, imperfect as I am, I find that knowing this much allows me to keep my chin up and my feet on the ground.