I wake up before the sun and paw through a blanket of regret, wondering what had possessed me to ask that surf instructor on the beach if he had any open slots.
“Sure,” he’d said. “Tomorrow at 7:30 a.m.”
I’d turned to my friend Anne and given her an “Are you game?” lift of my eyebrows. “What the heck!” she’d replied. This is how it happens that we’re drinking black tea at five in the morning, preparing to ride actual waves. On the ocean.
Up until this moment, a big adventure for both of us would have been driving on empty to school pick-up. “Maybe we should have gone to the spa,” I whisper. My old friend reassures me with a hushed laugh: “No, this is good. It’ll be good.”
Anne and I are on vacation with our families in Hawaii. We’ve known each other since we were in our 20s, but for the past 10 years, we’ve lived two hours away from each other. We’re close enough to get together but far enough apart that when we do, it’s out of the ordinary.
One after the other, our memories string together like Murano beads: There I am falling asleep on her plum-colored couch while rocking my daughter’s stroller. There’s Anne in her kitchen blending up smoothies after telling me she’s pregnant with her third child.
This year’s trip will be a dazzler: our first joint big-kid vacation. We now have six between us, and for the first time in forever, we’re free from the constant cling and tangle of mothering little ones.
So even though waking before dawn is painful, we savor the pleasure of a morning that is ours alone. We silently slip out of the house and into the car. A short while later, we pull into a dirt patch on the side of the road and find our instructor, Kyle.
We squeeze our 40-something bodies into long-sleeved wet suit tops and pop our feet into neoprene booties. As we clamber over clusters of rocks toward the beach, I turn to Anne: “Are you nervous?”
“A little,” she admits. Me, too. “I figure, this is kind of like doing a race or a long run,” she says. “It’s hard to start, but really just for the first 10 minutes. Once I get through that, I’m usually good to go.”
As a writer, I can relate — the blank page can feel the same. The key in such situations is to ignore the mental chatter and just start.
At the beach, two blue surfboards wait for us in the sand, but Kyle informs us that he doesn’t waste time with onshore instruction. True to his promise, he takes us through the motions of getting up on the board exactly twice.
As I practice the second time, he gives me the first of two pieces of advice he’ll give all day: “You’re doing a yoga thing with your feet, that warrior thing,” he says. “You’re going to have to stop. Your feet and hips both need to face the side while you look ahead with your eyes. You’ll see when we get out there.” I’m not so sure.
As soon as we start paddling, my arms begin to ache. The waves crashing over my head make my heart pound. My only thought is to make it past the break. Once I do, I look to the horizon and spot a whale breaching, launching fireworks of white water. The blue sky is interrupted by puffs of cloud like smoke signals from God. For the first time, I’m happy with the unlikely plan we’ve made.
Kyle turns to Anne to set her up for her first attempt. It’s natural that she’d go before me — she always has. She was the first to get pregnant, the first to deal with an unexpected C-section, the first to take her child to the hospital after a sports injury. As always, I’m grateful for her lead.
Kyle gets behind her, watches the waves, and then suddenly barks, “Up!” Anne is on her knees and then on her feet. She’s surfing!
As she paddles back out, anxiety tightens my throat. Anne’s ride has inspired me, but I’m worried. I’m so accustomed to keeping myself and my kids out of harm’s way that incurring risk feels unnatural.
I lie down on the board and look straight ahead. Kyle studies the waves from behind. Suddenly many things are happening at once. I hear him shout, “Up!” The board bumps across the water. Splashing sounds engulf me. It’s just me and the churning ocean. I know I’m supposed to try to stand, but I’m afraid I’ll fall. Instead, I cruise into shore on my knees. I didn’t get up, but the first 10 minutes are over.
When I paddle back out to Kyle, he asks me what happened. I answer honestly that I was flat-out scared. Then he gives me the second instruction of the day: “That fear, it’s all in your mind,” he says. “To be successful in this sport, you need to be arrogant. You need to get out of your head.”
Two seconds later Kyle is yelling, “Up!” again. This time, I get from my knees to my feet. My front foot wants to point forward, yoga style, but I flip it to the side. I look up and realize, I’m doing it. In a whoosh of water and wind, I’m released from gravity and thought. I don’t want the ride to end.
For the rest of the lesson, Anne and I soar across the open water. There’s little time for talking. We’re too busy surfing now. After one last ride, we reconvene on the beach, breathless and full of energy.
“I’m so glad we did this. I never would have done it alone,” Anne says. Me, neither. But now that we have, we know we have what it takes to launch each other. Together we are braver than we are alone.
We walk back to the car, and Anne climbs behind the steering wheel and looks at me: “You know, we’re kind of badass.” Under normal circumstances, “badass” is about as likely a phrase for her as “Let’s surf.” But she’s right. We are.