- the practicing of an activity, especially a sport, on an unpaid rather than a professional basis.
- the fact or quality of being incompetent at a particular activity.
A friend of mine took up ballet at forty. It’s been ten years of chassés and ballonés and wobbly pirouettes. There are some moves she will never do well, and even more that she’ll never do at all. A whipped throw, anyone? But that hardly matters. Where one pair of eyes might see blundering futility in tights tottering across the wooden boards, my friend, she experiences a moment of grace.
I know how she feels.
Three, five, maybe seven seconds on a wave, is enough to carry me through the day. When I’m up on my surfboard, gliding along the wave’s shifting face, the whole world hushes for an instant. There is just the energy of the ocean pushing me forward, while my body calibrates to balance and steer for the ride. It is a place beyond thinking, a pure immersion in the Now.
And then it’s over.
Did you picture someone in the perfect feline crouch or standing tall with a lazy poise, or even better, making delicate cross steps up and down a board? Don’t. I really suck at surfing. And like my friend, who has no delusions of becoming the next Margot Fonteyn, I don’t mind if I tumble off the side, starfish off the back, get rolled in a rush of white churning water. I only want to get better because getting better means catching more waves and catching more waves means catching that brief feeling of being totally in the moment, of feeling one’s incessant inner chatter silenced. The euphoria from a string of those few wave riding seconds can last hours, the sense of calmness, days.
This is not an advertisement for surfing. God knows, there are enough bodies and boards in the water. From Montauk to Malibu, on a sunny weekend with a swell, you can gaze off the cliffs and imagine the D-Day landing, were it not for the joyful whoops echoing through the air. The water below is so carpeted with rubber-suited forms bobbing and flailing about. It’s hectic out there. No, don’t go surfing.
When I first took it up ten years ago, I wasn’t in the best of shape. I still had a lingering sand bag’s worth of the seventy-five pounds I’d gained during pregnancy, but it wasn’t the shape of my bathing suit bod that most urgently needed to rebound. It was the inner me I hardly recognized. Like one of those giant mylar balloons you find half deflated and tangled up in seaweed on the beach, I felt hollowed out and baggy all at once. Joy reached me through my young daughter but otherwise, a sodden emptiness crept in, a sense of disconnection, a low aimless drift. Phone sessions with a therapist on the other coast were of no help.
Melancholia, she is a most unwelcomed and impudent houseguest. Try to cast her out the front door and she’ll go around and sit on your back porch until you let the dog out. You never know if she’ll be followed by Depression. I had been blessed not to have had a protracted visit in years, but there she was pitching her gloom tent over me, settling in. And it was summer. Wasn’t summer supposed to be fun?
I can’t remember who hooked me up with my first lesson. If I did, I’d thank them. But I still remember the morning. I was the only one in the water without a strappingly handsome instructor who looked like he’d cruised out of a Rip Curl catalog. Instead, thank goodness, I was with an elfin, craggy-faced, white-haired man who’d definitely gotten his AARP card years before. His red Toyota pick-up was a tsunami of faded wetsuits, stained towels, wadded up Hawaiian shirts, and foam boards. Before he found me suitable attire and something to ride, he’d opened the passenger door of his truck, pawed through crumpled posters, half-empty bottles of suntan lotion, tangles of surf leashes and miraculously pulled out a perfectly yellow, unbruised banana. “Want one?” I declined. “Suit yourself,” Steve said, peeling it back. “But you might be sorry.”
After shoving myself in a wetsuit like sausage meat in its casing and doing some dorky push-ups and pop-ups on the beach, it was time to hit the water and “paddle out.” Imagine a drunken seal heading into the waves. “I’m not getting anywhere!” I’d shriek as another monster crashed in front of me and sent me careening backwards to the shore or, more often, off my board and into bubbling white foam. Finally, gasping like I’d summitted Everest without oxygen, I made it past the break. I felt totally spent. But I was grinning ear to ear.
If you’re lucky enough to have an instructor the first time you surf, you will paddle toward the shore, but they will give you an extra push to catch the wave. You may wipe out, you may pop up on your knees, or you may ride on your belly all the way to the beach.
I once asked an instructor down in Mexico if there was anyone he’d taught who’d just “got the hang of it” right away. Two, he said. One was a Cirque De Soleil acrobat and the other was Jimmy Chin, the extraordinary skier, climber, Nat Geo photographer and filmmaker – you may have seen his Oscar winning documentary Free Solo? Yeah, that guy.
As for me, I managed to catch a few small waves and get on my feet while we were out there. Maybe I coursed through the water upright for a total of 22 seconds. 22 out of the 3,600 that make up an hour-long session. But those few seconds buoyed me, and I felt a soggy layer of despair lift off me just enough. Better yet, it didn’t collapse over me again when I lost my footing and plunged back in the water nor even later when I was out of the water, dragging my board with rubbery arms up the beach. For Emily Dickinson, hope came as the thing with feathers. For me, it was a nine-foot foam log with a leash. I knew that if I could get a little more of this surfing thing into my life, maybe I would start to feel better.
The word “amateur” comes from the Latin verb amar: to love. You do it not to win nor for profession gain, not for recognition nor for money. You just do it because you love it.
Since that day ten years ago, surfing has not only helped me reconnect with a happiness and peace inside myself, it’s connected me to the many wonderful people I’ve met out on the water, and to organizations committed to protecting our oceans and sharing the healing power of surfing. I’ve also been able to surf with my daughter (who fast outpaced me in the skills department) and watched as she developed a deep and abiding connection to the water. A party wave with your kid, as the sun hangs like a fat orange just above the glassy water, is bliss.
But I didn’t know any of that would happen yet when I hauled my aching, dripping body to the parking lot. All I knew was that I was really happy and really hungry. So yes, if Steve still had one buried in the depths of his truck, I wanted that banana.
Liz Tynes Netto is a lapsed journalist, TV producer, and current MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She is the flash prose editor of Lunch Ticket and she is writing a novel.