Not for Self Alone
I've spent many perfect days in the water. The sun may be setting or rising. The wind may push the spray into a graceful arc. The break between sets may offer time for reflection and gratitude. What I can do on a wave is pedestrian at best, but when a turn pairs perfectly with the line, or I catch a glimpse of the sand through the crystal-clear water, all is right with the world.
And then there are the other days. The days when I paddle again and again only to come up short. When I'm always in the wrong spot. When I finally catch a wave only to tumble awkwardly into the frothing whitewater. On these days I curse and thrash even before coming back to the surface. I grit my teeth and make detailed plans to dispose of my boards in dramatic ways. I swear off all things gnarly and become mortified that I ever so much as donned a Quicksliver t-shirt. I say embarrassing things aloud, such as “Well that’s nice!” when a wave breaks at the exact spot I just paddled away from.
Despite a setting sun and glassy conditions, it had become one of those days. The nominal purpose of the session was to help my 11-year-old to work on paddling into her own waves. Though calm, the break was deeper and farther from the shore than she was used to being, and she was anxious. I was also on my own board, rather than wading beside her. After a few waves knocked us around, I pushed her into a couple and she called it a day. I swung my board around and yelled, “Watch how it’s done” over my shoulder. What an idiot.
After probably 30 minutes of fruitless paddling from one spot to another, missing a wave here and there, and pitching gracelessly into the one wave I actually had a shot at, I began to get a little frustrated. Visions of my board under the wheels of oncoming traffic; of a life on the golf course remembering when I used to surf; of repenting my life as a total poser passed in and out of my head. But I had other visions as well...of my daughter coming back to the surface with a smile on her face after a good ride..of my son crouching on the front of the paddleboard looking for fish. I kept trying. I caught one decent wave but missed several others. My leash even broke. But I was relaxed. I focused on the positives: it was a beautiful evening, I was getting great exercise, and I was surfing. The kids were playing in the shore break and my wife was looking for shells. No one was paying much attention, but it didn’t matter.
When I paddled back to the shore and approached my family I recognized a familiar look on my wife’s face. Having endured a variety of salty temper tantrums over the years, and surely having noticed that I rode a grand total of one wave over the span of about an hour, she was trying to determine how bad it was. But it wasn’t bad. It was good. I wasn’t out there just for myself, but also as an example to my kids. I certainly didn’t show my daughter incredible surfing, but maybe I showed her how to have a bad day with grace. Maybe I showed her that it’s about being out there as much as it is actually riding waves. I was thankful for her. Because she was there and wanting to surf, I couldn’t pitch a fit. It wasn’t an option. I thought about my friends who work as outdoor educators, and how they likely have the same experience. When we’re biking or paddling or skiing or surfing on our own, it might be easy to become frustrated and act out. When we have a responsibility for others we hold ourselves to a higher standard. And we’re better for it.
Ben is a family man, educator, and committed overthinker. An avid consumer of books, film, television and NPR, he is a jack of many outdoor trades, if a master of none.