Surfing in old age

Surfing in old age by Sarah James

I’ve taken up surfing. I don’t own a wet suit, or a surfboard. I don’t have any wax or a leg rope and by ‘taken up’ I mean I do a surfing lesson once a week for an hour. I can count on two hands the number of lessons I’ve had. All the same, I am surfing, that is when I’m not paddling against some current that wants to pin me to the rocks, falling into the water or trying to scramble back on to my board in a way that I hope isn’t too far from elegant.

Last week was a good week. It was a combination of the board I was given by the surf school, bigger than everyone else’s to help float my inexperienced body, lucking onto the right take off spot and a minimal of near drowning experiences. By the end of the hour I was having fun, the sort of fun that makes you want to giggle and scream ‘Weeeeeee!’ out loud. It was the salt water, the fresh air, the blue sky up above, the thrill of standing up on the board without falling straight down. And there were memories, so many memories in the surge of the waves. They catapulted me back to my teenage years when I used to body board and body surf, when I’d taken up windsurfing at the age of fifteen, fighting with the sail for a whole week, my palms red raw with blisters before I finally found the balance between the sail, the wind and me.

As I dragged the surfboard up on to the sand that day, I wondered why I hadn’t taken up surfing ten years ago. I felt sadness and regret for the years that had been lost, for the younger me who was stronger, who could have learnt this so much easier, who could have set up a beautiful platform for this older me to gracefully cruise the waves instead of floundering. But then I remembered, quite suddenly, almost like a rude intrusion, that for a long period during those ten years I hated the beach. For a time I wouldn’t even go to the beach. It was all of those years of sitting and waiting, all of those years of watching children, making sure they didn’t drown, keeping them happy with sand castles and snacks while their father surfed, listening to their tears and frustration as they got older and came in from the waves slamming their surfboards down next to me, telling me they couldn’t do it. My beach time as our family grew became more and more about me skilfully juggling the needs and emotions of our burgeoning family, not about me discovering new talents in the waves.

I slid my surfboard back into the surf lesson trailer and pulled the wetsuit awkwardly from my body, being sure not to lose my cossie bottoms. I wanted to be angry at my husband and my kids, but I couldn’t, after all, the only person that could ever hold me back was me. So I thought for a moment about being angry at myself. I almost managed until I remembered who I was ten years ago and the only emotions I could muster were kindness and compassion for the person who I was then.

I remembered as I towel dried my hair how the me back then was totally consumed with the mammoth task of bringing up four children, how I took very seriously the role of being the emotional centre of the family, of being the peace keeper, the placatory, the calm at the centre of the storm. The me back then was so much younger, so much less sure of herself, so less capable of insisting on time out, particularly when that time out was on the beach, my husband’s stomping ground. It would have been possible; I could have made it happen. But there would have been more heartache than I was prepared to put up with at the time. There would have been arguments, probably silent and sulky. There would have been unhappy children who didn’t want me to go in the water without them. In the end, the waves that I fumbled my way around on wouldn’t have been worth the drama as my mind constantly wondered what was going on back on the beach.

As I was driving away from the beach that morning I realised that the gift surfing offered me was so much more than the thrill of standing up on a wave. It offered me humbly and openly acceptance, complete acceptance of not only who I was now, but who I’d been before, that me of the past who’d laid the foundations for me now, the me who was ready to face the waves.

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