What Surfing With My Niece Taught Me About Life

The author, Steven Petrow, surfing in Hawaii.

I spent two hours last month falling flat on my face (or back), at least a dozen times. These weren’t minor trips and stumbles — in fact, I wiped out repeatedly, spectacularly, in front of my family and even a photographer.

I was surfing in the salty seas off Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island, where my sister, brother and their spouses and kids had come to recover from a rough year that included the death of our parents, my sister’s cancer diagnosis and the placing of my brother’s autistic son in a home. We were determined to celebrate our resiliency and newfound hope. As a bonus, I realized that many of the lessons I learned on the waves could be translated for use on dry land.

The first time I tested my mettle on a Hawaiian long board, I was 32 and fearless — perfect attributes for catching oversize waves and experiencing long, exhilarating runs (as well as mash-ups with underwater coral and rough-hewed lava rocks). I loved the rush of adrenaline each run unleashed, fueling the desire to take on more and bigger waves. Surfing at 60 — after a 15-year hiatus — was, frankly, more of a challenge.

When I took my first surfing lessons in 1989, my body’s muscles had an elasticity that made it almost effortless to “pop up” (that’s when you move from lying prone on the board to crouching on it, butt out and back flat). I could see that very same elasticity in my 21-year-old niece, Jessie, a surfing novice, as she jumped up time and again to catch a wave. Her legs had a natural spring to them, and in a flash she’d be in the Warrior 2 position, shimmying down the wave, braids flying out behind her.

I know my hips and glutes have tightened over the decades, but it really wasn’t my body that kept getting in the way as I crashed off the board. Our instructor, Ossian (pronounced “Ocean”) Farmer, owner and operator of FBI Surf School, pointed out how I kept hesitating — that, more than any loss of flexibility, he said, was what was holding me back.

That certainly resonated. In my youth I had had few hesitations. I was a Malcolm Gladwell “Blink” kind of guy: I could commit to a wave, a job, a partner, and never look back. Now on the board I found myself dragging one foot like an anchor caught on a rock (and yes, I recognized the metaphor).

Turns out that in surfing, as in life, fear of falling can lead to more falls. “The moment you hesitate in surfing is the moment you will find yourself in trouble,” I read on SurferToday.com. You will lose momentum; you will miss the wave; you will likely wipe out. Or, as Mr. Farmer put it to me: “Hesitation is totally the enemy. If you’re not fully committed, you’re history.”

Jessie concurred, saying it wasn’t physical ability or even her youth that gave her an edge. “It’s not a strength thing,” she said. “You have to be in your own body and have the intuition of knowing when to stand up.” Jessie has lived through much of our family tumult with me and knows a thing or two already about being able to stand up at the right time.

Surfing well, my teacher told me between my wipeouts, is a lot like meditation. “It’s like not thinking,” he said, “you’re just in the moment.” For the next several waves after he told me that I tried out a surfing mantra, similar to what I use to stay focused during meditation. “Eyes forward. Knees relaxed. Feet parallel. Core tight.” But in the rush and flush of a wave, I got lost in my words and wiped out.

I simplified my mantra to “Jessie,” since her wave riding captured all those reminders. To my surprise, I caught the very next wave and made it halfway to shore. I had stopped thinking and was — actually — in the moment. As Jessie put it to me: “There’s an element of risk each time you get up because there’s always a chance that you’ll fall. But do you have the trust, the willingness to take the leap when you don’t know the specified conditions each time?”

Watching my niece, I noticed something else. Jess kept her eye on the prize, which on the board means looking straight ahead to the shore. I realized that even when I did pop up properly, my focus often wandered to the left or right and I’d quickly tumble off the board. “Look straight ahead,” my instructor shouted over the breaking surf. He kept reminding me not to get sidetracked. I couldn’t help but think of the many times distraction had undermined me, personally and professionally, by tempting my focus away from the goal.

In 21 years, Jess has learned many things, but I do have a few decades of experience on her. My siblings and I have lived through some difficult times and have gotten a bit too familiar with illness, disability, death and fear. In the years since I’d last surfed, I had watched my aged parents fall and hurt themselves many times, and I’d developed a fear of falling. My brother and sister-in-law had also faced their own trials over those years, notably raising theirson who has autism, who is both lovable and a huge challenge.

Mr. Farmer, who’s surfed since he was in third grade, admitted to some fears of his own, but was philosophical about them. “Don’t let fear get in the way of living your dreams. It will handicap you,” he said. “Usually fear holds you back and creates anxiety. You should pretty much ignore it” — although he quickly pointed out he wasn’t encouraging me to be a daredevil and ride a giant wave beyond my ability.

“But what do I do when I tumble?” I asked.

“Fall flat,” he advised, which would keep me from getting scraped by any lava rocks. “Don’t dive head first. And be as graceful as you can.” (With a beachside photographer capturing every fall, I tried for grace, but I laughed when I looked at the photos.)

When it came time for the last wave, I deployed all of my surfing mentor’s advice, as well as my own experience. I popped up. I did a “Jessie” and caught the wave, surfing it all the way to the shore. Exhilarating. And then I fell — flat — since I didn’t know any other way to get off the board.

My brother’s wife, who witnessed this magnificent ride, had the last word of the morning after my head bobbed up from underneath the surf: “The next step after falling,” she said — learned as much from her life experience as from times on the board — “is getting up again.”

And again.

Steven Petrow, a Hillsborough, N.C., writer, is a regular contributor to Well.

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