I got to go to the beach last week. A warm, humid Atlantic beach. It came about as a combination of deadlines that could be pushed off, an airline voucher about to expire and the generosity of my parents who let me spontaneously bunk in with them at their ocean-side hotel for a few days of bliss.
All the things I usually love about the ocean were there – the humid scent of salt and fish, the sound of waves crashing, the changing tides, seabirds swooping. But there was one thing more this time.
They appeared around three o’clock on my first day there, and I imagined they might be high school boys, sprung from class at the end of the day, or perhaps college students, balancing mind with body. They were all male that first day, and all clad in wetsuits.
I had heard that the water was so unseasonably warm that Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish had popped up along the coast, and indeed, as we walked along the shore, my dad and I saw bright blue jellied bladders stranded by the last high tide.
But these surfers stood at the shore, board in hand, eye on the horizon and then they stepped out into the surf.
Twice I was brave enough to actually let the waves wash over my ankles. Only twice.
They walked out against the waves, with the final crash of water against shore apparently the hardest barrier to break through. At a certain point, they climbed astride their boards and swam out with them. Sometimes waves crashed over their heads and I held my breath until they emerged in the next trough. Other times, they rode atop the crest of a wave and over it as they took their boards out to sea.
And then, perhaps a hundred and fifty metres off shore, they rested there, sometimes near other surfers – one time I counted more than a dozen of them – and sometimes on their own. The waves were high and choppy; the television said the waves were ten feet high most days.
Suddenly after having let a lot of waves pass them by, a surfer would suddenly be up—and then just as quickly be down again. Or perhaps the wave would take them far along its spine. One time I saw a surfer ride a wave all the way to the shore.
Their bodies were slim and compact. Many of them stood on the shore – especially the older ones – and stretched out every muscle before they headed out into the fog and spray.
I could not take my eyes off them. I wondered how they chose one wave over another, and believed it had to be by instinct and feel.
I could not decide whether they had more courage or foolishness than I did—and concluded it was likely both.
More than once, I saw an older person walking the shore approach a surfer to ask “what it’s like out there today?” On a quiet beach, they were our bright stars, our deep fascination.
Besides hanging out with my parents and breathing in sea air, I was on this trip to sort out a novel I’m writing, and which has been plaguing me for more than two years. I know what happens in this book and have written a lot of it. The challenge with this book is one I’ve never faced before: how to tell the story, and more specifically who tells the story. It has made me think of one of those hedge mazes or labyrinths, and I feel like I’ve been walking the edge of the maze for a long time, looking for the hidden entrance.
One sunny afternoon last week, I planted myself on a beach chair in the middle of the beach, while the surfers bobbed about and then flew across the water just off shore, and I both let my mind go and made it work hard, drawing notes in the sand with a twig and making notes on a sand-dusted pad of paper as I sorted the questions out. And I think I did it, too, even if it took a badly sunburned back of my neck to get there.
I realized, too, the parallels between the surfers and me. Just as nothing was really stopping me from crossing that space between shore and sea other than a lack of bravery and folly, nothing more stops any of us from crossing into the place of story—and yet only some of us do it. The rest of us sit on the shore and marvel at them, wondering how they dare, how they do it. For the surfer—or the writer—those stretching exercises are necessary and so are the quick falls into the sea when the wave doesn’t take you as far as you thought it might, instinct or no instinct. There are sharks in the water. There are jellyfish. There are always mouthfuls of saltwater and moments of panic at being over your head.
But there is also the glory of feeling a wave rise beneath you, knowing that it can carry you far and that you can ride it out, not in control of it, but letting it take you where it will.