52: Learning to Stand

52: Learning to Stand

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Learning to Stand

The way to develop self-confidence is to do the thing you fear and get a record of successful experiences behind you.

~William Jennings Bryan

When my well-meaning friend e-mailed me an article about a guy in Australia who teaches women to surf, I grimaced when I read that awful phrase “of a certain age.” I wished that I a) had enough guts to try, b) had enough money to get myself to Australia, and c) had a body I would dare put into a bathing suit — an intimidating yet often overlooked aspect of this death-defying sport. In one efficient movement, my index finger hit “Delete.” Poof! The thought of learning to surf at this point in my life was buried. Temporarily.

I was born in California, so everyone assumes that I grew up surfing. I can… surf the net, channel surf, and couch surf. So what if I can’t get up on a board?

Plenty of looks come my way when people learn of my inadequacy. Over time, I have learned to ignore them. What I never learned to ignore was wishing that I could surf.

Last year, on the sandy beaches of Máncora, Peru, I watched the surfers with awe. A teensy, dark-haired girl, probably about six years old, carried a heavy board by herself, then jumped into the water and paddled off effortlessly. How I admired her confidence! A few moments later, she easily caught a wave and the attention of the older surfers around her. She was fabulous! The anguish of never even trying washed over me. I decided to take matters into my own hands — and go get lunch.

Before I could reach the restaurant, I stumbled across a “Learn to Surf” bungalow. No harm in asking, I thought. The man’s tongue hung out of his mouth as he watched the gorgeous thong-clad girls nearby. I scurried away, my ego bruised. You’re too old to surf, my doubting self chided. Another uneasy truth resurfaced: I don’t have medical insurance. That nagging inner voice, even after having been squelched for decades, would not give up and coached, You know no one here. Try!

I focused on the more important issue: my growling stomach. I spied a fish stand and headed that way. There stood another stand, filled with the “real deal”: three Latino surfers. Having spent much time around surfers, I can distinguish “real” ones from wannabes. These dudes’ authenticity bounced off them! Like a gentle, invisible lasso pulling me in, one whispered, “Wouldn’t you love to surf?”

My older self’s face said in Spanish, “Sure, but that boat sailed about thirty years ago.”

He looked utterly surprised, assuring me, “You can do it. You’re in great shape.” Latinos know how to flatter! My ego deeply massaged, I actually began to contemplate this life-long obsession. Would today be the day?

“I don’t know, I mean…” I started, sounding like a scared bimbette.

“Mi amor, if you don’t get up, you don’t pay.”

What? I looked for the hidden camera. Instead, he threw a wet suit my way and introduced me to Melo, whose job it would be to make sure I stood up on the board. Before I had time to back out, Melo encouraged me, making me feel like the reina de las olas (queen of the waves) that he said I was.

After practicing a while in the sand, where I easily stood up, it was time to move the show to the ocean. I followed his broad shoulders and was thankful he carried the board for me. I was liking this surfing thing! Reading my thoughts, he flashed me a reassuring smile. Maybe because I had to concentrate so hard to understand (the entire lesson was in South American Spanish), I didn’t have time to be terrified — until I looked at the first wave. I swear it grew as I stared at it. Transfixed, I could not move. The soundtrack from Jaws played in my ears. I was going to drown!

Undaunted, Melo coached me. “Do exactly what you did on land. Don’t overthink it.”

My brain froze; there were so many things to remember. This is my dumbest idea ever! I will never be able to…

“Arriba!” he yelled, our code for “Get up right now!”

Boom! A miracle occurred. Squatting, I dragged my other foot like he had instructed me. I was up on the board. Standing and everything! Oh… my… God! After a lifetime spent wishing but being too scared, I had finally done it! Earlier, Melo had cautioned that the second our minds wander and we start to think about something else, a beginner topples. Were I able to focus on anything but being in the moment, I would have jumped up and down.

I was surfing.

What had I been so frightened of? Splash! As I hit the water, I loved what I had done. I grinned as I had never grinned. I couldn’t help myself and screamed, “Yesssss!”

Ah, shoot. Now I’d have to pay the owner.

Melo looked at me and beamed. He high-fived me, bursting with pride. “Mi reina!”

What an utterly amazing emotion, unlike anything I had ever experienced. How I wanted to feel that high of accomplishment again. And again. My old pal, self-doubt, snuck back in. Was that just a fluke?

“Ready to try another one?” Melo wanted to know, and my ecstatic self could only nod. I could barely think, Let’s give it a go, when… Boom! Up I went again. What did people find so hard about this? Who knew? I was a natural. Me! I wasn’t a natural at anything.

Why, oh why, did I wait so long to learn? I was kicking myself. I almost hit Melo. Hold on! Wait a second… He was on the back of my board, stabilizing it for me! No wonder I had gotten up easily.

He grinned. I grinned. The secret was out. “So, would you like to try one all by yourself?”

That next wave was the enemy! I couldn’t even get to the crouching position, never mind standing. Perhaps, like having learned to Rollerblade in my thirties, it would take longer.

As we waited for the next wave, the discussion turned to my boyfriend and why he wasn’t here. My sexy, younger teacher was asking me to go dancing later that night. Ah, surfing lessons — Latino-style!

Safely back on land, I was thrilled that the shrewd owner had asked for my camera earlier and had snapped a shot of me on top of the board. Now I wanted one of my fabulous instructor and me. Winking at me, Melo gave me his e-mail address. “Promise me you’ll come back tomorrow, mi reina. I did.

Although I grapple with self-doubt, I want to become a good surfer, loving the sense of victory every time I manage to get up, whether I stay up for a second or for longer. After my best run yet, I wisely got off the board… beaming… until the next time.

~JC Sullivan

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