California: Learning to Surf

We are now sponsored by Roxy. J/K.

We are now sponsored by Roxy. J/K.

Believe it or not, I waited until my 37th birthday to visit California for the first time. The trip was part of a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts. I had been working with Summer McStravick, a spiritual healer and life coach, since the fall before my husband died. She was holding a retreat near Los Angeles for a few of her students, and it happened to fall right over my birthday weekend—I took it as a sign and booked my first solo vacation in my entire life. Surfing was one of the suggested activities, and for some reason, I became obsessed with learning to surf as my birthday present to myself. 

The whole flight to Cali, I kept envisioning cruising to my first surf lesson in a mustang convertible. Driving up and down the coastline, my blonde hair flying and messy—freedom. It also terrified me. When the plane touched down in Cali, I almost ran to the Hertz counter.

“Any chance you have a Mustang?” I asked. “It’s my first time in California and my birthday.” I grinned stupidly at the lady behind the counter. 

“We have exactly one—it’s red, and it’s a convertible,” the Hertz lady said. 

“Perfect, I’ll take it.” 

My alter-ego “Badass” was doing a happy dance. My pragmatic, mama-side was wondering how exactly we were going to navigate this thing through Los Angeles traffic and how exactly this was all happening. Had I really left my four daughters at home with my mom? I felt a million miles away from my minivan and my life in Charlotte. 

After finally figuring out that the convertible actually had to be in park in order to take the top down, I was on my way. I turned the radio up full blast when I found “Hotel California” on the dial, and removed the scrunchie from my long hair. Tangles be damned. I felt 22, like I had ended up in some alternate version of my life that could have been if I hadn’t met Neal that July 4th.

I made my surf school reservations before the flight out, doing what I normally do and feeling my way into finding the right place for lessons with a combination of intuition, blind guessing, and picking the person who had the nicest phone demeanor. I booked with a long-haired, hippie guy named Geoff that had been surfing in California for decades. 

The only time I could squeeze my lesson in was right before the first session of the retreat started, which meant getting up in the middle of the night and heading into Los Angeles before traffic started. I watched my first California sunrise in the rearview mirror of my rented, apple red Mustang convertible. Traffic snaked its way through overpasses and bridges—more cars than I have ever seen in my entire life. It took three hours to drive the 42 miles to the beach, but in my mind, it was an instant. 

I arrived in the parking lot at Newport Beach as per my instructions. Geoff, a large, middle aged, surfer dude—like something you would see walking out of “Point Break” (the original version)—peered up from me from a pile of wet suits in the middle of the parking lot. 

“Start digging around, girl—you need a big one for your royal Tallness.” 

I sifted through the damp wetsuits like I had done this dozens of times and tried to pretend like this wasn’t a totally surreal, borderline magical, and completely awesome blip in normal Amanda world. My hands brushed a slick navy long suit that said Body Glove in big letters across the front of the chest. 

“This one?” It was a statement and a question. Geoff nodded and informed that there were no dressing rooms on the beach, so I would just have to put it on in the parking lot. I had worn my bikini under my clothes, but I felt very weird pulling my sundress off and changing into my wet suit in front of this almost stranger. 

What the hell, I thought. 

I pulled off my dress and started painstakingly pulling the suit up inch by inch my legs, belly, and arms, and reached behind my back to zip it all the way all the way up to my neck. 

“Nice fit, your Tallness.” The middle age surfer dude was so chill it was hard to be nervous, but I was. I spent the next 45 minutes learning how to basically perform updog on a surfboard and then jump back into “tricky foot” surf position. He told me when I got on the waves, I should not hesitate—that if I tried to ease my way up, I would fall off the board. 

“Don’t worry, I do yoga,” I said, nodding solemnly as if this were the answer to all of the things. I was slightly terrified, but there was no turning back now. A small, blonde teenager walked up holding the tiniest surfboard I have ever seen. 

“Hi, I’m Sara. I’m taking you out today.” I looked over at the surf dude with mild shock. How was this petite person supposed to get us both up and running on the waves, in the actual ocean, and us all surviving in one piece? She didn’t look much older than my oldest daughter Abigail. 

“Don’t worry,” Geoff said, “Sara’s got you. Shred it, ladies.” 

Shortly thereafter, I learned that my fears regarding Sara’s surfing and teaching ability were completely ridiculous. Life had somehow lined it up that my teenage surfing instructor was none other than Sara Taylor—as in, the Sara Taylor—one of the top five ranked competitive surfers in the world. As in...THE Sara Taylor

“It’s a good sign we have the same last names, you know.” I said. It felt like Neal was giving me the thumbs up that I was more than likely going to live to surf another day.  I tried to calm some of my nervous energy down, even though I still felt a little twitchy. 

I noticed that the water was perfectly calm and still. 

“This is the best surfing day I have seen all summer—it’s the perfect day to learn to surf,” Sara said. I’m not sure if that was true or not or if she said that to all her students, but her quiet confidence reassured me. 

We paddled out past the breakers, and she began to tell me about herself, her life, and why surfing was a metaphor for all things. “You ride the wave, but if you are too late or hesitate, it all falls apart. When you see one that is meant for you, don’t wait, get on it and paddle hard.” 

I wish I could say I stood up and went all the way to shore on the first try, but that didn’t happen. I rode that wave in in updog position looking like a baby seal riding a surfboard. I didn’t let go until the bottom of the board scraped sand.

“Pop up, Amanda. Stop hesitating…just trust.” 

It took maybe 15 tries before my legs made it under my body. Then something happened to me. I’m not sure if it was the water, the power of the waves, or the feel of the board underneath my feet, but I felt part of something bigger than myself. The magic of how everything aligned for me to be in that exact moment, the power of my strong body, how, at almost-40 I was surfing in the Pacific Ocean for the very first time. I felt proud and humbled. Proud of myself for trying, for being brave and maybe a little stupid, for having enough of my heart left still intact to trust and try.

At the end of the lesson, I said goodbye to Sara, thanked her for my spectacular introduction to surfing, and asked her if she had ever considered “adventure nannying,” because I would definitely hire her to take care of my four daughters. I loved the lesson so much, I called and rescheduled another one for the morning I went back home to Charlotte, just so I could fit a few more waves in. 

I met Summer in person for the first time a few hours later.  She was beautiful, blonde, and brilliant.  She had walked so much of my journey with me—first as a mentor and guide, when I first began searching for answers and redefining who I was, and then later by helping me navigate my grief journey after losing Neal. To meet her in person was surreal—she felt like a soul sister. My main goals for going to the conference were to have an adventure, celebrate my birthday on my own terms, and to get a game plan for redefining myself as newly-widowed single mom. I knew I wanted to travel the world with my daughters, write, teach yoga, and heal my heart enough to someday fall in madly in love again. You know, just your basic, complete life do-over.

The conference center was a paradox—part exclusive resort, part Spartan spiritual retreat center. The attendees were mostly female, successful, creative, and spiritual. We shared a bond of wanting to create our life from the inside out, believed that life is magic and that we had the power to choose to create what we really wanted if we were brave enough to try.