This Is Where it Breaks
Surfing through midlife.
“you are not too old and it is not too late to dive into your increasing depths where life calmly gives out its own secret“ — Rainer Maria Rilke
“Achievement is smaller than men think. What is large is the sky, the earth, the sea, and the soul.” — Ursula K. LeGuin
My intro to surfing in Santa Cruz came a few months after I moved, in early 2013. My husband’s friend took me to the beginner-friendly break with long, peeling, gentle waves. You can see the pier and hear sea lions barking. In the summer, screams from the boardwalk thrill-rides echo in the distance.
I was nervous. I loved swimming, loved the ocean. But I didn’t know what to do with the giant board, where to sit, how or when to paddle, or what constituted a desirable wave. I’d see whitewater coming my way and panic.
Still, I liked being out there, even if all I did was look for otters and float. The most time I could muster to go was a couple sessions a month because surfing wasn’t a “real” thing that I could do, nor worth investing time in because it would not contribute to my accomplishments. It would take me away from writing. I’d never be a good surfer, anyway, having started so late, at 33.
I’d moved west from Brooklyn to live with the man I would marry after a long-distance relationship. “Why would you leave New York?” my mother asked. “You’re dropping everything you worked so hard to achieve.”
The most time I could muster to go was a couple sessions a month because surfing wasn’t a “real” thing that I could do, nor worth investing time in because it would not contribute to my accomplishments. It would take me away from writing.
That was my one concern, too. But as a relentless optimist, arriving in Santa Cruz, a place I’d heard described as a “sleepy beach town,” where I knew no one besides my soon-to-be husband, I had a funny intuition that something else was there for me. Another, hidden reason why I needed to be here would reveal itself in time. Would it be an incredible connection, strike of inspiration, or stranger who would show up with a career-making opportunity?
Since my early twenties, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d had a singular, obsessive drive to become some kind of “famous writer,” as if anyone has any control over reaching a goal dependent on what others think of you. Yet I hoped my move West would bring some unforeseen good fortune that would lead to my longtime dream coming true (and prove my mother’s fears—and my own—wrong). Many contemporary well-loved writers lived in Santa Cruz: Karen Joy Fowler, Elizabeth McKenzie, even Jonathan Franzen, who also relocated from New York City for a partner, and in turn dove headlong into birdwatching. See, there were hidden reasons!
Does every writer who moves out of a metropolis and into a place surrounded by nature pick up a nature-related hobby, realize its wonders, and proceed to write about it endlessly?
For the next five years, I loved getting a chance at a surf session, but with my teaching and parenting schedule, it was an occasional thing. Then, when I was 39 and my second baby was old enough to be away from me but I was still on maternity leave from life, I walked into “Pilates with Emilie” at the gym.
I’d come here for the coaching session and I wasn’t going to bail on my enthusiastic new teacher. The waves seemed less scary than disappointing him with my amateur fears. I decided to trust him.
At the front of the room, I was surprised to find not a ballerina-like wisp of a woman but someone I assumed to be a substitute teacher, a linebacker-ish dude cracking jokes. He’d brought a miniature dog that spent the duration of the class on my mat. He was hilarious and entertaining, two words I never thought I’d associate with taking Pilates. Afterward I went over to ask where he usually taught. He handed me a card that said, Emile Hawley, Pilates—Surf—Wine. There was no “Emilie”–I’d misread her into existence. Emile’s family owned a winery and he was a Pilates and surfing teacher. “Oh,” I said. “One stop shopping.” I left Pilates with an organic red from the off-grid Sonoma vineyard and a plan for a surf lesson.“It’s not small,” Emile-not-Emilie said when I met him at the cliffs above the Pleasure Point surf break on a sunny, windless afternoon. I peered out at the waves. Not-small was an understatement. To me it looked downright massive. Which translated to scary. But I’d come here for the coaching session and I wasn’t going to bail on my enthusiastic new teacher. The waves seemed less scary than disappointing him with my amateur fears. I decided to trust him. I paddled out behind him, sticking as close to Emile as I could as we turtle-rolled through powerful whitewash, making our way to the break.
When he told me to start paddling, I didn’t even want to glance back to see the beast approaching lest I chicken out. As he pushed me into the right spot and yelled “up, up, up!” I scrambled to my feet. On that wave, I figured out how to trim—ride down the open face–and turn my board to get closer back to the energy source as Emile had told me to do. It was a totally different, revelatory experience, as if I’d been playing in the water for six years but only really surfed for the first time that day. It felt like… an achievement. But, approaching 40, I still often thought I was too old to hope for much progress, much less praise, even though Emile told me after the session that I did a good job.
Anyone who’s ever limited themselves by thinking they are too old for something should hear from a 60-year-old who just learned to surf Mavericks. Scrolling through my now surf-content-heavy Instagram feed at night, I came across a post by the legendary “Big Wave Bianca,” whose surf coaching client, Lionel Conacher, had set a goal to surf Mavericks for his 60th birthday. He’d succeeded in catching his first wave.
With waves as high as 60 feet, it’s completely different from the three- to five-foot faces I enjoy; still I called Conacher to ask how and why, at 60, he decided to surf Mavericks. He described himself as a high-level athlete “in a former life,” so he knew he needed a coach for such a large endeavor. He reached out to Valenti, and first had to prove to her he wasn’t just some thrill-seeker, that he would “put the work in,” and respect the wave the way people who surf there all the time do, “not in a ‘localism’ way,” he said, but about “respect and appreciation.”
I noticed after I began frequenting My Secret Spot that it was especially kind for someone like me, a middle-aged person who didn’t start in childhood. I made friends there—of my generation, younger, and older; some regulars at My Secret Spot, old enough to have had hip replacements that made popping up impossible, surfed impressively on stand-up paddleboards.
He took breathholding courses and a Patagonia training course that’s required before they will sell you the inflation vest. He did jet-ski training and bought a jet-ski for Valenti because he saw the women surfers were lacking in tow-in equipment and support. He trained at paddling in on a “small day” (20 feet!) He wiped out and was held underwater for about 20 seconds (an eternity when you’re underwater!). And then, he triumphantly made his first wave–with more to follow. He tells me that another Mavericks surfer, Christy Davis, was turning 69 that day, and is actually the oldest person on record to surf there. But, Conacher adds, Davis has been surfing that wave for three decades. “I’m the oldest to surf it for the first time,” he said good-humoredly.
Conacher told me a surfer-friend called him an “Ultra-VAL”—VAL being a surf-world term for Vulnerable Adult Learner. It sounds like an insult, but he turned it into a compliment. “I always tried to learn new things,” Conacher said. “Adults are self-conscious. But I never had that issue. I liked to challenge myself. I have done extreme sports. Surfing is the most difficult.”
“But also the most worth it,” I added.
While deep into the depths of teaching me much-needed improvements in my surf skills, Emile asked, “Have you ever surfed at [here what I will very originally call “My Secret Spot]?” I hadn’t. It turned out to be a beautiful, tucked-away break that is less obvious than spots you can see from the cliffs.
I noticed after I began frequenting My Secret Spot that it was especially kind for someone like me, a middle-aged person who didn’t start in childhood. I made friends there—of my generation, younger, and older; some regulars at My Secret Spot, old enough to have had hip replacements that made popping up impossible, surfed impressively on stand-up paddleboards. There was a crew of women a few years older than I, who have been surfing for decades, affectionately referred to by others as “the mermaids.” There were otters and occasionally dolphins. I wasn’t too old or too late. I just hadn’t seen yet that I was in good company.
Scrolling through my now surf-content-heavy Instagram feed at night, I came across a post by the legendary “Big Wave Bianca,” whose surf coaching client, Lionel Conacher, had set a goal to surf Mavericks for his 60th birthday. He’d succeeded in catching his first wave.
During quarantine, seemingly millions of us started surfing daily. The ocean was a place to escape the doomscrolling, the virus. A place where things looked the same as they always did, albeit the one place that managed to increase in crowd-size during the pandemic. It was suddenly not just something I liked to do, but the only thing I wanted to do.
I hit some kind of breaking point. Maybe it was the pandemic. Maybe it was motherhood, not sudden but slowly sinking in as my kids turned six and three. I had wondered, would I ever get there? Except I wasn’t even sure where “there” was anymore, what I was looking for, what I needed, or why I was here.
At 42, the aspirations I hyper-focused on for so long suddenly held less appeal, while formerly so-called “trivial pursuits” took on increased significance. Was this my midlife crisis? I wondered. Pandemic-related burnout? Mid-career burnout? At the same time, in those moments on the waves, I felt so alive. I’ve never felt more peaceful and free than when trimming high on a wave, trying to get to the nose of my longboard for the occasional fleeting “hang five” that will be the highlight of any given day.
Surfing won’t help my family’s bank account. It won’t win me any praise or awards, but it taught me something I had not yet managed to learn: to pursue my passions–surfing and writing—for their own sake, for the love of doing it, rather than living in a state of constant hopefulness for external validation. I had even worried that writing about surfing, especially since I wasn’t a pro, was trivial. But one recent day while sitting in the ocean, my mind wandering between sets, I remembered that Franzen writes about birdwatching, and that both surfing and birdwatching are connected as front-row seats to the climate crisis – extinction! tsunamis! -- and therefore not trivial at all.
During quarantine, seemingly millions of us started surfing daily. The ocean was a place to escape the doomscrolling, the virus.
I wasn’t straying from or abandoning my writing by surfing after all. The ocean, I understood, was a pivotal place to work on it. And so, at 42, I’ve become something in addition to a writer that my earlier self would never have imagined: a surfer. To borrow phrasing from Joan Didion, Not a good surfer (nor the most Instagrammable), not a bad surfer. Just a surfer. (Didion was writing about writing, in “Why I Write.”) In the same essay she states, “In short, I tried to think. I failed.”
I tried to surf, and…still trying. Beyond the physical, surfing is an escape from having to think, and yet in this place where the mind can depart, best thoughts can arise with your eyes on the horizon, hopeful that this is where it breaks.