Sometimes the best distraction from our own anxiety and fears is to get out of our heads. I walked to Spirit Session 3, surprised by my ability to switch gears from the “I”, ego-self, into the “we”, community self. It was like a breath of fresh air in my mind after several days of tumult.
Instead of thinking about all the anxieties in my own life—my impending move, my depression, my physical soreness, my fears about starting my own business, my anxiety—all I could think about was being there for the girls. It was a gift, a wonderful reminder, that one of the easiest ways to get out of our own self-obsession is to help others.
I arrive early today, around 11:40am. I ask one of the mentors how the waves were this morning. She says they mostly sat in the ocean. I know it’s because of the morning high tide, the lull created by too much water and not enough power in the Waikīkī water. I also know that the afternoon will bring better waves for me and the girls to catch.
We circle up, saying a food that starts with our name, and I am spicy ahi Savannah. I’ve been craving a poke bowl lately, especially after chatting with one of the mentors about the best poke bowl place to take her friend who is visiting (Tamuras wins my vote, every time).
Even better, we have a guest speaker from the Sex Abuse Treatment Center in Kapi‘olani hospital which has a dedicated 24-hour anonymous hot-line, medical services, and walk-in counselor appointments for anyone struggling with violence and abuse or fearing for their safety. Part of their campaign is the Respect campaign, and our guest speaker begins by asking us all what respect means to us.
One girl says it is the “opposite of being rude,” another says it’s “treating other’s the way you want to be treated”. We have a roundtable discussion, all sitting cross-legged in the grass below swaying palm trees, about boundaries and safety-planning. I mention my own relationship to boundaries, how one of my greatest lessons has been to listen to my gut instinct, to remember that I am knowledgeable about what is safe and healthy for me.
I remember being a teenager. I remember feeling social pressures to be and act certain ways, to allow people into my life who I didn’t want in my life, really. I remember how difficult it was to set boundaries and vocalize my opinions. I hope it is easier for these girls knowing they have a place like the Sex Abuse Treatment Center to go to or call.
I think about the times I did not respect myself as a teenager, how hard it was to overcome those obstacles created by my lack of self-respect, and I am glad that we are teaching these young girls that respect is not taboo, that we all deserve respect.
After the discussion, we chat about today’s theme, which is falling well, a theme I can never get enough of. I share the philosophy I hold closest to my heart, especially on days when I can’t seem to stay on my board, on days when I paddle out and things aren’t lining up right for me:
“the best surfer is the one having the most fun in the water”
I want these girls to know that they are imperfect, and that the best part of learning to surf is having fun doing it.
We talk about how getting back up is the up-side of falling because falling teaches us an incredible amount about what more we need to learn. We also talk about how falling and getting back up is a sign of strength, and how getting back up is always an option, whether in school, with family, or on a surfboard.
My mentee and I are excited as ever to get in, while some of the other mentees are hesitant, a bit unwilling, but paddle out anyway. We all paddle out as a family in our blue jerseys, for the third Saturday in a row.
I predicted correctly that the waves would get better, and it is more chaotic than usual, thanks to everyone else who checked the surf report that morning, Surfline reassuring us all that the waves and conditions were going to be epic.
I fall more than ever, and laugh equally as much. One of the surf instructors brought his 6’ board, thinking the waves would be bigger, and I trade my 9’2” with him for it, catching a couple whitewash waves just to say I did.
Then my mentee and I swap, she giving me her 8’ and I give her the 6’; we are playing musical surfboards, experimenting with our skill levels.
As always, I share tips with the girls, about how to sit up further or farther back on the board, how to paddle back out, even giving advice to a woman who is not part of our group. She is afraid that people will get mad at her for being a novice.
I reassure her that the most important part of starting out in Waikīkī, where the assumption is that most everyone is learning and highly inexperienced, is to be polite and apologize. I remind others that momentum is their best friend for punching through the rolling whitewash, and staying straight is critical for making it through the sets.
One of the mentees gets flipped, and I can tell she is floundering a bit, a little scared. I paddle over to her so both our boards are facing straight towards the shore, but parallel to each other to avoid collisions. She can’t get her board flipped over, so we flip it together after waiting for 2 more waves to crash past us. I don’t want her to become afraid of surfing, as I did when I was younger.
It’s a wonderful reminder to my surfing-self that everyone has different limits, limits which are our own, and are perfectly reasonable. Everyone has their version of challenging, which varies depending on skill level. She is not afraid, and paddles back out once we’ve gotten her back on her board, ready to catch another wave right at the peak.
I catch another wave in on the 8’ which is surprisingly easy to ride thanks to how wide it is, and one of the girls who didn’t get in the water last week is paddling, slowly and tiredly, towards shore. After each wave she caught that day, she proclaimed she would not be catching another.
Then, we all cheered her back out to us, and she caught another one, contrary to her own proclamation. She did this multiple times. After each wave she would paddle out, saying that was it, she was done, only to turn around and paddle when the surf instructor pushed her, riding the wave all the way in.
Since we were getting close to the end of our hour, I didn’t think I needed to tell her to paddle out again. I was tired too, so I could imagine this time she was serious about paddling in.
I faced out towards the horizon, parallel to her, the nose of her board facing the shore.
I looked at her, smiling.
“Tired?” I asked.
She smiled and nodded.
“Stoked?!” I asked.
She smiled, just a little bigger, and nodded.
It was a priceless moment; one I don’t want to ever forget.
This girl, who on the first week showed up sulking and grumpy, not wanting in the least to be here, was stoked and surfing only 2 sessions later—what more could you ask for in a day of helping girls learn to surf?
My little mentee and I caught a couple more, getting tired. Her ever-wide smile never left her face, even after a couple tumbles and close encounters with other beginning surfers. The kind of resilience each of these girls possesses is indescribable.
We all head back in to create Spirit cards, little cards which, on week 6, we will fill out with kind messages to each other and share with each other on week 7 or 8. I draw a stick-figure girl getting barreled, with a sun and palm tree on the left-side of the card. My mentee writes the message, “turn your frown into a crown,” on hers.
Then it is journaling time.
We write about the conditions, the breezy wind and 3-4 foot faces.
1. Did you wipeout today? How did it feel?
– great, because we all got back up
2. What did you learn from your mistakes?
– my student is stumped on this one, we talk about how to avoid purling, and what we learn from wiping out about where to place ourselves on the board
– leaning less, because we kept tipping ourselves over on the big boards
3. Do you think you tested your limits today?
– my mentee asks what testing her limits means. I tell her it is trying something difficult, or doing something more challenging, like her catching waves on a 6’ instead of her usual 8’
– she smiles, realizing she did test her own limits today.
4. What is today’s theme?
– falling well
5. In what other areas of life can you learn to fall well?
– she says school, I tell myself I can learn to fall well with my depression
– we are imperfect, but we get back up, in anything we do, and try again
6. What does it feel like to live aloha
– she writes, “lucky to live in Hawaii
– I think to myself, “this”
Finally, it is lunchtime. I have eaten snacks before we paddled out, and don’t feel like eating a sub sandwich, which one of the girls notices.
She asks me if I stay so skinny by not eating. I reply that I have lots of food at home, and that I exercise often to look this way. I am uncomfortable with being asked this question, as always, because of my experience with my eating disorder.
It’s hard to know what to say to young girls who look up to you about something like health, when you’ve struggled with it yourself for so long. It’s difficult to negotiate this territory.
I don’t want to advocate something destructive or unhealthy.
I simply tell her I’m not hungry, but plan to eat when I get home, which is true.
Then, in the way of teenagers who want a bit of shock-value, which I recognize because I used to do the same thing, she says she used hard drugs to be skinny.
I laugh, lightheartedly, and tell her that I used to, too, but exercise is free and much better in the long-term. She pauses, thinks about it, and we continue to eat.
I want these girls to know they are not the only ones who have had struggles with addiction, depression, and anxiety. I want them to know they are not alone, but I most deeply want them to know that there are other ways to find security and release.
I want to tell her how sad I feel, so often, how my own toxic relationship with an ex-boyfriend practically destroyed me, and that she is not alone, that none of them are.
But, for now, I just smile with her, and then a young girl asks us what birth control is, and we are rolling laughing as we talk about tampons, and being women, and how our bodies, and I realize that commiserating over the difficulties is one way to help these young women, but another option is to laugh with them, to share in joy, rather than connect through sorrows.
I think that both are present in this program. We have the ability to meet these girls where they are at, but to also bolster them up, to provide a 4-hour distraction from everything else they are carrying. I know today was a 4-hour window of freedom for me. I know today was a 4-hour opportunity to feel connected and understood without having to go into details.
There’s something about sharing the ocean with others that is inexplicably powerful, incredibly sacred, while simultaneously being silly, easy-going, and uncomplicated.
We mālama ‘aina and, due to the traffic closures for a big Waikīkī event, walk the girls over to the Zoo to get picked up by parents. I hug my little mentee, one more time, waving goodbye and heading to my car, parked by the Shell parking lot.
I can’t wait for next Saturday.