On my 33rd birthday, I went skateboarding for the first time in my life. We were in Portland Oregon along the river walk, and I gleefully wobbled back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, with one foot on the board and one foot trailing.
The following day I went surfing at one of the most amazing surf spots on the Oregon coast. It was 65 degrees and I had rented a full body wetsuit with hood, gloves, and booties.
I had surfed once before in Costa Rica and once before on the Pacific Coast. Clearly I was in over my head, because I didn't understand why anyone would need to wear a full hood while surfing in August on the Pacific Coast. It was absolutely freezing cold, and more like snowboarding in winter than surfing in summer, for this full bred east coast girl.
I paddled out past one or two waves (scared as shit.) I was not aware of the severity of the danger of this little adventure of the heart, until I looked into the grey and black of the horizon, the freezing cold ocean, shivering in my full suit with my hood on, and up against a wave so large I wanted to leap from my body to the shore. I turned my rented surfboard around and started to paddle back into the shallow water.
When it occurred to me, a split second later that, even though I had turned my surfboard around and I was no longer facing the wave that scared the shit out of me, the wave had in fact not gone away, it was only bearing down upon me from behind in a fierce and inevitable way.
I started praying to God that I would make it back to shore before I drowned to death the day after my 33rd birthday, in an unfamiliar land.
When I emerged out of the surf, on the coast of Oregon on that extremely cold day in August, there was another surfer who had gotten pummeled by the wave, his board had crushed him in the surf, he had made it to shore, and his head was bleeding out on the sand in deep red rivers.
I was stunned by all of the blood.
We had hiked a mile into the cove where all the surfers go and so there was no immediate medical attention, except to wrap his bleeding head in a tshirt and send him back on the foot trail to get help.
I never got back in the ocean that day, even though my companion continued to surf, I sat in my wetsuit on the beach and watched the horizon.
I sat in utter humbleness, it was different than fear. I was humbled. I sat in awe.
It was enough to know that I was alive and this day I felt I was truly living. I hadn't done anything exceptional, I couldn't surf, that was certain. But I'd somehow shown up, and I'd felt the fear of pushing a personal threshold and I'd felt humbled by the reality of the world.
I felt alone, even though I wasn't alone. I was with a lover, and when my fear struck me dead on the beach, he had taken my bigger beginner board, and left his more advanced board with me. He spent the day pushing his own personal threshold beyond the black horizon of the surf.
This was enough to make me feel alive, too. I was aware of our distance, our pending ending, the black horizon of our relationship, and I felt alive, engaged, alone, and not finished with life.
I hadn't died from my fear, I hadn't drowned in the surf, I hadn't impressed anyone with my fearlessness, but I was not bleeding out on the sand and somehow I was centered within myself.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the coves on foot in silence looking for starfish and peeing in my wetsuit to keep myself warm. Somehow this was okay too, when faced with your own fear, and the black horizon of your pending end, things like peeing yourself to stay warm seem reasonable and on purpose, the skills of basic survival when alone and threatened by the silence.
These are the times that form new self identities, like growing a second self from the petri dish of your failures, somehow the new you rises up and begins to thrive as the old you is dissolved in the surf.