I tell people that we’re lucky to live a stone’s throw from the Pacific. It’s a lie.
The ocean: most people who claim to love it don’t live anywhere near it. They go to the beach for a week in the summer, maybe on the weekends if they live within an hour’s drive. They are not Ocean People, for one simple reason - the ocean has never tried to kill them. I’ve been held down by fifteen-foot waves that snapped my 9 foot long fiberglass board in half like a twig. On my last scuba dive, my equipment failed at around 85 feet. I’ve been bounced off of razor-sharp reefs, and have been speared in the skull by errant surfboards. I’ve been dragged out to sea by insidious rip currents and gotten hopelessly lost in vertigo-inducing fog banks.
I moved down to Pacific Beach sixteen years ago. Since then I’ve married, had one kid, then another. We moved north, to the fringes of San Diego county, but never east – I’ve never lived more than 10 minutes’ walk from the sand during this time. Every night for the past sixteen years I've fallen asleep to the hiss and crash of waves breaking on the shore; every morning I wake to the shrieks of hungry gulls. Living by the ocean is living on the border between the world we know and the one that we dream.
The other morning, Lucas came out to the patio to watch me slap a new coat of wax on my surfboard. He asked if he could help; I happily obliged. “Don’t push down hard”, I told him. “Nice and light, from side to side; that way it gets nice and bumpy, and doesn’t smear.” “Dad,” he asked, “is surfing hard?” He’s got that habit, the one shared by all four-year-old boys, of asking the same questions over and over again, sometimes in the span of a minute. I give him the same answer, as always. “Yep. But if you stick to it, you’ll learn. It takes what we call commitment.” I think of waking on a winter's morning before sunrise, driving up and down long stretches of empty coastal highway, tugging on my cold and damp wetsuit with numb hands and frosted breath. “Surfing’s fun, huh?” Old muscle aches return, as does the terror of being held down by invisible, impossibly strong hands, lungs burning. “Oh, it is, and much more. You’ll see.”
I caught my first wave when I was a year shy of 30. What I remember is the silence. Hearing nothing but my heartbeat as I slid across the face of a gently peeling left. Feeling that I had been let in on a precious secret. That was the day I swore I’d never move away from the shore. My kids will grow up in the company of dolphins and seals, ever-present sand between their toes and salt in their hair.
Lucky? That’s the lie. Luck implies chance. This is the life that we chose.