Sunrise on the beach in Kill Devil HillsI’ve never been a beach person. I like the beach, but I’ve never felt a particular draw to the beach or found that my soul is calmed there more than in other places. But when I saw a friend post about the Siren Surf Camp for women, held this summer at Farmdog Surf School in Kill Devil Hills, I knew I had to go.

For three days we started with yoga on the beach and then hit the waves until late morning. On the first day the waves were perfect for learning on (or so said our AirBnB owner). I made it up to my feet about twice and felt really good about it. The second day the waves were a little rougher and I was frustrated that I seemed to be worse than I was during my first tries. The third day my body was so tired and the waves were so much more tough that I ended up not taking that many trips out on my board, certainly not as many as I would have liked.

There’s a reason your stereotypical surfer spouts pearls of wisdom relating life to the sea. Every single second of surfing is a life lesson, a message from the Universe, a metaphor for life. To say that my experience was life-changing is an understatement. The emotions and epiphanies that came to the surface I want desperately to carry into my every day life. I was better, wiser, stronger when I was at surf camp. Here’s what I learned:

The hardest part is paddling out. The first time I popped to my feet on my board, I was so shocked at how not difficult it was to stand on my board that I fell off. The part I thought would be the hardest – riding the wave once I was up – turned out to be the easiest step of all. The most exhausting, impossible part was paddling out. Unlike the movies (looking at you, Blue Crush) beginning surfing happens on a very wide board. You use your arms like paddles with your scooped hands on the end, and if you’re doing this at a leisurely pace on a still lake, it’s probably not so bad. But when you’re racing to get out ahead of a wave that is about to roll down on top of your head, it is exhausting. If you want to ride a wave, you have to do the tough work first.

Sometimes you punch through the waves, and sometimes you let them pass. Sometimes paddling out is an exercise in futility; no matter how hard you paddle the waves keep pushing you back to shore. Now there are some times that you can push harder, paddle faster, and get past them. And there are some times that it’s a smarter idea to save your energy, grip your board, and wait for that particular set of nasty waves to pass you by. The metaphors just make themselves here, folks.

Pop up to your “up” and enjoy the ride. There are times in life that call for a slow rise – bread, getting out of bed on Sunday mornings, being a groundhog on February 2. But in surfing, you pop up. One minute you’re paddling on your stomach and then in one deft movement you need to jump to your feet to ride your board. This takes arm strength, core strength and definitely a good helping of instinct. On the first day of camp I got to my feet. By the third day when the waves were a lot tougher, I just couldn’t do it. My body was tired, and I just didn’t have the strength to get to my feet. I was only able to get to my knees, and every time I tried to get to my feet from my knees, I fell in spectacular fashion. So I got to my knees and stayed there, and was able to ride a wave or two in. I got to where I was at my best and did my best, and it was awesome.

Expectations are dicks.The first day I surfed, I had no expectations. My only real goal was to have fun, and I did. The next day the waves were different, and while I wasn’t sore my body was very tired so doing the work was even harder. But because I’d gotten to my feet once already I expected to be able to do it again. Nope. Which frustrated me. Which made it harder to do the work. And frustrated me more. I just wanted to let go of my expectations — I was hyper-aware that they were what was standing in my way — but I couldn’t figure out how to get around my own brain. Stupid brain.

Learning to surf at Farmdog Surf SchoolThe best part of surfing sometimes isn’t even the surfing. This was something my instructor Skyla mentioned when I was frustrated with my worn out body. She said some of her best days surfing involved very little actual surfing and were more about hanging out with her friends on the water, beers on the beach at sunset, and just enjoying the beautiful day with great people. Sometimes you find yourself in a place doing a thing and it turns out that thing isn’t the most important part of it. Enjoy the moments you’re and what they offer.

There are choices, and there are excuses, and only you know the difference. I went to surf camp with a friend who, halfway through the second day, decided not to keep surfing. It just wasn’t her jam. So she jumped in the waves and swam with us and cheered us on as we shredded the gnar.* On the final day of camp she took a stand up paddle board out on her own and just did her thing. She felt good about her choices, and we respected her for making them. That’s how you know they aren’t excuses. But in your life, you’ll say things like, “I need the sleep. I’ll exercise tomorrow.” That could be a choice, or it could be an excuse. Either way – be honest with yourself, and see if you can stick to making choices.

Overall what I learned (and this is no major new discovery, just something that’s hard to remember day to day) is that you cannot control the flow of things around you. You can only use your instinct to decide how you will flow with or against what’s happening around you. Sometimes you’ll be wrong, but that doesn’t mean you’ll keep being wrong. The waves just keep on coming, so if you sit a few out you haven’t missed them all. And if you choose not to ride the waves on a board, well, you do you.

*Or the gnar shredded us. Whatever.

Do you have an activity that brings life lessons into clear view? Is it surfing? Do you want to go surfing with me?