My Grandmother was the kind of woman who did the twist around her living room to Johnny O’Keefe, roared around the roads like Cruella De Ville and spent every other moment outdoors whilst intermittently echoing around the valley for yelling at whoever was in the firing line; my Grandfather.. her donkeys.. My sister and I… herself – it depended on the day. We called her Grandma.
I’m thinking of her as I float in ridiculously sublime conditions at Port Beach, near Freo. She’d expect me to head up to the beach soon and start tanning. She loved a good tan. I’d cringe as she would nostalgically inform me of the times in her youth when she would “lather herself in baby oil and bake for hours”. “Darling, I was so dark” she’d slap my leg in delight as she walked down memory lane.
I’m floating on my back, my toes pointed to the horizon of the Indian Ocean and grinning to myself as another wave approaches and I sail over it – not breaking from my crucifix formation. It’s a game of chicken I’m playing with the ocean – one I’ve always played – and my victory comes in the form of sailing over a wave. My defeat is whitewater up my nose and a tumble across the bottom along the sand.
A long time ago, when I was littler than I care to remember, Grandma took me to the beach and her advice, as she slapped great globs of the worlds thickest sunscreen on my arms and rubbed vigorously was; ‘Never turn your back on the ocean, darling. Never turn your back on a wave.’ She said it as a command – she was a commanding kind of woman. At first I thought she was teaching me to be afraid of the ocean; not to trust it. That if you turn your back, the wave will sneak up on you and you’ll get dumped and then you’ll be in trouble. I was afraid of being dumped back then; that horrible unknown of being tossed around underwater with no indication of which way was up and that panicking fear; what if I ran out of air? Life’s often remarkably like being dumped; taking on something you think you can handle and then being handed a smack down when you’re in too deep.
Oh yes, I was afraid of those waves until she corrected me. It wasn’t about being afraid of them – if Grandma thought I was afraid, she would march me right out there to meet that fear (she once purposely slapped a donkey on the behind to make it canter after I begged her not to because I was afraid of falling off in an oversized saddle) – it was about respect. Respect the power in those waves; respect the volatility and unpredictability of the environment. Once I understood what it was about, she taught me how to handle all that power and unpredictability. “Run to the waves darling. NEVER run away from them. You can’t outrun them. You have to meet them.” And then she told me to dive beneath the wave or sit on the bottom; run up to that looming wall of water, take a deep breath and dive beneath it. Or, hold onto the sand, dig your fingers deep down as it breaks on you and once the initial fury is finished – “and you’ll know when it’s finished” – push off the bottom immediately so you can face the next one. The big ones come in sets of threes – usually. You don’t want to be caught in the breaking line. Time your exit and never turn your back.
When I was little she would be standing there with me, doing just as she said. As we both got older, I ran to those waves full of adrenalin and joy, while she watched on the beach. She taught me to be smart; you will get dumped, because not every wave or beach follows the same rules. Her advice? “Hold your breath, find your feet and push up STRONG with your legs. Push, push, PUSH.” Who’d have thought swimming lessons would imitate life lessons.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself staying closer and closer to shore. With age comes understanding; knowledge of what lies beneath the surface; of the dangers we cannot see.
I look to my left and then to my right – I’m furtherer out than anyone else all along the beach – except for a few paddle boarders and a kayak. The waves are small and I know I’m cheating. These aren’t the kind of waves I was taught to take on. They’re small and they’re easy. They’re safe. We tend to do that to ourselves, don’t we? We start out full of ambition (and naivety) ready to take on anything and everything that comes our way. It’s not until we start getting hammered relentlessly after some misjudgements and see others suffering in the same line of fire, that we retreat tired and wary back to safer, shallower waters. Sometimes I tell myself it’s because the conditions are dangerous – and sometimes they are – but there is a difference between danger and fear. One is real and the other is when you live your life in anticipation of something that may never come.
When I was a teenager I loved nothing more than being far down south, where the water is fucking cold and the most brilliant blue, and I would run to meet those huge waves. Often the beaches we visited had tall, heavy barrels that broke in very shallow water. You couldn’t dive beneath them, you had to flatten yourself on the bottom in only a couple of feet of water, just as the mountain above you reached it’s peak and came crashing down. It didn’t always go well. I was sent skidding along the sand, with a chest bursting for air and no idea of up or down, more times than I care to remember. But every time, I stood back up, whacked the water out of my ear and headed back out. I was always alert, terrified and absolutely exhilarated.
An early breaker at Port brings me back to the present, as a rush of sea water finds its way up my nose and down the back of my throat. I stand up spluttering and spitting out the salty water. Dammit. Now the taste is in my mouth. I look around, the water is so clear and I think, ‘well, at least I’d see the shark’. Then I reconsider, I don’t know if I’d want to see it. I’ve cage dived with Great Whites and frankly, I wouldn’t be able to do shit because you don’t know they’re there until they’re THERE. I look back to shore. I’m not even that far out – maybe 30-40m? In Bremer, where it is ridgy didgy Great White territory and home to my beloved waves, we’d be out 70m easy. I know the fear of sharks is irrational. The chances are tiny. But it’s funny how that irrational fear dictates how far I’ll go. It holds me back, the idea of “what if”.
I lie on my back again at Port and close my eyes. I can feel my hair splaying out around me and it makes me smile. My hair is an interesting shade of green. Grandma used to get a purple rinse lonnnnnng before it became a trend. She wouldn’t like the green but she would appreciate the joke I’ve been melodramatically telling everyone every time I’ve exited the ocean; ” GUYS” I wail, “IT TURNED MY HAIR GREEN”. Genius, I know. Grandma would be appalled, not at the joke but the fact that I’d allowed myself to become comfortable in the shallows. I could trick myself into believing it was where I wanted to be but, two feet in the whitewash isn’t where the real fun lies and whilst I may have ventured further today, the waves are small and the conditions perfect so I’ve tricked myself into believing I’m braver than I am. The last couple of years have been like that; tricking myself into an acceptance of what is easy and safe rather than pushing myself to go out further to enjoy the challenge and the reward.
2017 was different. I was blind sided by the biggest mother of a metaphorical barrel in the beginning but I needed the smack down because it got me out of my comfort zone. I’d been treading water for way too long, so I found some of that courage and capability that had been buried by complacency, and put myself out further into the deep and terrifying world of commitment, ambition and responsibility. The result? Finding my feet and push, push, pushing myself to do things I never thought I would. I’m making sure 2018 will follow suit.
I can’t tell my Grandma of my failings and triumphs because she is in a care home now, fading away to the point that she doesn’t know who I am, and my words won’t mean much. Old age is a very unkind mistress. But I’ll take on the waves for the both of us, because when I was a kid, the only force greater than those waves was my Grandmother and she doesn’t have to be standing beside me to send me back out where I belong.