By Andrew Costa
This summer, I learned much from a 20-year old in just three hours.
I am 41 years old, eight months sober, and in recovery from alcohol addiction.
I used to think the most important lessons in life were learned from elder teachers we studied under for long periods of time. Many of us could probably name a specific mentor we admired growing up: an academic teacher, parents, grandparents, an elderly neighbor, a coach, or a music instructor. Hollywood has produced many mentors; Mr. Miyagi (The Karate Kid), Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins), Yoda (Star Wars), and John Keating (Dead Poets Society) to name a few. Many yogis in the U.S. travel all over the world to fully immerse themselves with teachers for extended periods of time.
But again, my mentor this summer was a 20-year old college kid who taught me how to surf off the beaches of Long Beach Island, New Jersey.
I could riddle this essay with clichés about how learning to surf relates to the joys and challenges of life and my path of recovery from addiction. How we can’t control the waves, but we can certainly learn to ride them. Easy does it, one wave at a time. See, I just did it. I choose to speak from my experience and what Max taught me, whether he knows it or not.
Rather than the words of Mr. Miyagi “Wax on! Wax off!”, Max told me to “Paddle, paddle, paddle!” and “Pop up!” The rest of the learning was on me.
The late afternoon weather was overcast and the waves were blowing one after another from the northeast. I quickly learned how powerless I was. Humbled, I did not stand up once that day. Most of my energy was spent carrying the board through the whitewater, trying to duck dive under approaching waves—to get beyond the breakers where Max looked to the horizon, waiting for me. It was my fight, not his. I fell on my face, my back, on my side. I was smacked on the side of the head by waves, communicating out loud; you are not in control here. Physically and emotionally defeated, I walked off the beach with a headache.
It was a postcard-perfect beach day. The surf was calm and the sun felt warm. I was able to ride a couple of waves with awkward success. After another few waves and needing a breather, Max and I floated beyond the breakers. My middle-aged frame wanted to stay there and enjoy the calm behind the waves. Bait fish surfaced as the mist from the back of the breakers circled back in our direction. I felt cool, like Point Break 1991 cool, able to sit on the board and feel life fill my chest. I knew eventually, however, I would crawl back into the action of the waves, fall down, and have to get back up.
It was another overcast day, with the biggest waves yet. I could barely get through the shoulder-deep whitewater as the tide was up and the pull was strong. Fun. Scary. Exhilarating. I walked off the beach that day with a feeling of warmth and strength wanting to return.
So what did I learn from this kid besides the basic techniques for a beginner surfer? The metaphors are endless, but I said we are not going there. What I learned has nothing to do with the sport of surfing; it’s just the bond.
I learned how the human condition traverses all ages.
Despite the fact that Max and I are in different life phases, we maintain the ability share common sufferings and joys. We can share addictions, self-doubt, judgments, beauty, self-care, and adventure. It is healthy to share them somehow, even if it forces us out of our comfort zones—even if specific words are not exchanged.
In a life where I have little control of many things, I’ve found a level of trust to inwardly (and now outwardly) say, yes, I felt a lack in my life and for years; I filled that lack with alcohol. Where did the lack come from? For this essay, it doesn’t matter. This essay is about feeling trust in a world that often breaks me powerless and smacks me on the side of the head. Something greater is at work. Max and I both witnessed that.
At the end of my last hour with him, Max said, “You like, definitely seem more comfortable on the board. Next summer, you can go out on your own. But if you ever want to surf, just shoot me a text.”
Comfortable is a good way to put it. Right now, I am somewhat comfortable in my recovery.
It might take another year to feel more comfortable, and I recognize comfortable can be a dicey word. In the words of John Keating, “Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” I will keep vigilant to my daily practices, including reaching out for support when I need it—even if it’s a year from now. Again, this essay has nothing, yet everything to do with surfing; all we can do is paddle, pop up, and see where the wave takes us.
I’m not sure Max would understand any of this—or maybe he would. Thanks, dude.
Andrew Costa is a 41-year-old assistant principal in a Massachusetts public high school who enjoys woodworking, DC comics, the ocean, watching the Red Sox with my son and thriving in sobriety. His wife and son are his rocks. He is working on his attitude of gratitude.
Photo: Author provided
Editor: Alicia Wozniak