The waves and me

For about 30 years I never really went into the ocean at all.

I might wade out to my knees or perhaps to my chest when I was feeling truly brave, but I would usually never venture much further than that because I was bone-deep scared.

When I was a kid I wasn’t fearful of the waves. I remember frolicking in the ocean whenever it was warm enough to do so on the South Island of New Zealand, which admittedly may have not been that often.

Then when I was about 12 or so I stopped.

It wasn’t until more than a decade later that my step-mother suggested that my rapid retreat from the water most likely coincided with a traumatic childhood event that until then I thought hadn’t affected me at all.

I was about 12 when some gymnastic friends of mine were killed in a small plane crash over the Cook Strait. They were flying to a competition in Wellington but never made it. Instead the plane crashed into the heaving swells between the North and South islands. Only one person survived and was left an orphan in the process.

A gymnast friend of mine, and her parents, who had also lived around the corner from me for many years, weren’t so lucky. They never found their bodies such is the deepness of that volatile body of water.

I remember having nightmares in which they were skeletons still strapped into their seats in the cold dark abyss so far from any lightness whatsoever.

I’ve been on many a beach holiday since those days, but mostly stayed on shore. If I went for a dip it was quick and mostly unpleasant.

Two weeks ago, at the start of my “writing from home while in Sri Lanka” trip, one of my best mates took me into the water. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t petrified. He’s a long-time surfer, as well as a former gymnast, too, so he calmly taught me how to duck under the waves, how to read them, and how to slowly start letting go of my fear. I think our shared connection to that grief of the past allowed me to finally move on and back into the water. I will be forever grateful to him for it.

Over the next few days, I went out by myself a few times, got dumped more than once, but strangely the waves no longer held the same fear and loathing for me.

A few days later, I arranged a surf lesson, given we’re chilling in a surfing mecca for three weeks. The instructor forgot about me and I was quietly relieved, thinking that perhaps my newfound ocean bravado was a little premature.

In hindsight, I think I would’ve been quite happy to sneak back to the waters and just benignly float around some more, but then something rather magical happened. An Aussie surfer we’d befriended offered to take me out instead. He’s been surfing for more than 30 years and is fit and strong and kind.

He is also gorgeous so half an hour later when I kept falling off the board when attempting to just simply paddle on it, my ego was washing down the beach along with any shred of my rapidly diminishing dignity and my ill-timed attempts at flirtation. 

But he persevered and took me out again that same afternoon, where my improvement was miniscule at best. A few days later, with a better board for an absolute beginner like me, I started making a tiny amount of progress and by that stage, my surfing teacher had become something a little more than that, too. Who knew that my astounding surfing incompetence could ever be attractive? 

That was 10 days ago and I’ve been out on the waves every day since. I’m also covered in bruises and scrapes from a number of unfortunate instances where I decided to face- and body-plant the beach, my board, someone else’s board, my fins, someone else’s fins and been dumped by a massive wave which held me under for eight seconds. And through it all, while respecting the ocean, my fear has mostly disappeared.

Today I managed to surf for about 40 or 50 metres a few times and each time I looked happily back at the best (and most handsome) surfing teacher in the world and he was just as stoked as I was.

I don’t really understand how or why my fear of the waves washed away. Perhaps I just decided that there was no place for any more irrational anxiety in my life.

And then once I did that, it’s almost like the universe (or perhaps the waves themselves), sent its congratulations to me in a human form who, one year on from me leaving a toxic relationship, has restarted my heart. And someone who has gently guided me towards a surfing journey that I know is only just beginning.


The mother in me

melissa-and-doug-cinnamon-sugar-mother-and-baby-teddy-bear-sIn the short period of time before Theresa May was appointed the new British prime minister there was some absurd commentary about how “representative” she can ever be of her people because she’s never had children.

Of course, as well as being deeply offensive to every woman and man, such a point of view is also particularly narrow-minded because just because someone doesn’t have children, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t want, or try to have, them (which is the case for May and her husband).

Such a ridiculous proposition got me thinking about me (yet again) and the fact that I do not have children. Does that mean I don’t know how to “mother” a child or show love, care and affection towards them?

As I’ve written about before I am the proud aunty of many nephews and nieces (not all of whom are blood relations). While I live across the Tasman from all of the younger progeny of our clan I have tried to have a positive impact on their lives and will continue to do so as some of them now move into adulthood and lives of their own.

Lately I’ve been picking up my five-year-old godson from school one afternoon a week. Hanging out at a primary school waiting excitedly for the bell to ring as well as now having a booster seat in my Fiat are two things I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with.

Seeing his happy face (along with the loud statement “Aunty Nicola!!” and a big joyous hug, which he may have been coached to provide me with) fills me with a happiness that I still can’t quite believe is real. I don’t even mind that we seem to have created a “game” which involves him spilling as many biscuit and cracker crumbs as possible in the back of my car on the way home.

I was telling a friend about this newish ritual the other night and he commented:  “He must think you’re the coolest godmother”, which was a statement, naturally, that I agreed with most earnestly.

But it also made me truly appreciate the opportunity I’ve had to play a role, no matter how small, in the lives of these children and to love and care for them – even though they are not mine and I am not their mother.

Recently one of my “nieces”, who is now 12, asked for help with an English assignment so I told her one of my stories from many years ago when I was a broke backpacker and accidentally killed a green tree frog – as you do.

She turned that tale into a creation of her own and through her well-crafted words I got to see for the first time how she, in turn, sees me – this “aunty” who is best friends with her mum and dad, and who has been around since the day she was born.  In part, she wrote:

“Over the years I became a journalist and a writer and sometimes write children’s books for my nephew and get inspiration by my hilarious talks with my best friend and her daughters.

“But you know what this taught me? That life is short and it could be taken away suddenly. So we have to live it like there’s no tomorrow, because there might not be.”

I do hope her perception of me is more about living in the moment, rather than me being a risk-taking, slightly anxious lunatic (although I have been known to be both once in a while, just not around the kids).

During my 43 years I’ve been blessed with a number of strong female role models. Apart from my own mother, the biggest female influence on me has been my step-mother, who came into my life when I was just eight years old.

Her bravery in taking on my dad for starters, as well as three kids under 12, still astounds me, especially considering we were spoiled little shits who really liked eating sausages and she was from a vegetarian family with a strong spiritual streak.

Slowly, and no doubt painfully, over time we all became the happy recipients of her positivity, her amazing vegetarian spreads of so many “weird” plants, nuts, flavours and textures (when school friends would ask “what’s that?” when they’d come over for lunch or dinner, we’d just say “you don’t want to know”), her patience and most of all her extraordinary kindness.

Today, I know that I am a better woman and an all-round better human being for having her in my life. In fact, almost every night, when I sit down to eat my own amazing vegetarian spread of so many weird and wonderful plants, nuts and seeds for dinner, the evidence of her positive influence is literally right there in front of me. She continues to nourish my body and soul many years after we last lived under the same roof. My role model for being a role model was her, so I can only hope I do half as good a job as she did and continues to do so today.

While there’s no doubt the role of step-mother (or father) is different to the role I currently have with the children in my life, I hope that in the years or decades to come that my influence on them will in some small way be helpful. That they’ll call me when they need to chat about girls or boys or perhaps they’ll even come to stay now and then to keep an old lady company (in her New York apartment after she becomes a horribly successful screenwriter).

You see, just because I never became a mother, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have the care, love and compassion of a mother inside of me. And what a privilege it is to get to tap into those emotions from time to time – even if there’s an ever-growing pile of crumbs left in my car as evidence of it happening.

Kiss goodbye to your darlings

A famous quote from William Faulkner is “in writing, you must kill all your darlings”, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Part of the reason is that I’m neck-deep in rewrite territory of my screenplay and I’ve cut out more than I’ve put back in, including a couple of scenes which (naturally) I thought were bloody brilliant and broke my heart to kiss goodbye too.

But as Faulkner continues to teach us, if a scene, a character or a “darling” doesn’t progress or add to the fictional story, then it or he or she must be “killed” in a literature, not a literal, sense.

Editing out the crap or superfluous pieces of a story, of course, makes it more seamless, coherent and exciting, which is why it’s called a story. It’s not real nor is it true. At best, stories that are based “on real events” can only ever be thus, because more exciting bits and pieces are usually added to pep up the story-line in places or to make the characters more interesting or “alive” – but perhaps not entirely real-life.

I’ve come to realise that some people practice this creative art-form in everyday life, too, but I’ve decided I have no desire to do so, even if it could helpfully vanquish some memories and experiences from my brain forever.

One of the many modern quandaries I struggle with daily, including using my television and my mobile phone, is how one should deal with Facebook after a breakup. I’ve had my personal profile for more than eight years now – which also means it has been around to witness two relationship ups and downs.

In the beginning I was probably guilty of over-sharing on it – although in the very early days not many of my friends were on Facebook as well so it was like I was transmitting my cougar joy and smugness to a relatively empty void.

After the relationship ended on mutually respectful terms, both of us left any shared posts or photos on our respective pages because it was our history. Many years on, we’re no longer friends on Facebook. I can’t remember why, but it was most probably me who unfriended him in a fit of temporary passive-aggressive ridiculousness when I no doubt struggled to see him moving on with his life with a new, much-younger-than-me love.

But I never deleted anything of our time together online and nor do I believe did he. I never kissed goodbye to my virtual ex-darling just because it might make my past seem more linear or neat.

The ragged course of my other relationship also still remains in my online and real-life history, even though I often wish I could white-wash a lot of it away to save myself the anguish.

But, again, while I might practice the art of story-telling for a living, it’s not in my psyche to try to misrepresent my past as more pleasant than it actually was or, in fact, pretend a relationship or a person didn’t exist in my days gone by.

But I know that not everyone thinks this way and some hit the delete button on every shared online memory that ever there was. Perhaps it’s their way of wiping the slate clean to start again but personally I think it’s borders on the creation of a fairy-tale – just like the stories we read in a fiction book or the movies we watch on a cinema screen.

But real life rarely has such Hollywood happy endings or smooth trajectories.

You see, a few days ago, I crossed paths with one of these two lovers but I don’t think he saw me. It had been five years since I’d seen his face and after so long rumbling around the same city without ever bumping into each other, seeing him so unexpectedly did temporarily knock me off my sanity axis.

He was with workmates, while I was meeting a couple of friends. As soon as I saw him, I rushed to the other side of the bar with my head spinning but stupidly ended up sitting right outside the men’s toilet. Good plan.

Over the course of the next hour or so, I tried to decide whether to say hello, while simultaneously quizzing my mates on whether they thought he’d seen me. In the end, however, I never did do anything about the two of us being at the same place at the very same time.

Since then, I’ve pondered why I acted that way. It’s not because I wasn’t happy to see him or that I’d deleted him from my memory (online or otherwise). Far from it. Perhaps it was because he still looked very good to me (which is not a bad thing I guess) but ultimately I hope it’s because he’s moved on with his life and so have I.

It is still strange to me, though, that you can spend a proportion of your life with someone and love them with everything you had, but still not feel comfortable saying hello when you bump into them down the pub. If there is a next time I hope that I’ll be more brave.

So, instead, I stared at his broad, powerful and loyal back – which six years ago he’d turned away from me at the same time as I’d turned away from him – and later that night I smiled at the memory of us, of what we gave each other, and of the many reminders of our history together that I can revisit and learn from whenever I want too.

I might have to kiss goodbye to my darlings on the pages that I create as a writer, but I’ll never do it in real life. I’ll take the light and shade of life experience any day – no matter how much it might sometimes confuse me.