It’s been a rainy week here in the Algarve, and yesterday I watched “Gidget,” a classic Hollywood surf film about a tomboy who tries to fit in with the lads–and get the attention of the one she fancies–by learning how to surf.
Once I got past the film’s marvelous chauvinism, I realized I could really get behind a film in which a girl would rather surf than go on dates or preen on the beach in the hopes of getting the attention of the surfer dudes, which is the reason she was attracted to the sport in the first place.
Of course, Gidget eventually does get her man by impressing him with her ability to “shoot the curl” and making him jealous by pretending to hook up with the older and self-proclaimed “surf bum” in the film, who in the end decides it’s the right thing to do to give up his aimless life of surfing to take a job with an airline–as you do.
If you think it must have been a dark or incredibly boring day for me to spend 90 minutes of my life I will never get back on “Gidget,” consider that it is now three years since I left my job, my family and my professional life in the United States to take up surfing at the age of 36, and that the theme of the film–shrouded as it is by Hollywood drivel–did resonate quite a bit with me.
Two and a half weeks ago I had a birthday, and at a dinner BBQ with 15 of my lovely friends–many of them expatriates like me–at my new rented casita in Montinhos da Luz, I took a few minutes to muse about my strange and wonderful life. Watching two gal pals in my kitchen giggle over a collection of mugs from nearby beach Praia da Arrifana’s annual summer sardine festival–one of which features a shape not unlike human male genitalia–I realized that in the book of life status quo, I am a bit of a freak.
I’ve lived here long enough to realize that Europeans, Australians or Kiwis wouldn’t really blink an eye if someone decided to step off the treadmill of a predictable life, even in her late 30s, to move somewhere else and take up an extremely difficult sport that has since become a passionate obsession, but for Americans it is frankly quite weird. Especially if that woman was raised in a very traditional Sicilian-Italian-American household of the Roman Catholic persuasion, and was more of an intellectual nerd than a particularly good athlete to begin with!
When I mentioned this to my friends, one of them–who was a bit drunk but still quite sincere–said to me, “You’re a super-cool chick, and don’t let anyone ever tell you differently.”
This is a nice sentiment, of course, but the fact is lots of people like to tell me different, especially those voices of self-doubt in my head. And let’s face it, I’m not really a chick any longer. Unlike 17-year-old Gidget, who had her whole life ahead of her to grow up, get a job, find a mate, have children and experience love, loss, joy, heartache and all of these beautiful and terrible things we feel as human beings, I am almost halfway through mine.
And while I’ve had jobs and adventures, traveled a bit, and experienced love, loss and heartache more times than I care to mention, there are two things most humans do that I have yet to accomplish–find a life mate and have children, the latter of which i think will probably not happen for me.
To be single at this age is of course not so strange. I know a lot of single people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, though I know few who haven’t had a child or two along the way and just didn’t end up staying with the person with whom they started a family. And while I don’t think everyone needs to have children, and I don’t have a burning desire even now at this age when the ticking clock is about to self-destruct, I sometimes feel out of the parenting club many of my friends are in.
This all troubles me sometimes, to be sure, especially days like yesterday that I spent mostly by myself (with the company of two very loving cats) after receiving a phone call asking for help from my latest ex-boyfriend. He called to ask me for help for him and his son due to terrible fighting he’s having with his current lover, the unstable woman he dated just before me and to whom he returned immediately after we split.
In the end, he did not need my help, which is just as well because what I preferred to do–and did–was give him an earful about taking responsibility for his life and growing up now that he is 42 years old, and telling him to call me again only after he’s given this notion some thought.
And while I am always happier to be alone than in bad company, his call resonated with me, and the whole day after I thought about the mistakes we humans continue to make over and over again (me included). Things like keeping jobs or staying in relationships that don’t make us happy, not appreciating and having gratitude for the things and people we have when we have them and then regretting it after they’re gone–and how we might change them somehow the next time a similar situation arises for a more satisfying result.
I thought about the choices I’ve made that have led me to this place in my life, which I can only assume I have reached because it is what I want (although sometimes my lonely and uncertain heart tells me differently). I experienced a range of emotions as the rain drummed steadily outside, my cats slept and purred peacefully beside me and Gidget frolicked merrily and mercurially on my MacBook Pro screen.
On the other side of the equation, I thought about all the things I have dared to do that very few American women brought up in my situation would dare to do–leave New York City and a decent job, a group of friends, my family and the omnipresent stuff with which we clutter our lives–to live a simpler life in a quiet but uncommonly beautiful corner of the world and chase a passion for riding ocean waves that I could never imagine as a child who spent summers at the beach in Ocean City, N.J., afraid to swim out of her depth.
Sometimes I look at myself through a very critical lens and think what a ridiculous joke it is for someone my age, with my body type (curvaceous that could easily be fat if I didn’t exercise, especially now that I’m in middle age) to spend a good chunk of her time surfing–a sport that is one of the most physically demanding of any and to which young and extremely fit people are much better suited.
Then again, that is exactly what I love about surfing–you don’t have to go out in 20-foot waves or rip on a shortboard to love it and gain the physical and psychological benefits of the exercise, as well as the feeling and perspective of being in the ocean, the world’s purest and most plentiful natural element, almost every day of your life.
You can catch one wave a session, ride it unsteadily at best and still feel absolute and complete joy–that rare feeling that all is right with the world and that nothing could ever be wrong again–along with a fierce need to paddle right back out and feel it again.
You can receive encouragement and smiles from men and women younger, fitter and better looking–people who–when I was a fat insecure adolescent surely would not have had time for me–just because you all share a common passion, and they can see it on your face.
For me this feeling of belonging is something this formerly awkward child and teenager has more now than I’ve ever had before, even if my life isn’t as hopeful or promising as their young lives may be, even if I don’t ever accomplish some of the things they may accomplish along the way.
It also makes you realize that they, just like you, are human with the same hopes, desires, dreams, fears and worries just like you, even if on the surface things appear shinier and brighter for them. If surfing has done anything else it has humbled me–in the ocean, as it should be on land, we are all in this together.
Maybe I haven’t gotten the guy (yet), like Gidget–and maybe I am not young and beautiful and daring with a long life still ahead of me. But for the most part–despite the occasional loneliness, worry and regret that is a normal part of the human condition, but on which I try not to dwell–I am happy, even if I don’t have all of the things I “want” or think I should have at this age, even if most of the time I am not “acting my age” or even close to it, even if my life so far has not exactly gone according to script. And isn’t this the most any of us can strive for in this life?