After parking in the Soul Grind lot this evening, I pulled my four bags—purse, work backpack, post-surfing dry clothes bag, and post-surfing wet clothes bag—out of my car.

This tiny lot is wedged between the main beach parking (a.k.a. the Taco Hell lot) and the surf shops. It’s spillover beach parking, and Traveler is a couple storefronts in, so this is where I park now that I store my board there and shower and change there after surfing.

As I walked toward Traveler to pick up my board and my friend Christine, a man I had never seen before yelled at me from across the small parking lot, “Hey, you’re doin’ a great job!”

I stopped walking, taken aback. Then I broke into a huge smile. “Thank you!” I exclaimed.

“In case no one has told you yet,” he added.

As I walked through the alley to Traveler’s back gate, I almost cried. The kindness of this man’s impulse, to tell me he’d seen me working on my surfing and thought I was doing well, was unexpected.

And it’s not like he knew he would see me just then; I’ve been showing up at the beach on different days, at various times, scattered across the beach parking lots. I felt the honest appreciation in his outburst: he’d been watching me progress and taking note. And when he saw me tonight, he couldn’t wait to tell me.

I’m amazed that anyone notices anyone on the water. I experience surfing like a labrador retriever chasing a tennis ball: I’m focused only on the waves, my position on the board, and my timing.
For safety reasons, I am always conscious of other surfers around me, but I’m not aware of their surfing journeys. I’ve got my own problems, and no time to pay attention to their surfing skills. As long as they keep their boards away from my face, they are all champion surfers in my book.

As I opened the Traveler gate, Christine turned her head toward me.

“Let me see it!” I exclaimed.

Christine had been renting Traveler’s boards, then she recently ordered her own board online. She took it out for the first time on Sunday, caught a wave, and rode it all the way to shore, a total win for beginners like us.

When Christine showed me her board, I insisted on taking her photo with it. She hasn’t named the board yet and hadn’t planned on it, but I told her Margo Linda Beast needs to know her friend’s name. She said my board’s name is fantastic and that she’ll name hers, too.

I shared some wonderful work news (coming to Facebook soon), and Christine shared in my joy: huge smile, sparkling eyes, and multiple affirmations. Then we put on our wetsuits and accoutrements, picked up our boards, and walked to the beach.

The air was foggy, giving the sky a dreamlike quality. Christine and I mentioned the surreal picture to each other a handful of times in the two hours we were out.

For a long time, there were no waves. When they started coming, I couldn’t get the timing right, and Christine was nailing it: popping up every time, catching the waves with the right timing, and once riding all the way in to shore.

I felt like crying again, this time out of sadness. I wanted to be overjoyed for Christine; that’s more my nature than to compete with a friend. I like to lift my friends up, and I generally believe there’s enough of whatever I want to go around.

But tonight, I struggled with my disappointment. Christine progressing past me means I’m not getting it. It means I’m not doing a great job. It means the man in the parking lot was wrong.

I told myself that my dismay shows my advancement, and that is true. When I was super new at surfing, I thought I’d never care how I performed because I was just thrilled to be doing it. Tonight,

I graduated past the water clown phase. I cared. I sucked, and I didn’t like it.

At one point, my board and someone else’s board went flying into each other. He didn’t see what had happened.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

I felt tempted to reply, “No! I’m not catching any waves!” But I settled on, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Did my board hit you?” he asked.

“No, our boards hit each other,” I answered.

“Oh, good,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt.”

I found his humanity touching, especially because I hear many stories about men running women over with their boards and paddling off, showing no remorse. This guy hadn’t even hit me, but he assumed he had and showed genuine concern.

Now I felt like crying for a third time.

Just then, I witnessed a beautiful scene at a ridiculous venue: people gathered around a fire on a deck, looking out at all of us. I pointed toward the shore and said to Christine, “Look! Taco Hell has an outdoor fire pit.”

As Christine and I left the water, I tried to celebrate her great surfing, but she could tell I was feeling down.

“I have to figure out what I’m doing wrong,” I said.

“Yeah?” she replied.

“Yeah,” I said. “I can’t tell whether fear is holding me back or it’s just a technical skill issue.”

I could see Christine deliberating on whether to chime in. Then she said, “I see you hesitating sometimes. You start to paddle for a wave, but you don’t commit. And when you get on one, you don’t jump right up.

“I used to do the same thing,” she added. “But then I realized I had to commit to paddling and just jump up.”

This feedback landed just right. I don’t consciously feel afraid of waves, but since I am physically strong, I suspected the issue was in my head, not my body. It took Christine noticing me to confirm this, since it’s so hard to see myself out there.

It’s good to have a surfing buddy. And it’s great to feel noticed, appreciated, cared for, and challenged. This stretch of ocean and its land creatures are stealing my heart.

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About the Author: Katie Burke

Katie Burke
Katie Burke is an award-winning author, San Francisco attorney, journalist, and surfer. Her first book, Urban Playground: What Kids Say About Living in San Francisco, was critically acclaimed. Her next book, the forthcoming Sea Change: Women and Nonbinary People Reshaping Surfing Wave by Wave, is scheduled for publication in July 2023.

Stories about evolution and grit through life’s challenges.

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