At the beach, I watch fathers introduce a son or daugther to the water.

Some toddlers stand on the shore as the water rushes over their feet–their giggles and laughter as light and frothy as the foam. Others scream and wail and run away. No amount of coaxing or pleading in soothing tones will convince the kids to get their feet wet, to wade into the water.

I’ve been coming to this island shore since I was a little girl–nearly every summer of my life. It’s where I am happy, where I feel at home: in the water, in the surf, with the sun on my face.

My dad taught me to body surf here. He showed me how to read the waves, to discern when to enter the wave. I’d glide in just ahead of the break and ride the surge to shore. Sometimes if my timing were off, I’d need a few easy arm strokes or several frantic ones to catch up with the racing wave’s belly. I rarely missed.

Today there are lots of alternatives to body surfing. People use boards instead of their bodies: surfboards, paddle boards, boogie boards. On my recent beach outings, I noticed only a few people attempted to body surf and most of them had no idea how to catch a wave.

I watched a group of young, tatted, buff sailors (the Navy, not the yachting, kind….this is Newport after all.) I’d stand up on shore after my ride and look over my shoulder to see the guys still standing waist deep. They’d missed the wave.

No timing. No finesse. No clue.

I watched a father coaching his daugther to catch a wave. He put her in front of the wave too early and all the power would wash over her and leave her behind time and time again.

As a young girl, I would spend hours in the surf catching wave after wave. My long hair would become a tangled mess. I’d race my brothers to shore, dragging my hip bones along the sand and broken shells as I beached. A bikini is not the best choice for body surfing.

We all experimented with ways to streamline our bodies. Again, the bikini was not the best choice. I figured it had more drag then my brothers’ suits. Once we learned to consistently find the sweet spot in a wave, it became a matter of who could hold his or her breath the longest, thereby ensuring the longest ride.

Dad gave us the rules and warnings each time before we dashed into the surf. We could only go out to our waists. We had to watch out for the under tow, the rips–and each other.

As Army brats, we’d rate the waves, giving them officers’ ranks: captain, major, lt. colonel, colonel, general.

Most days the waves weren’t high-ranking, though fun nonetheless.

On random, glorious days, before or after a storm, big surf would roll in and we’d scream in terror and delight at the height and force of the pounding waves and the promise of powerful rides. The trick–or the choice–was that we’d often have to go out farther to catch the big waves.

Definitely into water over our waists. Sometimes over our heads.

I’d have to assess if letting my toes lift away from the bottom–and risk losing a footing–was worth the potential reward of catching a howling, driving wave.

The risk/reward assessment for catching a wave isn’t any different, I realize as I write this, than making choices in life. In a career. In a relationship.

Stay safe on shore and watch.

Wade into my waist and catch perfectly decent waves.

Or get in over my head and dare to embrace a thrilling, memorable, exhilirating ride.

A wave that’s so powerful (choice #3) might pummel me, sending me sommersaulting or snap my back or neck with its force.

In my life, more often than not, I go for the big waves. I’m willing to risk getting in over my head.

Yes, I’ve been turned upside down. I’ve been bruised and scraped raw. I’ve had ribs, a wrist and my heart broken.

Sometimes after a pummeling, I need to take a break. Like now. Catch my breath. Get my feet back under me.

Then I stand up and look at the big, breaking waves…

and plunge back in.

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