Once he’d done that, he straightened up and scampered down the beach.
“Hey,” I called after him, “where are you going now?”
He didn’t answer but continued down the beach a ways to a pile of driftwood. He pulled out a small stick then began looking around on the ground. For feathers, as it turned out. Probably from a seagull. He then pulled up a small strand of kelp and wrapped it around the feathers to attach them to the wood. I stood and watched as he brought the whole mess back along with two smaller, fist-sized rocks that he had cradled in his shirt. He entered the circles and placed the rocks in the middle of the smallest one.
“What are you doing?” I asked
“It’s a sacred story circle,” he said.
“Tell me about it.”
“What we’ll do,” he said, “is tell each other stories inside the sacred story circle. When you’re telling a story, you have to pass the stick to the other person.”
“Alright,” I said.
So we sat there together on the beach. It was the middle of the morning and no one was around and we passed the stick with the feathers and the kelp back and forth and told each other stories. We just made them up. I hardly even remember what we said, but we must have sat there for at least an hour. When I think back on the whole scene, I am amazed: I sat in the sand with my nine-year-old son, and we told each other stories inside a sacred story circle. At the time I didn’t make the connection between what Mathew and I were doing and the inscription on the Chumash memorial that links us to the past, to the land, and to our children. I was simply following along with his little game. But the special atmosphere of Hammond’s Reef itself—the secluded beach, the mountains and the meadow, the small rocks and shells and feathers that visitors leave at the base of the monument as a tribute—all of it has worked on my imagination and memories over the years so that I have come to appreciate that one hour more than almost any other time I’ve spent at the beach, including innumerable surf sessions at the most famous breaks in the world. Mostly, I think, because it was an experience that I didn’t expect to have, and one that has become inseparable from a special place and special person in my life. Since losing Mathew, those moments have resonated for me even more strongly.
Hammond’s was our local break no more than a five-minute drive down the hill. As we pulled into our driveway that day, I saw that Mathew had carried a rock back with him. It was one of the two smaller rocks that he’d placed in the center of the smallest circle. He placed it right outside our front door.
“Why did you bring that home?” I asked him.
“You know all those stories we told today, Dada? They’re all inside that rock.”
The sacred story circle. I’ve never been so stoked in my life. When we’d left that morning to visit Hammond’s, I thought that I was doing a favor for my son by visiting the beach and maybe giving him a surf lesson. Little did I realize the gift that he had in store for me, one that I enjoy every time I think of Hammond’s and tell this story in front of a group of people.
At some of these gatherings, oftentimes someone will ask, “What makes surfing so special?”
Although I usually know that question is coming, I never have a simple answer. The experience of surfing, like any strong sensation, is hard to organize into words. There’s a certain amount of faith involved, I end up saying; that leap into the unknown that makes every new step in life worth taking. Part of the appeal of surfing is that you never really know what you’re going to get. I walk down the beach—I have my board and my wax and certain hopes, but I never really know what’s in store for me. I might ride five of the best waves of my life in half an hour. Or I might sit there for three hours and catch nothing. Normally we want to remove uncertainty from our lives, but surfing is all about uncertainty. That feeling of taking a risk, that leap of faith every time I jump into the ocean—these are what make surfing special.
Or I might tell them a story by way of an answer: There’s a storm far out at sea sending invisible bands of energy my way. I stand on the beach and see that energy arrive in the form of ocean waves, much as ‘aumakuas—guardian gods in Hawaiian culture—can appear in the form of sharks to interact with humans. But that is not their true form. When I catch one of those bands of energy, stand on top of the wave and look down, I see the world from a unique perspective. I feel connected to the world in a special way.
Everybody has something special they like to do. For me, it’s surfing. For you, it could be anything that makes you feel useful or talented or loved. Whatever that activity is—drawing, taking care of someone in your family, solving a complex problem—you can take pride in it because not everyone can do what you can do. And if you set goals for yourself, there’s no limit to where your talents can take you. Sometimes you only need to say it to yourself to realize that your dreams are possible. Sometimes simply writing them down—telling a story about them—can help make your dreams come true. Stories connect us to each other and to the broader universe. The sacred story circle my boy Mathew created will always connect me to him and to the beautiful meadow and Hammond’s Reef. Tell your own story. Make your own story circle with someone you love.
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Additionally, on Tuesday, August 13, from 6-ipm, Shaun will be at Warm (181 Mott Street, between Kenmare and Broome) in New York City signing copies of The Code. 10% of the evening’s proceeds will benefit Stoked–an organization dedicated to mentoring underserved youth through action sports culture.