I rarely need to set an alarm for important morning meetings, because my racing mind usually wakes me up hours early. But last Thursday was different. I had a really big appointment first thing, and I was pretty sure I was going to get a raise out of it, so I set an alarm to be on the safe side. Good thing I did, because it roused me from a deep slumber when it went off at 5:30.
I got ready by putting on not a business suit but a bathing suit. And instead of a notepad and paper, I grabbed a pair of goggles as I rushed out the door. By 5:45, I was standing on a south-facing beach and preparing to swim toward the sun as it began its ascent over the horizon, which happened to be the Pacific Ocean. The water and air temps both hovered in the mid-80s, resulting in a seamless transition from land to ocean. I got past the first set of breakers and settled in for a longish swim. I alternated my breathing every few strokes, turning my head to the left to monitor my distance from the shore and to the right to watch for swells behind me. During one of those right-side breaths, a line of pelicans –my favorite birds — flew right next to me, wings spread wide as they buzzed the top of the water. As I went on, I dove and bobbed when I needed to, reveling in the waves but mindful that the ocean could clobber me pretty much any time it chose.
Every now and then I lifted my head out of the water to keep tabs on the sun. I watched in awe as the sky mixed shades of orange, red, purple and pink to produce color schemes I thought existed only on airbrushed T-shirts. About fifteen minutes into my swim, I stopped and began to tread water so I could savor those last few moments as the sun climbed above the horizon. Then, I swam into shore and walked back to the hotel, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back. This had become my routine during my week-long stay in a little surf town on the west coast of Costa Rica, and though it didn’t give me the kind of raise that fattened my wallet, it made my spirits soar every single time.
When I got in the water for my final swim there on Thursday morning, a wave of emotions washed over me. I felt the simple, perfect exhilaration of immersing in nature. I was in reverence of my surroundings and aware of my teeny, tiny, fleeting role in the grand scheme of things. I experienced a potent longing, verging on greed, to freeze this scene and the sensations it produced so I could access them on demand. But most of all, I felt profound gratitude. The people of Costa Rica would fold all of these emotions into one simple phrase: pura vida. The literal translation is “pure life,” but it conveys far more than that. It’s a greeting, a philosophy, an invitation to seek joy in simple things, and a reminder to appreciate whatever you have.
I’d been sorely in need of a big dose of pura vida when I decided weeks ago to join my friend Philippa and three of her pals on their annual surf trip to Costa Rica. The human psyche, like a garage, just seems to collect junk, so it behooves you to clean it out every now and then. But no one looks forward to that job, especially if you’ve got the equivalent of a Bowflex collecting dust in a corner. Since my divorce in 2012–arguably the last time I really cleaned the joint –I’ve collected plenty of useless emotional clutter that impedes my path to things I need and want in my life, like making space for my writing, or for a partner. It was time for a purge.
I’ve always done my best mental housecleaning at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Something about the rustic surroundings and ties to my fondest family memories always makes me feel centered and grounded. But I was in no mood to wait for warm weather to roll around, so I seized the Costa Rica opportunity instead. As proof of how badly I needed to get away, I bought a plane ticket without even knowing exactly where we were going. Philippa had always referred to their surf town as a “special place,” which I hoped would be close enough to what I needed.
Turns out I hadn’t gotten my hopes up nearly high enough.
Our beachfront hotel (if that’s even the right word for a place that feels as friendly and welcoming as my own home) sat amid lush greenery that’s tended but not overly manicured. Hammocks nestled between palm and almond trees practically begged us to leave the beach and take a nap. My room featured a wraparound porch I called “the office,” but no phones rang there. I heard only the soothing roar of waves pounding the beach, the squawk of scarlet macaws in the boughs above, and the occasional startling “bonk” of an almond dropping from a tree onto the tin roof of my bungalow. My thoughts could roam wherever they wanted, uninterrupted.
Clearly the surroundings were conducive to achieving inner calm, but that wasn’t enough: I needed the right company, too. I wanted the same kind of easy companionship my family used to provide, and I found it in Philippa’s friends. I’d spent some time with two of the three amigos during Philippa’s breast cancer ordeal. The way they nurtured my friend’s spirits had long ago earned them my abiding affection and gratitude. I took an instant like to the third, a writer from Philly who seems to find as much joy in coming up with the right words as the right wave.
All three of the amigos made me, the lone non-surfer, feel like part of the tribe. As my family used to do, they kept an eye out for me but never hovered. They seemed to enjoy watching me take off for a swim, and I loved coming in to shore to watch them surf. No one cared whether we all played in the water at the same time or went off to do our own thing: we knew we’d catch up to compare our days eventually. When we did, the three amigos never failed to crack me up, give me food for thought, and make me smile. And thanks to them, I now understand what it means to be “goofy footed.” I left Costa Rica Thursday morning feeling lighter in every way imaginable.
I’m not unhappy to be home, but I already miss the place where my days moved to the beat of nature, where I swam my way to the sun, and where stars coated the night sky like a dusting of powdered sugar and glitter. Most of all, I miss being there with Philippa and the three amigos. Here’s hoping I brought some of that pura vida back with me.