I am about halfway through the New York Times bestselling autobiography entitled “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.” The author, William Finnegan, is the recent recipient of a Pulitzer Prize.
I was drawn to his story for several reasons. First, I happen to know a former girlfriend of the author, and thus knew a little about him and their adventures. Second, I was curious to know how this young whippersnapper navigated his way through life as a surfer/writer to the masthead of the New Yorker where I encountered and enjoyed some of his journalistic writing over the past few years. Third, I spent three of my own young-adult years in Santa Cruz, a surfing paradise for Californians where I first encountered young people (mostly guys like Finnegan who also spent time there), who spent most of their waking hours surfing. An armchair anthropologist, I wanted to know more about this very male, very eclectic subculture.
Now, midway through the book, I am beginning to understand my primal attraction to the story. The protagonist, Billy Finnegan as he was then known to his peers, was, for most of his formative years, a drifter. This can be a very pejorative term, but not when applied to him. Finnegan was literally drifting his way around the world on a surfboard, learning lessons that an outlier learns the hard way: Not everyone “gets it”; companionship is desirable but not always available when you need it; living on the edge has its ecstatic highs but even more dangerous lows; finding the “next big wave,” whatever form that takes in your life, is a hard addiction to overcome.
How do I know these things? Because I, too, was an outlier who threw myself out into the world to find answers to the age-old questions of Who am I? and What Is the Meaning of Life? I was in my early twenties when I began to drift. I couldn’t find meaningful work in Santa Cruz where I was living at the time; my relationship with the young man I had accompanied to Santa Cruz was going sour; and I had no idea what my next move would/should be. I chose not to return to my family in New York where being “different” was not appreciated, so I grabbed at a flimsy plan to teach English to a family in France…friends of a friend of mine…and off I went. I had already left graduate school in Buffalo, New York three years earlier during the late 60’s to go West. This decision to explore even more of the big, wide world seemed at the time to be the next logical next step in my journey.
It’s hard to explain to anyone today, including my own children now in their 30’s, how it was possible to drift, without a coherent plan or the means to take care of myself, and not be considered crazy or a loser. What was unique in my case was that I was female and most young women my age did not strike out alone on cross-continental adventures, much less to Europe. Where did I get the courage to do this? This is where Finnegan’s story begins to make sense to me.
We both came from families with many siblings: three in his case, seven in mine. We were both the eldest children of the brood and sensed that our parents were very busy raising the younger ones, leaving us, more or less, to our own devices. Like me, he was a mostly a good kid, did well enough in school, stayed out of big trouble, but had developed a secret, private life on the side.
We were both avid readers. I think this at least somewhat accounts for why we were both dreamers and longed for freedom and adventure. We were ready to be launched. He did it on a surfboard; I did it by moving from place to place using education as my stepping stone. He realized at a quite early age that he was a non-believer in an Irish Catholic family. I was raised by a strict Lutheran mother, but I too became a nonbeliever once I became interested in other cultures. Nonbelievers, we were nonetheless very spiritual about our quests for self-kno
Like me, Finnegan seemed to replace his faith with a strong sense of independence and an insatiable desire to experience the world on his own terms. He broke away from the institution of education earlier than I did in the more tolerant climate of California; I parted from grad school when the cataclysm of the Vietnam War was at its height and my brother was risking his life every day as a grunt infantryman. I became politically active and aware and met many like-minded peers at SUNY at Buffalo. Leaving grad school and heading to California was just something you did at the time; many of my peers did the same.
I sense a kindred spirit in Finnegan in that we were both naively open to whatever experiences we could find as we drifted. While in Europe for a year on my own, I often depended on the kindness of strangers to help me survive. Fortunately, we were both lucky. Most of the people I met during my drifting days were kind and even supportive although some of my risky adventures could have turned out much differently. I haven’t gotten to those parts in Finnegan’s book yet where things don’t go exactly the way he had hoped and he faced life-threatening circumstances, but I do know that even those experiences did not deter him from his journey.
As I look back on my own life, through the unlikely lens of a surfer-dude, I understand and have more compassion for my choices. I was a bright, fiercely independent person in search of guidance and freedom who just happened to be a girl. The chaos of the early 70’s when I was on my own walk-about allowed a young person like myself a wide margin of freedom to explore and experiment. Finnegan was fiercely loyal to each girlfriend along the way; but his lifestyle often got in the way of his relationships causing him to move on. I, too, had many relationships, but because I had no idea who I was, they mostly didn’t work out, and I had to move on, too.
Since I haven’t yet completed Finnegan’s book, I still haven’t learned everything I want to know about him. But I do know that Barbarian Days has inspired me to reflect on my own wandering years spent trying to find myself. I find it sad that the current generation of young adults is beset with so many economic challenges and boundaries that just cutting loose and drifting no longer seems as possible as it did then. The world has become a much scarier, less forgiving place for both young men and women trying to “find themselves.” This realization makes me cherish even more my memories of drifting through my own barbarian days.