Aging Well

Riding the waves: Learning to let go

Learning to be present, whatever the weather, is one of the most important skills we can cultivate and bring to paddle-boarding, a pandemic, caregiving and life.

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Paddling Nelson's Bay
Liisa Ogburn

I recently took a paddleboard out to the middle of Nelson Bay to the point where only the colorful roofs became landmarks. Days from being October, boat traffic on the bay was nearly nonexistent. Good news for the inexperienced paddler that I am. It is not possible to paddleboard for long if you are tense, anticipating a fall. One’s muscles start to scream.

This perhaps shares some similarities with living in a pandemic as winter approaches. It certainly shares similarities with being the sole primary caregiver of a declining partner or parent. Just like a sudden, unexpected wave can throw one off balance on the board, so, too, can a parent’s fall, a UTI, a medication mishap or some other event requiring a trip to the ER.

Out on Nelson’s Bay, it was not a wave or wake from a boat, but instead a sudden worry about a loved one that caused me to lose the state of relaxed connection with the waves I had cultivated on the long paddle out. No, it was a carry-on bag of worries that seems to accompany me, wherever I go. I fell off the board. The water felt good. I dropped the storyline in my head (one that I could do nothing to resolve) and climbed back on.

Pelicans dove for fish nearby. Up and down, up and down, I bobbed in the middle of the Bay.

Behind closed doors, a daughter or spouse tries her best to defuse an escalating situation involving a loved one, often with declining faculties, who wants to do what they want to do when they want to do it.

How is one to stay steady in what can feel like a Level Five hurricane?

We each have to develop that capacity ourselves.

It is a paradox, too, my sister-in-law (after a bout of cancer last year) reminded me when I had returned to the pier where she was throwing in a fishing line. Learning to live inside a Level Five hurricane can teach you something important, a deep steadiness, that a life of ease cannot.

Last night after midnight, I finished Michael Thomas’ gorgeous and heart-breaking novel, “We are not ourselves,” involving one family’s experience with early-onset dementia. I was curious how this high school teacher by day who spent a decade by night writing this got so many details so right. In multiple interviews, journalists described him as humble and “a good guy.” He got it right because it was familiar territory for him.

It is a reminder that we need not let the challenging situations we all must live with at different junctures of our lives shape us into hardened, controlling selves. In fact, as counterintuitive as it might seem, there can be real relief in simply letting our efforts to “fix” something go. To smooth our edges, like the ocean does. It’s not easy--and it’s often something we have to relearn a million times—but the wisest among us will tell us it is possible.


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