The Path

“Every flood has its ebb.”–variation of an old expression

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The rains began in the dark of the night, like so many foreboding events.  At times, the light showers seemed harmless and a normal part of spring. Unfortunately, there were the dark underbelly periods too, with intermittent downpours spewing from inky, looming clouds determined to demonstrate their dominance.  Within the confines of the classroom in which I teach, instructional flow was periodically interrupted, as my students and I turned towards the wall of windows to stare with wide-eyed wonder, due to the showers thunderously pounding the roof above. Rain reverberated as if threatening to break through with the strength and precision of a military special operations force. 

Lunch came and went, then one by one, like a slow trickle of water, students began to be called for an early dismissal. The trickle turned into a steady stream of children leaving school as flood warnings resounded throughout the local area.  Rumors began to circulate among the staff that waters were rising rapidly. Young children, I was told, in one local day-care school were all being moved from their first floor classrooms to higher levels, and parts of town near and around my beloved park were completely submerged under water.  A state of emergency had been declared by the mayor’s office.

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As my school emptied, my mind drifted to those young day-care children trapped at school, but safely remaining on a higher floor until the waters subsided.  I was reminded of a nearly-forgotten event of my childhood.  While I do not recall my exact age/grade level, I know I was quite young.  At the time, the creek that ran beside the main road leading to the tiny subdivision on which I lived frequently flooded.  There was a day, quite similar to this past week’s event, when during the school day, the road was completely flooded, and all of the kids who lived along that bus route were unable to get home.

We were all taken to our elementary school’s tiny gymnasium.  I remember it was a bit loud and chaotic at first, and I felt very fearful, in the way only a young could, worried that we would be stuck at school all night.  I vaguely recollect a few adults with us, most likely the principal and a teacher or two.  Eventually, a few of the older students became too loud and raucous, and we were made to stop talking and asked to sit still.  For whatever reason, it is the image that is imprinted in my mind.  In kid logic, if the adult was angry, there was something out of control about the situation; therefore, I should be really afraid.  I could not quell the heat of fear rising within me, and I leaned my head back against the blue cushioned mat that hung against the wall closing my eyes in hopes of making it all go away.

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Eventually, of course, just as it happened a few days prior to writing this piece, the waters did subside, and I was able to be picked up by my dad, still in his suit from his day at work.  He looked tired, the growth shadow of a long day was lining his face.  Looking out of the car’s window as we traversed the wet roads home, I vaguely recall seeing debris–gravel, branches, leaves, and trash–all tumbled and messy, spot-lighted by the car’s headlights. It is more of the feeling that I recall rather than precise imagery, but in that moment I felt relief, fatigue, and the remnants of fear still gnawing around the edges of my gut.  What if it happened again?

And, of course, it did, and it does.

Looking at those recent images of Ritter Park and the entire area surrounding it, I am astounded and wonderstruck.  I understand the basic science of the connection between watersheds and weather events.  Nonetheless, it was an unimaginable event, one that is often described as “a once per generation event.”  Many of those homeowners/renters, I am sure, never dreamed of, much less experienced, flood damage.  It seemed unthinkable, and yet, it happened.  

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The ebb and flow.  Today, as I write, the sunshine is luminously abundant, a light breeze is tossing about newly formed spring leaves, and the skies are a brilliant blue! Isn’t that life?  As it was written in the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens . . . .” 

Looking at those images of the Ritter Park area, I am reminded of the pedestrian path below the waters that cannot be seen.  Instead, the lens of the camera could only capture the murky brown waters filled with floating bits of flotsam that covered it over.  Bottom portions of vehicles, fire hydrants, mail boxes, park benches and so forth can be seen submerged in the rising waters with no visible way through.

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How often in life do those times occur?  Times filled with fear, wondering how much higher the waters of trouble will rise.  Moments spent wondering if the showers of bad fortune will ever stop?  Day upon horrible day, moment after nerve-wracking moment, fear, like a vice, squeezing your gut, and anxiety, like a noose, threatening to cut off your breath.  

Somehow, in due time, the clouds begin to shift.  Not quickly, it seems, but enough to allow a glimpse of hope for tomorrow.  The path is there.  You cannot see it, as I cannot see Ritter’s path in those on-line images, but you know it is there.  

Like the child I once was, flooded in at school, I had to bide my time, sit with my fear, and wait for the waters to recede. Sometimes, that is all we can do. In those dark moments, life requires that we tread water, and sit with our fear.  Our legs get tired and our bodies ache, but faith beckons us to stay afloat.  

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It will happen.  It may take longer than ever dreamed, but the waters will recede, and the path will emerge, albeit still covered with the remains of the havoc that once was.  It takes work and effort to clean it up, piece by piece, part by part, and step by precious step, but eventually, you are free of the wreckage and strong enough to forge ahead. 

Dear Reader, if it looks dark now, if your path is hidden, if it is buried deep below the rising flood waters, keep treading, keep the faith.  The path ahead is still there–just temporarily covered over.  It’s not easy, it never is, but every flood has its ebb. One day, it may not be soon, but one day, the path will be revealed once more.  May you be reunited with its peace soon.

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Aging with Serenity

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”–Serenity Prayer

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After writing humorously about the aging process a few weeks ago, I ran across an article written by Paula Span, focusing on the research and work of Becca Levy, a psychologist, epidemiologist, and professor at the Yale School of Public Health. Part of Levy’s work specifically points to 7.5 years that can be added or subtracted from a person’s life based upon personal and societal attitudes towards aging.  Since then, my brain has picked up Levy’s thesis, as if it were an object of study, and has been manipulating it from all angles as I consider its premise with what I thought I knew and what I hope to understand/apply. 

And what do I know? I know that I definitely won’t be retiring during my 50s as I once believed. At one time, I harbored some resentment about this.  Then, we went through the pandemic, and I experienced the heat of transformation with millions of other people, like sand particles melting into glass.

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It was during the pandemic that I slowly began to observe many of my attachments to “how things should be,” such as my retirement age, and I began to undergo a practice of  learning to say “yes” more often to things that weren’t, “how they should be.”  It was, and continues to be, a very imperfect practice.  Learning to accept AND surrender to the things that I cannot change is NOT my natural inclination.  

In addition to my belief about retirement age, nearly ten years ago–I battled low back pain due to three bulging discs and an extra vertebra.  Without belaboring the topic, the pain led me down a meandering path of chiropractic care, regular epidural steroid injections, and ultimately two 12-week rounds of physical therapy.  Both well-meaning doctors and physical therapists, told me that I should never participate in any form of high intensity exercise, including running again.  I accepted this theory because, after all, they were the professionals, and besides I was getting to “that age”–whatever that means.  

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Fortunately, one physical therapist disagreed, suggesting that I should strengthen the weak muscles that were causing imbalances that led to my injury in the first place.  Then, if I continued to work on maintaining that strength and listen to my body, he believed that I could gradually resume running and other forms of exercise I had been told to avoid. His advice later proved to be spot-on.

Therefore, as the pandemic continued, work changed, living conditions changed, and exercise changed as we said goodbye to gyms and group exercise.  Work meant sitting for hours. Low back, hip pain, depression, and sleep disruption escalated. I learned that I was not made to sit for long periods, and I began to realize that in-person work was more beneficial to my life than I realized. 

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Through trial and error during the pandemic, I began to resume various forms of exercise that I had once abandoned, including running, and I began to rethink my belief system about my own aging process.  I started approaching my life, and my physical body, with a bit more curiosity–making observations, asking questions, forming hypotheses, testing them, and making adjustments. This continues today.

The pandemic forced me to make peace with the fact that I will work longer than I had originally planned because it is still beneficial for me. Furthermore, I have embraced my need for movement; I cannot sit for hours, and even if I could, it is NOT good for me physically or mentally.  Additionally, I need interaction with others, even if I am an introvert at heart.  However, I still value and honor my need for downtime, introspection, reflection, and quiet. 

Span’s article, combined with the pandemic experience, inspires me to seek the courage in the coming years to continue to change what I can, but to also hone my ability to know when I can’t.  This is only possible through the wisdom that comes with life experience, aka, aging.  Aging is not a point for which to attach shame, negative stereotyping, or embarrassment.  Instead, the process of aging should celebrate one’s life experiences and provide us with opportunities to not only apply the knowledge gained from these experiences to our own lives, but to also use them for the benefit of those with whom we interact and/or mentor.

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To be certain, aging brings unavoidable changes in the physical body and in the way in which we think (and forget), but it is not necessarily a time for stopping, like much of our cultural cues teach us by celebrating youthful beauty, prowess, and achievement. In fact, after reading about Levy’s work, I realize there’s plenty of money to be made.  In fact, according to Span’s article, Dr. Levy and her colleagues estimate that “age discrimination, negative age stereotypes, and negative self-perceptions of aging lead to $63 billion in excess annual spending on common health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and injuries,” not to mention all of the money made from products promising to turn back the clock. 

One of the most compelling examples of psychological absorption and damage of cultural ageism in Span’s article occurred when Levy took her 70-something grandmother shopping in a Florida grocery store and her grandmother fell over a crate left in an aisle. The grandmother’s injury was superficial, but it did bleed profusely.  When the grandmother suggested to the store owner that crates should not be left in an aisle, the store owner replied that “old people fall all the time, and maybe they shouldn’t be walking around.”  After that point, Levy observed that her once lively grandmother began to ask others to do tasks for her that she once regularly completed.  It was as if her grandmother began to subconsciously view the grocery store incident as her cue that she was old and incapable of caring for herself.

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Meanwhile, in Blue Zone parts of the world, geographical locations in which people live the longest and are the healthiest, centenarians are celebrated as if they were highly acclaimed celebrities.  If these parts of the world can encourage, foster, and honor a culture where aging is not only accepted, but highly valued, why can’t we?  

Maybe I cannot change the current culture, but I can change my own personal view on the maturing process.  Wrinkles capture the adventures in the sun as well as countless moments of smiling. Gray hair celebrates the continuation of our inner child wanting to roam free and wild, and body aches/pains are a reminder to care for the vessel God gave us. 

I now know that phrases such as, “that age,” reflect cultural and social programmed attitudes that marketers, business, and the healthcare industry prefer is an ingrained part of our vocabulary.  While not every business or healthcare provider is personally invested in this ageism, I no longer desire to accept those marketers’ money-making, psychological damaging propaganda. What about you?

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