Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Lessons from a paddleboard

“If we’d really thought this through, we probably wouldn’t be going,” I said to my husband as we loaded up the minivan for our family’s final trip of the summer. 

We’d agreed to the trip — four days in New York’s Finger Lakes region with our friends Jeff and Annie and their three children — in the flush of good feeling following a wonderful Vermont visit together in February. 

Jeff and Annie are those rare friends with whom we’ve only become closer after marriage, children, and moves. I went to college with them both, and we all ended up in New York City after graduation. There were some lean years when we lived on opposite coasts, but since our families reconnected at our 20th college reunion and we discovered that our children were kindred spirits (my children recently declared their offspring, “honorary cousins”), we’ve tried to get together regularly. 

The Covid pandemic interfered for a couple of years, but this past winter we gathered for a long weekend and picked up right where we’d left off.

“Let’s do a trip together this summer,” we gushed as we hugged goodbye. 

Then life bore down on our family like a runaway 18-wheeler, slamming us with schoolwork, sickness, and social commitments. Jeff, however, didn’t give up: He located an Airbnb rental that could sleep 12 in the Finger Lakes region, and suggested spending four days there over Labor Day weekend. 

“Sure, sounds good!” my husband and I agreed, distracted. 

Then late August arrived: We’d just returned from an exhausting trip to California, our two-year-old was still in a nasty post-jetlag sleep mess, and we’d return from the Finger Lakes just one day before the start of school. 

“What were we thinking?!?” I moaned. 

As it turned out, the trip was magical, and by far the most restful vacation of our summer. 

Our rental house was actually two houses — a main house and a smaller guest cottage — situated on 25 acres, 17 acres of which were taken up by pristine, spring-fed Gifford Lake. The main house stood right on the lakeshore and included a small manmade beach and dock. The remarkable thing was that our rental house was the only house on the lake; apparently the rest of the shoreline was too marshy for construction. 

So there we were: four adults and eight children, on our own private lake. In four days, we never left the property, nor was anybody ever bored. 

Some combination of us explored the lake every day. Two canoes and a kayak came with the house, and our family brought along two inflatable paddleboards. Standing atop a paddleboard, often with a child perched on one end, I poled my way across Gifford Lake to its outlet into Fish Creek. 

It was possible to traverse serpentine Fish Creek for about 45 minutes before it dropped over the edge of a concrete dam. During that entire time, you’d pass roughly five houses along the banks; otherwise, it was just water, lily pads, reeds, and tree-lined shores. The soundtrack was the whir of insects, broken occasionally by the rush of a startled duck, osprey, or great blue heron.

I live in a small, rural state; my house sits amid acres of fields and trees. Still, I can’t recall a time when I’ve been so aware of being surrounded by nature in an unspoiled state as I was while paddleboarding down Fish Creek. It felt almost prehistoric — or post-historic. The lake and the creek and everything living in and around them seem to just keep going on; they go on about their business, eating, growing, reproducing, and dying, day after day, regardless of whether people are there to witness it. I caught a few glimpses of that business, but I was just passing through. And doubtless much was happening that I didn’t see — or couldn’t see with my limited human vision.

As I write this, Gifford Lake and Fish Creek are going on about their business, with life flowing through and alongside them. I am thinking of them, but they are not thinking of me. Realizing this, I feel very small, humble, and unimportant compared to that complex web of life unbroken by time. It is not a bad way for us humans to feel on occasion. 

The older I get, the more surrendered I feel to the current of time. Live long enough and you’ll realize that time is sweeping you along whether you agree to it or not. You are aging; children are growing into adults who will take your place — and you’re still not sure you feel like an adult yet, really; people you loved are no longer on the journey with you; and time will continue to flow past you when your own journey ends. You can rage and fight against the flow, but I find there’s more freedom and joy in submission.

I had a brief discussion about time with Jeff and Annie’s teenage daughter. “I’m worried about the passage of time,” she said one day in the kitchen. “I think everyone my age is worried about the passage of time.”

I agreed with her, because I remember clearly being my 15-year-old self, sitting in my bedroom in Virginia and feeling overcome by the panicked sense of time sweeping me forward towards things I didn’t feel ready for yet: leaving home, college, work, adulthood. 

“But,” I said to her, “when you’re my age, the passage of time can be a magical thing. You get to see your college friends get married and have wonderful children, and those children become friends with your children, and you all go on a lake vacation together.” 

Our children are still young; they can’t yet see how all the threads may be woven together. Time to them looks like a vast, dark ocean, full of critical choices and potential pitfalls. 

But I learned something about navigation on my paddleboard. Fish Creek, where it joins Gifford Lake, is a narrow, winding slalom bordered by a thick carpet of lily pads. Navigating it required paddling frantically on one side, then the other, reversing frequently out of lily pad traps.  

One day, with my own teenager perched atop my board, I mused, “I can paddle as hard and fast as possible, but you know what’s really important? Where I’m looking. If I’m not focusing my eyes on where I want to go, the board veers off course no matter how well I paddle.” 

It’s an obvious metaphor, but it’s true: Where you look is where you’ll go. As many of our young people begin a new school year, my encouragement is to focus your eyes on where you want to go. Is it a role model, a set of beliefs, an academic or career goal? Fix your eyes on it, paddle as best you can, and don’t fear time’s current moving you along. The journey will not be linear or easy; you will often feel small and humble. But in my experience, that’s the best way to feel: Small, humble, and full of great wonder.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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