Innovation Ecosystem

Respecting fear

Sometimes, courage requires common sense

Photo by Toby Simon

When Toby Simon followed the call of the paddle board on a beautiful October morning, she encountered not just a Zen moment but an encounter with fish with a big fin.

By Toby Simon
Posted 10/18/21
What happens when your moment of Zen dissolves into a fight or flight decision.
What is the best way to confront those who peddle fear and anxiety in our lives? How do we redefine courage as the ability to respect the limits to our own abilities? What have we learned about caution and fear – and responsibility – in an age of pandemic? Is there a way for place-based public health to be intertwined with a respect for the natural world?
Everyday, it seems, the relative risks and rewards of choosing to get a vaccine or to wear a mask becomes part of the political equation of those who would have you believe that your life is not dependent upon the lives of others around you, asking you not to follow a belief in the common good around public health.
The selfishness of those – including professional athletes who refuse to get a vaccine, such as Red Sox pitcher Chris Sales, potentially infecting his teammates – make it difficult to root for professional teams where the sense of teamwork is non-existent.

WELLFLEET, Mass. – There is no denying that we’ve had a beautiful October in New England. The light, the colors, and the sun have been spectacular this season, at a time when we are all in need of something good for our souls.

Last week on one of these gorgeous fall days in Wellfleet, I grabbed my paddle board, headed down our steps and on to the beach. Recently we have had super high tides on our waters, much higher than usual, so the tide had completely covered the beach.

I got on my board and decided to paddle in to the wind because it makes the return trip much easier with the wind at my back. But soon, I was out of our immediate beach area where the wind had actually quieted down.

There was no one on the water, no other paddle boarders, kayakers or small boats. Just me and the gentle sounds of my paddle going in to the water with each stroke. It was a Zen moment.

My initial thoughts were that this is what retirement is like for us lucky ones. One works hard for 40 years in order to have time. I was grateful for the privilege afforded me. The privilege of going to summer camp where I learned to swim, a hard working single mom who was able to buy a small cottage on the ocean more than 50 years ago, a career I loved, a supportive and liberated man who has been my partner for 55 years, good health, and the foresight of my in-laws to buy a home on the water that one day would be ours.

On this beautiful sunny fall day, with not much wind resistance and stunning scenery of Cape Cod bay, I was truly a lucky one.

The best of plans
My plan was to paddle over to another beach about a half mile from us and check things out even though it was mid week and most likely the beach was deserted.

Full disclosure: I’m a good paddle boarder, even at my advanced age. I know how to paddle through some windy and rough waters without falling off or without having to get down on my knees for balance. Until the pandemic I was teaching yoga and exercise classes on the paddle board at a local pond.

I continued to marvel at the beauty around me, glancing out at the bay on my left and occasionally in the other direction at the large rocks on the shore that are used to protect the dune erosion.

And then I glanced forward. And saw it. A fin. It was protruding out of the water, approximately eight feet from me. Zen moment over, my heart started pounding and I was muttering a ton of four-letter words.

I immediately turned my board around and headed for the large boulders that line that portion of the beach, a good 60 feet away. Paddling as fast as I could to the shore and at the same time looking behind me [rather dangerous on a paddle board] to see if the fin was following me [it was], I finally got to the rocks and jumped off the board on to them. I had to hold on the board in the water so it didn’t take off.

Trading options
Standing on the rocks, I thought about my options. Do I just wait until I didn’t see the fin any more and get back on the board to paddle home or do I leave my board on the rocks, climb up the embankment and walk home? I have a plastic case for my phone but of course in my desire to be spontaneous, I didn’t want to take the time to get the case and cram my phone in it. My husband Peter was probably on our beach by then but he knew I was out on my board and wouldn’t be worried about me.

As I was staring out at the water keeping track of the approaching fin, I suddenly noticed that the fin was bobbing and weaving back and forth, side to side. That’s when I realized that it had to be an ocean sunfish and not a shark.

Our bay has seen both sharks and sunfish but it’s quite rare and happens when these sea inhabitants get confused in Provincetown and head towards the bay rather than the ocean.

Although sunfish are not a threat to humans and are considered very friendly creatures, they are huge. Like about 400 pounds. I still wasn’t wild about the idea of paddling with one near me.

I waited and watched the sun fish approach where I was standing. When he/she/they didn’t see my paddle board moving, it disappeared under water and emerged going the other direction. I waited some more until I couldn’t see the fin any more.

I decided to go for it and head back to our beach. I hugged the shore so I could jump from my board to the rocks if necessary. And I paddled quicker than I thought was humanly capable. I kept turning my head around to see if there was a fin behind me.

My Zen moment was brief but nonetheless delightful. That said, when I first saw the fin, I panicked and didn’t take the time to watch it to see how the fin was “behaving.” All I saw was it moving towards me. Fight or flight.

Today is another one of those glorious fall days and the water on the bay is extremely calm. I’ll probably take my board out again. And invite a friend to join me. And bring my phone. And hope that all I see are some blue fish.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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