by Laura Sillerman

I went in, in my bathing suit with big cotton pants rolled up to my knees.

Went into the 47-degree December ocean. Went in with 740 other screaming, laughing, leaping members of the town who were raising money for a charity that recognizes that illegal immigrants are the only way the lawns get mowed when city people have driven real estate prices through the roof.

But let’s not talk politics, let’s talk bodies.

There were buff ones of course: the teens in their surfer jams and bikinis, the 20-somethings in their body suits, the young moms who drop the kids at school and head to the gym.

They were the sidebar.

The main story were the people who look like me: over 40 and over 50, showing up with a little extra here or something they’d rather not have there. Some of us were even over 60.

But we were all over it. We were over caring that we aren’t young because we’ve arrived at the place where it doesn’t matter.

We went in because we like a good time and because we are every bit as game and robust as those kids who got wet. We went in because we’ve always loved a good cause. We went in and we ran out, and everybody hugged and laughed and felt good about themselves.

We looked around and saw history around us — the years we’ve spent together doing crazy things and meaningful things and things we’d prefer to forget.

We saw the woman who has taken troubled kids in for decades now. She was with the boy she saved from going to jail because she promised she and her husband would keep him on the straight and narrow. He just turned 24 and he plunged because she did.

The woman who runs the charity and The Polar Bear Plunge was there grinning. A few years back, she convinced a local church to give her its basement every Friday in the winter so she could be certain the homeless would get one hot meal and have a shower and a clean place to sleep one night a week.

She did that single-handedly, until the other volunteers — mostly women, mostly “older” — rallied to help. Now the charity serves hundreds of families with free meals, free clothing and holiday celebrations. She’s past 65. She went in.

When everyone was leaving, packing up the freezing sandy towels and saying good-byes, I looked up and saw a woman who must have been in her 80s wearing a long coat and a big warm hat and holding on to the snow fencing that separated the spectators from the participants. She was smiling and watching and so very present. She was taking part in it by all the attention she was paying to it.

We took the plunge. As a community. It doesn’t take long for 740 people to go in and come out of the ocean in December, but the talk about it and the benefits of the fundraising effort will last all year.

We all plunge every day, like it or not. We plunge into news stories or personal dramas that make up a life. We plunge into our passions and our obligations. And, every once in a while, someone organizes something that reminds us to plunge because we still can.

None of this changes the world very much, but there is real power in doing what no one expects you to do and remembering that someday, with luck, taking part will mean standing at the fence and watching as if you really were.

Laura Baudo Sillerman, an author and poet, is president of a New York City-based charitable foundation and is a board member of Women’s Voices for Change.

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