Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shooting a bow like Katniss Everdeen

Katniss Everdeen of "The Hunger Games" is an expert bow hunter
What's on your bucket list? Is there a skill, experience or adventure you've long dreamed about? What steps can you take toward making your dream a reality?

For many years, I'd wanted to learn to shoot a bow. I'd read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. In the LOTR movies, Legolas made shooting a bow seem effortless.

My daughter got me hooked on reading The Hunger Games trilogy whose heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is smart, spunky, confident and an expert at shooting a bow. She's not the kind of girl waiting around for some guy to rescue her.

Before I had the opportunity to shoot a bow, I met Heather Phillips, a world-class atlatl thrower. I'd heard of this primitive hunting weapon, but I'd never seen one. Last summer at the Echoes in Time primitive skills gathering, Heather taught me to throw an atlatl. She had recently tied for second in the world during an ISAAC (International Standard Atlatl Accuracy Competition).

Heather Phillips, a world-class atlatl thrower, showing how it's done.
Heather's first-grade daughter, Ryleigh, and her freshman stepdaughter, Kachira, also gave me pointers. They've been throwing atlatl for years. I'm just a beginner. But I'm eager to learn more from Heather and the girls next year.

About a month after Heather's atlatl lesson, Kirby taught me to shoot a bow. Not only has Kirby been shooting a bow since he was eight years old, but he also makes his own bows, arrow shafts and arrowheads. He's successfully hunted deer, elk, bear and moose with a bow.

Kirby the bow hunter in his element.
Pulling the bowstring and aiming is much more difficult than it looks. And I was using the easy one that Kirby used when he was in elementary school. Here I thought I had these amazing dragon boating biceps, but pulling the bowstring used different muscles. It also took concentration. During my first lesson, I was aiming for a certain sage brush. At first, it took coordination to prevent the arrow from falling off the string before I made my shot. When Kirby and I searched for my arrows, many were nowhere near the "target" sage brush.

Unlike Katniss, I am a beginner. Here I am during my first
bow lesson last summer. Yikes! My right arm seems way too high.
By my second bow lesson with Kirby, my accuracy improved with each shot. After several attempts, I shot three of my four arrows into my target--an empty milk jug weighted with gravel. Archery is just as fun as I imagined it would be. But it's much more difficult. I have much to learn and look forward to my next lesson!

Next week, the second Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, will be released in theaters. I'm looking forward to seeing Katniss shoot her bow. Maybe I can pick up some pointers.

If I, a middle-aged and still overweight woman, can paddle a dragon boat, belly dance, throw an atlatl and shoot a bow, imagine what new skill you could do. The first step is believing in yourself so that you're not afraid to try. Be brave. Go for it!

By my second lesson, my accuracy improved. After several attempts,
I shot three of my four arrows into my target--an empty milk jug weighted with gravel.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Learning positive self-talk from Emma Peel

When I was seven, I wanted to be Emma Peel.
What girl wouldn't want to be beautiful, sexy, smart and confident?
Think back to a time when you felt beautiful, powerful, intelligent, confident. Maybe even sexy. What inspired you to feel that way about yourself? I clearly remember my inspiration: Emma Peel.

When I was seven, the TV screen was populated by one Western program after another, and few offered any suitable role models for a young girl looking for adventure. I tried pretending to be Miss Kitty from "Gunsmoke," but she was uninspiring.

Then one night, my older sister, Becky, tuned our TV to "The Avengers," and the confidant, beautiful, sexy Emma Peel entered our living room wearing a tight, black leather catsuit, black boots and lipstick. She drove a convertible sports car too. Mrs. Peel exuded confidence like no other woman I'd ever seen. She had my attention.

An expert at karate, fencing and all manner of weaponry, Emma Peel was not the usual kind of female TV character who needed to be rescued by a man. In fact, she often rescued Mr. Steed from danger. Emma Peel was a spy. A secret agent. And she was super cool. Now here was the kind of woman I wanted to become!

My cousin, Donette and I had spent our time playing pioneers and "I Dream of Jeannie," but now we started playing "spy girls." I don't remember much about our spy missions, but I still smile when I think of how much fun we had creating exciting adventures as invincible girl spies solving crimes and saving the world.

All the way through elementary school, I felt I could do anything. I was an intrepid girl spy, after all. But then something happened to my self confidence.

How old were we when we began doubting ourselves and stopped believing we could do anything? Was it at puberty? When we first began noticing boys? When other girls starting demeaning us?

Entering the awkward, geeky junior high years, my confidence waned. I certainly did not look like Emma Peel. Nor did I feel powerful and confident. I didn't need other girls to demean me because I did a pretty good job of it all by myself.

Through my teens, twenties and even thirties, my inner conversation with myself went something like this: "You're not good enough. You're not pretty. You're fat. Your nose is too big. Your breasts are too small."
The saddest part is that I often vocalized my self-talk even after I became a mother, and my daughter heard me belittling myself constantly.

Shame on me. A woman should love herself. And that includes loving her body.

It wasn't until I was in my late forties that I began to channel Emma Peel again. Don't get me wrong. I know I am never going to be a spy. But I began to find that strong inner voice again.

When I catch myself thinking negative thoughts about myself, I replace them with positive thoughts. "You can do this!" has become my new mantra.

I've since apologized to my young adult daughter for putting myself down in front of her. All of her life, I've made a point of telling her that she's beautiful and smart. She is.

Now I can admit that I too, am smart. And even beautiful.

In the past few years, I hope that I've shown her that any woman, even a middle-aged woman, can be smart, confidant and beautiful if she believes in herself.

The next time you have a negative thought about yourself, stop. Take a deep breath. Then pretend that you're Emma Peel, confident, sexy spy. Tell yourself how marvelous and brave you are.When you hold your head up high and believe in yourself, others will believe in you too.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Taking risks to try new adventures

Farewell to Wisteria Cottage. Hello, next adventure!
I wrote this post on my last night in Wisteria Cottage, a cozy 540-square-foot artist's studio my cat, Anakin Skywalker, and I have called home for the past three months.

Wisteria Cottage and the surrounding property are being sold, and Ani and I must move again to our fifth home in less than two years. Living so simply has allowed me to breathe deeply for the first time in a long while. This past summer was one of the best of my adult life.

I've enjoyed special time with my daughter Katie, who lives next door in what I call the "Big House." We've picked sun-ripened berries, hung out and talked and made meals together that we've shared over Netflix movies.

My pared-down life at Wisteria Cottage taught me that I'm built of strong stuff, likely passed through the genes by my Swedish grandma, Lydia Blomgren Smith, who raised 11 children in a remote log cabin with no running water or electricity. Although my Wisteria Cottage summer pales in comparison to Grandma's challenges, I proved to myself that I could live three months without immediate access to a bathroom, kitchen or running water. It's given me the courage to take risks and be open to trying new adventures.

I sang karaoke with fellow reporters 20 or more years younger than me.

For a second season, I've paddled a dragon boat with the Mighty Women, and felt my stroke--and my arms--growing more powerful as the summer progressed.

On a blue-sky June day, my friend Patty and I paddled kayaks and enjoyed front-row sightings of multiple blue herons and other water fowl at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. That paddle had been on my bucket list for a decade.

I learned to shoot a bow and realized it's much more difficult than Legolas makes it look in "The Lord of the Rings" movies. By my second lesson with Kirby, I managed to hit the target, an empty milk jug, with three of my four arrows. If I ever encounter a ferocious orc, I'm ready to take him on!

Kirby and I paddled kayaks a few times this summer. My favorite was when we paddled with more than a dozen others in handcrafted skin-on-frame kayaks at the confluence of the Colville and Columbia rivers in Northeastern Washington where I was raised.

With Kirby I also camped along the Deschutes River, hiked the Old Columbia River Gorge Highway trail, toured Maryhill Museum of Art, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and saw Native American petroglyphs along the Columbia River. All these had been on my bucket list for years.

Another longtime dream of mine was realized when we camped in a tipi, something I'd wanted to do since seeing tipis in Montana many years ago.

We swing danced on the grass at the Great Circle Music Festival near La Grande, Oregon, to the music of Bitterroot, Kory Quinn and my cousin, Janis Carper and her honey, Cris Peterson. I also hula-hooped to the music with my new friend, Ryleigh, a gutsy first-grader who already is paddling her own canoe.

After a three-decade hiatus, I took up drumming again. Both Kirby and I had been drummers at our respective high schools, but I hadn't played since then. At Rhythm Traders, a really cool percussion store in Portland, we played many African djembe drums in our quest to find the perfect drum for me. love having a drum again! I I'd forgotten the joy that drumming brings me. Why had I stopped doing something that makes me happy?

Over the summer I've played my drum to accompany Kirby's guitar playing and singing in the garden at Wisteria Cottage, under a star-spattered sky in Eastern Oregon and then for a few nights around a campfire under a full moon, while surrounded by Kirby and other buckskin-clad primitive skills enthusiasts and musicians at the Echoes in Time gathering at Champoeg State Park.

Through the window at the peak of the ceiling in Wisteria Cottage, I've watched the moon progress through the sky many a summer night as I played my drum alone, finding a beat that's true to the joyful woman I've become.

I'm going to miss that inspiring view of the moon through that high window. But I'm looking forward to tapping out new rhythms as I explore the view awaiting me around the next bend.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Moving, zombies and the unfortunate raspberry sorbet incident

            Zombies invaded Portland last October. I witnessed it--and survived.

I'll tell you a little secret: Zombies scare me spitless.

Are you with me on this? Or are you one of those people who is not creeped out by zombies?

You know that supposedly hilarious British zombie movie, "Shaun of the Dead?" To most people, it's a classic zombie comedy. To me, "zombie comedy" is an oxymoron. When the zombie action got too intense, I ran around breathing heavily. I screamed. Multiple times. Zombies are seriously scary.

Moving is scary too. And it's hard, hard labor. I ought to know. I'm the maven of moving. The diva of downsizing. The cheerleader for change. I get Frequent Mover Miles from U-Haul.

Recently my landlord raised my rent, pricing me out of the rental he refused to maintain or upgrade. So I moved rather than live through another stifling summer in that sauna. Thankfully, I had the help of many friends, my daughter, and this time--professional movers--to accomplish the move on a sweltering summer day.

The day after moving day, cleanup day, was even hotter. With my security deposit at stake, my dear friend, Holly, and I spent hours scrubbing in that hot-as-Hades duplex. As a treat, I'd bought a pint of raspberry sorbet to eat when we finished. I'd scrubbed the fridge and stuck the sorbet in the freezer. The unplugged freezer. And forgot about it.

I was wearing my Moving Pants, light khaki cargo pants with big pockets, and plenty of them. Moving Pants are essential on both moving day and cleanup day for keeping track of all the last-minute stuff I ran across: the key to the new apartment. The hardware to assemble my bed. The missing knob from a dresser. By the end of the day, the pockets of my Moving Pants were stuffed with essential odds and ends I'd need at the new place.

With much shoving and prodding, I crammed into my Subaru the last load: vacuum cleaner, broom, mop, bucket and household stuff, a strawberry pot and yard stuff that was left. It didn't all fit. Dear Holly took a load in her van. I'd pick it up later. 

Then I remembered my raspberry sorbet. I retrieved it from the unplugged freezer. It was liquid sorbet. I didn't have a garbage bag and the garbage to the dump already had been picked up. I'd have to take it with me. Holding the melted sorbet in one hand, I gingerly climbed into the packed car and looked for a secure place for it. I set it down next to me, atop a stack of stuff. Dumb, I know.

I started the car, rounded the first corner, and SPLAT! The sorbet container tipped, and melted sorbet cascaded onto my khaki pants, spreading a dark red stain, much like blood.

Arriving at my new place, Wisteria Cottage, in a very nice suburban neighborhood, I got out of the car. My tan Moving Pants were soaked in what appeared to be blood. I must have been a sight for the well-heeled neighbors, who undoubtedly were watching from behind their curtains, aghast that an unkempt murderess was moving into the neighborhood.

A few nights later, I was eating dinner with my daughter and her boyfriend, who live next door to the cottage. I was just beginning to know the tempo of life at Wisteria Cottage, which had no bathroom. I had to brave the elements, even in the dark of night, to use the facilities next door in my daughter's house.

"Do you like zombie movies?" Casey asked me, popping a movie into the DVD player.

"Not really," I said. "Zombies are scary."

"No, this is 'Zombieland,' a funny zombie movie," he said.

"Uh-huh. Right."

It started. I tensed up. I flinched. And it was only the opening credits. I bravely watched seven minutes of the movie until I could take no more and excused myself from the scary zombie comedy, and walked briskly to Wisteria Cottage.

That night, when nature called, I willed myself NOT to think about zombies. Zombies in the dark yard, just waiting for a middle-aged maven of moving on a midnight pilgrimage to the bathroom to wander unsuspecting into bloodthirsty zombies.I ran to the bathroom that night. If any zombies were lurking about the yard, they couldn't catch me.

But I made a vow that moonless night: No more zombie movies for me.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Go with the flow

Has your life turned out exactly as you planned it?

My own life has taken a series of unexpected twists and turns, particularly in the past two years during this challenging economy.Perhaps yours has too.

Paddling my canoe around a bend in the river, I've encountered dangerous rapids that threatened to capsize my boat and dump me into icy water. Through these turbulent times, I've learned it's crucial to keep my focus on what's important and to not lose my nerve as I continue paddling forward to reach calmer waters just around the next bend.

When you're struggling to keep afloat in turbulent waters, it's crucial to go with the flow. Don't fight the current that's carrying you in a new, unexpected direction. Instead, set your sights on the horizon and paddle with a renewed energy. Eventually, you'll reach calmer waters and will be able to breathe again.

Last week I encountered menacing whitewater that forced me to change course unexpectedly. I had to move from Wisteria Cottage, the sweet 540-square-foot artist's studio I've called home for the past three months.
Originally, the owner had planned to put the property on the market next spring. But a potential buyer knocked on her door, which means I must move many months before I'd planned.

My first reaction was deer-in-the-headlights panic. Where would I live? I doubt I'll ever own a home again, and my budget doesn't allow the luxury of renting my own apartment. I let friends know I was looking for a new home for me and Anakin Skywalker, my cat. Within hours, I had several offers.

We're moving in with my dear friend, Patty. She owns a cozy two-bedroom home built for Kaiser shipyard workers during World War II. I'm looking forward to having the luxury of a bathroom, kitchen, running water. Heat! Mostly, I'm looking forward to Patty's company as we explore hiking trails, rivers, bookstores, estate sales and coffee shops this fall and winter.

Through my many moves, Patty kept offering me a place to live, but her house is so small that I didn't want to possibly ruin our friendship by living in such close quarters. After living in 540 square feet with no plumbing for three months, I'm convinced that Patty's home is plenty big enough for two mighty women and one finicky cat.

So I'm moving for the fourth time in 22 months. My gypsy lifestyle is not without benefits. Through each move, I've let go of more stuff. Lightened my load. I've downsized from 2,400 to 540 square feet. I can do this. As sweet summer turns to crisp fall, I'm gathering boxes and paddling my boat through this challenge to reach calmer waters just around the next bend in the river.

Here's an Irish ballad written in the 1840s that has inspired me to keep paddling, even when I've been pelted with enormous waves. I hope it inspires you too.


Paddle Your Own Canoe

I’ve traveled about a bit in my time,
And troubles I’ve seen a few.
And found it better in ev’ry clime
To paddle my own canoe.

My wants are small I care not at all.
If my debts are paied when due.
I drive away strife, in the ocean of life
While I paddle my own canoe.

If a hurricane rise in mid’day sky
And the sun is lost to view
Move steadily by, with a steadfast eye
And paddle your own canoe.

Fields of daisies that grew in bright green
And blooming so sweet for you
So never sit down, with a tear or a frown
But paddle your own canoe.

 – Irish ballad, circa 1840, published in Jane Benedickson’s Idleness, Water and a Canoe

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Adventures in tiny living: When the bathroom is out the front door

I am a frugal woman living in Wisteria Cottage, a compact 540 square feet artist's studio with no kitchen, running water or bathroom.True, I'm saving money, but I'm also learning to cope with the challenge of making trips outside to the "big house" where my daughter lives when I need to use the facilities.

I grab my house keys and flashlight if it's dark.If it's raining, I put on my rain coat. If it's raining hard, I pull on my rain hat and maybe even my rain boots. Then I walk 37 steps from my front door, brush by overgrown vegetation, often through the web of an enormous, brown spider that builds his web across the path I need to cross to use the loo. Thankfully, I'm not one of those women who is afraid of spiders and other bugs.

Then I open the gate to the back yard, walk more steps to reach the back deck, then through the back door to the main house.That door is newer and opens easier. But sometimes, I've waited too long and I'm in a big hurry to open the door.

Sometimes I awake in the night with the urge to use the bathroom and I ask myself: "Do you truly, absolutely have to go?" Most of the time, my answer is: "Yes!"

I keep essential showering toiletries in a plastic tub in my cottage. In the morning, I add a towel, washcloth and clean underwear and then trek to the main house to take a shower, make my coffee, start my day. Sometimes, I get all the way to the main house and realize I forgot a towel or underwear. Both are essential after a shower, particularly since I have to walk 37 steps outside in front of inquiring neighbors to reach my bedroom and clothing.

I've become the queen of improvisation. But sometimes, enough is enough. A wash cloth makes a lousy bath towel.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Living large in 540 square feet: Clear the clutter. Find your life.

Six weeks ago, I downsized to a 540-square-foot artist's studio I've dubbed Wisteria Cottage. I never dreamed of living in such a tiny space that has no kitchen. Or bathroom. Yet here I am, living proof that smaller is better.

If I've learned anything in the past few years, it's this: Life is a big adventure and we really don't know what's going to happen next. So it's best to hang on and enjoy every minute of the ride.

Along the way, it's helpful to be able to fly by the seat of your pants. Go with flow. For me, that has translated to clearing the clutter and finding a new life.

Less than two years ago, I owned a four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot house. Through a series of events both unfortunate and in hindsight, fortuitous, I had to sell that house and immediately empty its contents.

Six weeks ago, I moved for the third time in 18 months. My landlord was raising my rent. Most of my reduced salary was supporting a substandard apartment. This time, I downsized from an 1,100 square-foot apartment to a 540-square-foot artist's studio I've dubbed Wisteria Cottage.

Although I don't recommend this crash course in forced simplicity, in the long run, it's been very good for me. In the short run, it's been a wild, exhausting ride.

How do you edit a lifetime of belongings down to the essential? More importantly, how do you determine what's essential for you in this point of time? Might that list of essentials change over time, as one's life changes, ebbs and flows with the tide of family and responsibility?

In my big move 18 months ago, I had to give away a large portion of furniture I'd collected over the years. Now in the last move, I had to edit further.

Wisteria Cottage does not have a kitchen so I don't need a dining table. For now, my years of hosting large family gatherings seem to be behind me. I got rid of my garage sale dining table but kept a Craigslist find from two moves ago: a kitchen cart with storage, a food prep surface and two pop-up surfaces that make into a table. It fits the footprint and it works for my current lifestyle.

Most importantly, it's adaptable. Much like me.

Wisteria Cottage also does not have a bathroom. No running water. No sink. No shower. No toilet. The cottage is next door to the house where my daughter lives, so I share their facilities. I use their kitchen. I do my laundry in their house. And yes, in the wee hours, when I need to uh--wee--I use their bathroom.

Some people don't understand why I'd downsize this drastically. One friend compared my new lifestyle to that of the Unabomber! When a woman at work found out about my circumstances, she blurted out: "Are you okay with living in a shed?" Then she gave me the phone number for public housing. (I don't quite qualify, and I love Wisteria Cottage, thank you very much!)

I do not regret this decision to further reduce my footprint. I welcomed it as something I am supposed to learn how to do--and with joy and a sense of adventure.

Here's why I've become the queen of downsizing and change: First, I'm getting to spend more time with my daughter. That's a big bonus.

Second, I'm saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month. I've already been able to pay for needed car repairs I couldn't afford when I was in the apartment.

The breathing room with my finances also is allowing me to do more than just survive. I bought Keen hiking boots--on sale-- for an upcoming backpacking trip. My last backpacking trip was before I had children--more than two decades ago. I bought a sleeping pad for camping and already have camped more this summer than the past five summers combined. I bought an African djembe drum and have played drums around campfires under the stars. In short, I've rediscovered me and am living life to the fullest.

Downsizing from 2,400 to 1,100 to 540 square feet has changed me and my perspective on what I value. I'm learning what's really essential for my existence as well as my happiness. Although I didn't have to rent a storage unit, I still have too many boxes stacked up, awaiting further editing.

As I've downsized, here are the conversations I've had with myself: How many towels and washcloths do I need? How many books should I keep? How many pairs of shoes do I need? Throughout the move, the words I repeated most were: "I still own too much stuff. Why do I have all this stuff?"

Last weekend, I helped my 79-year-old mom move. She's also paring down her belongings and determining what she needs in her new stage of her life. We're helping each other determine what's essential.

Mostly, I've either given away belongings or packed them away until I need them again in my next stage.

Sometime down the road, I'm going to have the luxury of a bathroom and a small kitchen again. For now, I'm living large in the 540 square feet of Wisteria Cottage.

If you're like me, you own too much stuff. I challenge you to begin your own step toward simplicity by reading this book about "throwing out 50 things." Click here to learn more.

Are you ready to declutter your personal space as you determine what's essential in your own life? Who knows what adventures that might set into motion?

To read about an Oregon family of four living large in a 540-square-foot cottage on Sauvie Island, click here:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Beating a drum and howling at the full moon

Have you ever missed an amazing experience because you stopped to consider what other people might think? How often do we stop ourselves from enjoying the moment by imagining the negative things people might think or say?

Saturday night at a backyard barbecue I almost missed a fun opportunity because I didn't know many people gathered in my friend Henry's backyard. Many people had already drifted away. Perhaps I should too.

I almost left before the wild rumpus started. That would have been a shame.

We'd gathered to send Henry's daughter, Lena, a graduate student, off to an Alaskan adventure, a summer job helping tourists backpack into wild country. It's a fitting job for Lena, who has backpacked as far away as the Himalayas in Nepal and as long as the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail. You can read my story about Lena's PCT adventure here.

Instead of yielding to my inner voice that was telling me it was time to go home, I had stayed longer. I'd seen the musician neighbor's djembe drum and asked him if I might play it when he played his clarinet. He smiled and encouraged me to join him. I've been playing drums since sixth grade band. I still get a kick from playing any kind of drum.

When the musician picked up his clarinet and began playing sweet notes under the night sky, I grabbed the djembe, listened  to his clarinet and started pounding out a rhythm. Soon others joined us around the fire pit playing a tambourine, mandolin, ukelele. Lena picked up her violin and joined in. Henry turned an enormous plastic bucket upside down and transformed it into a drum.

I found myself sitting around a fire pit with old friends and new acquaintances while beating an African djembe drum during an impromptu jam session. Possibilities were palpable under the full moon.

Our moonlit jam session reminded me of one of my favorite children's books, "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak. If you aren't familiar with Sendak's 1963 classic, Max, the wild boy who has been sent to bed without any supper, sails away to the land of wild things, tames them and becomes king of all the wild things.

Then Max commands his subjects: "Let the wild rumpus start!" and that's when Max and the wild things really let loose. They dance in the moonlight, dangle from trees and frolic in the forest. Now, we weren't dangling from trees in Henry's backyard on Saturday night, but we did play instruments with abandon.

If I'd listened to my voice of reason, I would have left earlier and missed that experience. That wild rumpus.

As I played the djembe under a full moon in Henry's backyard, I felt like a wild thing, alive to possibilities.

The next time you have the opportunity to beat a djembe drum or do something out of the ordinary, don't stop to think about what others will say. Instead, do it. Beat your drum. Life's too short not to play an African drum around a firepit and under a moonlit sky.

Let the wild rumpus start!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Projecting positive thoughts to the universe

Judy and Kathy, my cheerleaders at my neighborhood Ace Hardware
"Happiness looks great on you."

So says the message inside the foil wrapper of my Dove dark chocolate.

Although a wise woman doesn't build the foundation of her philosophy on pithy phrases printed on candy wrappers, no one ever called me wise. So this foil message has become part of the photo collage on my refrigerator. Every day it reminds me to replace a lifetime of negative self-talk with positive self-talk.

Happiness does look great on me. I'm living proof that a woman can undergo a series of unfortunate events and come out on the other side with a smile on her face--and 50 pounds lighter too!

About 18 months ago, happiness wasn't a key ingredient in my life. I was feeling deer-in-the-headlights panic. Shock even.

After my divorce, I was laid off from my job without warning, and immediately had to sell my house in the worst housing market in decades. Incredibly, the house sold, I paid off the mortgage and had just enough money to pay rent and a deposit on a cheap, one-bedroom apartment. My dear mother co-signed the lease for her down-and-out unemployed daughter.

Today, looking back on that time, I took an online Holmes & Rahe Life Events Scale test, checking off which life-changing stressors I'd experienced. Divorce. Laid off from work. Change in residence. Major changes in my financial state and my living conditions. My daughter had moved out about six months earlier, and when I had to sell the house, my son moved out too. Now I was alone, with only my cat, Anakin Skywalker, to keep me company.

My score was 328 on the stress test. I received a message that I'd experienced "a significant amount of life change and had a significant susceptibility (about 80% probability) to stress-related illness."

Here at the lowest point in my life, the universe began to shift. Or perhaps I was the one who shifted. Instead of being angry, I became hopeful. After all, what more could go wrong?

I believe if you're positive in your life--in the way you see yourself and you project that positive energy--it gets reflected back to you.

Everywhere I went, people helped and reflected that positive energy back to me.

On my moving day, a week before Christmas, 17 friends and family helped me move.

Two days before moving day, I broke a tooth--an old root canal--and had to have emergency oral surgery. I had no money to pay the bill. When I checked in, I told the receptionist a little about my circumstances. As I was leaving the oral surgeon's office, the receptionist said: "Your surgery was doctor's gift to you. Merry Christmas."

My car needed $900 of work. My dear mechanic, Don Orange, owner of Hoesley Eco Auto, did the work at no charge. "It's on us," he told me.

And on my many expeditions to my neighborhood Ace Hardware to get settled into my tiny apartment, I chatted with Kathy and Judy and shared my circumstances. They listened, smiled, encouraged me, cheered me on.

In the past 18 months, I got a new job as a newspaper reporter, an all-new career for me. I started paddling on a women's dragon boat team, the Mighty Women. I started eating better and taking care of myself. I lost 50 pounds. I look and feel better than I've felt in 20 years.

Looking back, the severe losses and stressors I experienced were tough, but they actually made me a stronger, happier, joyful person. I'm still paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women. And recently I've tried skiing, swing dancing, belly dancing--and even dating.

The old me was too bogged down in unhappiness to imagine I could try new, fun experiences.The new me appreciates that life can change direction without warning at any moment. Life is a gift that should be cherished. Savored. Experienced with gusto. And dark chocolate.

Last week when I stopped by Ace Hardware to buy strawberry plants for my garden, Kathy greeted me with: "There's the woman who reinvented herself!"

I smiled. And bought a piece of chocolate.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Step out of your comfort zone and belly dance with gusto

Life is short. Belly dance--with gusto!
Imagine yourself in a mirrored dance studio, wearing yoga pants, a camisole and a scarf tied around your hips. You're standing in front of the mirror, and you realize you're the largest woman in the class. A year ago, I couldn't have done this.

But I'm the new me--50 pounds lighter and 400 times braver--and I'm up for almost any challenge. Even a daunting wall of mirrors. And standing in front of thinner women, shimmying my hips. And grinning.

About a week ago, I found myself moving my hips and learning to shimmy in a belly dancing class. Belly dancing is completely out of character for me. I'm the sporty woman who paddles a dragon boat and hikes. How did I get here, and how did I convince two girlfriends to try it with me?

I'd never given belly dancing a thought until a couple weeks ago. I'd just tried downhill skiing after a 34-year hiatus, and was feeling triumphant. I could do anything. Belly dancing was the next adventure to tackle on my bucket list. 

I am not a natural dancer. When I was 6, Mom signed me up for ballet lessons. I don't know why. The poor teacher couldn't even help me point my toes properly. When I took a ballet class in college, I was equally frustrated.

Yet, two weeks ago, I had a hankering to try belly dancing. Amy, a newsroom colleague and belly dancer, referred me to Viscount Dance on Sandy Boulevard in Portland. I posted on Facebook that I was trying belly dancing on Saturday. Did any brave girlfriends want to join me?

Immediately, friends began replying "This sounds like fun" and "I've always wanted to try belly dancing" and "I'll see if my husband will watch the kids." One fellow paddler and writer said, "Okay, you officially qualify as FEARLESS in my book now. And you must blog about this."

Facing a wall of mirrors with other women can be daunting. If you're like me, without meaning to, you begin comparing yourself to every woman in the room: "I'm bigger than her. I'm fatter than her. My rear is way bigger than hers...." 

Over the past year, I've been retraining myself to replace that negative self-talk with positive self-talk: "Yes! I conquered my fear and I'm standing in a dance studio with other women--facing a wall of mirrors. I look pretty good!" And my favorite mantra I repeat as many times as needed: "You can do this!" 

It's challenging to break my lifetime cycle of negative self-talk, but I'm working on it every day. And whenever I have the opportunity, I mention the benefits of positive self-talk to my gorgeous, young adult daughter, who is finding her own way and facing her own wall of mirrors.

Let's face it: women, particularly American women, have a body image crisis. We give our girls Barbie dolls to play with and indoctrinate them early into what the ideal woman should look like. If Barbie were a real woman, she'd be 5’9” tall and would weigh only 110 pounds. Barbie would have a BMI of 16.24 which is severely underweight. Her cartoonlike proportions--39” bust, 18” waist, 33” thighs--would make it impossible for her to walk upright on those tiny size 3 feet (molded to fit stiletto heels, no less). Barbie would have to walk on all fours.

We are bombarded with images of anorexic models and actresses on the magazines at the supermarket checkout stands, on billboards, on TV and the movie screen. Everywhere we go, girls and women are told we should strive to be like these waif-like creatures: extremely tall and severely underweight.

I am the antithesis of a model. I am extremely short and until last summer, I was obese. Now, through mindful eating, paddling a dragon boat and other exercise, I've lost 50 pounds. I'm no longer obese, but technically, I'm still overweight according to the evil BMI (body mass index) chart. 

I still have 20 to 25 pounds to lose, but I'm learning to love my body, just as it is. I'm no longer afraid to step beyond my comfort zone and to have fun. I was definitely up for belly dancing.And unlike me, the dragon boating diva, top-heavy Barbie would not be able to belly dance on those tiny feet. 

And dance we did! Wendy, Kathleen and I moved our hips, shimmied, swooshed our veils through the air--and we had a blast. It was empowering to belly dance with gusto beside two friends. I felt brave. Even sexy.

I may have even pointed my toes!

Wendy, me and Kathleen--the belly dancing divas!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Be bold--and don't lose your nerve

Last weekend, I found myself careening downhill on skis -- going too fast and out of control. I lost my nerve and fell on my back. Hard.  

It was a flashback to my first skiing experience 34 years earlier as a teenager. I hadn't skiied again since then.

In 1979, my boyfriend at the time, an experienced skier, dropped me off at the bunny hill and left to ski the big hill. I watched the little kids around me and tried to figure out how to ski. I was at least a decade older than all of them. Later, my boyfriend returned and insisted I was ready for the big hill.

I didn't know how to turn. Or stop. Stopping seemed important. After nearly falling off the chair lift, I kind of fell all the way down the mountain. That one ski run was such a scary experience that I never skied downhill again.

Until last weekend.

In the past year, I've tried dragon boating, stand up paddle board, kayaking, snowshoeing, ziplining, contra dancing and swing dancing. Plus online dating, the scariest of all. Downhill skiing seemed like the next progression on my bucket list of adventures.

I was determined to have a fun experience and to not lose my nerve on the slopes as I had more than three decades earlier.

My first step was getting a private lesson with a professional ski instructor who is calm and ever so patient. I chose Kirby Records, who spends his weekends teaching 3-year-olds and adults to control their skis while having fun on the slopes. He's also my boyfriend. But he's very different from my high school boyfriend.

Before I tackled the bunny hill, Kirby taught me to snowplow slowly down the slightest incline, the pre-bunny hill. He skied backward, right in front of me.

"Just ski toward me," he said. "I'll catch you if you start to fall."

I knew he would. I summoned my courage, eased forward and followed him down the hill. I did it! And I didn't fall!

At the bottom of the hill I got in line to ride the magic carpet lift, a sort of conveyor belt that transports beginning skiers to the top of the tiniest hill. Not only was I the only person over four feet tall riding the magic carpet lift, I also was four or five decades older than all of them. Many likely still drank from sippy cups.

The sippy cup gang on the magic carpet lift.

With Kirby's coaching, I gained confidence and control by skiing the itty bitty hill half a dozen times.

"Ready for the bunny hill?" he asked.

"Yes! Let's go!"

Kirby showed me how to grab the handle tow to ride to the top of the bunny hill. So far, so good. Again, he skied backward in front of me, zigging and zagging down the bunny hill. I followed him all the way to the bottom. And I didn't fall!

Soon I was skiing the bunny hill without Kirby skiing in front of me. He left for his next lesson, and said he'd return later to see if I was ready for the chair lift and a bigger hill. But no pressure.

I continued skiing down the bunny hill. Shortly after he left, I fell. It was a soft fall. I wasn't hurt, but I flailed around in the snow trying to stand up. Finally, I removed a ski, stood up, put my ski back on and continued down the hill.

I fell again. And I got up again.

"You can do this," I repeated the mantra I tell myself when I feel myself losing my nerve.

On several more runs down the bunny hill, I tightened my turns and practiced slowing and stopping. I was gaining confidence. But I was getting tired.

So there I was, careening out of control down the bunny hill. Now, for an experienced skier watching me, I'm sure my speed wouldn't qualify as "careening," but to this novice skier, I was careening. I was almost at the bottom and needed to stop, but instead of calmly doing what Kirby had taught me, I freaked out, lost my nerve and fell. Hard. Right on my back.

Until 30 seconds earlier, I'd had an excellent time skiing. I was exhausted and thought I'd quit while I still thought skiing was fun. So I removed my skis, stood up and walked to the lodge to warm up, read my book and wait for Kirby.

Last weekend, I conquered my three-decade fear of skiing downhill--and I had a great time. True, I took one nasty spill, but that was because I lost my nerve and forgot to be bold. I won't make that mistake again.

Kirby and I are planning many adventures together: hiking, backpacking, kayaking. He's teaching me to swing dance too.

This morning, I paddled a dragon boat with the Mighty Women. Tonight, my paddling teammate Wendy has agreed to join me for my next adventure: belly dancing!

After all, I am a Mighty Woman.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Low-tech yearnings in a high-tech world

My antique Underwood No. 5 typewriter (circa 1900-1920)

 "It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day."

My apologies to children's author Judith Viorst.

Like Alexander, the little boy in Viorst's picture book "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," I've had a less than stellar day.

It's not that anything terrible or horrible happened. It's just that several little things that could go wrong did. And together, all those little things added up to a hard day.

Mostly, today was about me and technology not seeing eye to eye.

The day started out promising. I read to third-graders at Marshall Elementary this morning as part of "Read Across America Week." I'd brought two gloriously illustrated books about ancient Egypt to share with the class and my teacher-librarian friend, Kay Ellison. We had an excellent discussion about the Egyptians. Kay took some photos of the kids and me. I planned to post the photos on my "schools" Facebook page. And then I'd tweet the Facebook link with the cute photo.

Wrong! No matter what I tried, I could not post today's school photos onto Facebook. I post photos to Facebook often without difficulty. Not today, apparently.

Tomorrow I will ask SueVo, a journalist friend and techno-goddess, for guidance.

Once home from work, I did manage to complete some tasks that required some degree of technology. For dinner I microwaved the excellent mushroom prosciutto tortellini soup I'd made from scratch yesterday. I washed a load of clothes with no problems whatsoever with my modern washer and dryer instead of resorting to my antique scrub board I display in my laundry room. I made amazing pumpkin spice muffins with dried cranberries and mini chocolate chips--and baked them to perfection in my modern 1970s electric range.

That gave me confidence to try uploading the photo again. I sat down at my laptop and attempted to upload the cute photo of third-graders to Facebook. No deal.

Then I was instant messaging a friend on Facebook, and she asked me to email her the order form for my dragon boat team's spring plant sale fundraiser. I have used my scanner successfully hundreds of times. Tonight, my scanner refused to scan. I'll try again tomorrow.

Even as I've been writing this blog post on my laptop, a message flashed across the screen: Error! Cannot save! For Pete's sake!

Sometimes I feel as if I'd fit in better in the 1920s than I do today. One of my favorite book series features protagonist Maisie Dobbs, intrepid, spunky, gutsy solver of crimes--in 1930s London. My 1940s apartment is filled with antique furniture, appliances, artwork, books, record albums and photos. I even own an antique hat collection.

I do own a laptop computer and a Smart phone, but the only tablet I own is yellow and is lined for writing in cursive. Does anyone out there use cursive anymore?

Thanks to a journalism friend, I also own a vintage Underwood No. 5 standard typewriter, the workhorse used in newsrooms and modern offices from 1900 to 1920. If only I could find a new ribbon for it, I'd be in business.

Unlike Alexander in the children's book, I am not planning on moving to Australia, at least not anytime soon.I'm charging both my laptop and my iPhone as I write this. Tomorrow, I will download those photos. Tomorrow I'll climb back on the horse and will tweet, make Facebook posts, download photos from my phone and even get the darned scanner to work.

For now I've climbed into bed with a mug of hot cocoa, pulled my favorite purple fuzzy socks onto my freezing feet and have reached for a favorite old book--not an e-book on an e-reader--but an actual book.

Perhaps tonight I'll dream I'm Maisie Dobbs in the 1930s, wearing a chic cloche hat and solving a mystery.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Finding your muse in unexpected places

Have you ever found your muse in the most unexpected place?
Two weeks ago, I left newsroom deadlines far behind me as I drove solo the 375 miles to Dad's in Spokane. With my favorite music providing a soundtrack to my journey, I had the luxury of an entire day to myself and my thoughts.

In the flat land about 20-30 miles north of the Tri Cities on Highway 395, a sign to an obscure road caught my eye: Muse Road.

It struck me as ironic because The Columbia Basin landscape of flat, treeless desert stretched onward as far as I could see. And even though I'm a country girl who appreciates the beauty in nature, Muse Road seemed to be in the middle of uninspiring scenery.

Muse Road! Really? How could anyone fine her muse here, in this stark landscape?

I'd considered pulling over to take a photo of the Muse Road sign surrounded by miles of desert, but I didn't want to lose any time.

Later, I commented to my friend, Kirby Records, that the desolate landscape around Connell, Washington seemed an unlikely place to find one's muse. Kirby is a man who chooses to venture off the beaten path to see what adventures might be hidden from view. His response made me realize that as I zipped along 395, I'd missed missed an opportunity to see what was just beyond my peripheral vision.

"Up above Connell along 395 is a deep canyon along the side of the freeway," Kirby started his story. He often starts with a story.

"And all these little draws lead down into it. The freeway has been leveled so people driving on the freeway don't really notice the draws and only get a glimpse of the canyon once in awhile," he said.

"I see wonderful places to explore in these rocky-edged draws," he continued. He went on to tell me stories of finding amazing surprises in the desert: spending the night in a cave, finding a hot springs and a hidden campsite on top of a cliff.

Kirby's words made me think about how I sometimes prevent myself from being open to an experience because I've already made up my mind about something--such as thinking inspiration is incongruous with a desert landscape. And not having the vision to notice a breathtaking canyon just beyond my view.

I also was reminded of the words of Jane Kirkpatrick, my dear friend and an accomplished, published writer. Jane often speaks of being open to allowing ourselves new experiences, rather than to let preconceived ideas determine our response to what we're seeing.

Instead of speeding through the desert landscape and labeling it "boring" and "uninspiring," I should have opened my eyes and noticed the spectrum of colors painted across the sky and the undulating desert floor.

Now I'm wishing I had stopped to take that photo of Muse Road surrounded by desert.The next time I come upon something that on first glance seems uninspired, I will take the time to reconsider my point of view.

Below, courtesy of Kirby, is a photo he took of an inspiring landscape hidden from view of the main road in the Eastern Oregon desert. Now, after hearing his stories, I'm ready to explore desert landscape and see what stories it might inspire me to write.

The following link is another writer's blog post about identifying and caring for your muse.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Close your eyes and banish your fear

Photo: My team, the Mighty Women, proudly displaying our silver medals for placing second in our division in the Portland Dragon Boat Races in Sept. 2012. Debbie is in the back row, second from left. I'm in the front row, third from the right.

Rain pelted the river and flowed in rivulets into my eyes. It seemed as if someone was standing over me in the boat, flinging buckets of water into my face.

I blinked, trying to see clearly what lie ahead of our dragon boat. But it was no use. I couldn't see.

For the last three months, I'd been paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women through our wet Pacific Northwest winter. I'd experienced feeling drenched and chilled--yet elated--simultaneously. In spite of the discomfort, I loved paddling a dragon boat. Although I've spent most of every winter feeling cold and damp, I didn't mind being wet. And once we started paddling, I warmed up.

But this particular day on the dragon boat felt different. It had been raining with such force that only  my team, the Mighty Women, and one other team, the Amazons, had braved the torrential rain and the swelling Willamette River.

My benchmate for this day's paddle was Debbie, who is always jovial and in good spirits. She's also one of our strongest paddlers who doesn't get ruffled easily. I find this astounding because Debbie is blind.

We didn't have a full boat of 20 paddlers, so pulling water was challenging. The swirling river and buckets of rain compounded our challenge.

During these weeks and months of paddling, I'd never considered dragon boating to be dangerous, never taken into account the possibility of disaster. But that morning, as we pulled our paddles through the churning water and were passing beneath one of Portland's many bridges, we were pulled forcefully toward the enormous bridge post.

As inexperienced as I was, I realized the potential danger and cried out, "Oh no! We're going to hit the post!"

As unruffled as ever, Debbie calmly reassured me, "Just close your eyes, Susan."

These words of wisdom, spoken wisely by a blind dragon boat paddler in the middle of the river, calmed me immediately. I took Debbie's direction and closed my eyes. When I could no longer see the potential disaster looming ahead of me, I relaxed and continued paddling in cadence with my team.

Our intrepid tiller averted disaster by steering us away from the post. For the first time in my experience, practice was cut short and we headed back to the marina. Later that morning, authorities closed the river, and practice was cancelled for several days until the water calmed.

Debbie's sage advice to "just close your eyes" applied to my life outside of the dragon boat too.

In the months previous to averting disaster on the river, I'd been laid off at work and went on unemployment for the first time in my life, lost my house, had no idea where I'd live or work. Or when my feet would be on solid ground again. I couldn't see where I was going. In a way, I felt blind.

Now I know that when potential disaster looms in my path, it's best to close my eyes, take a deep breath to banish my fear--and to keep paddling.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Believe in yourself

Flexing my dragon boating muscles while speaking to a women's weight loss support group last summer.

In less than a year, I've reshaped my body, my mind and my life. It wasn't easy, but it's doable. I'm proof that you can change lifelong habits and develop new, healthier habits--and still eat really excellent dark chocolate daily. Now 50 pounds lighter, I'm only 15 pounds from reaching my goal. I'm determined to do it.

How did I do it? For me, what worked was mindful eating, paddling a dragon boat and working out with a weighted hula hoop and yoga mat in my living room. I have a bad left foot and will likely never be able to run a half marathon. But paddling is the cardio workout that makes sense for me.

Last week at the grocery store I ran into someone I hadn't seen for a year. In my typical weekend mode, I was dressed for comfort and wore no makeup. My hair was brushed, but just barely. I saw him first and called out a greeting. It took him a minute to place me. When he realized who I was, he told me I looked wonderful. And so happy.

I practically pirouetted right there by the eggs. "I AM happy!" I said with feeling, and meant it.

Recently I had the opportunity to share my success story with a women's weight loss group. I brought my weight loss secret weapons to demonstrate: my yoga mat, my dragon boat paddle and my weighted hula hoop. For inspiration, I wore my little black dress. And as I talked to the women, I hula hooped and encouraged them on the way to their own successes.

I shared what I've learned along the way:

  • Believe in yourself.
  • Do it for you.
  • Find what works for you.
  • Make it fun.
  • Measure yourself.
  • Challenge yourself.
  • Set realistic goals. 
  • Find new non-food ways to reward yourself for victories large and small.
  • Invite a friend to join you in your challenge.
  • Journal your journey.
  • Celebrate your milestones.
  • Share your good news.
Paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women has changed my life. Dragon boat paddling may not resonate for you, but if you keep trying new things, you'll find a form of exercise that works. Have you tried contra dancing? It's an amazing workout!

Don't be afraid to reach beyond your comfort zone to reach your potential. Paddle your own canoe.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Celebrating a year of being a Mighty Woman

"Sue paddling her own canoe" Christmas ornament made by my artistic friend, Kirby

Today marks my one-year anniversary of being a Mighty Woman.

I can't believe it's been a year since I emailed a dragon boating coach in Portland (who turned out to be the amazing Jeanie Zinn!).

Unemployed and kind of lost, I was unsure of what would happen next. But I had just started a blog called "Paddling Her Own Canoe" to write about the adventures I planned to take. I emailed Jeanie, mentioned my blog and that I'd always wanted to try dragon boating. Could I come paddle with the team one time so that I could write about it?

How thankful I am that Jeanie said, "Yes! Can't wait to meet you!" or some other enthusiastic response characteristic of my beloved dragon boating coach.

None of my initial fears about paddling were realized. I haven't tipped over the boat, fallen in the water, dropped my paddle or drowned. Instead, I've had a year of adventures with the Mighty Women Paddling Club. I have the biceps to prove it--and I've shed 50 pounds.

We raced in five dragon boating festivals in the Pacific Northwest--and we've earned bling--dragon boat medals. In my living room I proudly display medals of all colors: one blue, two red, one white and one pink (for Row for the Cure).

During huli (safety) drills last summer, we purposely tipped over an outrigger canoe and then practiced righting the boat, bailing it out and climbing back in. We did it twice, and I would have done it more times if other dragon boat teams hadn't been waiting their turn. I thought it was more fun than Disneyland.

I've made great friends with these gutsy women who aren't afraid to try something new. With the Mighty Women I've had my first Karaoke experience, at a crowded bar in Portland. With a group of fellow paddlers, I belted out Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." The old me never would have had the courage to do that.

The old me also wouldn't have had the courage to ride a zip line, try SUP (stand up paddle board), snowshoeing, contra dancing, swing dancing or dating again. I've done all of those in the past year, and am always looking for new adventures. When I mentioned to my mom that I'd gone to the roller derby, she thought I'd joined a roller derby team! Maybe I'd consider it, if I were 10 years younger.

Mostly, these women have helped me to learn something about myself: I'm stronger than I realize. When I'm dressed in my dragon boat gear and am carrying my paddle to practice through traffic in downtown Portland, I don't just walk. I strut with the confidence of a woman who has learned that I may not know what lies around the bend in the river, but I'm determined to enjoy the journey.

By the way, if you're a woman who yearns for adventure, come paddle with me and the Mighty Women. You'll be amazed how far you'll paddle and how it will change your perspective.

Paddle on!

Mighty Women paddling in 34 degree January day. I'm on the second bench, starboard side. I'm wearing the yellow rainjacket, green PFD (life jacket for you landlubbers) and blue hat. These strong women have become my dear friends.