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.