Saturday, December 27, 2014

Savoring a simple, homespun Christmas

My homespun Christmas tree is adorned with paper snowflakes, peacock feathers, sage and dragon boat bling.

Living large in 600 square feet translates to simplicity every day. This is magnified tenfold during Christmas when wrapping paper, ornaments and other stuff can take over a home.

Two of the most important guidelines for living small are: 1) Have a place for everything. 2) If you can't find a place for it, perhaps you don't need it anymore.

In October I donated my Christmas tree stand to Goodwill because I don't have floor space for a tree. Last year I bought an artificial tabletop tree at Goodwill for $5. Downsizing to a tiny artificial tree was a huge concession for me, the farm girl who always had a large, fragrant evergreen at Christmas. But I did what made sense for my stage of life.

I've come to appreciate my tiny tree. Instead of hanging dozens of ornaments, I must choose carefully. Last year, my daughter and I made paper snowflakes and tied them onto our miniature tree with ivory ribbon. This year I reused those snowflakes. At the top of tree, I tied a peacock feather and a handful of fragrant sage from a trip to Eastern Oregon. I also tied my dragon boat medal earned in my paddling adventures with the Mighty Women. I added simple ornaments my kids made and an old photo of my daughter and me.

Beneath the tree I've tucked treasures from my adventures: moss and mountain goat wool from a backpacking trip, a chunk of granite from a forage into the woods, a burl bowl Kirby helped me make, a large seed pod and a remnant of robin's egg I gathered on a walk in the woods.

In my old life, I had space to set up a wrapping station during Christmas. In my new life, my diminutive dining table, once used for cutting fish on a boat, doubles as my gift wrapping center. During a move, I donated a mountain of wrapping paper, bows and ribbons and kept only what could be stored in a small box in my closet. Now that I'm the parent of adult children and the child of aging parents, I don't buy many gifts.

Christmas is over. I've wrapped my last gifts and stashed my wrapping supplies. But I will keep my tree up into the new year. The moss, mountain goat wool and feathers collected in the past year are a reminder that even though our holiday celebrations--and our lives--may change through the years, the next adventure is just around the bend in the river.

Paddles up! Wishing you the time to savor what's really important in life in 2015.

At the top of my tree, I tied a peacock feather and sage from Eastern Oregon. And I added dragon boat bling from my Mighty Women adventures.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A time to gather possessions, a time to let go

Before I die, there's going to be some 'splaining to do.
This circa-1920s beauty is no relation to me. So why do I display her photo atop my bookcases in my living room? I call her Lucretia because it suits her. She's wearing a fur collar and likely a cashmere sweater. Her finely coiffed tresses are smooth and chic--quite unlike my tomboy hair wrestled into a ponytail. Yes, she's far too polished to be hanging out in my family tree. In my downsizing mode, I've unearthed precious photographs I've collected of women taken around 1900, the 1920s and the 1930s. Lucretia and the women in the other photos are not my ancestors. They were estate-sale finds from the previous chapter in my life, when I was gathering possessions. But now, in my new chapter, I'm letting things go. Dozens of things. Hundreds of things. Yet I still hold onto Lucretia. Why? Odd, isn't it?
Then there's this youthful scholar I've named Margaret. But I'm sure her friends called her Meg. She is a modern 1920s teen not afraid to let the boys see that she's both brainy and beautiful. I'm hopeful she was gutsy and had amazing adventures in her lifetime.
And then we have the Bunny Girl. Her name hasn't come to me yet. However, I'm intrigued as to why she is holding two bunnies in her arms in her studio portrait. Were these bunnies her pets? Was it fashionable to have one's photograph taken while holding rabbits? I know the perfect name for the Bunny Girl will come to me--possibly in my dreams. Collecting these women makes complete sense to me. I am not planning on getting rid of them anytime soon. I am a writer, and the women in these photos will populate the novels percolating in my head.
However, this stern old man, who I've named Hezekiah, is still in my storage unit. I'm thinking maybe it's time to let go of Hezekiah as I continue to lighten my load. He's the one who really caught my attention when I recently was knee-deep in my storage unit getting rid of more "stuff and junk" as my Swedish grandma, Lydia Blomgren Smith, used to say. I now have no extra furniture in my storage unit. I have let go of an antique armoire, a 1930s green chair and my daughter's white metal twin bed. Mostly what remains are some papers, lots of photographs, camping gear and odds and ends. I've decided to wait until the first of the new year to tackle my remaining stuff and junk. In the meantime, if I'm hit by a bus, daughter, please note that none of these people are your ancestors. But they are dear friends of your eccentric writer mother.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mothering in the trenches: Finding time for yourself when your kids are little

In my downsizing quest, I've found stacks of old articles I wrote 15 years ago, when I was in the mothering trenches raising young children. Here's the opening to a story I wrote that was published in Vancouver Kids magazine in March 1999 when my kids were 9 and 6.

"It's difficult for mothers to take time for ourselves. On a recent evening after dinner, I locked myself in the bathroom for a much-needed Calgon moment in a hot bath with soothing vanilla candles, fragrant bath oil, a loofa sponge and a resolve to shave both of my legs.

"Almost immediately after settling into the steaming bath, I was jolted back to reality by my children knocking on the bathroom door. What was I doing in there? Could I pour some juice for Conor? Answer Katie's questions about her homework? Where was Conor's Batman cape? And when was I coming out?"

Ah, those were the good old days!

I'm serious.

Although it's exhausting raising young children, I loved being a mommy. I enjoyed playing with my kids and sparking their imaginations. We built fairy houses on the banks of rivers, read stacks of picture books and created art projects. Visits to thrift stores helped me stock the kids' dress-up trunk so they could pretend to be dinosaurs, pirates, cowboys, fairies, knights and princesses. Even Batman.

Fifteen years later, I'm a single empty-nester. I can take a soothing bubble bath whenever I have a hankering. How ironic that a bubble bath is no longer what I long for when I need to relax.

Now, I most often head for the woods or the river for a hike, call a friend for a chat or make a cup of tea and read a book. When I was in the thick of raising young children, I didn't have the luxury of such freedom.

I have several younger friends who are in the child-rearing trenches at this moment. They're giving every bit of themselves to their families and their jobs. It's brutal being in the trenches.

I hope these women realize what a wonderful job they are doing--and that before they know it, their kids will grow up--and they'll have plenty of time for bubble baths, walks in the woods and reading an entire book from cover to cover.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Storing stuff for a life I no longer lead


The lights went out. Complete darkness engulfed me.

I was straddling stacks of plastic bins while looking for my camping gear in my 10-by-10 storage unit. I didn't want to move for fear I'd upset the bins stacked high around me. So I waved my arms until the motion detector kicked the lights back on.

Blinking, I looked at the stacks of boxes surrounding me. My hand steadied myself on a cardboard box marked "platters" Back in my apartment, my four favorite Fiestaware platters in cobalt blue, yellow and red were on a shelf. Yet here was an entire box marked platters. How many platters did I need? I rarely used the four platters in my apartment.

Next to it I found a box marked "candles and vases." I knew I had one or two vases stored in my sideboard in my apartment. When was the last time I lit a candle or arranged flowers in a vase? How many candles and vases do I need?

Leaning against the wall was an enormous, clear Space Bag stuffed with surplus linens: kitchen towels, oven mitts, placemats, cloth napkins, tablecloths, extra sheets and towels. I haven't used any of those in four years since I hosted a holiday dinner at my big house.

I no longer have a big house. In my tiny apartment kitchen, I have exactly three oven mitts and one table cloth. I gave away my teak dining table to my friend, Henry, five moves ago. I eat at a tiny gate-leg table that began its life aboard a fishing boat. It bears the scars of cutting fish. It folds down to a one-by-three-foot footprint. And it doubles as a coffee table and workspace for my computer. In my old life, the fishing boat table had been relegated to a dusty corner. Now it's my only table.

In my old life, our dining table had been encircled by a matched set of six century-old prayer chairs from Saint Anne's Catholic Church in Ghent, Belgium. They were a bargain I found at Portland Antique many years ago, and they had fit our 90-year-old house. When I'm eating a meal in my 600 square-foot apartment, I sit on a folding wooden chair that can be moved out of the way when it's not needed. Those beautiful antique chairs were not practical and would not fit my new life.

Five moves in two years, and I still have too much stuff. I had a epiphany while surrounded by my stuff in my storage unit: Why was I paying to store stuff for a life I no longer had--and likely would never have again?

Even worse, by having to pay a monthly storage fee, this stuff still owns me. Our stuff should not own us or dictate how we live.

I'm no longer the soccer mom, wife and mother of school-age children cooking family dinners or hosting large holiday meals. I usually eat alone. When I have friends or family over, we eat at the fish table (if it's just two of us) or on the couch or outside in the forested yard.

No, I'm a different woman than the obese soccer mom I was four years ago. I'm a divorced, empty-nester. But don't feel sorry for me. I have a great life. Now I'm an adventurous woman paddling my own canoe. In the past few years, I've started dragon boating, returned to hiking and backpacking, conquered my fear of skiing, tried archery, belly dancing and swing dancing, kayaked many rivers and camped several nights in a teepee. I've found my voice again by playing an African djembe drum around a campfire. I'm dating an amazing Mountain Man who also is ready for fun. I have a dragon tattoo on my right shoulder blade. I'm the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! I've changed.

Through all of this adventure, I've rediscovered myself. In the process, I've brought my young adult daughter along for the journey and have modeled a strong, confident woman as I've taken her hiking or to an archery range to learn to shoot a bow.

But standing in my storage unit surrounded by my surplus stuff, I resolved to continue my downsizing journey to simplicity. I will get rid of those platters, candles and vases. I don't need all those linens. I still have too much stuff.

Instead, I want to live fully, joyfully each day, unencumbered by too much stuff. Instead of my hands grasping material things I no longer need, my wish is that my hands and heart be open to the delicious possibilities ahead.

In August, I backpacked for the first time in 28 years. The Mountain Man and I backpacked in the Elkhorn Mountains and camped at an alpine lake surrounded by curious mountain goats.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The trials and tribulations of used car shopping

My first car: a 1961 American Rambler, which I drove when it was 16 years old.
It was the antithesis of the muscle cars--Mustangs, Chargers and Cougars
popular when I drove this car in high school in 1976-78.
I'm about to use three words guaranteed to make your head ache, your stomach churn and your palms sweat. Ready?

Used car shopping.

Ick! Is there any task less appealing?

Who looks forward to wading knee deep through the doo-doo of deceitful used car ads online? Who relishes the thought of dealing with commissioned sales people who descend hungrily upon you--teeth bared and grinning--like the great white shark in "Jaws?"

My daughter's 1993 Toyota Camry finally bit the dust. Thanks to a loan from her aunt, my daughter has a modest budget. However, we're not finding much in that price range.

But after doing research online and at the library, we girded our loins for battle and drove to a used car lot. The salesman was upon us before I turned off my car's engine. I brought a notebook and took copious notes. That made the salesman nervous.

On the entire lot, only one car fit our budget and other requirements: a shiny red Ford Focus. It had 86,000 miles, which was a little on the high side for my comfort level. My daughter was excited about the car, but I insisted we take it to my mechanic, Don Orange of Hosely Eco Auto. We dropped the car off at his shop for a thorough pre-purchase inspection while we walked to Uptown Village for lunch.

When we returned from lunch, Don greeted us with: "Don't buy this car. This is not a safe car. It hasn't been taken care of. You can do much better."

Then he gave us a three-page print out listing the car's issues and needed repairs.

My daughter and I were disappointed the car wasn't going to work out. We talked about being relieved to have not made a mistake in buying an unsafe car that needed multiple repairs and would have cost much more money in the long run.

My daughter summed it up like this: "They polished a turd."

We've been car shopping for a couple of weeks now, and after some other dead ends, are no closer to having found a car. However, we're much more skeptical of pretty, shiny cars and the sales people who push unsafe vehicles to unsuspecting buyers. Shame on them!

So this week it's more used car shopping for us. We're skeptical. We're cynical. We're running Carfax reports. We're checking the Kelley Blue Book values. We're kicking the tires. And we're relying on my mechanic to weed out the polished turds.

Meanwhile, we're looking for a reliable, safe sedan with a clean title, low miles and one or two owners--for under $5,000. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A tiny babushka fishing from the dock

"Babushka" by Irina Gaiduk
Recently while climbing into our dragon boat one warm, summer night, I noticed a teeny-tiny, very old woman fishing from the dock just six feet from our boat.

Her slight frame was tucked into a wheelchair. She was so short that her thin legs dangled like a child's. She was dressed like a grandmother from the "Old Country," as my own grandma would have said. Graying hair peeked out from underneath a hefty headscarf tied under her chin. She wore a dark coat, dress and dark stockings, even though it was a warm evening.

In her time-worn hands, she grasped a fishing pole. Her head bent toward the water, she peered intently into the river where her she'd dropped her line. Waiting. Waiting patiently for a bite.

A man who was probably in his sixties--likely her son--stood next to her, minding his own fishing line.

Jeanie, our dragon boat coach, gave the command to "Shove off" and we began the rhythmic paddling to pull our boat through the Willamette River. An hour later, after paddling hard, we returned to the dock.

And the fishing babushka was still there, grasping her pole, peering into the water and hoping for a bite.

I climbed out of the boat and felt compelled to try to talk with this woman. Wish her luck in her fishing.

"Excuse me," I leaned down toward her.

But she shook her head and murmured some words. Russian maybe? Her son shook his head too. No English. They continued fishing in silence.

I wished I'd been able to speak to her. I wanted to tell her that I hoped I'd be fishing and having adventures when I'm 90. That she inspired me to keep paddling my own canoe.

I stood on the dock a moment to watch her, to remember her face. Then I turned and walked with the other Mighty Women toward home.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Three years a Mighty Woman!

In three years of paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty
Women, I've reinvented myself--and earned all this bling!
Our blades in the water, the Mighty Women waited for the horn starting our last race of the season.

Perched on the edge of bench four in the dragon boat, I closed my eyes and took deep breaths. In 30 seconds, I would be paddling so hard I would have to remind myself to breathe.

The horn blasted! We dug in.

I was completing my third year paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women. And I have the biceps--and the dragon boat bling--to show for it. It's been a wild ride!

In the past three years, I've reinvented myself. Dragon boating has changed my body, my attitude and my life.

My old life had fallen apart, piece by piece. Although life doesn't offer us a chance at a complete do over, my only viable option was to make a fresh start from where I stood: divorced, suddenly unemployed, broke and trying to find firm footing on shifting sand.

Three years later, I'm standing on firmer ground. Have there been tough times? You bet! That's life.

Am I better off now, three years after the bottom dropped out of my life? Absolutely! I'm happier, healthier, more confident and definitely stronger. We don't realize how strong we are until we have to paddle through challenging rapids with lots of debris blocking our path and threatening to overturn our boat.

But now safely on the other side of a series of rapids, I've learned how strong I am:

  • I can learn to become a journalist 30 years after earning my journalism degree, even though I'm twice the age of many of my fellow reporters.
  • I can live in 550 square feet for three months without a bathroom, heat or running water.
  • If I have to, I can move three times in three months. But I wouldn't recommend it.
  • If I am frugal, I can live on 29 percent less salary than I had before.
  • If a day seems particularly challenging, I can look deeper to find joy in simple things: walking in the woods, marveling at a sunset or hearing a loved one's soothing voice.
I've learned my limits too. I am not willing to live without friendship, laughter, chocolate or adventures!

On a Post-It note attached to my laptop I've written this prescription for joy in my new life:

Believe in myself.
Listen to my inner voice.
Build the life I imagine.
Reach toward my dreams.

When I'm powering through the water in a dragon boat with my teammates, I'm doing all of those things.

During our final race, I concentrated on my rhythm, my stroke, my breathing, my rotation. It's a big no-no to look outside the boat, especially during a race. But my ears are more easily distracted. I heard boats closing in on either side of us as we neared the finish line.

We had to paddle harder, deeper, stronger than ever before.

My lungs burning, I breathed out an audible "whoosh." Then with my paddle, I reached for my dreams.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Food orgy: curbing the craving

I have a confession to make: I am a food junkie. I love the smell, sight and especially the taste of food. I am addicted to sugar and particularly to chocolate.

I was tiny as a kid and a young woman. Chalk it up to an amazing metabolism, but not to my eating habits.

At my first job out of college, one of my office mates had taken our donut orders, knocked on my office door and delivered my donut. She closed the door and left. Thirty seconds later, she opened my door and said, "I gave you the wrong donut."

I wiped the donut crumbs from my mouth. I already had wolfed down that donut. The wrong donut. Someone else's donut. She didn't believe me.

"You're kidding me," she laughed. "No, really! Where's Julie's donut? How could you eat it so quickly?"

I shrugged. I've never been one of those girls who eats daintily like a bird, gnawing on seeds and maybe a lettuce leaf.

After bearing children, my unhealthy eating habits continued. I began packing the pounds onto my petite frame. In my profound unhappiness with myself, I medicated myself with food. I nearly doubled my weight in 20 years.

At midlife, I made major changes to reintroduce health--and joy--in my life. In the past three years, I've lost about 50 pounds through mindful eating. When I've found myself reaching for comfort food, I ask myself: "Why are you eating? Are you really hungry? Maybe you're thirsty or stressed out. Maybe you didn't get enough sleep." I've made healthier choices, chose smaller portion sizes, eliminated processed food and fast food.

I've worked my butt off by exercising harder than ever. I've paddled a dragon boat three times a week, hiked, kayaked, used a weighted hula hoop, did endless crunches, walked miles of trails. And everywhere I went, I chugged water.

I've dropped five jean sizes. I am no longer consider obese, but now am just "overweight." I feel and look better than I have in 20 years. People who haven't seen me in the past few years don't recognize me.

I was so proud of myself. I'd conquered the Food Beast at last! Yay! Give that girl a gold star. (Better yet, give her a Dove chocolate!) Ha! What a joke!

Early in the summer, I caved and had a Burgerville strawberry milkshake. It tasted so good! Giving in to that temptation opened the floodgates.

The Food Beast began collaring me and whispering in my ear like an evil crack dealer: "Come on! It's only one Frappuccino! It's a really hot day. You've been working so hard. You deserve this. What harm is there in having one? Ask them to make it with skim milk."

As the summer progressed, my food decisions regressed. I've had French fries, Dairy Queen blizzards, even a fast-food burger. I caved to carrot cake, strawberry pie, hot fudge sauce, homemade huckleberry ice cream, brownies, cookies and a s'more made with a Reese's peanut butter cup.

As my annual trip to my doctor drew near, I dug my scale from the closet and stepped onto it.
The good news is that, despite my summer food orgy, I've gained only seven pounds. My saving grace is that I've continued to be physically active.

The bad news is that I've regressed to my old habit of medicating myself with food. Rewarding myself with chocolate or some other craving instead of considering why I want to eat. I've been stress eating like the old me. That scared me. Hadn't I already fought this battle--and won it?

I've realized that my food cravings have not stopped. They likely never will. Accepting that and figuring out how to cope with my food cravings will be a lifelong journey. I am up for that challenge.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Missing the boat

Last night, I missed the boat. Has that ever happened to you?

After working late, I drove to downtown Portland to paddle a dragon boat with my team, the Mighty Women. I texted my coach that I was almost there. Then I ran all the way through downtown traffic, into Waterfront Park and down to the dock.

For the first time in the three years I've been dragon boating, the dock was empty. Not a dragon boat in sight.


It seemed appropriate. I'd been missing the boat all day.

I missed the newsroom boat--fellow reporters doing the weekly walk to Mighty Bowl to grab a healthy lunch. That boat left without me because I was on the phone trying to reach a government official for a story I'm writing. Of course, he wasn't in. I left a voice mail.

I'd been missing the boat connecting to sources for stories all week. July is a tough month for an education reporter. All K-12 schools are closed in July. District offices seem to be running on skeleton crews while most of the staff vacations. So when I am looking for a piece of information, quite often the person who might be able to provide that information is out of the office.

So Thursday night as I stood at the end of the empty dock, scanning the Willamette River for dragon boats, it seemed appropriate that I'd missed the dragon boat too. Some days are like that.

I pulled out my phone and called my dragon boat coach, Jeanie.

"Do you see us? We're right under the Marquam Bridge," Jeanie said. "We'll be right there to pick you up!"

Ten minutes later, I was paddling in rhythm with my team, matching the cadence of paddles digging deep into the water at the front of our stroke as we pulled the dragon boat through the river.

As we whooshed along the Willamette, a breeze blew through my hair. I sighed. What a glorious night to be paddling on the river, and a perfect ending to an imperfect day.

Paddles up!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Paring down to the essentials

Why did I keep this bear I bought on a family trip to Yellowstone when I was 10?
What "stuff and junk"  is cluttering your life? 
Opening a plastic bin, I found a little bear souvenir I'd bought on my family's trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was 10. One of the bear's front legs had broken off at the knee (do bears have knees?) and the paint was worn. Why had I kept this memento for decades? I took the bear's photo with my phone and then tossed him in the garbage. Goodbye, Mr. Bruin!

One decision made--and only 99 more and this one bin would be empty. Looking around me at the dozens of bins around me in my storage unit, I shook my head. I was overwhelmed with too much stuff.

How would I ever go through all this "stuff and junk" as my Swedish grandma, Lydia called it? More importantly, how--or why--did I ever accumulate so much stuff?

For almost four years, I've been in a drastically downsizing mode. It started as involuntary simplicity set into motion with my divorce, being laid off at work and then having to sell and empty a large house extremely quickly--a week before Christmas.

I moved five times in less than two years, out of necessity to live within my frugal budget of my new normal. I started with a 2,400 square foot house and continued downsizing, eventually shrinking my footprint to the 540 square feet of Wisteria Cottage, a cute artist's studio with no bathroom, kitchen or heat. It was really cheap and fit my budget. But most of all, it kicked my simplicity into high gear.

The only essentials I purchased for Wisteria Cottage were a mini-fridge and a Luggable Loo--a five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat and lid--for emergencies. Thankfully, I never had to use Loo, but it was comforting knowing she was there, just in case.

In Wisteria Cottage, I would not need a dining table. I'd already given away my best dining table to my friend, Henry two moves before that. I had been using an old garage sale table that once sat in our basement family room of our old house. With the moving truck arriving soon, I didn't have time to Craigslist it. I carried the table to the curb and taped a "FREE" sign to it. Minutes later, it was gone.

Last summer when I downsized to 540 square feet,
I had to let go of this old steamer trunk. These
neighbors were glad to give it a new home.

A cumbersome steamer trunk had been a fun antique in my enormous, 90-year-old house, but it would not fit in 540 square feet. I was paring down to the essentials, and the trunk wasn't even useful. It was locked and the key had been lost years ago. It was time for us to part ways. Two young women had moved into the duplex next door recently. I knocked on their door and asked if they'd like an antique steamer trunk. They helped me lug it up my basement stairs and into their living room. Grinning, they sat on the trunk while I took their photo.

This woman was thrilled to help me downsize
by taking this a basket of  dried lavender from my garden
Some stuff--such as an enormous basket of dried lavender from my old garden--I couldn't donate to charity. But I didn't want to throw it away. A woman interested in renting the apartment I was moving out of knocked on the door, so I gave her a tour. She left toting the basket of lavender. Goodbye lavender!

Living simply and mindfully is my new way of life. After four years of paring down my possessions, everything I own fits into my cozy apartment and a 10 x 10 storage unit.

But I still have boxes of stuff I don't need. Yesterday I took a load to Goodwill and spent a couple of hours sorting through boxes of papers and shredding a mountain of old documents. With each paper shredded, each object removed from my life, I breathe a little easier. Never again will I let "stuff and junk" prevent me from living joyfully and simply.

Even after so many moves and drastic changes, I am blessed beyond measure. For the past eight months I've been living in a lovely 600-square-foot mother-in-law suite in the home of friends Michael and Kathleen. Right out my front door I enjoy views of the garden and woods, bunnies and deer. I'm serenaded to sleep by coyotes.

Not only that, my new place has heat, a little kitchenette and a bathroom. I'm using my mini-fridge in my little kitchen. And the Luggable Loo is in my storage unit--just in case. Who knows what challenges are around the next bend? If the Zombie Apocalypse occurs and I need to live in a rustic setting again, I'm ready--and so is Loo!

Tips for paring down to the essentials:

* Keep a "donate" box near the front door. When it's full, take it to your favorite charity.

* Don't keep papers forever. Keep the current month or two. Shred the rest--unless you need them for an itemized tax deduction. Talk to your tax professional before you start a shredding spree.

* Keep your paper shredder in an accessible spot. When you sort your mail, toss papers that must be shredded into the shredder basket. Spend two minutes a day shredding and you'll never have to spend an hour shredding.

* Some people shop as a hobby. If you're serious about reducing clutter, find a new hobby. In my old life, I loved finding treasures at estate sales. In my new, streamlined life, I don't shop for anything unless I actually need something specific.

* Don't bring something home without getting rid of something old. If you buy a new shirt, donate an old shirt you no longer wear.

* It's OK to keep things for sentimental value, but make a distinction between your child's plaster-cast handprint or baby book and a broken souvenir from your childhood.

Little by little, I'm paring down to the essentials.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Maria von Trapp and the debit card

Today I'm counting my blessings. I've been reminded that Good Samaritans still exist. Sometimes I forget how many decent people are out there.

I'm a reporter for a daily newspaper in a busy metro area. My desk is so close to the police scanner that all day long I hear the horrible things that people do to each other. I've been hardened by the constant barrage of reports of criminal activity and the police sending the K-9 unit to bite the bad guys.

A little more than two years ago, before I became a newspaper reporter, I'd been described more than once as having the optimism of Pollyanna. The can-do attitude of Maria from the Sound of Music. Being as unworldly as Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of "Little House on the Prairie." As innocent as Mother Teresa. Some seasoned journalists might argue that I haven't changed much.

But sitting next to the police scanner and being exposed to the widespread ickiness of the world, I have changed. My edges are harder than they used to be. I'm more skeptical, less trusting.

This morning when I met my friend Patty for coffee, I couldn't find either my wallet or debit card in my purse. I'd gone hiking yesterday and had transferred my wallet into my backpack, so I was hopeful my wallet was still zipped securely in my backpack.

But when I returned home and checked my backpack for my wallet, it wasn't there. Then I conducted an archaeology dig in my purse by dumping its contents onto the couch. Aha! I found my wallet in the bottom of my messy purse. But my debit card wasn't there. I took everything out of my wallet to make sure I hadn't overlooked it. Still no debit card, but at least I'd found my wallet.

Last year when my debit card had gone missing, I'd stopped at the credit union to report it. As I climbed back into my car, there was my debit card, on the floor under the seat.

So I checked my car carefully, pulling the seats forward and back, looking underneath the seats, but I still didn't find my card. I wasn't ready to call "uncle" and report my debit card missing yet.

Retracing my debit card's steps, I checked online to see the last time I'd used it. My last transaction was Friday morning when I bought gas. Now it was Sunday afternoon, and there were no new charges on my card. That was a good sign. It appeared no one had stolen my debit card, but where was it? Had I seen it after I paid for my gas? No. I hadn't. It must have dropped out of my pocket while I was pumping gas. But with so many dishonest people in the world, what were the chances I'd find it?

I drove to the Arco station where I always fill up, walked in and asked the clerk if anyone had turned in a debit card Friday morning. Knowing my chances of finding it were slim, I held my breath.

He asked me my name. I gulped and told him.

"Can I see some ID please?"

"Yes!" I said, showing my driver's license.

He handed me my debit card! A Good Samaritan had found it in the parking lot and turned it in.

I thanked him profusely, clutched my debit card and smiled.

I wanted to dance, right there in the convenience store, next to the Ho-Hos and energy drinks. That's exactly the kind of thing to expect of Maria von Trapp.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Don't let obstacles block your happiness

Oh no! Something's blocking your way! What do you do?
When we walked into Mississippi Pizza ready to dance to Kory Quinn's music, I immediately noticed guitar cases haphazardly piled on the tiny dance floor at the base of the stage.

"They should move those guitar cases," I told Kirby. "Someone might trip."

The jumble of guitar cases spilling onto the dance floor was a roadblock to our dance plans. And in a way, to my expectations and happiness for the evening. Should I dance and risk tripping? Or just listen to the music from the sidelines and watch the other dancers having fun?

How do you approach life's potential roadblocks?

Do you carefully map out each step and consider potential obstacles to your success before you move your big toe a centimeter? Or do you leap from the ledge, letting the wind take you in whatever direction it chooses, without a care to potential roadblocks that might stand in your way? Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Not long ago, before I moved a pinky, I wrote extensive numbered lists of "pros" and "cons of a decision I was contemplating. I carefully considered potential consequences. After I made my decision, I moved at a glacial pace.

But in the past few years, more often than not, I've stood on the ledge and leaped. I might lick my finger and test the wind's direction, but recent experience has taught me that even if you plan very carefully, life doesn't always go according to plan. Let me revise that last phrase: In my experience, life rarely goes according to plan.

What's caused my philosophy to change so drastically? Having the carpet pulled out from under me and falling hard on my rear multiple times has made me a freer spirit. I'm no longer afraid of falling. I've already done it. I plan less and live more by the seat of my pants. So far, in my new normal, that philosophy has served me well.

If we look closely, any situation is fraught with potential obstacles. If I didn't try something because I might fall down, I'd never have an adventure. There is always the possibility of falling down, especially for me. Last year I fell on porch steps, hitting my head, neck and back and suffered a concussion. Many years ago, while sitting on my sister Judy's slick vinyl couch, I did a nosedive onto the floor. I wasn't even moving and I fell off the couch!

I seem to be much more graceful in a dragon boat or kayak, but put me on land, and I may fall down, hard. Without warning.

So as I scoped out potential obstacles on the dance floor, that pile of guitar cases seemed like a doozy. But I didn't let the threat of tripping over guitar cases or any other obstacles prevent me from dancing. I really wanted to dance.

As Kory started singing one of our favorite songs, Kirby led me to the dance floor. I stopped worrying about that pile of guitar cases and enjoyed dancing. Things went well--for about 45 seconds. I'd completely forgotten about the guitar cases until I backed into them, lost my balance, and dipped backward toward the stage, with my head swooping very low.

Thankfully, although I was mid-fall, my hands were still in correct swing dance position, allowing Kirby to grab my hands and pull me back up--without missing a beat of the music.

Perhaps people watching us dance thought, "Wow! How cool is that? Look at that deep dipping move! That couple dances well together!"

More likely people saw the panicked look on my face and thought, "That klutzy woman tripped over the guitar cases and almost fell over backward onto the stage. Her dance partner sure saved her patootie."

I'm thankful I took a risk. Yes, I tripped over the guitar cases, but thanks to Kirby's quick actions, I didn't fall. We had a fun and even memorable time dancing.

Life is far too short to worry about potentially tripping over obstacles. Don't worry that you might fall. Get up and dance--with gusto! See you on the dance floor!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

What to do when life flings feces at you

Sometimes, life flings feces in our direction.
Yesterday morning, the open water source for Portland, Oregon, tested positive for fecal matter. Translated into plain talk: the water is contaminated with poo-poo.

The city announced that residents should boil their household water until further notice. Stores had a run on bottled water--with worried Portlanders filling up their vehicles--from their SUVs to their electric Smart cars--as if it were the apocalypse.

Close. It's the a-poo-calypse.

Portlanders are not alone. If you've lived long enough, you too, may have had had a close encounter with poo. Something stinking up an otherwise perfectly good glass of water. Feces flung your way. Poo-poo stuck to the bottom of your favorite shoes as you make your way through life.

Life is like that. Things might be going great and--bam! The feces hit the fan. It's OK. You can deal with the feces. Life is bound to fling 'em at you.

The trick is knowing what to do when it happens. As the Brits say: Keep calm and carry on.

First, do something that lifts your spirits to get past it: paddle a dragon boat, hug your honey, play with your kiddos, dance with abandon, run your fingers over the rosemary in your garden.

Next, put on your big-girl panties and deal with whatever crap is blocking your way to happiness.

Oh--and boil your water before you drink it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Control your clutter--don't let it control you

Control your clutter before it overruns your life.
Is your life overrun with too much stuff? Are you overwhelmed with trying to unburden yourself?

Do you hold onto stuff with emotional ties? Clothes that are three sizes too small--or too big? Gifts you've never used but might someday?

Do you have bulging closets? Is your garage so stuffed with junk that you can't park a car in there?

Do you own so much stuff that you also pay rent on a storage unit? If so, you're not alone. Did you know that 8.96 percent of all American households currently rent a self storage unit? That's a whopping 10.85 million of the 113.3 million U.S. households in 2012, according to the Self Storage Association.

For six months, I've been plagued with the overwhelming task of downsizing my storage unit from a 10 x 20 unit to a 10 x 10 unit. Slowly but surely, I've been getting rid of stuff I no longer needed.

Every month when I paid my storage bill, I felt guilty. I felt I was wasting money renting a storage unit larger than I needed. But could I really squeeze it down to 10 x 10 feet?

Today, thanks to my friend and neighbor Bruce who pitched in to help me, we did just that. The impetus behind me finally doing this task is that my storage rent is increasing next month. After just a little more than two hours of work, the task was completed.

Most of the remaining stuff is stored in neatly stacked plastic storage bins with lids. I already had all these storage bins, but today I consolidated my stuff so it takes up less space.

As I swept the concrete floor of the empty storage unit, I looked at the cavernous space and hoped I'd never need to store such an enormous amount of stuff again.

We took a load of empty boxes to a nearby U-Haul storefront. Someone who is moving can use those boxes. I don't intend to move anytime soon. Last year, I moved three times in three months. In the past two years, I'd moved five times.

I have a few things to donate, including two throw pillows to a couch I donated three months ago. In December 2011 when I was laid off and had to sell my three story, 2,400-square-foot house, I started a practice of keeping a cardboard "donate" box near the front door or even in the car. It makes it easier to toss in things I no longer need and drop them off to my favorite thrift shop before I talk myself into keeping them.

Now everything I own fits into my 600-square foot apartment or my 10 x 10 storage unit. Even so, I still have too much stuff and will continue to lighten my load.

If I were still carrying the weight of so much stuff I no longer need, would I have found space in my life to reach out and become a new woman unafraid to paddle a dragon boat with the Mighty Women, beat an African drum, swing dance in a crowded pub, belly dance in front of a wall of mirrors and so many other adventures?

Before I pulled down the door on the smaller storage unit, I smiled. That bear of a task is done and no longer can haunt my dreams. Thanks, Bruce!

Simple Gifts

A Shaker song

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right.


Monday, April 28, 2014

I think I'll move to Australia

Did you ever read that children's book, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible No Good, Very Bad Day" by Judith Viorst?

It's about a little boy who has one of those days that really blows. By the end of  his horrible day, when he's forced to wear his railroad train pajamas because his favorite jammies are in the wash, Alexander loses it and wants to move to Australia.

I'm ready for Australia too.

Lately, I've had a string of Alexander days. It's really an accumulation of challenges--from small ripples to crushing tsunami waves--threatening to overturn my canoe and to steal my joy. I'm paddling through these challenging waves, but it's hard to keep paddling when your arms ache.

Yesterday I felt exhausted from paddling so hard without making any progress. I wondered when I'd reach a calmer spot in the river so I can catch my breath.

I was lamenting the trials and tribulations buffeting my boat when I popped into a grocery store and had a reality check. In an "aha" moment, my eyes were averted from my own boat and problems.

I am only five-foot-two and often have to climb up grocery store shelves to reach my cereal or other out-of-reach item. Or sometimes I seek out a tall person to retrieve my cereal from the top shelf. Never in my life have I been someone else's tall person.

As I reached for something high above my head, a voice below me asked, "Would you grab one for me?"

I turned to see a tiny woman with many, many more challenges than I have. Her legs had not fully developed. She was sitting on a motorized platform scooter.

"Sure," I said, grabbing another. "Why do they put things up here so we short women can't reach them?"

"Beats me," she laughed.

At that moment, I realized that although my challenges are daunting, they aren't as enormous as I had imagined.

I'll paddle through them, one stroke at a time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The passing of Val Ogden, a woman who paddled her own canoe

Yesterday afternoon, our community lost Val Ogden, a selfless leader, an advocate for children, women, the homeless, blind students, people coping with mental health issues. Serving six terms in the House of Representatives, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work for all of us. She made a difference right to the end, at age 90.

For me, Val was the epitome of a woman paddling her own canoe. She inspired me to be strong through difficult, life-changing challenges. But I never told her how she inspired me. And now it's too late to tell her.

Along Vancouver's Columbia River waterfront trail is the Val and Dan Ogden bench, donated by the Ogdens. It's fitting that the bench looks over the bronze sculpture of Ilchee, the Chinook woman known for paddling her own canoe.

I didn't want Val to think I was some nutty stalker. But here's what I wanted to tell Val:

Thanks to you and Dan for providing that bench near Ilchee. I've spent hours there, thinking, searching for strength and answers, scribbling in my journal, looking for ways to reach my potential. Thank you for inspiring me to be strong to get through the hard times, to dig deep, to make a difference, to find joy.

Yesterday I called friends Holly Chamberlain and Charlie Mitchell, told them the news of Val's passing and asked if they'd walk along the Columbia River with me to visit Val and Dan's bench. Holly cut yellow and red tulips from her garden and set them at the plaque below the Ogden's bench.

We talked about the difference Val made. Then we stood in front of Ilchee and watched a glorious sunset.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Conquering old fears: Leaving the bunny hill behind

Last weekend, I experienced the exhilaration of conquering a three-decade fear
when I left the bunny hill behind, rode the chair lift and skied down a big hill.
Yes, I fell. Multiple times. But I got up again and kept going.

Has a terrifying experience while trying something new paralyzed you from getting "back on the horse?"

At age 19, I had a frightening first experience on a ski slope that kept me from alpine skiing for 34 years. Apparently, I'm not the first woman who has been dragged up a ski lift by a well-meaning boyfriend without first having a lesson on the basics. I didn't know how to turn, slow down or stop.

However, I did know how to scream at a decibel level that registered in the next county. After nearly tumbling off the ski lift, I fell all the way down the mountain, screaming in terror. My sister, Judy, was working outside in the ski resort's restaurant that day and recognized my scream echoing from the top of the mountain all the way down to the lodge.

That horrific experience kept me from the slopes for 34 years.

Last winter, Kirby, a certified ski instructor and my significant other, taught me to snowplow, turn, stop, control my speed. On the itty-bitty hill, he skied backward in front of me, coaxing me down the hill. On the way back up, I rode the magic carpet lift with the other beginners, all younger than me by decades.

Next, I rode up the handle tow and snowplowed slowly down the bunny hill. Again, Kirby skied backward in front of me, encouraging me all the way down. After several runs, he asked if I was ready for the chair lift, but I wasn't. That fear of falling still gripped me. I skied the bunny hill all weekend.

This ski season, I was determined to conquer my fear. Kirby told me people don't fall off the chair lift. But I'm accomplished at falling. If anyone could fall off the chair lift, it would be me.

After I made two successful runs down the bunny hill, Kirby asked if I was ready for the chair lift. I gulped, but nodded. I knew I had to face my fear. As we skied toward the chair lift, I boosted my confidence with positive self-talk: "You are a Mighty Woman dragon boat paddler. You've done zip lining, stand up paddle board and belly dancing. You can do this."

Kirby coached me on how to hold my poles in one hand, grab the chair lift with the other hand and sit down. I had a klutzy nanosecond and accidentally dropped one of my poles. But the snowboarder behind us picked up my pole and took it to the top of the lift for me.

As we approached the point to get off the chair lift, Kirby calmly coached me again: "Stand up, go into a snowplow and ski to the right."

Although my heart was beating wildly, I did it--and I didn't fall!

Kirby took me down the easiest run, coaching me down the mountain. For the most part, I did OK, snowplowing extremely slowly in a wide zig-zag. But when skiers and snowboarders began zipping around me, I panicked, lost my nerve and fell. Multiple times. I became an expert at getting up.

But then I reminded myself: "You've got this! You're the girl with the dragon tattoo! You can do this."

That positive self-talk--and knowing how to control my skis--made all the difference. So did Kirby's calm encouragement. On the second day, I even did some parallel turns.

Then my legs got tired and I started falling again. On my last run of the weekend, we went down a hill that ended with a fast, straight stretch all the way down to the lodge.

In reality, I wasn't skiing that fast, but to me, it seemed I was zooming down the mountain. The best part was that I felt in complete control--and I didn't scream or fall. But I'm sure I smiled.

Next year, I'm going to parallel ski all the way down the mountain.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Dragon boat paddling: What to wear

With the season's first dragon boat races in the Pacific Northwest coming up in April, dragon boat teams are recruiting new paddlers now. One of the first questions newbies ask is: "What do I wear to paddle a dragon boat?"

First of all, I always wear my paddling dragon tattoo! It empowers me to move forward with confidence.

After paddling for two years in all kinds of weather--from 34 degrees to pounding rain to downright hot days--I have a good idea of what clothing works for me. Now that it's nearly spring and temperatures are well above freezing, it's time to shed our winter Gator Gloves and winter hats.

Every paddler has her own clothing preferences, body temperature and budget. You'll find what works for you through trial and error. You don't have to spend a fortune to outfit yourself for dragon boating, but if you insist on buying everything new and not on sale, you could.

I'm lucky to live in the Portland metro area with plenty of options for purchasing clothing. Almost every bit of my paddling clothing I've bought used, mostly at various Goodwill stores. The only things I insist on buying new is footwear and gloves. I wash all my thrift shop purchases before wearing them.

Here's what I wore this morning to paddle on a cloudy day with temperature around 50 degrees:

* Sports bra: quick dry and breathable. My favorite is a Nike Dri-fit with a comfy racing back. It covers my torso almost to my naval. It dries quickly, and that's crucial on race days when you'll wear your paddling clothes all day. On hot summer days, you'll want a regular sports bra.

* Paddling shirt: again,quick dry, moisture wicking and breathable. I prefer short sleeves because long sleeves get wet and make me uncomfortable. But some women prefer long sleeves.

* Paddling pants: quick dry and breathable. Regular yoga pants won't work because when you get them wet--and you WILL get your pants wet--they don't dry out, and then it feels as if you're wearing a wet diaper. I like the capris length. Our team wears black on the bottom, and so do many other teams. I do have a pair of full-length black pants to wear when it's a bit cold, but beginning in spring, I wear capris for practice and on race day. This race season I hope to buy these cool capris emblazoned with a dragon. They're available online via Double Fifth Dragon Boating.

* Paddling skort: On warm days, some women prefer paddling skorts, short skirts with built-in shorts underneath. I'm not ready to rock this look, but here's a picture of one from Double Fifth Dragon Boating. Some women also wear quick-dry shorts.

* Rain pants: Dragon boating is a water sport, and you will get wet. Sometimes you'll get a tiny bit wet; other days, you'll be soaked. You'll need rain gear for the top and bottom. My rain gear is from Goodwill. They don't match, but they keep me dry. This morning, when it was a little drizzly, I wore my capris paddling pants and on top of that, I wore my rain pants, which are Columbia Sportswear Omnitech pants with a drawstring waist (a must so you can cinch them tighter as you begin losing weight from the hard work of paddling a dragon boat!). Look for rain pants with zippered pockets. I paid only $9.95 for mine at Goodwill.
* Lightweight, quick drying, moisture-wicking, water repellant rain jacket: You'll be paddling in the rain and will need a good rain coat that falls below your waist and is comfortable to wear paddling. I found mine at Goodwill and paid $9.95. It has a hood with a drawstring I can cinch tight if I'm paddling in a deluge. The wrists have Velco around them so I can tighten and loosen it. The coat also has both interior and exterior zippered pockets. You don't want a fussy coat that's hard to remove because you might have to shed it quickly and fling it into the bottom of the boat, or sit on it during a water break. This morning, I was overheated and at our first water break, I pulled off my PFD, removed my raincoat, put my PFD back on, zipped it up, and gulped some water before our coach gave us the "paddles up" warning that our short break was over.

* Footwear: Most of the year I wear my Keen sandals when I paddle. They protect my toes, have sturdy tread, let water run through when I step into a boat with water at the bottom, and they let me feet breathe on hot days. During the cold, wet months of winter paddling, I usually wear my tall, rubber rain boots from Costco. I've seen them at Target too. However, some coaches don't want their paddlers wearing boots. If the boat fills with water and you have to swim, it would be difficult to swim wearing rubber boots that come almost up to your knees. When I first started paddling, I wore an old pair of rafting sandals, but they left my toes exposed. Some paddlers wear old sneakers. I tried that, but your feet always get wet, and wearing wet sneakers made my feet cold. But paddlers wear all kinds of footwear, and if you visit an outdoor store with a decent shoe department, you'll find many styles of river shoes.

* PFD (personal flotation device, or life jacket): Yes, you'll need one especially for paddling, and if it needs to be snug, hug your body, not ride up, but be comfy so you have full range of motion. You'll want one with zippered pockets. I bought mine used right off my coach's back! Teams usually have matching PFDs used only for race day, but paddlers need their own PFDs for practice. Portland DragonSports owns several one-size-fits-all PFDs down at the dock, but if you're a smaller person, you'll find it frustrating. And these often are damp. This photo is my dream PFD, an MTI Moxi. I don't own this, but hope to someday.

* Water bottle: You'll want a water bottle. During practice, we take our water bottles onto the boat, but on race day, we don't. Sometimes I reuse a plastic bottle from water I've purchased. I keep filling it up. You can spend more money and get better water bottles. Be warned that I've lost several water bottles that have bounced out of the boat.

* Dry sack to keep your valuables dry and safe. My first year of paddling, I didn't have a dry sack, and it was tough keeping my stuff dry on the boat, but my second year, I splurged and spent about $30 at REI for what's essentially a clear, plastic dry sack for my cell phone. It hangs around my neck by a sturdy cord. I put it underneath my PFD so it's not in the way. You can buy dry sacks of many sizes. When I kayak for the day, a larger dry sack can be tucked at my feet.

Paddling gloves: Some coaches frown upon their paddlers wearing gloves. I find it helps me have a firmer grip on my paddle. In the winter, I wear my heavy Glacier Gloves. The rest of the year, I wear lightweight half-finger Neoprene paddling gloves. I wash them often. After paddling, I hang my gloves immediately so they dry out.

* Waterproof wallet: Chum makes all manner of wallets for paddling. My everyday wallet has a removable inner wallet I pull out for paddling and stash in my PFD zippered pocket. It holds my driver's license, my debit card, my auto insurance card and health insurance card. It also opens in the center so I can tuck a little cash into it in case my team goes out for coffee or Second Breakfast after our Saturday morning paddle.

* Hat: I usually can't stand to wear a hat when I'm paddling because it gets in the way. However, when it's raining really hard, I wear my Australian outback Gore-Tex waterproof rain hat which has a chin strap so I can cinch it tighter and not lose it in the water.

Where to find paddling clothing: Goodwill and other thrift shops, but also REI and in Portland, the Next Adventure paddling store in Southeast. Tell them you're on a dragon boat team and you get a discount. A variety of websites offer online shopping for paddling gear. One of the best is DoubleFifth Dragon Boating.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Finding the rhythm—and courage—to beat my drum

My friend Henry invited friends to celebrate his 50th birthday by sharing a story in a format similar to The Moth. Each storyteller took a turn at the front of the room telling a story with the theme of "lost and found." Wearing my little black dress, my cowgirl boots, and my elk antler canoe paddle necklace, I beat a rhythm on my African djembe drum while I shared my story:

As a kid, I marched to the beat of a different drummer. But it was the 1960s. A girl could be a teacher, nurse, secretary, or if she were really adventurous, a flight attendant. I dreamed of adventure: traveling to Africa, flying a plane, and being a girl drummer. I created drums from household objects: Mom’s pots and pans, empty boxes, the living room radiator.

When we were six, my cousin, Dave and I formed a band, Sue and her Swingers. We didn’t have a clue what a swinger was, but we liked the alliteration. My drumsticks were Lincoln Logs, and my drum was an empty oatmeal box. But Dave, who was nicknamed “Hippy Dave” and wore cool, striped bell bottoms, played a real guitar that his mom gave him. Our repertoire consisted of “Lay Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” and “Down the Valley." We played living room gigs for our parents. Cool, huh?

I kept drumming, but still didn't have a real drum.

For my tenth birthday, for some inexplicable reason, I was sure my parents were giving me a drum set and a real chimpanzee. Imagine my disappointment when I opened my gifts and found neither chimpanzee nor drum set, but instead a tall, metal high chair for dolls. What the heck? It didn’t take me long to discover the doll high chair made a great drum! It was tall enough that I could stand up to play my drum solos! I played a lot of gigs on that doll high chair.

By sixth grade, kids could take band class and learn to play an instrument. My hands shook with excitement that first time I held real drumsticks and played a snare drum. Even the names of the drum rudiments were thrilling: flam, paradiddle, triple ratamacue.

Although my family couldn't afford to buy a new drum, the band teacher let students rent old marching band snare drums for $1 a month. Covering the large drum in a plastic garbage bag, I lugged the drum home on my bike every day after school so I could practice drumming.

That Christmas, Mom surprised me with a gently used silver snare drum. It was a beaut! I don’t recall where Mom found it or how she afforded it, but it remains one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

I was a drummer in the school band from sixth grade through high school. In our small school, being in the band meant playing in concert band, marching band in parades and pep band at all the football and basketball games. By then, drummer Karen Carpenter was a role model, and I was joined by two other girl drummers. I loved being a drummer! When a popular kid at school referred to me as "the little drummer girl," I beamed. 

But when I moved away to attend college, my drum gathered dust. Mom asked if she could sell it in her garage sell, and I agreed. When would I play a drum as an adult woman?

Shortly after college graduation, I got married and was busy raising a family. I loved being a mom and a wife. But as my kids grew into older teens and young adulthood and I had more breathing room, I realized that I’d lost myself. Although I found great joy in spending time with my kids, the adventurous girl I'd once been had been replaced by a shell of a person. I felt completely alone in my marriage. To cover up my grief and emptiness, I ate chocolate--lots of it--ballooning to almost twice my high school weight.

After counseling and mediation sessions, my husband and I eventually divorced.

More than thirty years had passed since I'd played a drum. Now 50 years old, did I remember how to play my own rhythm? Did my heart still have the capacity for joyful song? I didn't know the answers to these questions, but I was ready to find out.

I joined a women's dragon boat team, the Mighty Women. Paddling three times a week was therapeutic for my soul, and combined with mindful eating and other exercise, helped me trim almost 50 pounds from my 5-foot-2 frame.

It was while paddling on the water that I began breathing again. And smiling. My success in dragon boating spurred me to try other adventures: zip lining, kayaking, stand up paddleboard, snow shoeing, belly dancing.

With each new experience, my courage increased.

The next step was a doozy. Dipping my big toe into the online dating pool, the first few dates were duds. I did meet a couple of kind men who had some shared interests, and it was fun going to dinner or a movie, and nice having someone to talk with. But nothing really clicked.

Then I met a Mountain Man, a fellow adventurous spirit who is finding his way back to happiness and joy. Even more incredible, he was a drummer in high school too. He'd recently bought an African djembe drum at Rhythm Traders in Portland. We went to Rhythm Traders together, losing ourselves in more drums and percussion instruments than I'd ever seen, tapping out rhythms, laughing and finding joy in the moment. I was the only woman there. The only girl drummer. During our second trip to Rhythm Traders, I bought my own African djembe drum. It's a beaut!

Together, the Mountain Man and I have paddled skin-on-frame kayaks, camped in his tipi, hiked, explored museums. He's taught me western swing dancing, archery and alpine skiing. I'm editing his book and helping him publish and market it.

We've played music together under the summer stars and in the falling snow. Who knew life in my fifties could be so rich?

I've come a long way from the empty shell I was. Each morning, I step forward expectantly, anticipating whatever adventures might lie ahead. And sometimes, I strap on my drum, my hands tapping out a rhythm while my heart sings.

Kirby and I playing our African djembe drums in the garden.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

There and back again: From bliss to pain, then healing

Have you ever felt the elation of absolute bliss--only to plummet to the depths of pain and uncertainty? 

Last September, I experienced a magical day at the Great Circle Music Festival near La Grande, Oregon. I spent the day with my honey listening to live music, dancing, hanging out with friends and basking in Eastern Oregon sunshine. What's not to love about a day so glorious?

Toward the end of the night, music filled the air and the space in front of the stage undulated with dancing bodies. A generous woman had brought an armload of hula hoops and encouraged people to  join her in hooping to the music. I grabbed a hoop and joined my friend, Heather, and her first-grade daughter, Ryleigh.

As we moved our hips to keep our hula hoops rotating, Ryleigh told me something so affirming that I count it as one of my favorite moments ever:

"I want to be like you! You're beautiful and you can do so many things."

Ryleigh's statement made me glow. I wanted to stop right there and give her a big hug.

Only two years before, I had been a miserable mess. Newly divorced and stressed out by a job that was sucking the life out of me, my obese body and my sad countenance proclaimed my unhappiness to the world.

But I'd banished that unhappy woman.

Now as I hula-hooped with Ryleigh, I was a new woman: a dragon boating, swing dancing, belly dancing, kayaking, zip lining, djembe drum playing, hula hooping woman brimming with joy. At that moment, I felt beautiful. Strong. Blissful.

The bliss was short lived.

Two weeks later, I slipped on the porch steps slick with rain. I felt my feet fly from underneath me and thought: "This is going to hurt." My head, neck and back slammed against the steps. I am a tough woman, but I cried. The pain was excruciating.

I had a concussion and a pounding headache. My neck and shoulders were so sore I couldn't turn my head. My back and my entire left side ached. My doctor scheduled physical therapy and prescribed muscle relaxers and extra-strength ibuprofen. She also told me I'd need to take a break from dragon boating and to take it easy. Rest.

One physical therapy session brought no relief, but caused financial stress because my co-pay was so high. I couldn’t afford any more physical therapy, but I did the basic exercises at home. After working all day, I came home, took muscle relaxers and collapsed into bed. So it went for weeks.

I tried some gentle exercise and lifted teeny, tiny weights. It was too soon. The pain worsened. I tried hula hooping with my weighted hoop, an exercise that had brought such joy previously. Now it caused pain. I missed paddling a dragon boat with the Mighty Women. I longed to feel active and powerful again.

Instead, I felt weak and powerless. Was this pain and inactivity my new normal? I'd worked so hard to transform my life and my body at midlife. Would one tiny moment of slipping on the steps change my life forever? I shuddered at that thought.

My pain wasn't debilitating. It was nothing compared to what my friend, Ruth, went through when a mysterious affliction became life threatening and doctors amputated her leg, yet she still hikes. My friend, Kaitlin, has been blind since she was hit by a car at age seven, but she paddles on my dragon boat team. In comparison, what I was dealing with was insignificant. But it had diminished my joy quotient several notches.

Thankfully, my employer's health insurance offered a self-referral benefit of massage and acupuncture at an affordable rate. I'd never had a massage or acupuncture, but I was so tired of hurting that I was willing to try anything that might bring relief and help me get my life back. What a difference the massages made! Who knew that sticking needles in a person's body would be even more relaxing than a massage?

Slowly, as the weeks and then months passed, I began to heal. I've been walking a couple of miles on the trail near my house, and last weekend, after a foot of snow blanketed the ground, I skied through the woods. I wouldn’t qualify for the Olympics at that pace, but I felt strong. Better yet, I didn't have any pain.

This morning, six months after my fall, I wistfully looked at my weighted hula hoop again. Feeling hopeful, I grabbed my hoop and iPod and stepped outside to the garden facing the woods.

After the first song I was winded, but I kept going. As I hooped in rhythm to the music, two Canadian geese honked and flew overhead. I felt in the groove. Elated. Even blissful.

I thought of Ryleigh's words to me six months earlier. And I smiled.