Tapping a canoeing memory for strength
Every once in a while, I think back to a day during my teens, when I went canoeing by myself. This wasn’t an extraordinary accomplishment. It didn’t earn me a spot on an Olympic team. I didn’t receive any bravery commendations or citizenship awards. Nonetheless, the somewhat faded memory of this simple personal feat has helped me over the years.
As a military spouse, I sometimes felt completely overwhelmed. Whether my husband was home or away, I carried the mental weight of responsibility for managing the many details of our family life. In order to provide consistency to our three children in the midst of military deployments, travel, watch schedules and PCS moves, I was placed in charge. I rose to the occasion when it came to major crises, like when our son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3. But when faced with the many minute demands of daily life — laundry, bills, band concerts, scout meetings, in-laws, yard work, snack duty, taxes — I was often overcome with stress.
In those moments, I felt weak, shamefully incapable of managing as a military spouse. In this insecure state, my mind attempted to prove a point, by replaying memories like that canoe outing in 1984.
It was a hot summer day, and I was just 18 years old. My best friend from high school had moved away, and everyone else I knew was either on vacation, or too cool to hang out with me. My choices were to stay home and do chores, or head out to find adventure.
Our forgotten 18-foot fiberglass Coleman canoe leaned forlornly against the side of our garage. I was a swimmer, but not exactly brawny at five feet, four inches. With considerable effort, I dragged the 70-pound canoe from its spot, across an acre of lawn to our 1977 Chevy Blazer.
Nowadays, Chevy Blazers are stylish four-door SUVs driven by soccer moms sipping Starbucks Caramel Macchiatos. But back then, these 4WD vehicles were behemoth two-door trucks used for hauling deer carcasses out of the woods. I don’t recall how I did it, but somehow, I hoisted the canoe onto the roof of the vehicle by myself, nearly seven feet off the ground. Using rope I found in the garage, I tied the ends of the canoe tight to each bumper, fearful that, if it fell off of the Blazer while I was driving, there would be hell to pay.
The details of getting to Yellow Creek State Park, launching the canoe and paddling around the lake alone that day are foggy. Knowing my active imagination, I likely planned a full affair for myself, complete with a packed picnic, a bit of tanning (it was the ’80s, after all), and a nice long swim.
Although these recollections are faint, I have a crystal-clear vision of driving home after my solitary canoeing expedition. With wet hair and a sunburn on my shoulders, I barreled down Route 422 with the driver’s-side window opened, one hand dangling casually in the wind. Peering out at the open road between the Blazer’s black hood and the burnt-orange canoe tied overhead, I knew I could do anything I set my mind to.
That moment — that pure feeling of independence, confidence, strength and competence — became permanently etched in the recesses of my young mind. I wasn’t conscious of this imprinting at the time, but over the decades, as I grew and faced life’s inevitable challenges, that long-ago memory would occasionally surface to reassure me that, yes, it was true — I could do anything I set my mind to.
There are other memories I use to remind myself that I’m not as weak as I feel. Like the time I hung a ceiling fan over our kitchen table. The year I secured a grant to buy a new scoreboard for the football team. The day I published my first column.
The mind is a powerful thing. During times of stress, it floods us with emotion, apathy, anxiety, fear. Overwhelmed, we sometimes lose sight of our own strength. By tapping into our mind’s memory bank, we remind ourselves that we won’t sink, because we’ve always been able to swim.