On Surprising Ourselves

I’ve been living on our sailboat up in the North Channel (that’s Lake Huron, north of Manitoulin Island) for nearly a month. The weather is changeable and when you are on the water all the time you need to have your wits about you. It’s a big lake known for heavy weather, even in the relative shelter of the North Channel.

The other night we’d just finished a late dinner in a beautiful anchorage and were about to nestle in with my step-daughter and her friend to watch a movie. We looked out the window and saw very dark clouds making their way towards us. I checked the weather and sure enough there was a squall watch and warning for the area, with winds gusting to about 40 knots. That’s big wind, especially in a crowded anchorage (there were probably about 25 boats that night) that is not all that protected from the direction of the squall.

So we went up into to cockpit and secured a few things, turned on the radio, and waited it out. The squall descended quickly and fiercely, with pelting rain and extraordinarily high winds. We’d been concerned earlier about a boat that had anchored a little bit too close behind us. While we kept an eye on that, my step-daughter, Ashley, noticed that another sailboat in front of us appeared to be loose and was flying all over the place.

It skated by very close to our bow and then doubled back towards our port side, about midship. While Renald hollered at them to stay away from our anchor, I, not even thinking, ran out of the sheltered cockpit with my gloves on and got there just in time for the boat to T-bone us. I managed to hold it off so that the impact and damage was minimal. And then as the other boat pivoted and came towards us broadside, I saw that their cockpit was empty. I pushed the boat away and off it went. Renald hollered again, this time telling them to get into their cockpit. They were down below playing cribbage (she was winning, we learned the next day).

Whew! When I got back into the cockpit, everyone stared at me in amazement. How in the heck did I manage to hold them off and push them away even? I have no idea. I didn’t even think, I just acted. And yes, I surprised myself. Big time.

Our friend, David, who rode the 160 km MS Bike Tour from London to Grand Bend and back with Sam posted this comment afterwards: “I need to stop being surprised about how well I do.” I’m assuming he meant that he surprised himself for his performance on the long bike ride.

His comment made me think about all the different ways in which we surprise ourselves and what that means.

One thing it means is that we haven’t got real high expectations to begin with. In that sense, perhaps it’s a comment on our confidence level.

But on the other, more positive side, we can only surprise ourselves if we give ourselves opportunities to do it. Though I can’t of course plan for a squall that disrupts a peaceful evening on the water, the only other way to surprise myself is by embarking on challenges that push me.

For example, when I decided to join that learn-to-run group in June, that challenged me. The first few weeks weren’t a problem, but before the end of it, my group was doing runs that were longer than I’d ever run non-stop before. I approached them with dread. But I kept up and wasn’t even the slowest person in the group. I totally surprised myself.

When I was training for the triathlon and joined the Y to work on my swimming, I could hardly manage 2 lengths of the 25m pool without taking a break to catch my breath. After a few months of regular training, I increased my speed and endurance, easily doing 50 pool lengths (that’s 1.25 km) in less than half an hour. Even as I write this, that surprises me. What surprises me more is that I know I can do better than that because that’s at an easy, do-able pace. When I’m finished those lengths I feel as if I could keep going indefinitely. I like it when I can wow myself like that.

When I became vegan a couple of years ago, I thought it would be almost impossible. I had been a vegetarian for a long time, and the ethical basis of all of my arguments extended naturally and clearly to cutting all animal products out of my diet.

I’d hesitated for years and finally made the decision to do some research, not to convince me that it was the right thing for me to do, but to teach myself how vegans eat a nutritionally balanced diet. My research showed me it wasn’t actually all that challenging. I was going to go into gradually and then, before I knew it, I was vegan. And it hasn’t been difficult for me. That surprised the heck out of me. What used to seem like an extreme diet is now routine. Other than baked goods and ice cream, nothing tempts me anymore. That is not what I expected at all.

Since Sam and I started blogging, I’ve lots of occasion to reflect on my physical capacities, what I’m good at (yoga and swimming), what I struggle with (running and any amount of burpees in a day beyond 35), what scares me (Crossfit!), what I enjoyed more than I thought I would (the bike leg of the duathlon), and what I want to work harder at (regular resistance training).

The success of the blog itself has been a surprise. Last September when we started, we thought our friends and family might follow along on occasion, but somehow hadn’t really planned for much more than that. We’ve been surprised in the most pleasant way imaginable by what the blog has brought into our lives: a community of like-minded people, rich discussion of feminist issues that we care about, all sorts of new projects, many opportunities to challenge ourselves with new commitments and activities, just to name a few things.

I’m almost fifty. Maybe, like David, it’s time I stopped “being surprised at how well I do.” But I like surprises, and I like challenging myself in ways that surprise me.

How have you surprised yourself lately? Please leave us a reply sharing your own stories of self-surprise!

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