First Dawn: Reflections on Rowing and Writing

Photo by Gloria DiFulvio

Although active to varying degrees for most of my life, I never considered myself an athlete. Of all the sports, rowing is not one I paid attention to. The early morning practices coupled with a mostly healthy, but sometimes irrational, fear of water served as major deterrents to participation. Yet, a few years ago, in my mid-40s, this is where I found myself.

Three mornings a week for seven months a year, I wake up at an ungodly hour, drive to the boathouse ready to be on the water by 5:30 am. There, along with other (mostly) women, I find myself propelling a small thin craft down a river.

While I sought out the experience primarily for fitness, I found that the sport has given me much more than that. Rowing taps into my competitive spirit, allowing me to feel strength in both physical and mental ways. A sport that relies on deep commitment and determination so that one can contribute fully to the whole boat, I have been forced to face my own inadequacies and fears each time I take my seat. My performance affects my experience, but more importantly, the experience of the other rowers who are not only my teammates, but my second family. I strive to give them my best self.

At the same time that I am grappling with my insecurities, I am surrounded by beauty. At this early morning hour, the sun is just peaking up over the mountains. The water is still and calm and the eagle soars above our boat, guiding us down the Connecticut River. The image of the fiercely competitive, strong, gritty rowers, sweat down our backs, muscles aching, juxtaposed against the serene morning reminds me of the push and pull of life’s journey. Breathtaking moments entangle with the pain that one eventually experiences while simply living.

More recently, I started writing. As an academic, writing is a key component of my job. But academics tend to write for other academics in dry and scientific terms. While professionally important, it is not personally satisfying. So I ventured into the more creative, personal process of crafting story.

At first, not fully understanding why I turned to pen and paper, I started writing just for me. It didn’t matter if anyone read what I wrote. It didn’t matter if what I wrote was even meaningful. It would be fun — an exercise of the mind.

There is, of course, a more subconscious pull for me to write. Not unlike my choice to venture on the water, I find myself searching for something deeper than the pure act of writing. The creative expression of memory, imagination, and feeling is important, necessary even. It fulfills me in profound ways. Like the river I navigate, the journey of storytelling is alluring, graceful (sometimes), and ever changing. And like rowing, the process affords me the opportunity to seek and confront undiscovered, but necessary, life lessons.

Photo by Linda Hannum

Whether with oar or pen in hand, the quest for self-understanding continues. Turning inward, I take time to listen — quieting the senses so often overwhelmed. I search the water, see the reflection of dawn’s first light, and find contentment with the stillness. The power of finding words unspoken provides strength, as if I’m gliding atop the water, oar in my hands, sweat down my brow. Each provide unique challenges allowing me to discover courage in the face of hardship and, more importantly, humility — reminding me of the power of forgiveness and the importance of acceptance.

My creative process continues to unfold in ways I have not yet imagined. For this I am grateful. I’m curious — how does your life inform your writing?

Interested in publishing your own writing? DaCunha is now accepting submissions year round. Check it out here.