relationships & love

How Archery Saved My Sanity, or: Learning to Let Go

by Lem — December 17, 2018

Starting archery on a whim as something to occupy her personal time, little did she know that only a couple of months later, archery would save her sanity.

Editor’s Note: We’re thrilled to welcome Lem back once again to Empress Tea! It’s a delight to have your artistic flair inspiring us all. Smooches from, The Head Empress! 💋 

I started archery out of a whim; I wanted to have something to do on those Fridays when my husband met his friends for their frequent tabletop role-playing game nights. Little did I know that only a couple of months later, archery would save my sanity.

At that time, I just felt like I should have a hobby, too. Something where I could meet new friends, since almost everyone from our inner circle of friends either moved out of the country or was busy with their children. In some cases, even both. My job situation had changed a lot over the past year for the better, and I felt entitled to have a little me-time.

So I sat down, had a good, long thought (meaning: I googled. A lot.) and finally decided that I would want to give archery a try. At first, I was drawn to Kyudo – for my love of everything Japanese. Turns out though that Kyudo clubs are rare. There’s waiting lists (“you can join in 6 months”), strange entrance requirements (“practice a year or so with a slingshot until you’ll touch a bow you darn newbie”), or no place to practice (“training is outside behind a barn”). It was December 2016, icy cold and snowing, and I was not in the mood for the Master and “grasshopper” kind of training experience in the cold of the winter. With a slingshot.

Instead of Kyudo, I ended up chosing a traditional, European-style archery club. Nothing fancy, but nice people. Conveniently located club facilities. Amidst the dawning family drama, I was shooting my first arrows with a wooden recurve bow. And I was so… happy. 

Just like that, my estranged father popped back in our lives. With a bang. After much secrecy on his side, he finally revealed to us that he had cancer. His current wife had left him, he said. He demanded our help.

The relationship with my father was a complicated one. He was a possessive choleric with a violent temper who could easily charm his way into everyone’s heart. When I think back to my childhood, I remember the beatings. The screaming. His irrational behaviour. My crying mother. I loathed coming home when he was there. He despised medical doctors and turned to alternative Hocus Pocus whenever one of us was sick. Home was hell. My parents’ divorce came late, but when it came, it was messy. When I moved out of my parent’s home to focus on my studies, I did not look back. At first I never had much contact with him over the years. He married a Ukrainian woman. Refused to come to my wedding since my mother would attend. Turned to conspiracy theories and pushed the “Like” button on one Nazi page too many. I realized that if I never knew the man before, I had surely no idea what he was turning into now. I cut all ties.

When he reappeared, he demanded our help. At first, he did not say what or why. By the time I fell in love with archery so much that I decided on buying my own bow, he revealed to us that he was sick. Cancer. We found out much later that he had the diagnosis for years now, but since he thought that everyone out in the medical profession was a fraud, he – of course he would – ignored the diagnosis and treated it himself when it finally got so bad that ignoring did not work anymore. And in any case, how long can a human being just ignore colorectal cancer…?

My sister and I had long discussions on our course of action. Eventually she broke down and admitted that one of the first memories from her childhood was my father dragging me across the room by my long hair, kicking and screaming at me. She is barely two years younger than I am, so I wondered, how small had I been…? I had no recollection of this particular incident, but there were many more.

We were torn. We did not know what to do. We refused his demands to invest our money in some bogus apparatus that magically cured cancer with free energy. We told him to get proper treatment. And we were angry, so angry. After all, he never made any effort to reconcile with his kids. To say sorry. Only to reappear years later, holding that cancer diagnosis like a knife to our throats, demanding that we just forgive and forget everything that every happened between us. I knew in my heart that I could not forgive him. He left too much scorched earth between us.

Archery, I soon learned, is repetition. The key is to fix your stance, shut off your brain and nock, draw, hold, loose, repeat.

The most magical moment is the slight hold at full draw. The bowstring touches your nose and chin. You can see every so tiny wobble clearly in your sight. You’re trying to hit a target the size of a walnut from a distance of 18 to 70 meters. The more relaxed you are, the better. But I was tensing up a lot. At full draw I would grab the bowstring even tighter with my right hand, afraid to let the arrow go. The moment the arrow leaves the bow, it’s fate is already decided. You can instantly feel if it’s a good shot or not – there’s no correcting a bad one.

My problem was that I was thinking too much. On how to correct the position of my left arm. Did I rotate my elbow? What did my mother say about my father on the phone? Did I relax my fingers? Did she manage to find a spot in he hospital? Is my shoulder position correct? Would he agree to go? Is my anchor position correct? Do I care?  Do i need to adjust the sight even more? I started obsessing over every little detail. When to breathe out. When to breathe in. Foot position. Lower back position. After all, I danced ballet so many years ago. Obsessing over posture was ingrained behaviour. I had to let go. Of all of that. I had to relax.

My father’s condition soon deteriorated. My mother–the saint with a hint of Stockholm syndrome that she is–jumped into action. She came to my father’s help. Made sure he had everything he needed. Clean sheets. Food. Pain relief. His apartment was a mess. My brother and mother used a whole weekend to clean out the worst of all the crap that had accumulated over the years. He, who used to beat us up as kids when we did not clean our rooms or shoes properly, had turned into a compulsive hoarder. We learned that his cancer was end-stage and there was probably nothing that medically could be done. The doctors in the hospital called in on other colleagues to take a look at this insane case. They probably had not seen an open tumor that bad, apart from in textbooks. There were talks about hospice care.

The weeks and months turned into a blur. I soon found myself organizing a funeral for the man who had treated me and my siblings like shit. The only real breaks that I got were Wednesdays and Fridays, where I went to archery practice. With little cellular reception, the gym hall was my refuge. A place where I could meditate over the repeated movements of archery. Where I could hear my bowstring hum gently after a shot. And when I got lucky, marvel at a good arrow that stuck dead center in the target. I could forget that only hours earlier, I broke down crying in front of my colleagues, screaming at whoever was on the other side of my phone that I was not up to the task of being in charge of burying this toxic person, just because decency demands it and he was biologically my father.

On the day of the funeral, I was standing at the shooting line in my head. It was a lovely, sunny day, and the thought of archery helped to clear my head. My first step to try and heal. Don’t think. Nock the arrow. Breathe out. Raise your bow. Bring it to a full draw. Feel the bowstring on your face. Anchor. Hold. Bring your shoulderblades slightly together. And then, gently, smoothly open your fingers and let the arrow fly. Don’t think. You’re doing fine. Now start from the beginning.

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