It seemed to me as though I shot arrow after arrow after arrow, year after year after year. I shot because I enjoyed the thrill of success. I shot because, for many years, it slowed the hectic pace of life. Everyone searches for inner peace, a perfect balance of the heart, mind, body and soul. Of the few who find it, fewer still have the strength to keep it.
One day I realized that archery had become just another item on my list of things to do. It no longer gave me that sense of balance and peace. As I stood 40 yards from the target, I found focusing long enough to shoot a full round of arrows almost impossible. When the first arrow hit off-center, I buckled down to shoot the second, but then didn’t focus on the third. The troubles of the day intruded and not even a small measure of peace resided anywhere within me. It was as if the arrows sensed my distraction at my attempts to set life in order, and in response threw themselves as far from the target as possible. I had the distinct feeling that if I could just get one in order, the others would fall neatly in line behind it.
Perhaps other parts of life induced my poor shooting. That summer, my closest cousin had died in a car crash, and then I moved across the country, leaving me with no friends to confide in. The move involved a larger paycheck and a chance to widen my horizons, but accepting the offer quickly revealed itself to be pure stupidity. My boss turned out to be a short-tempered jerk who reveled in making me feel incompetent. Whenever I spoke at meetings, he shot down my ideas. Halfway through each day I wanted to run home and hide from the evils of the adult world. Most days left me bone-weary, physically and emotionally. I had nearly given up on myself and my abilities.
Some people look for inner peace through meditation, some through nature, others through sports. Peacefulness comes from being the only person around for miles, or watching from a mountaintop as the sunrise bleeds across the sky, or the feeling of whirling, dancing and twirling a ball around obstacles. The tranquility lies in the moment, but moments fade faster than rainbows. Occasionally, Lady Luck’s favorites receive more than one moment of inner balance and serenity.
I was convinced that Lady Luck hated me.
After the move, it was by chance that I found another suitable archery range. Although it accommodated 20 archers, there were only two of us shooting that day. A man, a stranger, shot two lanes down. His long, sandy hair brought out the blue of his eyes. Unfortunately, the thought of a complete stranger witnessing my blunders proved both unnerving and disturbing, making it even harder to concentrate. The man was tall, but not intimidating. In contrast, he radiated an unnameable force - could it be life? Hope? Faith? My nerves were so shot that I might as well have been speaking in front of a crowd of a thousand booing people. Instead of holding the string back with good form, I released it prematurely. When I remembered to hold my stance, my arms shook from the effort and my sight blurred, making it impossible to aim.
After half an hour, I sat on a bench and sighed, exhaling despair like a poisonous fog. I cradled my head in my hands. The hard wood welcomed me in a way I hadn’t thought possible, though it did nothing to calm me. I can’t do this anymore, I thought miserably. What happened? Why can’t I shoot straight?
“Hey,” a soft voice interrupted my pity party. “Are you all right?”
I looked up, trying to smile, but my brow furrowed and my eyes watered. I refused to open my mouth, knowing that the tears always came when I felt like this.
Great, I thought. Now he’s going to think I’m a basket case, crying and smiling at the same time. Wonderful job, darling girl. Simply marvelous.
He didn’t give any clear sign that he noticed my distress, but how could he not have? “I’ve seen you shoot before,” he said. “You’re usually really good.” He hesitated. “And confident.”
My pathetic smile dropped like an anvil on Wiley E. Coyote, and my expression crumpled. I leaned over to hide my face and the tears that threatened to fall. A few escaped. “Life sucks,” I told him in a muffled voice. “That’s all.”
There came a rustling of clothing, and the bench creaked as he sat beside me. He exhaled slowly, and for a long, impenetrable moment we sat in silence.
He sighed, but I noticed his sigh was different from mine. His drew in breath like dawn on the first day of spring. When his lungs refused to take in any more, he let it out in a whoosh.
“Do you want to talk?” he asked.
I looked up, startled. His eyes shone through my despair like the beacon of a lighthouse, calling me to safety. The fog that had been hovering dissipated. It felt as though the sun were coming out after months of rain. The corners of my mouth curved up and this time I smiled all the way to my eyes.
“Maybe later. But thanks.”
He nodded, realizing how his comfort strengthened me. To be honest, just knowing that he cared enough to ask strengthened me.
I stood and stretched, then hesitantly turned to face him. “But - could you do me a favor?”
He shrugged and stood too. “Sure.”
I looked at him expectantly, barely remembering not to nervously chew my lip. “Would you help me go over the basics?”
He looked at me strangely, perplexed by my request. “But you’re at such a high level. You already know the basics!”
“It couldn’t hurt,” I said, trying not to plead with my eyes. I buckled the quiver around my waist and pulled on my armguard. “If there’s something wrong with where your arrows are going, go back to the basics. That’s what I’ve been told since I started ten years ago.”
He sighed and gave in. I pulled my finger tab on, caressing the smooth black leather for the briefest moment, and we approached the red line where archers stood while shooting.
I stepped over the line, one foot in front and one behind. I looked down, hardly remembering to breathe, and gently scuffed the ground with my sneaker.
My companion stood behind me and softly commanded, “Stance.”
I don’t even know his name, I realized, as I straightened my posture and aligned my feet so they were perpendicular to the target. I looked up and stared down the length of the range, absorbing the target into my bloodstream, and held my bow so the sight lined up with the very center.
Another soft command was uttered. “Draw.” It startled me, I was so unused to anything but shouting from an instructor.
I slowly pulled the string back so it came to rest in front of my chin, but as soon as my arm stopped, I began to shake. I need to let the string go. I can’t hold it this long, I can’t do this, I thought.
“Don’t release,” the stranger behind me commanded. His voice seemed stronger, as if the embers of determination suddenly decided to burst into flame. Did he really want me to succeed that badly? “You can do this. I believe in you.”
His words startled me so much I nearly dropped my bow. He believed in me? A complete stranger believed in me? Heck, I didn’t even believe in myself!
I blinked in surprise. I didn’t believe in myself? How long had that been going on? I frowned. No, I told myself. I do believe.
The faith I previously held in my abilities slowly came back to life. The layer of sand blew away from the ashes of determination as quickly as if it had never been. A fire kindled itself; a fire of determination, self-confidence, faith and hope. The heat inside warmed me all the way to my toes, and my eyes sparkled even as they narrowed. I felt the life return to my limbs and flow through them confidently as a river flows downstream. The shaking in my arms ceased, and I pulled the string back another inch or two, back to where it belonged.
“Good girl,” he said. Despite the pet name, I glowed with pride. My demons lay slain around us, invisible to the naked eye. “Now aim.” He saw my chin lift determinedly and the glow of my eyes increase to a roaring, blazing wildfire. He saw me harness that power and take careful aim. Even without turning around, I felt his pride. “Release,” he commanded, sounding for all the world like the general of an invincible army.
My arm twitched as my training reasserted itself, and my fingers confidently slipped from their hold. A blast of color rushed past my face as the fletching let fly.
I watched, heart in my throat, as the arrow blazed through the air and embedded itself in the center of the target.
My instructor laughed out loud and clapped me on the back. His laugh started deep within, and by the time it reached the outside world had grown into a tsunami of pride and exaltation. “Well done! I knew you had it in you!”
Some moments when inner peace has been achieved are vibrant, utterly destroying a dam and letting all the world’s knowledge cascade as a roaring waterfall into your soul. But some moments quietly fill your soul; watching as a bobcat silently looks, and then approves you.
I turned and looked up at him. All I could do was grin. A rainbow of joy and laughter bubbled up from the depths of my soul and demanded release. “Thank you,” I said.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said, shrugging it off.
I shook my head slightly. The smile had disappeared from my lips, but not from my life. “You believed in me,” I told him. “That’s more than I’ve been doing.”
“But not anymore, right?” He cocked an eyebrow at me, silently demanding a promise.
A gentle smile appeared, magnified by my eyes. “Right. No more doubting.”
I looked out over the practice grounds. My gaze came to rest on my arrow. The ability to come out on top still resided within my soul, all it needed was a bit of faith, determination and hope. And if I could slay my archery demons to allow my arrow a clean shot at the center of the target, perhaps I could slay the ones that haunted the rest of my life.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.