My Shadow

Mark Harrington/Flickr
Mark Harrington/Flickr

One August when my son was eight, I accompanied him to an archery initiation class at our sports club. Tiro con arco, shooting with a bow. The class was held under the trees at the rear, and afterward, when the instructor asked the watching parents if anyone would like to try, I stepped forward.

My son never got hooked, but before the end of the hour I already was. I loved the thunk of the arrow sinking into the target. I loved how fast it happened, after the controlled suspense of planting your feet and drawing the bow. I loved that you chose to release the arrow, hardly aware of choosing to.

For five years I went to Friday and Sunday practices, learning the terminology for the parts of the bow and the rest of the equipment while also learning what it means to move my scapula and how to bend my fingers around the bowstring, not clasp it, to push on, not hold, the bow while opening it, to balance my body with the bow. My vocabulary for archery, unlike for running, which I also took up competitively in Spain, was meager when I began, even in English. Bow, string, arrow, target. But there was so much more to it, and I learned it in Spanish first. With archery, Spanish was my mother tongue, and my world and my words expanded in sync.

Soon I joined the team, got a license, bought my own arrows and a case to carry the bow that was issued to me, and started shooting at the weekend meets. I’ll never quit, I told myself, joyous after an arduous practice, delighted when my scapula sank into position, thrilled by the thwang of the bowstring, proud when fellow archers complimented me, pleased to notice another’s well-grouped arrows.

It’s been half-a-dozen years since I last lifted a bow. I never did quit—that’s so determined a move, so certain. Instead I simply had less time to practice, found Sunday meets hard to make, didn’t care as much about my bull’s eyes or lack of them. One day the instructor suggested I buy my own bow. It wasn’t about freeing up the club’s. It was instead a token investment to strengthen what was failing—my notion that this was me. “Why not?” I thought, and took one home to try out.

Before I bought my first car, a 15-year-old Mercury Comet, my father asked if I could think of it as a friend, and looking at the big blue Mercury and then across town at a pale blue VW Squareback, also late ‘60s, I found the choice difficult. My dad was torn, too. A colleague of his, proud owner of VWs, weighed in. He loved his orange Fastback, which was ideal for around town. Around town. Not on the highway, and certainly not across country, where I was headed.

So the Comet was my new friend, and I loved it though I hadn’t chosen it. Same with archery, same with running, same with teaching. Same with my children. I wonder sometimes what I did choose. According to a strain of thought in moral philosophy, we cannot really any of us be thought to be agents, so contingent are our lives. Even our choices are in and from a world we did not create.

The bow was not quite right, nor was the next. “I’m not giving up,” I said, but I still had no bow, and the practices passed and so did the meets while I dithered. When I missed a practice, I ran instead.

I remember hearing that Einstein described his thinking as spasms and contractions, almost as if the thoughts were byproducts of the body’s exertions, like salt on the skin after a strenuous run. Running frees my mind, it’s true, but best is that it keeps me company. Rather than a friend, it’s my shadow, behind or in front, leading or goading, either fleet or dogged, quiet but insistent, not apparent in the height of my youth when my sun was high, but growing on me. We don’t bound forth these days, but one of us will drag the other out, and neither of us needs to be brilliant.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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