In a bizarre confluence of events, I found myself at two axe-throwing parties within 18 hours last weekend. (“What kind of bizarre Canadian ritual is this?” asked an American facebook friend). Sarah and Sam have both written about the experience of axe-throwing — yes, a little bizarre but quite satisfying in the throwing with your whole body, the thwack and thud of connection.
I liked it. I posted this pic on FB on Sunday with the caption “This is what I do now. I throw axes.”
But I totally sucked at it. That bullseye was one of maybe 2 or 3 out of probably 100 throws. Mostly I wound up, threw, and heard the clatter of the axe thunking off the target and falling to the ground. (My abs hurt Monday from all the bending over to pick up my axe). At the bachelor party on Saturday night, I came in 7th out of 7, with 18 points in the tournament compared to the winner’s 98. I did better on Sunday, but I was no savant like Sabrina, who gracefully hit bullseye after bullseye her first time out.
I’ve written before about this theory I have about “undiscovered biathletes,” my secret belief that if I just tried to ski and shoot, I might be fantastic at it. That we all have things that we would be amazing at if we just found them.
Turns out, I’m a mediocre cross-country skier, and not a great shot. Or axe-thrower.
I was not an athletic kid or young adult in any way. I’ve written about this before, about only finding my body and intentional movement when I was 30. The only time I’ve ever played a single team-based game is in gym class. And I was That Girl who tried to get out of it, obnoxiously reading Sartre on the bench while nursing “cramps.” I’ve never been on any team of any kind, unless the bike rally “team” counts, but that was really for social support — it had nothing to do with how we actually rode. That suited me.
I’ve never learned how to learn to do physical things that don’t “come naturally.” I’m a runner and a cyclist who likes hiking and mountaineering; these are just things we do as kids, but with fancier gear and plane tickets. I’m really lousy at translating verbal instructions to physical actions — I remember trying to learn to golf when I was 12, and being super frustrated at not being able to feel in my body the “helpful” gibberish people were saying to me.
And I felt that with the axe-throwing, too. As soon as the group I was with realized how terrible I was, they were full of advice. “It’s like flow yoga.” “Hold your wrists straight.” “Let go of the axe earlier.” “Try standing on the block. Beside the block. In front of the block.”
I was good-natured about it and let people move me around like a Fisher Price Little Person who came with a Post-Industrial Axe-Throwing Barn(TM). But most of what they said was nonsense to me. I don’t understand how people make sense of “let the power come from your back legs” or “soft hands, loose wrist.” If I’d been in a grumpier mood, I would have wanted all these well meaning people to shut the eff up. I just let it roll over me, enjoying the novelty of the experience.
But then, one of the instructors said something that made a tiny bit of sense: start out in warrior three. Suddenly, the notion of where power “comes from” made sense to me. I have done enough yoga to have a felt sense memory of how to move in and out of that pose. I didn’t focus on the axe as much as on centring my body.
I didn’t get much better at it, really, but my form was better. And when I thunked off the board, it was in the general vicinity of where I was aiming. And it was more fun. I felt it in my body instead of sort of fighting with the axe.
(This is me throwing “the big axe” to break a tie on Sunday. It was hard and I sunk it in the target. It felt GOOD).
In the past few years, I’ve let myself try to learn a few new things physically. I learned to scuba dive about five years ago, and failed my certification the first time, until I got comfortable with feeling what was happening in my body. This summer, while canoe camping, Sarah taught me how to J-stroke, because after being the front-of-the-boat paddler for three decades, I had to stern. Again, I couldn’t get it when I thought about it, but when I let myself just feel it in my body, I sort of got it.
I realized something with the axes. Everyone has an idea about what will help. Which doesn’t help me much. My body doesn’t translate words to actions very well, and I’ve let this belief about myself dictate what I do physically most of my life. But if I let myself hear what’s *behind* the instruction — which is usually about focus and just centring yourself a bit — I can actually learn.
The instructor we had for the first axe episode was named Bowie, a loud, worked-up Gnome of Axes. At one point he sort of barked at us “if you are sucking, take a pause. Centre yourself . And Just. Try. To. Throw. Better.”
We all laughed. But actually, it turned out to be the words that worked for me.