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She ran the stone one last time along the edge of her sword, restoring its former sharpened perfection. It’d been a single year’s passing since it had been used. From such a distance it was of little use to her, hence the blade had become blunted. In the mountains that she left, there had been intrusions, events that had come to pass that were far from her control. The will that she could not bend darkened the forest even more than she thought possible. Her sons, who stayed behind, had seen a side of human nature that no child should ever see. It was time to stop the madness. Her youngest son, in particular, needed protection that she could not provide from that distance.
She stood, testing the strength in her arm. That, too, had become soft, but the memory of how to rule her kingdom was etched in her fibers, ready to be summoned at will. And now that time had come. He was coming home.
~ ~ ~ ~
Had it only been one year? He scrubbed his hand over his face. So much had happened in that time, most of which he’d rather forget. They’d be safe, she told them, until she prepared the way and summoned them, but no sooner had she left, than the shadow awoke. Without his mother’s protective energy, the darkness filled the crevices of the forest, threatening to steal his soul. The landscape had changed in a few short weeks after she had left. No longer were there stable paths lined with hope and promises of a beautiful tomorrow. The footing had become unpredictable, with no clear vision of what the next moment might hold.
If it were not for the quiet hum of her lingering energy pulsating beneath his feet, he would have fallen many moons ago. Oftentimes he would press his cheek to the ground and weep, struggling to drink in the light that she had left behind.
The shadow had raised its head time and time again, lashing out at him, crying out for her. Their savior, their strength. So far away.
The villagers converged and surrounded him, took him away, and offered protection when she could not. Though kind and generous, ‘twas not enough. He missed the connection, however frayed and blackened the threads were, for it was all he knew. Little by little he found his way back to the forest edge. But nothing had changed. The never-ending pulsating force still beat strong. Too many nights he sat, watching from afar as the shadow sat alone, tipping his head back, letting loose a soul-crushing howl, so full of sorrow, pain, and loneliness.
“It is not what we once knew,” his older brother said one night.
He clung to his brother, his only ally in the unrecognizable terrain. Though not much older, he still exuded stability and comfort.
“The forest is deceiving,” he continued to say. “The shadow hides well within the darkness. No, little brother. It is beyond repair now, and I would have you stay with me.”
So his brother led him away that very night.
“I miss her,” he said, blinking back the pain in his heart.
“As do I, but we will be as one, until we unite with her again.”
Displaced from the home they knew, they ventured out, and took to honing their skills of survival. Left to fend for themselves, their minds and shoulders broadened with seeking the truth and wielding their swords. No longer thin and timid, together they became a force to behold.
At long last, the summoning arrived. Settled now into his routine, he looked around. Could he truly leave everything and everyone behind? It had become a place he so desperately wished to escape, yet so desperately wanted to remain. He was strong now. He had proved that to himself. He could stay. But there was no choice. She had made that decision for him.
With heavy feet and saddened hearts, they walked together to the portal that would take him home.
“You’ve always been there for me,” he said.
“And will always be there for you.”
They clasped forearms and stood awkwardly for a few moments before pulling each other into an embrace.
“You behave yourself, little brother. Do not give her trouble.”
He swiped his sleeve across his eyes. “When will you join us?”
“As soon as I can,” his brother said, ruffling his hair. “I promise.”
He nodded. A shuddering breath and quivering lip betrayed his confidence.
“Go. She is waiting.”
Grasping the hilt of his sword, he was ready to face the adventure before him. There he would learn of different clans, different languages, a new way of life, completely leaving behind all that he has known.
The portal shimmered before him. His mother, the pillar in his life, stood on the other side, her image steadfast through the wavering fabric of worlds. A smile that promised a different path for him encouraged him onward. A smile that reminded him of her comfort, her strength, and that he would not be fighting battles alone.
Her arms extended into a welcoming gesture, beckoning him to join her. His shoulders squared in response, for though he was eager to see her, he was too old, too changed for such emotional release. Taking one step forward, he stoically reined in the feelings that unexpectedly bubbled to the surface. A sense of urgency swirled in his legs and feet and the corners of his mouth lifted against his will. The burden of the past, the nights of burning tears melted away into a lightness he had not known since he was a child.
He turned to his brother and removed his scabbard from his waist. “I won’t need this anymore,” he said, handing his sword to his brother. “I’m going home.”
He stepped through the portal and quickened his footsteps until he found himself surrounded by his mother’s arms.
She looked to the portal and held out her hand, a question forming on her lips.
Her oldest smiled through simmering eyes and shook his head.
“Soon, Mama. Soon.”
She arrived late to the competition. It wasn’t intentional. Or perhaps on some level it was. The last battle was long and wearisome and had taken its toll. The scars she had were not by her hand, though she took them on without complaint. That was part of the rules, was it not? But after the 25-year battle, she hid, healing the wounds with salve given to her by the Earth, ensuring others wouldn’t be infected. But she was ready, knowing what she offered was valuable.
Her eyes, though battle worn, were intent and aware as she surveyed the gathering of competitors. She cringed at the sudden feeling of inadequacy. How could she possibly compete? She watched the leaders selectively sift through the crowd, letting strands of hair fall through their fingers, cupping faces more youthful than hers against their palms. The young ones were eager, wide-eyed, optimistic, less willing to cast doubt or question their leaders. They were desperate to blindly follow, compromise their values, and become something they were not, in order to serve them.
Oh, she had made that mistake so very long ago. Never again. Perhaps that was her downfall, her own boundaries getting in the way.
But she couldn’t deny the shift that was palpable in every fiber of her soul. The confidence she had in battle now whittled down to nothing as, one by one, the leaders passed her over. What could they possibly want with a veteran who saw life through narrowed eyes? They looked for trainability, not one so set in her ways. The sudden rejection left her vulnerable and weak, her ego judging her worthiness based on their approval.
It occurred to her that though her body was strong and her mind stronger yet, the young ones were skilled in ways she was not, for while she led her own battle, she’d neglected skills she rarely used, and those had eventually withered away. She argued that she had different skills, stronger skills, life skills, skills the newcomers had yet to discover. She held up the weapons that were well-honed, time-proven, and sharpened with age and wisdom. She insisted that her youth was a shadow behind her maturity and calm, and that she could fight alongside them.
But none of that mattered.
Was that punishment for the years that she refused to back down?
She stepped away from the crowd, her spine straight and jaw set. She fought against the tears that spilled from her heart as she saw her future denied by virtue of her past. It occurred to her that she had her place, but it was no longer on the front line. Times had changed, and she along with it. But she had no idea.
Until now…. until it was almost too late.
The path had been washed clear a fortnight before by the season’s first gentle rains, and in the days that followed, the spring’s warmth absorbed any hint of dampness that would cling to her feet. She could find no fault with her path or her duties as Guardian, and though optimistic, she remained vigilant, anticipating what she could not see.
A sudden wind stirred the grass and an unmistakable rumble rolled beneath her feet. The ground shook and dread fell from the trees. Her pace quickened to match the beat of her heart, but where to turn, she did not know.
The shadow loomed to engulf her, the forewarning she knew too well. She did not have time to change her footing, as the beast came at her vicious and strong, tackling her from behind, forcing her to taste the harsh reality of her choices.
Not willing to relive yet another blow, she scrambled to her feet, but slipped.
Thick, oily, green-gray mud bubbled up from between the cracks on the once smooth path, through the seams she had spent years of her life mending.
The blue sky swirled with fear and darkened to a toxic hue, then unloosed its watery fury, pelting her with shards of wet, gleaming steel. Her shoulders hunched against the pain as each stab created divots in her armor. With cold and shaking hands, she swiped at them uselessly.
Footsteps approached. Some fast, some slow, but she recognized each one. They’d always been there, surrounding her, urging her forward. Never had they allowed her to falter or lose sight of her task. Normally she basked in their presence, but now she dare not look up, for she did not want them to see the uncertainty in her eyes. The need to run and claim to the menacing skies “Let me be! I am not as strong as you believe!” exploded from her cells, howling for release.
Wisps of light circled her, hovering only moments until she closed her eyes in surrender. Blue-white heat grazed atop her damaged armor, the depressions filling in and strengthening her with resolve. Tears spilled, but quickly evaporated in the knowing that the path before her, though flooded with sludge, was solid.
With each step her load lightened and the curve of her back disappeared. Instead of studying the ground before her, seeing only the small section of the path, she stood tall and faced the beast that now stood before her. She grasped the hilt of her sword, ready to strike it down.
Its eyes were rimmed with sadness, but could easily have been mistaken for anger.
She paused. The air stilled around her, quiet as the impending death, and with ancient eyes watching the slow movement of her thoughts, she drew her sword from its sheath and held it steady at her side. Her fingers twitched, anxious for a reason.
The great beast’s gaze slid down the length of the sword and held fast at the deadly tip. Its bristly hairs stood on end. It slowly raised its head, the sadness in its eyes replaced with venom that spilled over and trickled down its time-worn cheeks.
Her armor did little good when he looked at her in that vile way. She knew it was time. Time to leave the forest behind, lest he draw the light from within her heart that she held so close. One step back, one last look, before she turned.
“Why do you leave?” the beast roared, its pain-soaked voice ripping through the thin fabric that cloaked her soul.
She slowly turned, her hand once again tightening on her sword. Whispers penetrated her mind, a reminder of her strength.
“Why do you stay?” she asked.
“The forest is dark.”
“The meadow is light.”
They stood, face to face, bound together by time long past, a bond neither could break.
“I cannot go where you lead.” The words spilled from their lips in eerie harmony, entwining like the overgrown vines suffocating the abandoned forest they once shared.
She shook her head. There was no more for her there, and though she found a bit of relief, the sadness grew inside. Sadness for the beast who will never know peace. Sadness for herself, for neither will she.
I never thought it would happen to me, but there it was. I had known about it for six months, but assumed I could right the sails and keep the boat afloat. I got caught up in what many families are facing: The end to a well-paying, long-term job. During those six months, like a cornered animal, I got a tad cranky. I felt threatened. After 18 years of working in my bunny slippers, with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in hand, I had a wake up call. One I didn’t want to answer.
I was about to be thrown out of my comfort zone and into the world of *gulp* job hunting.
Which wasn’t easy. Especially in this small town where professional jobs are at a minimum and the lines are long for the rest of the jobs that open up. Small towns are awesome. Small towns create a sense of belonging. I love knowing everyone at the bank or the grocery store. I love the fact that one of our busiest streets really isn’t so busy after all.
But none of that matters when the well runs dry, when I’m faced with decisions, when I feel like a failure. A new plan was needed fast. The more I thought about it, the more I looked at the circumstances, the choice was clear. I needed to look outside of this town.
If I were to be honest, I’d been feeling as if my wheels were spinning and that I forgot who I was – still. I’d been talking about a finding new direction for awhile, but since I was swimming in my comfort zone, I had no reason to get out of the pool. Well, guess what. Losing my job was the kick in the ass that I needed to move forward.
What I hadn’t counted on, though, was that I would be going at this alone. The boys and I had been a tight unit and I assumed we’d move together. But ‘twas not to be. They wanted to stay with their father in Idaho for their own reasons. Reasons I understood, but still I felt I failed on many levels. Was I that bad of a mother that they didn’t want to be with me? Shouldn’t I sacrifice a few more years and stay here just in case they needed me? How much would this hurt them in the long run?
Infused with guilt, I spoke with my uncle who reminded me that, in the face of knowing we would miss each other, would miss the routine we’ve developed over the years, both boys made a very deliberate decision. Sure, they could have taken the easy way out and followed me, looking to me to handle things, but I’ve taught them to be free thinkers and to make choices based on what they felt was best for them. It had always been my intention to pass at least one morsal of something to them, and here I had my proof.
Feeling somewhat better, I chose to practice what I preach: Do something that is best for me. After putting my needs on hold for 25 years, now is my chance to follow opportunities that will further my choice of career. Opportunities I cannot find here in North Idaho.
I want to show my boys a side of me they haven’t yet seen before – the woman who waited patiently behind the mother. I want my sons to see me as a healthy and successful person, not the overbearing, overprotective mama bear who pushed them to realize heights I knew they were capable of, all while I was feeling frustrated because I wasn’t reaching my own potential. I want to be the best person I can be, to show them that my happiness is as important as theirs. My reasons for doing this, as painful as the process might be, will serve them as well as me.
And the timing is right. My job had allowed me to work from home for the last 18 years and over those almost two decades I’ve seen my oldest through to graduation and my youngest get through middle school. I’ve taught them as many life lessons as I have experienced myself, taught them social graces, and how to be kind to others. Now the rest is up to them.
Yes, I’ll definitely miss the little things, the daily routine, the chance to hug them when they’re feeling sad or happy, but through Skype, texting, phone calls, and Facebook, I’ll still be able to nag – I mean, guide – them through the trials and successes and celebrations big and small. The moments we share will be sweeter, the visits will be anticipated events.
The silver lining to all of this is that I will have the opportunity to discover who I am and what I need to feel whole, because when we become mothers and wives, so many of us lose sight of ourselves. It’s a continuous process, one I started two years ago. I have a very specific plan A, with no plan B, so there won’t be any falling back. Only forward movement. By expanding my horizons outside of this town, I will be able to bring more of the world to the boys. It’s the put-on-the-oxygen-mask-first-before-putting-it-on-the-children mentality.
My uncle also told me, “Go ahead and feel guilty if you must, but it would be a mistake not to try.”
So try, I will.
This song, The Reason, by Hoobastank, is for you, boys. You are my reason. I love you.
I was explaining to my son exactly why I went on a vacation to California, leaving him and his older brother in the care of their father.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. You’re going through a mid-life crisis.”
I spun around so quickly, I think I scared him. The only reason why my youngest boy didn’t receive my full wrath after that remark was because I figured he had been parroting the words of my ex. He had to have been. Who else would be so closely affected by me wanting to escape from responsibility for a mere week (out of 1,144 weeks that we were together)? The one man on this planet to have tried – and succeeded – to have guilted me from doing those things and seeing those people who really fed my soul. (Okay, so I allowed it, but still…)
“Mid-life crisis” is usually said with a judgmental and condescending tone. To me, this phrase smacks of negativity. As if reaching this point is a bad thing, as if we’ve stepped over to the darker side of the tracks.
Anyway, whoever whispered that choice little phrase into my son’s ear needs to hear what I have to say.
Self Discovery is the new Mid-Life Crisis.
“Mid-life crisis,” I think, is being in a place of self discovery. It’s when we look around and reassess our life and say, “Hey! There I am! I had no idea I would enjoy something like that.” So we start playing and doing things we’d forgotten to have fun doing. Stuff we’d stupidly put on hold for… what? Whatever we were doing that we felt took precedence over our own needs, could have been tailored to work around or with us. If we hadn’t shelved the fun or passion for so long, we never would have gotten to this point in the first place. And while we’re in this state of “confusion,” our loved ones sit back and patiently wait for us to “come back” to our senses. Will we ever come back? I hope not.
I believe those with the tsk, tsk attitude might be a tad frightened when people like me wake up one day and say they’ve had enough. I’m a threat. I can single-handedly shake their tree and leave them scratching their heads, wondering what just blew through their forest. I’m a break from their safe routine.
The reality is that this state of mind should be encouraged, for it is through the process of finding out what makes us happy, that this happiness will undoubtedly spill over into the outside world, not fester and breakdown, such as what happened to me not too long ago.
So, today, on my 50th birthday, I find myself still making up for lost time, and with a little help from my friends, the road to discovery has been over-the-top amazing.
The joy I’ve found and the joy I have yet to find will be for my friends and family as well. So, here’s to 50 more years of self discovery…. Cheers!