Reading the Signs, Part 2: The Sheathed Sword

Two weeks ago I talked about recognizing oracular messages in the world around me, for instance through storygaming. In that case I didn’t recognize the significance of the sign until after an unpleasant incident, though it was helpful in making sense of my travails. Diagnostic, but not preventative, if you will.

But it gets better—shortly thereafter came a time when I did read the signs in time to avoid causing pain in myself and others. A little background: with our lease up, debts soaring, and paychecks through the summer, Annie and I concocted a mad plan to gain breathing room both financial and spiritual: help renovate her parents’ RV and ditch the city for the summer, camping rent-free on our friends’ farm.

But as we struggled to realize that dream, obstacles kept arising. Creditors, the IRS, the DMV and more descended on us. Both our computers broke down. And we moved in with Annie’s folks while her dad put the finishing touches on the RV.

My In-laws were generous and helpful, welcoming us in and working hard to get us going on our way. But I chafed. I felt out of control of my own destiny, and forced to rein in my personality to keep peace. I felt an unspoken struggle for power and control with my Father-in-law in terms of who helps and provides for my family.

After a long week the motor home was finally fixed. On the morning we embarked, I discovered that my Father-in-law, not me, was driving the RV, while I followed in the car…and Annie and our daughter Niamh were riding with him! I was furious, shamed, and confused. I felt, not like a man, but a kid, a tagalong, hanging about uselessly while he solved our family’s problems. Seething, I grabbed my things and made ready to go, and then I laid my hand on…the sword.

The sword was a keepsake, a decorative piece that I wore at our wedding, which had been lost, then rediscovered when we moved out of our house. I realized then that the sword marks significant changes in my life—it’s a talisman of boldness, of strength, of adventure. As it had taken on that ritual significance, I felt it was fitting that it was the last object to leave the house of my In-laws.

And so I carried it out to my car in a rage. Before I stepped in, I pulled the sword just a few inches from its scabbard to look on the gleam of its blade…and I remembered.

In my abortive studies of Celtic magic and ritual, the first thing I learned about the Sword is that the power resides not in the blade, but the sheath. It is the sheathed sword that is mighty, for the wise learn NOT to use it–focusing their energy where it will truly do good, not laying about them in a swath of bloodshed. And so I remembered that I can choose. I can choose to seethe and sulk and rage and wind up miserable, ashamed, and defeated, or I can focus my energy where it will most do good.

On the drive down to our temporary home at an RV park, I had time to think. I realized, thinking back to conversations with Annie (who is caught in the middle of this terrible masculine struggle), that the true problem is lack of relationship with my Father-in-law. We don’t know how to be around each other, so the rift keeps growing. So when we arrived, rather than avoid him or quarrel with him, I sought out his company as he went through all the hookups for the RV, placing myself in a position to be tutored by him in an area of treasured knowledge, and making just the tiniest step toward relationship. Even the act of looking him in the eye thanking him for his help, and shaking his hand was a huge stride.

The next trial came when I learned from Annie that her Father wasn’t comfortable with anyone else driving the RV at ALL, ever. This shattered my plans…gone was the nomadic dream, the jaunts to the coast, the sojourns in the Olympic Peninsula. Our modern-day Gypsy wagon had become an immobile tin can, and I once again a helpless child. Once again I was furious. But the Way of the sheathed Sword allowed me to see my way to what must be done: I went to my Father-in-law, and politely and forthrightly asked him for what I wanted: to be trained in driving the RV so he could be comfortable and we could keep our summer plans.

This is what storyjamming has taught me: how to claim story as my own wherever I encounter it—in a game, in the words of loved ones, in life experiences…or in a subtle little omen, a “coincidence” with meaning to share if I will but listen.

*          *          *

I didn’t get what I asked for. He was still too uncomfortable with anyone else driving his baby. And our plans have changed and downgraded as civilization holds its icy tendrils fast. But I stood up for myself in a manner that did not cause pain and discord. And that’s a victory worth savoring.




10 Responses to “Reading the Signs, Part 2: The Sheathed Sword”

  1. 1 Hans Otterson
    July 29, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Joel, thanks so much for this post. It seems like you had to go through a lot of hard stuff with your father-in-law, but you really stood up when it mattered (even if you didn’t get what you wanted). I can relate, as my father-in-law is much better equipped (financially) to take care of his-daughter-my-wife than I am, and it’s, as you say, a typically masculine struggle to navigate our relationship. I’ll be thinking about this for the next few days in the context of my relationship with him; thanks a million.

  2. 2 Joel
    July 30, 2010 at 1:17 am

    Aw, I misted up a bit when I read that, Hans. The thought that my sharing this pain and discovery could help someone else in the same struggle is comforting indeed. go with blessings, man. And good luck!

  3. 3 Kevin
    July 31, 2010 at 8:35 am

    It is sad that things are often not as they seem. Especially in this day and age. The sword and sheath are definitely one of the more powerful symbols in history, we see this in Arthurian legend as the sheath of Excalibur bore the strength to stanch life taking injuries and indeed, a sheath prevented a death blow to the relationship between you and your step father. Alas I have stated the obvious, and yet the physical presence of said symbol was what caused the change. How often do we see sword and sheath openly displayed in society now a days? It would do well if those who dealt with all implements of “death” realized they were also symbols of “life” when stowed or used properly. Does the soldier, hunter, or home owner who invokes the right to bear arms see the holster for the increadible power it can posses? I dare say most law inforcers do. Perhaps we need also not only remember the lessons of history, legend, and mythology, [for let’s face it; the later two were born of the first] but examine them not just for what they can teach us today, but look at their symbols and triggers as more than just concrete objects with conceptual meaning, but concepts that that evolve and surround us in our daily lives.
    In note there was also there was also the symbols of family and masculine struggle, the motor home was just that, a home, but who’s? There was the sense of loss of control in moving in with the dreaded “in laws” no matter how much you liked them. Not only were you being forced to move back into the nest,but it wasn’t one to which you origonaly belonged [humiliating I know, I’ve been there.] on top of that there was the masculine struggle for power. Us guys just don’t realize it’s always there. [LOL] If we don’t see and accept it then it’s probably chaffing the other guy. You can probably notice more symbols in the conflict now, please mention those you are comfortable with sharing, it will help the rest of us who are blundering around in this mad world.
    I’ve found that aproaching the in-law relation ship as a couple rather than as an individual helps. After all, they raised her to be who she is and who she is chose you. They need to view you as an extension of her or they will end up judging you by criteria that doesn’t apply to you. I actually envy you. My father-in-law was reputed to be a great man, one of whom I never got to meet as he had left this world for another by the time I’d befriended his wife. His role in my life was inherited by her siblings, all six of them [three boys three girls] each with their own criteria, and several with the human need to compete. Yeah, I think I’m outnumbered. If you wish to form an independent relationship with your father-in-law, find a project to work with him on. Men bond with those they work with, it’s a survival skill. Ironically, the RV was a great start, but a more physical and balanced project is probably best so no one feels like their carrying the weight, or being the spare tire. [again, been there]

  4. 4 Joel
    August 1, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    a sheath prevented a death blow to the relationship between you and your [Father-in-law].

    That’s beautifully put, Kevin. That’s exactly how it feels. A lot of the imagery in stories has a violent or deadly tone to it–the Arthur story’s strife with Mordred is a great example–but of course in our lives it works out in different ways. Of course my Father-in-law weren’t in danger of dueling to the death, but we were definitely in danger of relationship damage that would be just as impossible to undo.

    there was also there was also the symbols of family and masculine struggle, the motor home was just that, a home, but who’s?…Not only were you being forced to move back into the nest,but it wasn’t one to which you origonaly belonged [humiliating I know, I’ve been there.]

    Wow, that’s a powerful symbol that I hadn’t seen. And a good insight! I’ve always had difficulty with independence; it took my forever to move out of my own parents’ “nest,” and it was only a few years before i ended up stuck back there after failing to thrive on my own. And that unresolved conflict definitely carries over into my family by marriage.

    I’ve found that aproaching the in-law relation ship as a couple rather than as an individual helps.

    That was one thing I recognized in the course of this conflict, that my struggle was distancing me from Annie as she found herself caught unfairly in the middle, making excuses for both of us and feeling the brunt of our emotions. When I remember this kind of effect that the wild and careless application of my strength can cause, it’s easier to exercise the restraint necessary to protect without harming. The trick is remembering in the most heated moments!

    I’ve had a problematic relationship with my Father-in-law in the first place; our personalities, interests, and core values are so far from each other that it’s hard to connect–hard to WANT to connect. Looking him in the eye, speaking my mind, shaking his hand, were all ways of breaking out of my cycle of avoiding conversation, hunkering down with a book, etc. And approaching him to accept mentoring on a subject of his passion–care of the motor home–was my way of approaching him as a free agent, but on his own ground and on his terms.

    I certainly learned a lot from all this. Time will tell how it affects our relationship.


  5. August 9, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    I absolutely love your approach here…this post and this site. How games enhance and enrich life and broaden our outlook and teach us skills. Keep up the good work.


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