There's a new kid on the mat, and I am having a kind of voyeuristic experience in helping him learn. He's one of those bright guys who lives mostly in his head. He's so bright, that anything he wants to do is easy.
But budo isn't easy.
I, too, came on the mat bright and strong and... totally retarded.
The other guy in class is a former wrestler/judoka, a real natural on the mat. I need someone like this in my practice, someone who makes me run faster than I can. He's got talent, he's got a terrific memory for kata and technique (I don't!) he's got this incredible Latin "panache" and a bold, wise and gentle spirit.
And I need someone I can beckon to.
The first taste of the mat is not a sweet one, not for many years.
The first year (1989) was for me one of complete innocence, and idiocy. A memorable moment was one of my second semester with J. Birdsong in Austin, walking down the hall in my old judogi (given to me by someone I wish I could meet again and talk to.. Terrell, you reading me?) and someone asked me if I was breaking bricks.
No, I said. I was learning to fall down. A lot.
The second approach (1993), at a university aikido club, was a more seasoned and intent-ful approach, though I still didn't have a clue. I did, however, make myself a small and quiet promise that I would see it through to shodan, black belt for the rest of the world. I did it, and in June of 1998 I tested for the black belt that I still tie around my waist when I wear a judogi. I will wear it until it falls apart. My ex-husband presented it to me. He washed a lot of dogi, for me to get that different colored belt. He deserves that credit.
The first days on the mat, the first year, are full of deliciousness.
Learning ukemi. Having it be easy for the first time. Learning sword. Having it be easy for the first time, after much struggle. Having a senior "make uke" for me and having the lights finally come on in my brain. Finding myself in love with the art, and having to separate that feeling from my attachment to my seniors.
The love of people who practice together successfully is incredibly purified.
We don't worry about a lot of things which people in other relationships worry about, because we have so much more at stake, and we have to keep things so clean and focussed. It's all about the art, and about our support for one another. If we don't work so closely and so deeply with one another, and yet hold enough distance to be combatants, we cannot do this work.
At this time, I have, and yet feel the yearning for, that sweet fresh feeling of something so very new. I am back in a teaching position after some time learning a new art, and savoring what I do, again, for the first time.
I am remembering Dan T taking huge breakfalls for my style of kotegaeshi. I'm remembering sitting and listening, having been told that the teacher I came for, the one I came to learn from, was 6 months dead of breast cancer. I sat there so close to tears, for me, for her friends, for everyone.
Many more times would come on the mat, that tears bided their time in my eyes.
Huge disruptions came from this choice in my lifestyle. In fact, it ruined everything I had planned, everything I had done. Renewal came from it as well, so the factors balance out and then some.
I remember the first time I met Brendan. Jim P pointed him out to me. "Go try to take that sword away from him" he said. Used to Jim's jibes, I took a look at the smooth efficiency of this throwing machine, and informed him that I was not THAT stupid. "No, go on. Go take that sword away from him" said Jim.
So I did.
A lifelong friendship/mentorship began, and I'm never sure where any of it begins or ends. Brendan took tremendous amounts of time and effort to forge this native ore into what may someday be something layered, sharp and resilient.
Jim would show up shortly after 5pm for "special practice" for those preparing for belt tests. There would be a beginners class at 6, an advanced class at 7:30, and Brendan would show up during it to bounce me off the walls after class. "Knocking the corners off" he called it, later, when we talked about it. I'd throw my cowboy boots back on under my hakama, throw on a shirt and run out the door, to keep from being locked in the gym. I still remember the smell of the halls, the feel of the elevators, the deep frightened nervousness before practice, and that exhausted elevation after practice. I also remember the black orchestra of the Texas summer night, and the stink of bats and dead crickets outside of the stadium in late summer and fall.
I remember earnest conversations, leaning on cars still hot from blazing Texas summer days, moments taken to watch bats, the ebb and flow of life on a college campus.
Now I am the sword geek, and he is still the master of kuzushi, kake and the throw you never see, or feel, coming. It's like practicing with an extroverted yogi master... except that I can stymie him now, then and again.
The change came with the move to Indiana and the "silent dare" to start training in something much closer to koryu jujutsu. Chuck has in his hands and in his heart, something truly rare and precious. Koryu is, in essence, a family art, and should be taught as such.
My first six months, every night was the one I wanted to walk off the mat, curse them all, and go back to aikido.
I hated it, I was awful at it, and Chuck constantly derided aikido. We had a couple of showdowns in which I informed him that if it weren't for aikido, he wouldn't have the quality of students that he enjoys. He's laid off a bit, and, while I don't exactly make a career of defending aikido, we still appreciate what the best of the art has to offer in terms of friends, associates, training partners and various adventures.
Now, teaching his class, I come clean. I have, approximately, 10 years aikido experience, and 5 in Chuck's sogo budo. The math is against me, to teach a "pure" version of Kokoro Ryu Sogo Budo (www.the-dojo.com). So I am honest with the students, and let them know that they are going to learn a lot of aikido in the bargain.
I can do this with a clean conscience, as I know that aikido is very good at teaching very basic concepts. I just have to know where the students have to go, and get them ready to get there.
In this time, I rediscover how wonderful it is to set foot in this Strange New World of budo.
It is such a delicious sensation, to see a person learn how to get their body and mind to working so much better together.
It is such a thrill to be with people through the experience of falling and getting up, effortlessly. Yes, you can fall and it can be fun. Yes, you can hit, be hit, be twisted, pounded, explore the limits of your personal resilience, and it can be be big, beautiful, supreme fun.
There is a moment of the outbreath, the impact, there is a moment which seemed impossible to you before, and now you are there, and it is not just OK...
It's big fun.
Ah, this is my supreme pleasure these days.
Life is hard. My body is starting to show signs of age, my teacher's body is in for repairs, mine will be.
For myself, I can stand these minor discomfits, these major challenges, replacements, refits, frights, shocks and tests of endurance, if I can get back to my work.
I help people be themselves, and find more of themselves.
Some of it I do for free, and much of it I get paid for. These adventures I take on, are always larger than I am. I am only a faithful companion, a kind of coaching Rin Tin Tin, barking when Timmy's in the well, wagging when Timmy manages to pick apples and rescue other kids.
I can't imagine a better or more meaningful existence.
And I do love bringing beginners into this new, amazing world.
It's like being a midwife for the soul.
Still, I feel the need to go stand in the entry of Gregory Gym at UT Austin, and breathe deeply the smells of my early training.. whatever they might have been.