Shodan

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I was bowing at the door of the dojo after class this morning, with my hakama and black belt neatly folded and stashed in my bag atop my sweaty keiko gi. Linda Sensei called to me just as I turned toward the parking lot, and I swiveled back around to respond.

“Yes, sensei?”

“Are you going to write anything about your shodan? I’ve been checking your blog, and I haven’t seen a new post for a while. Your audience is waiting!”

I mumbled something about being busy, still too close to the event, needing time to process it. Yeah, yeah—excuses, excuses! It’s been almost two months since my test, and the Santa Cruz Summer Aikido Retreat has come and gone, complete with a treasured visit from Anno Sensei. I’m no longer ASC’s newest shodan; Elizabeth and Steven have both taken their first rolls in their new hakamas. If I haven’t processed it by now, it ain’t gonna get processed. So I’ll take a stab at a post about establishing myself in this new identity of shodan.

Memories of test day

I didn’t get much sleep the night before my test, finally resorting to visualizing the full series of suwari-waza (kneeling) pins—shomenuchi ikkyo irimi to the right, tenkan to the left; nikkyo irimi and tenkan; then sankyo, and finally yonkyo. Next, the same pins from a yokomenuchi attack, then katate-dori. The aikido equivalent of counting sheep, I guess. I’d thought I was managing my nerves pretty well, but apparently I hadn’t mentioned that to my nervous system.

Driving in to the dojo that morning, the radio played three songs in a row that seemed to demonstrate some kind of synchronicity: “Let’s Get It On”; “Play that Funky Music, White Boy”; and that old disco favorite from Diana Ross, “I’m Coming Out.” It’s a different context of coming out, but it felt appropriate, nonetheless.

The class started with our usual warm-up, slowly stretching out and getting the blood pumping a little bit. We worked through a few techniques, as we usually do. My training partners all wished me luck, each in their own way—some with a last minute tip, others with a hug or a pat on the shoulder. Then it was time.

I was very pleased that a good group of our non-aikido friends came to watch. Many thanks to Willa and Bud, Robert and Su, Ken and Ida, Audrey, Kim and David.

The test itself is a bit of a blur now. I’ve been told by several people that it went on a little longer than usual for a shodan exam, but I couldn’t tell. I made a few mistakes in the course of the test, which stick out when I think about it, but nothing too terrible. The most embarrassing were the zanshin breaks—those moments when I let uke slip out of my awareness. During a shodan test, that earns you a surprise attack. But I managed to maintain my composure and use an appropriate technique in response.

The nature of aikido practice forces you to exist in the moment, which is timeless. So I was a little bit surprised at the call of “Yame!” that ended the randori section. A few moments of suwari-waza to demonstrate kokyu-ho, traditionally the final requirement in tests, followed by a set of formal bows to Mark Zwagerman, my mentor and primary uke for the test; the test board, consisting of Senseis Linda, Glen and Jeanne; and toward Osensei’s portrait on the shomen wall. I’d survived!

The feedback from my test board was overwhelmingly positive—although my flaws were acknowledged, and we explored some of the many areas where I have room to improve. But I do remember Linda Sensei saying, “That was a solid shodan. This isn’t an honorary degree just because you’re 57.”

Afterwards, at the ceremonial circle on the mat, Linda announced to the class that I’d passed, and I knee-walked over to meet her in front of the shomen, where we bowed and she presented me with my new belt and the hakama that marks this promotion. As I’ve mentioned before, the tradition at Aikido of Santa Cruz is that everyone chips in to purchase the new shodan’s first hakama, the traditional Japanese skirt that black belts wear.

Sensei also presented me with another traditional ASC shodan gift, a large piece of Japanese calligraphy she brushes herself. I opened the package and took in the brush strokes, which I didn’t recognize, then held it up for the circle to see, and to get the translation from Linda. “It says ‘Magokoro,’ which means ‘True Heart,’” she said. Below the large characters was a quote from Osensei: “Aikido is the expression of a sincere heart. It is the expression of the heart of love.”

Wow, that still leaves me kind of speechless.

Over the following weeks, I’ve started to accept my new identity in the dojo. There have been many “firsts”—first seminar as a black belt, first black-belt-only class, first time folding the hakama by myself. I’m beginning to get used to wearing the skirt, although I still trip on it regularly.

Shodan means “first step” and sometimes I feel like I’m starting all over again, relearning the fundamentals every time I step on the mat. But you know what? I feel like I’ve really accomplished something. I was joking with Glen Sensei after class one evening, and said, “I guess I get to keep wearing this skirt now—nobody’s come to take it away because the whole thing was a mistake.” He shot back, “Who could do that? You’re a black belt in aikido.”

Yeah. I am.

 

(Photos by Beau Saunders)

After Class

After class, about 8:00, I briefly interrupted Linda Sensei, who was deep in conversation with one of the very senior yudansha. “Any notes before I leave, Sensei?” We discussed my training schedule for the next few days; I’m taking tomorrow off and getting a massage, and I plan to train in the Friday evening class. On Saturday, I need to get to the dojo early—I promised Dennis I’d cover his misogi while he’s away. It’s a “special day of training,” as Sensei invariably refers to shodan exams.

“Go home and read Osensei,” said Linda. “Hai, Sensei!” is the only reply I’ve been allowed for the last eight weeks at least, and I gave it, gladly. We bowed, and I went to change out of my wet keiko gi. One of my stock phrases lately is, “I was born in the year of the Horse, and I sweat like one.”

Yes, Saturday is my shodan exam, and I’ve been training very hard. I had decided about a decade ago that I was too old to practice aikido, a physically demanding martial art. I’ve spent the past year and a half proving myself wrong.

Most English-speaking aikidoka have a copy of a small book titled The Art of Peace. It consists of brief snippets drawn from the talks and writings of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, compiled and translated by John Stevens. I picked up my copy a few minutes ago and opened it at random, to this passage:

“The Way of the Warrior is based on humanity, love and sincerity; the heart of martial valor is true bravery, wisdom, love and friendship. Emphasis on the physical aspects of warriorship is futile, for the power of the body is always limited.”

Don’t I know it! At least, the last bit—although I’ve pushed my body past what I’d firmly believed were its limits. The first part—that “humanity, love and sincerity” thing—well, I can’t claim to have mastered it, but I’m trying to do the work. And as I look back at this period of preparation, I think one of the many lessons I’ve been given is a daily demonstration of its literal truth.

The techniques we practice are models of connection between human beings. Robert Frager Sensei, one of the few North Americans to study directly with Osensei, once asked the founder, “What is the proper attitude of nage towards uke?” and Osensei replied, “A parent to a child.” And through this intense period of training, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of the place that comes from. It doesn’t happen all the time, and it doesn’t happen easily—but if it did, we wouldn’t have to practice.

It’s late, and I’m tired. The only thing I know is that I’m privileged to study this profound philosophy with a very sincere and loving community of people. I’m deeply grateful to my teachers, Linda Holiday Sensei and Glen Kimoto Sensei, and all my training partners. I’m looking forward to Saturday, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to test for shodan. I’m told the literal meaning of shodan is “first step.” I’m looking forward to the next part of the journey.

 

 

Not Smashing

I really wanted to like Smash, the NBC show that purports to follow the production of a new Broadway musical from first rehearsals to glowing reviews. I’ve loved Broadway since my mother dragged me along to see Ethel Merman in a late-career revival of Annie Get Your Gun. My biggest thrill in the last year was taking my 15-year-old niece to her first Broadway show. I idolize Sondheim.

So you’d think that Smash would be right in my wheelhouse. But it never even crosses the plate, in spite of the baseball number that seems to be the only piece of song and dance they’re actually working on.

How come? As always, it starts with the writing—or, in this case, the list of clichés stood up like a troupe of paper dolls.

Is there any character to give a damn about? Let’s go through the list: The librettist/lyricist who can’t decide whether to adopt a Chinese baby or renew her adulterous affair with the leading man? The successful composer whose mother is still setting him up on gay blind dates? The sadistic director whose casting decisions are made by his prick?

The producer who’s going through a divorce? Anjelica can sling a Manhattan with the best of ’em, but the soon-to-be-ex actually seems like a decent fellow. The creepy assistant/spy now attached to her like a remora? Sorry, I can’t see much of a reason for him in this story at all.

The dueling divas? Frankly, Scarlett… Poison Ivy and Karen the Meek aren’t exactly contenders in the race for the cat-fight pennant. If All About Eve is supposed to be the template for this backstage bodice-ripper, they should have taken a closer look at the original.

So there’s nobody to like, some who are kinda repulsive, and a mismatch in the middle. Not a formula for capturing the hearts of Broadway fans everywhere. Strike one, if we’re sticking with the baseball metaphor.

Strike two, on my scorecard, is that Smash shows no respect for the actual process of creating a piece of theater. How is it that this production is at the point of looking for investors, apparently just a couple of weeks after our librettist has received some sort of magic creative spark from the cover photo of a Marilyn Monroe biography? Well, Ms. Monroe had a complex and tragic life. What part, exactly, are you going to turn into a musical?

The writers have evidently decided that Marilyn’s Kardashian-brief marriage to Joltin’ Joe Dimaggio is the focus, given that one number they’ve been working on, but it’s hard to see how we get a happy musical ending out of their divorce, preceded as it was by nasty public battles. And I can’t visualize a big finale built around her death by barbiturate overdose.

So there are story problems for the show within the show before we leave the dugout. I suspect that even Julie Taymor would walk away from a project this shapeless. A sculptor builds a human form from the bones up; there are no dramatic bones to Marilyn the Musical.

Strike three: The lack of respect for the process extends to the artists involved. It takes a hell of a lot of work, done with a professional attitude by people with incredible skills, to put together a show. But in the world of Smash, everybody’s too bitchy to actually rehearse—assuming they had anything to rehearse, since there’s still no book. Ivy couldn’t possibly have lost her voice, she’s barely used it!

If you need a template for a backstage musical, might I suggest A Chorus Line? You could develop a diverse cast, with lots of interesting story arcs. There’d still be plenty of room for dramatic conflict. It’d be sort of like Glee

Resetting my shoulders

I’ve been dealing with sore shoulders lately. Aikido is tough on most of the joints, and I’ve never been terribly flexible, in spite of all the stretching exercises I’ve done since my first dance class 40-some years ago. Our pins often involve grounding the front of uke’s shoulder into the mat and controlling the arm, which stretches the muscles and tendons of the shoulder pretty hard. A pin that’s too harsh, or a pinning technique practiced for too long in a session, can leave my shoulders inflamed and painful. Ice, Aleve and a massage tool called the Theracane are my preferred treatments, along with soaks in a hot tub.

But there seems to be something else going on in my shoulders as well. Every aikido student hears sensei repeat “Relax your shoulders!” again and again. I feel like I’m just beginning to physically interpret that in a useful way.  For me, that now means relaxing them back as well as down, by releasing tension across the front of my chest. I think I touched on this earlier in my post “Opening the Heart Chakra.”

It’s a subtle shift in posture, shoulders relaxed back and chest opened up, that seems to resonate with an equally subtle emotional shift. Mary Heiny Sensei often speaks of filling your heart with gratitude toward your attacker, who brings you a gift of energy. I hope I’m not too far off the track to think that the physical and emotional shifts are linked.

What I think (hope?) I’m coming up against at this point in my training is to integrate this physical shift into my muscle memory. I’m not quite there yet, which is another reason my shoulders are sore—I’m using them differently, so the muscles have to adapt.

In the next couple of weeks, I need to arrange a practice exam. It’s a chance for feedback from senior students, and maybe to quell a few anticipatory butterflies in my stomach. I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

Shin ken

Raising the razor-sharp katana over his head, a black belt steps forward and cuts straight down at Glen Kimoto sensei. In an instant, Glen pivots out of the way of the deadly blow, reaches between uke’s hands to grasp the hilt of the sword, and throws his attacker into a forward roll, safely disarming him in the process. I try not to let my mouth hang open as I watch him repeat the demonstration several more times.

Three feet of honed steel focuses the mind remarkably well. Glen sensei is the only teacher I know who regularly demonstrates with real edge weapons. As a retired middle school science teacher, he understands the impact it makes on the class. (And as a weapon collector, I think he also enjoys sharing his blades with us.)

I’ve only handled what we call a “live blade” (“shin ken” in Japanese) a few times, but the experience is like holding lightning. There’s a real energy that travels from sword to hand to center and back. A samurai considered his sword inseparable from his soul, and as you feel the weight and balance of a live blade of the Japanese style you begin to understand why. Life and death rest on its edge and your skill.

Sword technique is one of the foundations of aikido practice, and almost all our usual throws and pins are based on sword work. When it’s our turn to practice this sword-taking technique, we use wooden weapons that won’t accidentally remove fingers—or feet. But the demonstration has served its purpose—a bokken gets treated with more respect once you recognize that it represents a live blade.

The expression “shin ken” has a deeper meaning as well, and I’m just beginning to wrap my head around it. The attributes of a live blade are desirable, and we are encouraged to cultivate them within ourselves in our training.

I think it’s going to take a lot of polishing to get that sharp, so I better get to class…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Randori

David sensei nods to me. “OK, your turn.” I stand, walk across the mat and kneel in seiza. David calls for volunteers, and three of my classmates scamper to kneel in a line facing me, probably 20 feet away. They bow to me, and I to them, saying “Onegaishimasu.” David calls, “Hajime!” and the three of them charge toward me in simultaneous attack.

This exercise is called randori, which I believe is Japanese for “chaos.” If it isn’t, it should be. It’s characteristic of aikido practice, although going full-out is generally reserved for brown and black belt level. It’s the highlight of a black belt test.

As nage in this exercise, my goal is…

Well gosh, I had to stop right there and think about it. What exactly is my goal? I could say survival, but these people are friends and this is mock combat. So I’m not really in danger. As best I can explain my limited understanding, my job is to deal with the energy of each uke while maintaining my own center. At least, that’s the primary one. Accomplishing that goal involves using aikido techniques to throw my three opponents in turn, repeatedly.

Sometimes this all goes well, and sometimes not so much. One thing I can say for certain is that it’s never the same twice. And there isn’t time to think. Muscle memory and basic principles—get off the line, blend, turn your hips, keep moving forward, bend your knees, RELAX, to name a few—are practiced under pressure. Lots of pressure.

Yame!” sensei calls, and the action stops, after perhaps two minutes. We all drop to our knees and bow, then return to our original places. David offers me some tactical advice, and I try to absorb it while catching my breath and wiping sweat out of my eyes.

Then we start over. Another round, and I can’t tell if I’ve actually taken the note, but David says “good” as we bow again to each other and rejoin the line of students at the edge of the mat.