Remember you are dust...

by Donald Schell

This year I’ve heard great stories from San Francisco, Chicago, Brooklyn and elsewhere of little bands of Episcopalians taking Ash Wednesday ashes to the streets. Sunday after Ash Wednesday, visiting at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church, I heard the writer of the blog, Bleak Theology, telling his story of first meeting the congregation a year ago Ash Wednesday and this year joining in imposing ashes at the Union/Pacific Subway Station in Brooklyn.

The Lenten arc that “Remember you are dust” carries all the way to Good Friday. With the joy of ashes and mortality in mind, I’m noticing this Lent how Aikido helps me recover the pleasure of being dust.

Aikido is a 20th century martial art of reconciliation. “Reconciliation” is one translation of the Japanese word ‘AI’ in the art’s name. In practice reconciliation happens neutralizing an attack (a strike, a blow or a grab) and taking the attacker to the ground without harming the attacker.

I was thirty-five when I began regular Aikido practice thirty years ago.

The year before my wife and I had moved to San Francisco from Idaho where I’d stayed fit by running long distances on the “ditch banks” along the irrigation canals. Running was also how I kept sane when parish conflicts heated up. Those evenings I came home carrying frustration on my face and shoulders, my wife would send me out with, “Go for a run and come back human.” She knew I’d run my young priest’s frustrations and impatience.

When we moved to San Francisco, the only packed earth path I could find were a drive away. It had a difficult year until a new friend introduced me to Aikido. My wife remembers me coming home from watching an Aikido practice saying, “I must do this thing. I’m going to earn a black belt.” I believe her, but don’t remember saying that. What I’d seen captivated me, but also frightened me.

Practice partners took turns, one playing the attacker while the other practiced a neutralizing response to a set of repeated attacks, and then they’d switch. The attacker’s falls looked exhilaratingly out of control, especially the forward roll – at its fastest a mid-air rolling flip to a break fall, landing, so it appeared, flat on your back. How many people, I wondered, had broken their necks doing a forward roll. Though I longed to do what I’d seen, at night I dreamt those rolls. Sometimes I rolled directly to flight, safe and carefree like a bird. Sometimes my dreams had me flailing through a three-story free-fall toward a concrete sidewalk.

Much as I wanted to do this thing, it took me some months to find my courage to begin.

In my first days of practice, I met another new student named Mary, a woman in her fifties, eighteen or twenty years older than me. My own fear made me notice Mary’s courage taking on this practice on at such an advanced age (!) . Others who started practice that year fell by the wayside, but Mary and I persisted. Two decades later when our dojo was struggling to recruit enough new members to stay open, Mary and I were still practicing, though we hardly saw one another. I was a morning practice regular and she usually attended in the evening.

Our teacher had moved away and entrusted us black belts to lead collegially as ‘an academy.’ We didn’t work together that well and as teachers we needed the challenge of teachers more advanced than us. We noticed new dojo members joining with less and less frequency. Then there were none. Beginners and some intermediate practitioners drifted away. Leading the morning class several times each week I would find myself alone, doing an hour’s worth of warm-ups and practice falls.

I started visiting another dojo where some friends had practiced. Their teacher was an iconoclastic rock musician. While old dojo had silent practice, this new teacher talked, so it seemed to me, incessantly. But his Aikido was beautiful, clear, effortless, comprehensible and far beyond my imitation. He taught an energetic, spontaneous and flowing Aikido unlike the formalized choreographed Aikido Mary and I had learned.

I felt drawn to the new practice, eager to begin and afraid as I’d been at the beginning. But mornings no one showed up, I’d take advantage of the hour difference in schedule to go train at this new dojo. Finally, after about a year and a half of practicing both places, I made the hard choice, and settled into the new dojo and starting new years of practice that would lead me to re-test for black belt with a seventy-plus year old original student of Aikido’s founder, our teacher’s teacher from Japan. In the context of Aikido feeling like ‘my other religion,’ this black belt re-test felt a little like I was getting re-ordained by St. Peter, a direct apostle of the founder.

I’d been gone from the old dojo for more than a year when it finally closed. That’s when my dojo-colleague Mary appeared at the new dojo. Mary’s courage impressed me again, a slight woman, now approaching eighty joining this fast, vigorous practice. Her courage impressed me, but I was also a bit chagrinned when she, after joining the new dojo more than a year after me, completed successfully re-tested for black belt more than a year ahead of me. By this time, I was in my late 50’s, the age Mary had been when we first started.

In the new dojo, Mary and I were the anchors of morning practice, stalwarts who were there every weekday morning at 7:30 for an hour of falls and throws. Most of our dojo-mates (and some of our teachers) were under 35, and our lead teacher in his mid 40’s.

In the new dojo Mary and I became friends. I was impressed not just at Mary’s determination but at her ease in the new style of Aikido we were learning. I enjoyed watching as she won the respect and admiration of our younger dojo-mates. And in the new dojo I was compelled to admit that I’m a slow physical learner, a long ways from a natural athlete. Habits of posture and effortful forcing of moves still hold me back.

After she earned her black belt, Mary wrote her book – The Gift of Danger: Lessons from Aikido

I’ve given Mary’s book as a gift to friends who will never try Aikido, knowing they’d appreciate the spiritual and psychological depth of her experience and her wisdom of facing into danger, as life does. She also writes engagingly graceful prose. Cleaner and simpler than mine.

I drafted this essay on a Wednesday night, two before a special dojo practice and party to honor Mary’s retiring from practice. Our teacher has invited her to teach a last class and we’ll have a potluck in her honor. I do not expect to follow her into retirement any time soon, but grace of her Lenten departure reminds me that I am dust and returning to dust.

I guess we saw it coming. Over the last year, Mary began stepping through falls, counting on her partner not to put her into a forward roll. Several weeks ago she told me that she’d begun writing stories and added that mornings were her best time to write. And she said she had begun to find Tai Chi more congenial and harmonious for her body. Since that conversation I haven’t seen her in practice. Suddenly I’m the elder on the mat, not the best or the wisest, just the oldest.

For about three weeks, we’ve been missing Mary. Having her gone reminds me of practices over the past couple of years when she was unexpectedly not there. With a practice colleague in her 80’s it’s hard not to wonder and ask, “Is Mary all right? Does anyone know where she is?” I’m looking forward to seeing her again on Friday. And retirement potluck feels right for Lent, reminding us that we’re dust. Finite, aging, mortal.

The poet Wendell Berry concludes his “Mad Farmer’s Manifesto” with the startling, line, “Practice resurrection,” a line that brings Aikido to mind. My morning begins practicing resurrection. How? Not just falling, but also FAILING and in both falling and failing continuing to learn. Turning attack into play. Letting friends pretend to be enemies in order to enact and re-enact a reconciliation of all. Practicing techniques for the thousandth time. Falling and getting up again and again. Each bit hints at resurrection, that the love that made the earth and heavens continues to sustain us. That Jesus keeps drawing to fall into new life.
Unless we remember that we’re dust, there’s no resurrection practice.

Yesterday after Aikido practice I signed up for Medicare. I turn sixty-five in April. I hope that twenty years from now, I’ll still be practicing Aikido every morning. But I’m grateful to watch and learn from Mary’s witness.

If nothing intervenes but the passage of time, no death between now and twenty years from now, somewhere out there, I’ll retire from this practice that I love. My body will say, “enough.” If I’m lucky (blessed?) I’ll still be flexible enough and nimble enough of mind to switch over to Tai Chi.

But how ever it goes, the passage to dust is inevitable, whether it means letting go all at once or a little at a time, what began passing through a divine embrace and breath that gave us life and ends in the divine embrace and darkness where we meet the Mystery.

People who know Japanese have told me that Aikido translates more or less as “a way to reconcile the world” or maybe it’s “spirit/harmony path.” Sometimes as I begin practice with a bow toward a scroll with the three Japanese characters

AI

KI

DO

I say a little prayer of thanks to Jesus, the Way of reconciling love. But sometimes I just give thanks that I’m dust and returning to dust.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Comments (8)

Donald,

Thank you so much for this. I have been surprised at this season of my life to be struggling with something I've never had to deal with before: intense anxiety. And as I've worked with this entirely new experience, I recently realized the value of just letting myself FALL, and see if that truly means the same as FAILURE. In NLP, one of my committed practices, a presupposition is "Feedback, not failure." That may come across as evasion, but it's been a great gift to me to re-frame all kinds of failed experiences as graced learning.

Peace, Leslie

Donald,

Thank you for this beautiful post.

I've visited Aikido dojos a handful of times and watched from the side of the mat as the Aikido practitioners relax into their falls and then roll right back onto their feet. And your insight that Wendel Berry's line "Practice resurrection" applies to the fall reminds me of something I've learned about writing: If I'm vexed by a problem with a particular passage, I can only write through the problem, not around it. (I tell people, "It's just like on Star Trek—you can't fly away from the supernova. The only way to save the ship and crew is to turn the spaceship around and fly right into the exploding star.") In my experience, writing through the problem captures the essential contribution that the problem, whatever it may be, has to offer the larger piece. The writing that emerges is richer (instead of stilted because it sidestepped some central issue).

The Beatles mastered this principle. The middle-eights and bridges of their songs always explore the central problem raised by the primary verses and choruses. Some examples:

1) The upbeat verse and refrain of "We can work it out" then turns to the melancholy "Life is very short / and there's no time . . . "

2) The charming verse and refrain of "Michelle" ("these are words that go together well, 'My Michelle") turns to desparation "I need you, I need you, I need you!"

3) The can-do verse and refrain of "With a Little Help from My Friends" turns to the lonely question and answer, "Do you need anybody? / I need somebody to love."

In each case, the sentiment of the verse/refrain emerges from the shadow sentiments of the middle sections.

I like the Ash Wednesday practice, and yet I always rub the ashes off when I go out to face the outside world. Yet it makes sense to me now that those ashes represent a robust celebration of our bodies because, like the falls of the Aikido practitioner, they signify a handshake, even an embrace of our physical finitude. A spirituality that skips over death is like a Beatles song with no middle-eight—incomplete.

Oh,Jacob, thank you so much for this instruction about the Beatles! I've never heard that in their music, but now I always will.

Peace, Leslie

Thanks, Leslie!

And special thanks to Donald's Aikido friend Mary for inspiring this wonderful post.

To Jake and Leslie, lovely fine responses both, adding more moves to Donald's piece, and so good to hear the voices of both of you from St. G's far away long ago, or not so..Thanks, Laura

Donald,

This was a wonderful read. Thank you so much for writing it. Practicing with you is always a privilege, and even though I am on hiatus & haven't been active in the morning classes for quite some time, I recall many of our conversations as we left the dojo in the morning, energized for our days.

I am sorry I missed Mary's last class. Thank you so much for that part of the article too. I'll miss rolling with her.

"Practice ressurection." That's amazing, and definitely captures the essence of Aikido practice.

Cheers, friend!

Travis

Travis- Please sign your full name next time you comment. Thanks ~ed.

Dear Donald,
Many years ago, in a bleak time after a divorce, I read a novel about a man dying of cancer-"Death of a Beekeeper" by Lars Gustafsson- which was surprisingly cheering to me, given the subject matter. Like Berry's "Practice resurrection" it accepted mortality and endings as the given, and was about how to live within the knowledge of certain death. This is the line that I remember from that book "We begin again. We never give up"
After my mother died I began doing yoga again, after a twenty year hiatus. I am not the same at fifty seven that I was at twenty seven- but I still experience the same sense of somatic recognition ("oh yes, this is exactly what my hip most deeply wants") and joy in the asanas- I have begun again- but not in the same place. I can no longer do any sort of back bend and I do not jump from pose to pose as I used to. At the beginning of this, I actually thought I could get back to where I had been. (!) Now, I see it as a whole new practice and a new exploration of my body as it is now, not as I remember it.
Love, Olivia

I linked back to this from both our dojo's website and Facebook page. I was profoundly touched by your words.

Mark Harrington
http://aikidoarnisoffarmville.blogspot.com/

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