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
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.