The swallows following the sword

I set my sword beside me as I knelt beside the mats, set my hands on the bloused fabric of my hakama, worn smooth and soft, cool, still.

The instructor nodded me into the group, although he was currently parrying with a partner.

I stepped onto the mats, knelt, bowed, clapped silently, bowed again, and sat, sword beside me, hands again on my knees, palms full of the feeling of smooth cotton, my eyes knowing the silver-black.

He invited me to take his place with his partner.

“It is Saturday, and early,” he chuckled, as I picked myself up and joined them, “but practice began for the rest of us even earlier.”

I whimpered, petulant, dazed, as I lifted my sword to begin the exercise.

I knew before I left home that by the time I got to the dojo and got dressed, I would have missed the first forty minutes of what I thought was an hour’s class, but I had stood in the living room snarling, and thought of the simple elegance of the dojo’s geometry, its vast but strictly defined space, and thought it might help.           

“Just make a choice,” Tsvet had quietly encouraged me.

Earlier in the week my grandmother had “gone on walk-about,” as my sister phrased it, from her spot in hospice-care. She took her walker, made it down the steep hill, across the street, and along the next street, before falling and breaking her collarbone, all of her ribs on one side, and her pelvis.

She can’t speak now, in her cancer’s advanced state, and not much of her thinking is in this world either, so when those that found her got her to the emergency room, she couldn’t tell the staff who she was, and she had brought no identifying information. Luckily, Mom had written her name on the inside of her clothes, so that her sweatshirts and pants would not be lost in the nursing facility’s laundry.

The facility shouldn’t have lost an old lady herself, either, but Mom said that it was a perfect day, the most perfect autumn day ever, the leaves on the trees gold and red and purple, the sky perfect blue, the sun warm, the grass still flaming green, and Grandma looked lovely, a brand new pant suit, brand new earrings, and she seemed at peace when Mom left, though she was only able to say “I think I’ll have a nap now.”

Barn swallows I, by jude

But peace wasn’t common. More common was desperation, grief, anger, restless desire to go home, a feeling of being trapped in the nursing facility, being trapped in the end game, trapped in the pain, and so she must have taken her chance while she still had it, and gone ‘til she could go no more, like a runner who beats the pavement until they collapse.

I totally get that, the feeling that you need to explode out of where you are, and I think about Grandma, You go, girlfriend.

Or maybe she was just confused, couldn’t think clearly enough to see what was really happening.

I understand that, too — at least a little bit.

I am surprised by the misery of watching loved ones suffer. There’s grief — that non-threatening, passive, engulfing emotion — but this morning anger was upon me, flaming, pacing, pulsating.

What to do with myself?

Believing that I had missed most of class, I decided to go to the dojo anyway, hoping just to put on my hakama, pull its strings firm around my waist just so, loop and tie the ornamental knot just so, perhaps kneel by myself for a while, set my hands on the cool, smooth, calm, and then reverse the process.

I would have considered just that worthwhile. But after I drug myself over the threshold, I found out that there was almost another hour of class. The instructor had deconstructed the first sword kata and created exercises that revealed the interactive aspects of the form. Just by following along, trying the seemingly unrelated pieces, we were led to feel the life in the form, how the turns and angles of our sword swings and blocks were actually call and response with each other.

I struggled to focus, to follow, caught fragments; my classmates made up for the rest as we practiced together.

There was also other life in the form.

“This is called tsubame gaeshi” the instructor noted. “It means ‘swallow[tail] reversal.’ You know that swallows have forked tails, right? Well, the tip of the sword moves like a swallow changing direction in flight.”

He demonstrated this aspect of the form, slicing his sword toward his partner and then being deflected, his sword tip swooping toward the floor and then slicing up behind him, around his shoulders, and forward toward his partner again on the other side.

It was exactly the flight of the swallow.

Have you ever stood in evening, the swallows swooping around you? In front of the barn at sunset is a good spot to wait for swallow flight. Three birds are enough to lend you that miraculous experience, as they slice the air into arcs as suddenly appearing as gone, their wings fluttering sharply, tight against their sides, their bifurcated tails cutting diverse angles this way and that, their bodies black bullets, darts a hunter whirls in circles, each on the end of a tight string.

(I can’t imagine that catching mosquitoes this way can support the effort, but apparently it works.)

There they are,
the swallows,
following invisibly
the motion of the sword.

my eye,
my mind,
my heart,
hold them
in the moment,
at peace.

Barn swallows II, by jude


The day after I wrote this essay, a week after Grandma went on walk-about, I lay on the floor in front of the patio doors, just enough sun reaching beyond the deep eave to make my bare feet feel hot.

I had been there for a couple of hours, thinking, resting, occasionally reaching toward Grandma in prayer. I still have to work a bit at relaxing into this, but it does make sense to me that the spiritual realm suffers no geographical distance, so that one soul can be with another no matter where on the beautiful earth we are. So I sat with Grandma in soul, offering her my company as she struggled over this last, difficult threshold.

Suddenly, finally, an idea dawned on me. I realized that I finally knew how to go on. I knew how to go on when someone so loved is dead.

It’s about purity of heart.

It’s a little like deliberately forgetting the pain — letting go — being quick to forgive, quick to hope and to celebrate, quick to turn one’s face to the future, expectant for the surprising joy that awaits there.

The first verse in Baha’u’llah’s Hidden Words reads thus:

“O Son of Spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly, and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable, and everlasting.”

The first counsel. The most essential. If you can’t remember any other principle, this is the one you need: Possess a pure, kindly, and radiant heart.

I have always respected this verse, but now I see it differently: this is how you go on. To the extent that you can purify your heart, you will be freed to notice the miraculous gifts all around you — the gifts yet to come.

Perhaps, to the extent that you can purify your heart, you can attain true being. In one of the last verses in the Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah wrote, “Pleasant is the realm of being, wert thou to attain thereto…” (Persian verse #70)

The realm of being. Let go just a little, and see it, feel it, pleasant, beautiful, amazing, like the little swallow following the sword, flying, catching, holding, living.


Mom called a few hours after this meditation, and informed me that Grandma passed from this world just at this time, as these ideas dawned on me.

Purity of heart. A fine last gift. I am grateful.

Mom was with Grandma at the moment she passed. Mom had been with her all day, since the nurses had noticed Grandma’s breathing change early that morning to the breathing of dying. Consulting together through the day, Mom and the nurses realized what had not yet been said.

“We will be okay,” Mom told Grandma. “Your children, your grandchildren — our family — we will all take care of each other.”

That was what Grandma needed to know in order to let go.

So now we go on, learning to take care of one another even better, and learning to see that every day, in its own way, is a perfect day.

Barn swallows III, by jude


Image links:

Barn swallows I | Barn swallows II | Barn swallows III



  1. Gah, I meant to say this was a beautiful accounting. And I think you hit a upon a universal reaction to death. As we sat by my grandmother’s side in her last minutes, I could not stop telling her that we were there, that we loved here, that we were fine, that she didn’t have to worry.

    1. Thank you, Lisa. I’m so glad that you and your family members could be with your grandma when she passed. I have not had such an honor, and I imagine that it was really intense. I don’t think you and I had met each other then, yet; I wish we had, so that I could have given you a big hug. Or several. Maybe I can give you a hug in retrospect when I see you next.

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