It is the dark before morning.
I hear the fridge’s smooth hum, the windy swoosh of cars on 30th, and realize that if I hadn’t tried, I wouldn’t have heard either sound, except as the sound of quiet. My eyes trace the pearly quadrilaterals the porch light casts across the dark walls and the ceiling, as I think about three young women I met in the dojo.
Two of them I only met once; another I see often. But all three of them are on my mind, and fragments of essays litter the floor.
The first young woman came to practice with her friend. They were perhaps twenty years old, university students; they had participated in only a few aikido classes.
We worked together on iriminage, that baffling technique in which you turn your attacker all the way around you before you catch their chin with your arm as though they had run into a clothesline. (It’s better the less it’s actually like running into a clothesline.) (I’m not saying whether or not I know by experience what running into a clothesline feels like.)
“Very good,” I encouraged her as she smoothly followed my slow demonstration of the throw. “You’re a natural.”
“Thank you,” she panted even as she moved with me. “But I wonder, could I be good at aikido?”
I hope I said something like, “Of course. It just takes practice.”
I’m unlikely to have said something like, “It’s not really about being good at it or not. It’s just about learning something new each day,” since I can’t think that fast on my feet. But it might have been wise to say something like that.
I probably did at least smile with her, and laugh with her, and wait with patience and warmth while she stood still and thought through how to throw me.
After class, I went to her and her friend and asked, “Do you have a minute to talk with me while I fold my hakama?”
“Yes!” they nodded brightly, their faces flushed from activity.
The three of us sat cross-legged on the mats. I laid my hakama between us, carefully setting the hem against the mat first and then letting the rest gradually lie flat clear to the waist, hoping that its pleats would settle smoothly.
“Thank you for training with me,” I began. “You both did very well.”
The young woman beamed openly; her friend smiled less so.
“I am interested in what brings you to aikido,” I asked, “if you are comfortable talking about it.”
I alternately fiddled with the hakama’s pleats, then looked non-intrusively at her, then smoothed pleats again.
“I don’t want to be afraid,” she sighed, her dark ponytail lying like a silk scarf over her shoulder.
I hadn’t expected this answer. I keep expecting that 2011 is somehow later than it is. I keep expecting that the young women fifty years after the women’s rights movement of the 1960s wouldn’t have to begin their lives with this motive — with the desire to not be afraid.
But I guess this is just me wishing. The specters are still out there. Or in here, as the case may be. Domestic violence, human trafficking, rape as a tactic of war. There is even the sexual-assault-like tone of conversations among our youth.
I don’t want to be afraid.
“I understand that,” I nodded.
“I did tae kwon do for a while,” she continued. “There was a lot of hitting and kicking things. I didn’t really like it.”
“That makes sense to me, too,” I smiled without mirth.
“And the control over my own body,” she added a little more softly. “I would like that, too.”
“Very good!” I encouraged her.
Her friend didn’t say anything. She maintained a polite smile, but said nothing. She searched her friend’s face as we talked, quietly guarding the things she knew about her, quietly supporting her friend’s search for growth. Perhaps she had stepped outside her own comfort and interests in order to help her friend onto the mats. This, too, was courage. She folded her hands in her lap, her dark green nail polish glittering under the high fluorescents.
The second young woman I met in the dressing room before another class. Another not-yet-twenty-something, she had come from Colorado’s high country to study at the university.
Her cheeks were truly rosy, her thick ponytail the color of yellow flax, but more beautiful yet was that the high plateaus seemed to surround her, seemed to have come with her to the edge of the lowland, unable to bear being parted from her, their constant wind roaring in memory, their herds of longhorn cattle and wild horses thundering nearby, their vast meadows and mountains folding gently around her shoulders.
“I have been to your town!” I said happily. “It’s a lovely place. The big center green with all the carved trees, the ball diamond, the covered arena. People there really know how to live! About 5,400 people live there, right?”
“That sounds about right,”she answered softly. She looped her belt uncertainly around her waist. This was her first aikido class.
“The town I come from is even smaller,” I offered playfully.
“Yep. 800 people.”
“Wow,” she finally smiled. “That’s really small.”
“Yep. Itty-bitty. One of those, blink and you miss it. Totally.”
She was now staring at her half-tied belt.
“Right over left,” I suggested.
It didn’t help.
“Let’s start again,” I said.
We took our belts entirely off and worked through the steps together.
“There you go,” I smiled. “Good. It just takes practice.”
I stepped into the legs of my hakama and started the process of tucking and tying.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve made you late.”
“It doesn’t matter at all,” I laughed. “But while I’m getting tangled up here, maybe I could ask you what brings you to aikido, if you’re comfortable to talk about it.”
“I guess I don’t want to feel so helpless,” she said meekly, and looked at the floor again.
It sounded like an apology, and like the admission pained her.
I gazed at her, saddened, and thought, Helpless? Can’t you feel the wind that loves you, that has followed you all the way here, that waits for your very word to caress, to whip, to play, or to scourge? Can’t you feel the wind and the space and the honor that are yours?
I’m sorry. I guess not.
Someday you will.
And then I realized — she was gentle.
Very gentle, like the angel-petals of the Columbine.
I don’t want to feel so helpless.
“That makes sense to me,” I said, setting all the gentleness I had into my words.
“And the discipline,” she added, still looking at the floor. “That’s impressive.”
The third young woman is a little older, almost-thirty-something. She has her bachelor’s degree and a professional degree; she has traveled internationally, independently.
Usually, when she sees me, she leaps into my arms, showering me with smiles and giggles and the feeling that life is worthwhile.
I would guess that she has trained in the dojo off and on for about a year, although the “off”s were stretches of several months between each brief “on.”
“You are so funny!” she gasps as we struggle to keep our ebullient practice to a minimal roar, then adds, “You will be the sweetest teacher ever!”
But today what she said was, “O my God!”
She cried it as her posture crumpled. Her shoulders visibly collapsed forward and in, her expression became vacant.
She had turned around to find the instructor right behind her — and he was holding a sword.
He was offering it to her. It was even a wooden sword. But these things didn’t seem to matter. Her mind had collapsed.
He had to offer the sword to me instead.
We weren’t practicing swords that day. We were practicing some typical technique, but the class was getting something very basic wrong. We were attacking each other from right in front. When you do that, you’re directly in line to get kicked or punched. So you should always attack from slightly off to the side. It’s for your own defense.
But it’s hard to remember this when your fellow students don’t typically punch you. It can be hard to figure out where these safe lines are, too, when you’re just getting started. To help us see them, the instructor was having us hold the sword. When you hold the sword straight out in front of you, the sword reveals the not-safe space; if you move to the side of the sword as you attack, you have found the safe space.
The instructor gave me the sword and invited my partner to approach me. But she could barely move. She could barely look at me, the sword looming between us.
“Okay,” the instructor said mildly. “Let’s see how Sarah feels about it.”
I passed the sword to him, and he placed it softly in her hands, closed her inert fingers around its handle, lifted her hands til she pointed the sword forward in the basic defensive stance.
She was now defending her own space, warding me off.
I walked slowly up to her, along the length of the sword, calm, comfortable, confident, being the safe space as I came, taking time so she could see the line as me, so she could feel the line as us, in space, in reality.
I walked up to her and wrapped both my hands gently around her leading arm.
This was the basic attack.
“Did you enjoy class?” I asked her later. I ask her this every day.
“I did!” she beamed as she stuffed her uniform into her bag. “You know, the more I do aikido, the more I want to do aikido! When I’m away for a while, I think, ‘I hate this. I don’t ever want to do this again!’ But the more I do it, the more I like it!”
She was truly happy, the light in her eyes sparkling once again like sunlight dances on water.
“That’s awesome,” I smiled.
I’m thankful for the generics of slang. I would have liked to say something more intelligent than That’s awesome, but at least I could say something.
And at least I smiled with her.
Sitting now in the overstuffed chair, in the dark before morning, my fuzzy bath robe wrapped tight over my pajamas, my bare feet tucked under a fleece, a winter storm approaching, I contemplate three young women.
It is now morning. It has been for a while. The mornings of many days have come and gone. When I return now to this essay, I can see what is missing. In the third young woman’s essay, there is break, a blank space, between when she finally held the sword and defended her space, and when I met her in the changing room after class, and she greeted me so happily.
I left that blank when I wrote the essay because that’s all I knew. I hadn’t seen what the rest of her class was like, nor did I know what the process of her inner experience had been. For me, it had gone from her gaining the stance of warding off, to celebrating afterward.
She and I sat down to lunch a few weeks later. We laughed and chirped over our scrambled eggs and steamed greens with sesame seeds, and I gently read the essay to her.
“I welcome any response to this you might have,” I had explained before beginning. “If you’re offended, or angry, I’m totally okay with that. We can re-write it. You might not even remember the moment I’ve recorded, or you might remember it completely differently. The essay is just me looking. But that moment meant something to me. I’ve seen this with other people, too. So if you would go over this with me, that would be a great help to me.”
She assented. She listened tenderly as I read over the first two young women’s vignettes, quietly exclaimed in compassion as I noted what they had said — that they didn’t want to be afraid.
“I love the essay,” she encouraged me. “It’s just like a story!”
A few lines into the third section, I paused, looked at her soberly, and noted, “This is you.”
“I know,” she nodded resignedly.
She listened with exceptional attention, both trying to understand what I was saying, and trying to see if she recognized it.
“I think I remember that,” she said, as I reached the part where she had turned around to see the instructor holding the sword.
She looked a little strained as I read over her mind melting, her numbness, her inability to move, and what I had been thinking as we had explored the lines.
Finally, as I described her stuffing her uniform into her bag after class, she laughed heartily, embarrassed. She didn’t comment as I read that her eyes had shone again like the sun on water, but I heard her hear it. (It had been the same earlier when I had said that she typically leapt into my arms and showered me with smiles and giggles and a feeling that life was worthwhile: first, embarrassed laughter; then, quiet hearing.)
We discussed a number of topics once we had finished reading; I should probably put them into a follow-up post after this one. For now, what I would like to do is fill in the missing piece of her vignette, since it’s the key to this essay.
“I’ve experienced other moments like that,” she shared, “moments like when I saw him with the sword, when I’m totally confused, and I can’t understand anything about what’s going on, and I can’t make anything work. But then, if we can go through it, and then I learn something, that makes it all worthwhile.”
I think about motivation in the context of these three vignettes. What leads a young woman to decide to begin, even to decide to explore, a field in which the majority of participants are men? In the case of aikido, and the martial arts in general, it’s not just that the majority of its participants are men, it’s that it’s — well, it’s everything you think of regarding the martial arts. Those are the assumptions that face you in the beginning, anyway, when you’re trying to step onto the mats. And you may have to face these assumptions in an ongoing way, every single day, when you try to step onto the mats. So beyond the leap of beginning, then, what motivation will support a young woman in her ongoing decision to stay?
I don’t want to be afraid is worthy. I don’t want to be so helpless is, too. These are enough to get you going. These statements speak of vision enough to begin. To rise up and search.
They may also hide within themselves the rest of the vision. I don’t want to be afraid suggests that she can imagine not being afraid. She can imagine being something other than she perceives herself now to be. And she is willing to make some effort to find a way to get there.
This is a statement of a willingness to learn, to try. A desire to learn. Now, we’re almost there, from the vision of the first step into the dojo to the struggle of the first months, the sustaining vision contained in the statement, If we can go through it, and then I learn something, it makes it all worthwhile.
It’s about us. I don’t want to be afraid is actually a statement about relationship. I don’t want to be afraid of you, whether it’s the generic you, a remembered or imagined you, a hoped-for you, or you who stands up as my partner. I want this relationship to be different; I want to be different in this relationship.
The corollary of I don’t want to be afraid of you is right there in the third young woman’s conclusion: If we can go through it, and then I learn something, it makes it all worthwhile.
You can hear the word in the subtext: If we can go through it together.
We can rephrase her personal statement to represent the experience and motivation of all of us, as instructors and partners and friends: If we can go through it together, we can learn, and we can be happy.
It makes it all worthwhile.