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It's one of those words in the English language that has morphed into another meaning over time, but unlike "Xeroxed" or "Googled"—representatives of corporate giants so successful that they have encouraged world-known verbs from their company name—"humility" has taken a turn for the opposite direction. In its essence, it means "the act of being humble." Once, you were raised to have humility. Now, society asks you to do more, be more, strive for more. "Humility" is now equal to lowering your eyes in shame, being made fun of by that throng of bullies, an uncool word that you wish would never be used in the same sentence as your name. But once in a while, you get a lesson that gives you time to ponder the original meaning of humility.
I spotted a hole in the leather bottom of my aikido weapons bag the other day. The sharp end of my bokken was peeking through the middle of the seam where the thread had unraveled from years of use. It was the first time I thought to treat my bag more delicately since I bought it, and I walked to class that day grasping the ripped end closed in my fist as if it were leaking blood. Wasn't I once the little girl who stayed on an impoverished island for years with my parents as we were awaiting our immigration papers? At an age where children wallowed in too many toys to play with, I had cried in the middle of the market square for a glossy red apple, too stuck on the rarity of fruits and their lacking in our food rations to even think about owning a doll.
The next morning, I thought I'd patch up the weapons bag myself before work. It was just a straight-seam rip, and I don't own a sewing machine, so I took out my thread-and-needle sewing kit, stored in a mid-Autumn-festival mooncake tin as my mother had done before me. It took a while to turn the long, narrow bag inside-out to get to the bottom leather flap. As I tried to poke the threaded needle through two layers of leather, I was in for a surprise at how thick the material was, how difficult to make two simple holes across what now seemed like a sea of leather. I broke the first needle trying. Feeling annoyed, I thought it'd be easier to chuck this bag and buy a new one off the internet. But then that little-girl-on-island memory came back to me, washing over me with a wave of shame. Not all things in life can be bought. A weapons bag, yes; a good lesson, no. And when you can't buy it, you have to find another way. I threaded a second needle, put on a thimble, and tried again.
Fixing an aikido bag is surprisingly much like practicing aikido. What looked simple at first could catch you by surprise. You think you could do something in "x" amount of time, only to find out minutes later that you couldn't even get started. Slightly discouraged but now with greater concentration, you attack the problem again. How do we tackle tasks that seem impossibly huge? One thing at a time. I learned that running the needle through one flap of leather first and then sealing the hole with the second flap was more manageable. It was slow-going and tough, but at least I was making progress. That mountain moves after all, albeit slowly. Halfway through sealing the rip, I discovered tiny holes in the leather that marked the original thread pattern. Going back through the holes, following in the footsteps before me, was less effort than trying to make my own way through the leather. There were secrets in the lesson, if only I looked closely, found them, and put them to use.
It wasn't long until I turned my weapons bag outside-in again, the bottom leather flap completely mended with two reinforced lines of thread. I stuck my weapons back in—bokken with the blunt hilt down this time—tucked it back in my car's trunk where it belonged, and headed off to work. Tonight, I go back to training with a fresh perspective on humility, wearing the oldest gi I own, rips and tears patched up over years of use and memories.