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Sensei's knees have been bothering him lately; he couldn't get into seiza anymore, and he'd bow the class in and out by standing in front of the shomen. He would start demonstrating a technique and then remember that he couldn't get down into a seated pin, so he'd change it into a technique that didn't need one. At the end of class when it came time for our usual closing of kokyu dosa, he'd have two Sempai demonstrate it instead of calling up an uke. After class when some of us students would get together and practice for our tests, he'd sit aside in a chair and preside over us. He'd gaze onward with a look I know well--that "being on the sidelines" look, that uncertainty of whether an injury will ever properly and fully heal, that look of longing for what his body was capable of before. It's the chink in one's armor, the realization that there exists a kryptonite to our otherwise unwavering practice.
But despite his reluctance to demonstrate seated techniques, I still see Sensei's passion in the art, his dedication toward his students, and his determination to pass on his own teacher's legacy. When a white belt was struggling with the concept of te-katana during kokyu dosa, Sensei gingerly got down on his knees to show him the proper alignment of hand blades and hips. When another student couldn't quite bend at the knees low enough to do a proper shihonage on me, Sensei had me hold on to his wrist so he could demonstrate. Mentally, I protested, "Don't do it if it hurts, Sensei." But logically, I knew the familiarity of pushing through the pain and the "inconvenience" of whatever got between you and your aikido.
I get a flashback of my grandmother's old kitchen, a dark yellow-and-brown linoleum floor, upon which rested a pestle and mortar. She was showing me how to pound the ground-pork-and-shrimp mixture, getting my wrists to learn the repetitive grinding and turning motions that transformed the solid chunks into a sticky, fine paste for one of her trademark recipes. "The texture is what makes the meatballs come out just right," she told me. I noticed her struggle in her squatted position on the floor, wanted to ask her if she needed to take a break while I continued to pound the meat, but the determination in her voice as she was lecturing stopped me. Out loud, she was saying, "Let's continue." Inwardly, she was hinting, "Let's continue because I don't have much time left to teach you this."
Last night, I dreamt I could do perfect high falls. I sailed into the attack, understood perfectly where that taking-of-balance point took place, and flipped through the air carelessly like a dolphin taking off from the waters to do somersaults against a background of sky. I landed with the grace of an ice skater, got up, and did it again and again. There was no panic at the point of take-off, no sloppy rotation that demanded more spring, no jolting pain upon impact with the mat. But then I woke up and realized that, as much as I admire them, I am still intimidated by high falls, still terrified of taking ukemi for koshi nages. I still can't do some of the jo suburis, and I'm not certain I can get through the entire 31 jo kata by myself.
Those before us will always strive to pass down their legacy, and we the students will struggle to learn and perfect it. Sometimes it seems like time stretches out before us with its infinite patience and generosity; but once in a while, a chink in the armor reminds us that we may not have as much sand in the top half of the hour glass after all. What would we be able to accomplish before the last grain falls? How much of that rich but elusive legacy could we hope to grasp and pass on to those that come after us? Tick-tock, tick-tock...