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It's not the best shomen out there—not the fanciest or well decorated or grandest. It is "Ai Ki Do" calligraphy, signed by the artist, resting in a simple wooden frame. It's not even permanently fixed, as we share our dojo with wrestlers and sometimes out-of-town sports visitors of the private high school in which we're situated. In a given week, it would come off and on the wall many times to either accommodate our aikido training or make room for the wrestlers who also frequent the gym. But our shomen has been there for as long as I have joined the dojo, and its presence stretches back as far as when the now-yudansha were still wearing their white belts. Captured in photographs from the past, it stands slightly out-of-focus, regal and serene, like an observer in the background presiding over all our belt tests across time.
One Saturday, our morning class was booted to training outdoors as some out-of-town visitors practiced wrestling in the gym. After they left, we discovered that someone in their crew had taken our shomen with him. It was a tiny thing, but its absence was literally and figuratively an emptiness in the room. Not only did it serve as a reference point for our line-up and bow-in, it was my focal point when I first started. I tried to shake off the wrestling-room décor and the bizarre Biblical quote painted on the far wall to adapt the "empty cup" zen mentality more conducive to my aikido. I studied the characters, I memorized the strokes. I tried to visualize how the artist's brush movements and energy could mirror my own as I trained.
We waited for a week, and our shomen didn't make its way back to the dojo, so we put up a new one in its place. This one is smaller, more modern, with the same "Ai Ki Do" characters written in a different hand. It is bordered by a square black frame, and at some angles, the glossy glass reflects a glaring amount of light.
Maybe it's the onset of hotter, muggier summer days. Maybe it's the major-overhaul construction that they've been doing to the parking lot and blacktop areas of the high school grounds. Maybe it's the broken concrete and debris stacked waist-high right across from the dojo that makes the entire place look like a garbage dump, or that awful smell of cooking tar in the cauldrons right at the entrance, blowing toxic fumes into the air as we train. But since the original shomen went missing, there has been a slowness to my training. A busy schedule has been breaking up my rock-solid, four-times-a-week participation. When I do go, I still enjoy myself, but there's a part of me that feels withdrawn. I am not as energetic and enthusiastic, and the laughter that keeps it fun does not come as easily.
I know I carry aikido in my heart, and, like my writing, it's this unique thing that I can take with me wherever I go. "That part of you will never go away," a good friend had told me once when I confided that I was afraid of losing my creative writing skills. So I tell myself that when I step onto the mat. I push past the discomfort and languidness. And I'd like to believe that even though his original physical representation is missing, the spirit of O-Sensei hovers over us all, like a regal observer standing in the background, watching.