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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 visua