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I remember when she had just joined the dojo, a female comrade amidst the sea of men, a bit bumbling and awkward, not unlike myself, questioning her own techniques, muttering self-criticisms through training. I remember her bowing into me, holding onto her narrow wrists, feeling out the movements of her body, seeing her potential. She showed up regularly to train and progressed fast through the ranks.
As I sit in the middle of a line-up bifurcated by the shomen, I try on this role of being Sempai like new clothes, these attempts to explain techniques for the first time to curious Kohai. I pay closer attention to where to put my hands and feet and thumbs, how to stand in correct posture for various techniques, and how to point the toes, so I can tell them correctly when they ask me. In my dojo, junior-ranking students initiate the attack, and I get used to those little things like allowing myself to be grabbed first at the start of each new techniques, or positioning us so the uke falls to the outside of the circle and not clash into those training behind us.
Sometimes I hear my Sempai's voice in my head as a self-reprimand, or hear him echoed through my own words: "Stay on the mat—don't throw off." "Switch feet." "Twist your hips." Kohai tell me, "You make that look graceful," or "I wish I could do that like you," and I remember thinking that about my Sempai before me. Familiar now with the basics, I am not frantically trying to memorize what to do when Sensei demos;
It had been over five years since I had seen him last. How long, exactly? Six? Seven? Time is like the wind and rain making its mark across figures carved into the rocky mountainside—subtle, but sure and inevitable. I met him when I was a young freshman in college, insecure, unsure, straggling into the dojo to find something I was yet unable to name. I left him to seek my Master's degree, my mind full and buzzing with too much English literature and creative writing concepts to have room for aikido. I said goodbye to him and the campus to venture into the world of corporate, where I was taught completely different lessons, foreign and new. But something called me to him again, so I went to visit him in Fremont for a training session.
Nestled in the back of a building complex, Sunny Skys Sensei's dojo stood with its sakura emblems painted on the front glass, the characters "Ai-Ki-Do" standing straight and proud. Being inside the dojo brought me to another world of zen temples and the sounds of nature: two doves cooed to us as we trained; instrumental music played, muted in the background; the sound of flowing water from the koi pond softened the hot morning with its cooling sound. Weapons racks holding bokken and jo stood mounted on the far wall, the Zebra mats felt sleek and cool beneath my bare feet, and the lavish studio mirror reflected my posture, my too-wide hanmi. The dojo was white and bright and made me feel welcomed.
I bowed into new training partners througho
It was the end of September, and the usually mellow Bay Area California weather finally lashed out with a late-summer heat wave. I thought about going to train in 90-degree heat, boxed in the un-air-conditioned dojo, and quite unconventionally decided to play hooky by going to the swimming pool instead. I raced the sun through traffic on the way home, hoping for some light to be left, but it was fueled by the adrenaline from the swiftly-approaching autumn and sank below the horizon for an early rest. By the time I made it to the pool, the evening glowed in soft moonlight, accentuated by pinpricks of stars.
I dangled my legs calf-deep in water, always too cold at first, watching kids throw neoprene balls at each other and listening to the joyful, careless sounds of their playing. Finally, I plunged in, engulfed in chlorine, shocked by cold, allowing my body to go through the familiar motions of finding the surface and then staying on top of it. The first time back in a swimming pool after over a year away, it always seemed daunting. The length of the pool stretched out before me, and I was afraid of the point where I knew the bottom to dip down too deep. It was my "tiring point," made more acutely so by my awareness of its existence, by my acceptance that if I got winded or got a cramp, I couldn't simply dip my toes down vertically and feel for solid ground.
I took a few easy laps across the pool's width and thought how strange it was that swimming was one of those ski