This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Janet Rosen © 2009.
When I walked into an aikido dojo in January, 1996, things were oh so simple: my goal was to find an exercise regimen that wouldn't bore me, so that I would stick with it. Little did I know how it would stick with me.
Being a slow learner, or as I'd cheerfully announce, "a happy idiot with no talent for this," I was incapable of learning either by watching or feeling technique. For the first two to three years, my training was done as if from a textbook. Every new attack or technique had to be broken down into its most basic movements, each movement verbalized while being performed, and eventually a sequence of them strung together (often with me still murmuring the directions under my breath).
I was totally hooked on aikido -- it never occurred to me, not once during that weird first phase of my training, to quit. And participating in aikido-L and helping organize the first aikido-L cross-styles seminar in 1998 really deepened my appreciation for the art and its potential. But, as I wrote at the time, "while I am philosophically open to training in different styles, I…lack the internalized vocabulary to function that way. It just causes internal--and external--confusion. While I'll gladly come to any aikido-L event, my quotidian task for now needs to be to hunker down in whatever my home dojo is in order to repeat, repeat, repeat stuff to get those basics down."
So my goal of finding an exercise regimen I'd stick with clearly had been met early on and had been replaced by the goal of learning the gross movements of the art. Somewhere between three and four years into training, as that basic skill set got integrated into the system we call "muscle memory," my focus and goals began to shift again. Oh I probably also had some of the typical aiki-fantasies: that I'd be an amazing martial artist, defender of the weak, yadda yadda yadda, based on early heroes like Zorro and Emma Peel but tempered by being a middle aged realist who'd grown up on the streets of Brooklyn. I also had a wry attitude towards my lack of talent, famously announcing after my 4th kyu test that "my aikido now sucks at a higher level," and predicting that I'd pay for my yudansha fees out of my first Social Security check.
But on a serious training level, the weakness I was becoming very aware of was my connection as uke: I attacked well but tended to "bail" early. The ideal in my mind was to attack, then once nage established a connection, have the kinetic/energetic sensitivity to keep the connection alive by neither resisting nor bailing. I explicitly decided my goal was to work on connection.
Two things happened shortly after defining this new goal: one was coming to understand that aikido had become a spiritual practice for me and that I was actually working on the larger issue of human-to-human connection each time I got on the mat. Unfortunately, the second event was blowing out my ACL and medial meniscus and being off the mat for around two years.
During that time I continued to visit the dojo regularly to watch training, participated in the online aikido community, did research on knee injuries, and thought about aikido daily (including waking dreams and other forms of often-unbidden visualizations). I credit this form of "staying connected" with making it relatively easy for me to pick up where I'd left off when I eventually returned to the mat. But even though some years I'm still working on the connection thing, nowadays, my goals have changed again.
In 2005 and 2006, some things had happened with my connective tissue and joints that made aikido seem very high risk for me; I didn't feel supported by the dojocho in my attempts to adapt my training, and so my heart wasn't in it. I stopped training. But as time passed, my body seemed to stabilize. I started doing some swordwork, and the urge to train returned. Early in 2008, my husband and I relocated to a small town where we'd spent quite a bit of time since 1999. I knew that the chief instructor and the dojo culture in this town were supportive of people with disabilities. I bowed in in March of 2008 having no idea if I'd be able to do anything more than warm ups and a couple of rolls.
I read essays, columns and posts by folks, some who have way more history and experience in the art than I'll ever achieve, and I note that there are sometimes complaints about students (and teachers) who seem ready to settle for too little. The folks who show up at seminars and either don't make an attempt to do what is shown or don't seem able or willing to take away any lessons (un)learned. The people who seem happy to go through the motions year after year, neither improving nor growing. The ones who won't "find another wife" or drive two hours each way in order to train. And I've thought about this while considering why and how I'm training.
My goals now are very modest. Part of this is an honest middle aged assessment of who I am: I'm no more likely to be a hotshot martial artist or high level practitioner than I am to be the next big thing in the painting world or the subject of a retrospective at an art museum; I'm not going to revolutionize the practice of nursing or be a haute couture designer. At least as a painter I do have a lot of innate talent, which it has been well established that I utterly lack in aikido or any movement-based art. But to succeed at a high level in any field, even with a ton of talent, means making it a priority, negating other aspects of daily life.
Somehow I have never had the desire, drive, ambition, or single-mindedness to live that way. I have always chosen to work a part time day job, making do with less money, in order to have lots of time to pursue….whatever…painting, sewing, gardening, aikido, walking hand in hand with my husband, playing with the cats. To put a positive spin on it, rather than beat myself up for being a chronic underachiever, my overall implicit goal seems to have been from an early age to live a balanced, process-oriented life.
I no longer think about connection or weighting or posture as goals to attain. They are processes to explore over and over, trying to go deeper into the nuances.
So, goal number one is simply to show up and train: unless I am contagious, have had to take medications that render me unsafe, or am out of town, I show up regardless of my aches, pains, and mood. I do as much as I can, the best I can at each moment, with a smile on my face.
Goal number two is to try to learn what it is that is being taught. This is always a good lesson in detachment and flexibility, not to mention being good manners and basic common sense. I agree wholeheartedly with the teachers who complain that folks at seminars don't seem to be paying attention; I've been partnered with plenty of them and found it very frustrating. So to all who have taught me or may do so in the future: I may never "get it" but rest assured I'm doing my best based on what I see and hear and feel to replicate what it is I think you are teaching.
Goal number three is to keep identifying weaknesses or barriers to training, be they physical or psychological, and explore or push them to find where improvement is possible. Sixteen months after returning to the mat, still cheerfully but adamantly refusing to kneel or do a backroll or let my thumbs be grabbed, I've already exceeded my expectations, even if I can't "keep up with the big guys."
Goal number four is to be a good sempai, which to me also means being a respectful kohai. I want to set a good example by demonstrating good etiquette, and contributing to the dojo community. I want to be helpful without being intrusive, recognizing and respecting where each partner is at while giving them just a little push, a little challenge.
I want to train and live with open eyes, open mind, and open heart. I hope that if I'm ever able to visit your dojo or attend your seminar, there will be room for me on your mat.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.