This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Susan Dalton.
One night in October 2000, a group of us sat in a restaurant with our shihan and a translator, eating sushi, listening to stories, and asking questions about aikido. We had no idea that in less than a year our shihan's advice on running a dojo would apply to many of us. "Integrity is important," he said. "Telling people to do this or that is one thing, but being centered and leading by example is another. That is the level beyond verbal training. You can teach nonverbally -- with your whole being." Now, as 2009 ends and we begin a new year in the dojo, I think of my shihan's words and my friends who teach in our dojo.
A few weeks following our sushi dinner, the day after Thanksgiving, I'd just gotten back into town when my phone rang. "Do you know who's teaching tonight?" John said. "There's nobody here with a key."
"I don't," I said. "I've been out of town for almost a week."
"Oh well," he said. "It's already six. There's only three of us anyway. I'll tell them class is cancelled."
"If you'll wait for me, I'll come," I said. "But please don't expect much. My mother died on Saturday."
"I'm so sorry," he said. "I hadn't heard. You don't have to come."
"I think I do," I said. "Will you do me a favor?"
"Of course," he said.
"Ignore my tears if I cry. And do jyu waza with me at the end of class."
When I arrived, John's mother was there to watch, the only time I've seen her in the dojo. I don't remember much of that particular class except the end, John's slow deliberate attacks and my wet face as I entered and turned, entered and turned, then John and his mother both hugging me when it was over. Now whenever I see or hear the phrase "loving protection", I think of November 24, 2000, and my friend John.
Tiny Elizabeth was a ballet dancer and she brings grace and precision of movement to every technique. We took our first test together in 1991 or 1992 and thankfully her brother showed up beforehand to remind us how to do ikkyo or I probably would have failed. Out of all of us, Elizabeth is the least likely to talk about philosophy. Instead, she sees exact measurements. My jyujinage will feel off; Elizabeth will see the quarter inch my hands need to move. "Try with your hands here," she'll say and those few words will change everything. Just like the time in 1993 I came back after pregnancy, seven months of bed-rest, and my clunky body wouldn't do anything I wanted it to. I'm good at smiling through frustration but somehow Elizabeth knew. I was going to quit. Leave this damn aikido I couldn't do anyway. "Will you stay after class and help me with something?" she asked. "I need to work on going through rather than around." Of course that's also what I needed to work on, metaphorically as well as physically. I don't remember that she said much, but I do know those thirty minutes changed the way I moved and felt. I can always count on Elizabeth Sensei to see what's wrong and do what she can to fix it. She's the embodiment of moving through.
Leslie is the rascal in the dojo and she has a startling image to illustrate every point. "Imagine you're a lorax and pick yourself up by your tail," she'll say. I like to get to class early on Mondays and Wednesdays so I can see the raucous end of her kids' class, even if I do sometimes get drafted into playing aikido tag on my knees. Leslie makes me laugh, then reminds me to buy toilet paper for the dojo or buys it herself and doesn't turn in the receipt. She does many little things around the dojo that nobody notices, but we'd sure see if she stopped doing them. She's the outgoing one that the new people remember talking to, she's the organizer and host of our annual dojo lake party, the best party ever, and she's my bud who went to Japan with me in 2008. If you get the opportunity to go to an onsen, go. I wish for you a friend like Leslie to share the experience and make you laugh until you hurt and all awkwardness disappears. Just being around her helps me relax, smile, and feel connected.
Andrew's the "new" guy, the one who practiced in quite a few dojo before he came to us. Because he moved around so much, his rank of nidan doesn't match his aikido knowledge and skill. I feel uncomfortable outranking him when his aikido is so effective and beautiful, when he knows so much more than I do. Yet he respectfully follows etiquette, deferring to all the teachers and doing what we teach even when it's different from what he's figured out. Now he's teaching an after-class class, and I'm seeing all kinds of things I hadn't seen before, tools I want to add to my toolbox. I wonder, if I ever had to leave our dojo and train elsewhere, would I have Andrew's humility and open heart?
J Sensei often taught the children's class I started in, so when he teaches, his warm-ups are what my body remembers. For years I chose him as uke on all my tests until he became chief instructor and had to watch instead of play. I remember once, years ago, he called me as tori in jyu waza. He punched me in the solar plexis and I stood there, gaping. He punched again. "Sensei!" I said. "You hit me!"
"Move!" he said and punched again. Finally I was moving.
He's the one who called me out for being too nice and for not believing anyone would really hit me, the one who brings me back to reality when I think my kaitenage "works." Sometimes students laugh and say I'm the mama of the dojo and he's the daddy. (Of course they tell me that and not him.) J was the second student of our original teachers, the one who is still here 25 years later. Running a dojo with him has taught me a new way of leading. I tended to see a problem, fret about not hurting anyone's feelings, let the problem get bigger, finally deal with it, then remember it always. He sees a problem, deals with it immediately, and it's over and forgotten. J Sensei can call a student down in class, then by the end of class not remember which student he reprimanded. He knows the Japanese, enforces the kihon waza, takes care of us all. (See my August column, "The Visitor" for an example of how he does that.) He's Sensei.
That night in 2000 I listened as our shihan described how a dojo is set up as a triangle with one person on top. But, he explained, strong dojo evolve into a circle of harmony with the teachers and senior students knowing and relying on each other's strengths. In 2001 when our teachers moved away, that image became an important part of our vision as we got set up as a nonprofit and decided how we'd run the dojo. For any of you thinking of structuring a dojo, I highly recommend this model.
Happy New Year!
To read the complete edited interview with Tanaka Tadamitsu Shihan, go to http://www.kodokanaikido.org/pd/Tada...tm?ctrlPrint=1