This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Linda Eskin © 2013, all rights reserved.
The women of The Mirror would like to dedicate this month's column to the late Hiroaki "Rocky" Izumi.
We have kyu rank exams at our dojo about once every three months. This time around we have one 6th kyu exam, and one 5th. No one is up for fourth or third kyu. A group of four people will be testing for 2nd kyu, and there are two of us testing for 1st kyu.
We all train in the regular classes, of course. But in addition at our dojo we have a tradition of senior students mentoring junior students. We work together in the evenings after class, and sometimes in open mat sessions on Sundays, when the dojo is normally closed. For the past month or so we've had these Sunday sessions, typically with about 10 people participating, putting in a solid three hours of training each time.
It is an experience of great generosity and kindness. Everyone helps everyone. There is a spirit of shared discovery, like we are all on a voyage of exploration together. Friends of all ranks remember this or that detail, or offer an image or tip that clarifies something a bit. We are a rising tide, lifting each other up.
Technical knowledge, given and received in an atmosphere of joy, passes through the dojo like a wave, moving from one generation to the next. As each of us is taught and encouraged (and challenged) by our sempai, we also do what we can to bring our kohai along. It's an effective way to learn, both giving us the opportunity to see or hear things from different perspectives, and forcing us to clarify techniques in our own minds enough to communicate them to others.
Sensei says we are all looking good, and that he's not worried about us. He knows we've been in class consistently, and putting in a lot of extra training time. But he hasn't seen the blank stares, the deer-in-the-headlights looks, when we suddenly can't recall ever having seen a given technique. He hasn't seen me confuse yokomen and yonkyo, morote-dori and mune-tsuki, shomen-uchi and shiho-nage. And believe me, I can confuse them!
We all want to do our absolute best, and we know we all have plenty of room for improvement. But at least our questions are becoming progressively more specific and detail oriented. There are fewer blank stares lately. Still, for me, it feels a little like rehearsing for a theater production that opens in less than a week, and I don't have my part down cold. I am sure I will miss a cue, or forget my lines. I know I am not the only one who has been a little bit panicky. Some of us have discussed visualizing techniques as we drift off to sleep, and they are there again when we wake up. I'm sure I will be as ready as I can be, but it's been nerve-racking.
Today was to be our last Sunday session before exam day. Driving to the dojo early this morning an image flashed in my mind of how things will look next week - everyone lined up along one wall, Sensei sitting at the front corner of the mat, guests sitting and standing alongside - and instead of the recent knot of dread in my gut, I suddenly felt calm and happy. That scene, familiar from many past exam days, was comforting. With such warm support from this loving community of friends and teachers, how could I be concerned?
Indeed, today was a brilliant example of that support. We had 15 people on the mat, training together for over three hours. All but a couple of the test candidates were able to be there, which was impressive, especially for a Sunday morning. More deeply touching, though, was the enthusiastic participation on the part of so many others.
One of our newer students is up for 6th kyu. He attends class and has been at every Sunday open-mat session, diligently training. He runs through his own exam with his mentor, and then gamely takes ukemi for the 2nd and 1st kyu candidates for a couple of hours.
Several other dojo members, who aren't testing this time, have been coming to take ukemi just because we could use the help.
A visiting shodan, in town for a few weeks on business from snowy central Russia, has been training at our dojo. Given his choice of anything he could have been doing on a warm, sunny Sunday in San Diego - enjoying the beach, seeing the zoo, visiting the desert - he came to spend the morning helping us prepare for our exams.
Five of our own yudansha were there, calling out techniques, correcting endless details, answering a thousand questions with unfailing patience and kindness. Reassuring us when we started worrying about not being solid on everything. Kicking our butts when we looked like we might be letting ourselves off too easily. Reminding us with just a deep breath and a wise smile to be gentle with ourselves.
At the end of our session today we were collectively exhausted and elated. The energy in the dojo was palpable. We had worked on countless empty-hand techniques, done dozens of weapons takeaways in two circles, and taken turns practicing multiple attacker randori. We were beginning to see things coming together.
Our exams are to be held next Saturday, after the first morning class. The dojo will be full and buzzing. There will be many students on the mat in addition to the test candidates. Ukes will be getting weapons ready. There will be friends watching and taking video, and noisy children being shushed. Sensei will call out technique after technique, for test after test. There will be breathing, and forgetting to breathe. There will be shouts, slapping, and probably someone's cell phone ringing. And after it's all over there will be relief and joy, laughter and hugs, and a big group lunch somewhere nearby.
And then there will be stillness and space, expanded knowledge, refined skills, deepened friendships. And the empty dojo will be silent on Sunday, pausing… waiting… inhaling… ready for Monday's classes, when another tide of growing together will begin to swell.
"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.