Our driveway was maybe a football field long and covered with red shale, earliest I recall. I learned to ride a bike back and forth on the drive going from the barn past the house to the road and back. At some point it got rutted and then covered with a load of white gravel unfriendly to bikes and balls. But the white rocks were just the right weight and size for hitting with a stick, which most often sent the rock diving or tumbling, or breaking into dust, but some would soar. Some would, impossibly, climb and clear the cattle pens, flying out of sight. Took a good stick to make that happen. The good ones didn't last. The best were thick, broken strips of boards from fences, the shed that blew down, the old chicken house.
Some of the white gravel stones were shells, fossils I assumed, and I collected those I found. Searching the driveway. But eventually, not finding any, not seeing those shapes any more.
When I started aikido the mat was made of canvas stretched tight over a thin layer of padding. Under the padding was plywood, and under the plywood a low suspended framework. The setup wasn't soft, but it would give a little for a hard fall. There were seams in the canvas, but otherwise it was smooth all the way across, without, if we kept it stretched tight, any edges that might catch a toe. After every class we swept it, then wiped it with wet rags, which seemed to keep it clean. But looking at it up close — the canvas didn't seem quite as soft when pressed against my face — there were hairs and other small sorts stuck in the fabric.
The mat didn't stay white.
A swirl in muddy water could be anything, but when you're a kid, and you dig up worms, and carry all the tackle, and sit on a dirt bank for hours watching a red and white bobber roll on the pond water, a swirl is a fish you haven't caught yet. And sometimes you're right, the line tight, pole bending as you pull. But the moment doesn't last. And what was mysterious and for a moment magical was maybe something else after all, turtle or snake.
And sparing a fish or two doesn't bring the magic back. Letting a lively one slip from bucket to water trough doesn't delay anything.
I won a trip in 1981. First time on an airplane. First time packing a suitcase — I wrote my name and address in black magic marker inside the luggage, brown hard shell Samsonite my parents bought for me. First time away from home.
I saw Niagara Falls. I saw "A Chorus Line" on Broadway. I saw two men holding hands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In New York, following a cabby's advice, I avoided the subway; I didn't do anything away from the group — Empire State Building observation deck, Statue of Liberty, United Nations. In D.C., on the Metro every chance I got, walking from monument to museum, I explored. I went to dinner with one of the girls from the group to a little place in Georgetown that had been an old house before it was a restaurant. I toured the White House, heard whispers echo inside the Capitol, felt the breeze in Mt. Vernon's main hall, walked through Jefferson's library and sitting room, and stood by the bed where Lincoln died, blood on the pillow.
Then I went home.
What I finally did see after searching the driveway was a pile of rusted pipe and rough angle iron.
Bent windmill blades and twisted window screen aluminum frame pieces tangled with tall grass, young trees, and weeds.
I show up just as the official program is getting started. The dojo is throwing a party to honor my teacher on the occasion of his most recent promotion, and he's sitting with his wife at the head table. The room is packed. We eat and drink, a microphone is passed around, and people tell stories about how special my teacher is and how much he means to them. When it winds down, I go up front, hug his wife, and then I hug him.
There was a stretch of years when I took a lot of ukemi for Dennis during his classes. Hugging him doesn't feel anything like that. But it should, shouldn't it? If our practice is a meditation, a physical manifestation of how to change the world — how to change ourselves — if what we're doing is an expression of our mutual affection and esteem. Or maybe I've forgotten.
When I let him go and take a step back from my teacher, he doesn't say anything. He doesn't look away.
I say, "What the hell are we going to do now?"
Grass-covered broken board —
the grain is decomposing in worm trails and roots —
split from the cattle pen's wood gate,
a stiff cork-textured gray.
The water's down, but nothing in the still green surface,
no swirling sign, no slick mud cat, long-whiskered,
left in the low tank and living.
Up the iron tower —
ladder on one remaining side —
there are thin windmill shadows on the drive.
Our shingled roof and native yard.
The mailbox, the ditch. The fence-lined
farm-patched patterns, brown and black,
by roads that lead to roads
and the high things distant
I don't recognize.
Paul Schweer is a student at Shindai Aikikai in Orlando, Florida. More about Paul can be found here.