What aikido means to me

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That’s me on the right

We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

— President John F. Kennedy

My husband was quite surprised with me when I signed us up for our first aikido classes at SUNY Broome. It had been on my mind since Jon Harris, one of my reporters at the time, first published a Q&A piece on Senshi Dojo in the Press & Sun-Bulletin. It interested me and I kept the article, although my shifting employment circumstances proved too much of an obstacle to schedule a visit. I was, however, determined to check it out at some later date.

I changed employers – and, as an added perk, could take Continuing Education classes for free. The time had come.

“Wouldn’t you rather take Tai Chi?” asked Bob, who knew Master Lai just down the Vestal Parkway, and the Yang Dynasty tradition she taught.

“No, I want to take aikido,” I said.

“You know it involves tumbling, right? Breakfalls?”

“Yeah. That’s why I want to take it. I’m tired of being afraid.”

Irime: Entering-in

As time winds its inevitable countdown and friends and family age, I have noticed the tendency for contraction, for curling-in on oneself and one’s life. People who are paralyzed, for example, naturally return to fetal position as their unused muscles contract, unless measures are taken to stretch them back out and hold them in place.

In a similar way, as we get older, our horizons also contract. Fearing falls and injury, we stop being so active. We hold ourselves back, refusing to walk outside on the ice, or to push ourselves hard, and finally to go outside at all without a walker or assistance. We prefer to listen to our old music and see our old shows, turning away from cultural developments, from newness, from change.

We stop challenging ourselves – and we so we begin to contract, physically, then mentally, then spiritually. We try to freeze time, which refuses to be frozen.

That fate, that limitation, appalls me. In truth, it’s antithetical to life. Older people who challenge themselves have healthier bodies and minds, and live until death finally steals them away.

For me, the meaning of aikido is very much tied up in changing and challenging this dynamic of contraction. Extension is more than an arm-position; it’s the manifestation of will and choice – the choice to test limits and project your energy out into the world.

We are afraid because we feel that we are not in control of the situation. By entering-in and extending ourselves, we make that choice to take control – to take risks, although wisely, in order to reap the rewards of an expanded and expanding life.

Ukemi: Facing fear

There is a narrative that threads through my life. When I was 5 years old, I saw a sock on the basement stairs and crouched to retrieve it – only to go ass-over-teakettle down the stairs and slam my head into the concrete wall of the chimney flu. My parents ran over, upset. Weirdly, I don’t remember being hurt – not during the wild somersaults of my fall, at any rate.

When I was around the same age, I jumped off the swingset and tried to vault into the air, only to skid out and land on my back in the grass. It didn’t hurt, although it knocked the wind out of me. My parents ran over, upset.

When I was 12, I ripped my left middle fingernail off in the door, which I discovered only when my paper route money was soaked in blood. My mom was pissed, but ran my hand under the sink and patched me up. My father yelled at me, tears and panic in his eyes, later that day. That same year, I started fainting at the sight of blood.

Do you see the pattern here?

Little girls aren’t naturally cowards, but we’re often raised to be so by protective parents, hoping to shield us from the harms of the world. As a result of my protective upbringing, I developed actual phobias: the fear of blood, the fear of falling. To this day, I clutch stair-rails with a white-knuckled grip. My parents still fearfully caution me about topics – the flu, exerting myself, etc. – that they would never address with my older brother. I don’t blame them; social conditioning is hard to break, and risk can be hard to accept when it comes to one’s little girl.

Being the introspective sort, I realized that it is possible to change this dynamic – but that it will take a dizzying amount of work on my part.

But it’s worthwhile work. Injury, falls, failures and illnesses aren’t optional in this life; they’re the rule. Sooner or later, we slip on the concrete floor or the ice. Rather than freeze with fear and shatter, isn’t it better to prepare – to know what to do so that when the moment comes, the fall is effortless?

Ukemi, the art of falling, is essential to aikido – and, truly, the core of its meaning to me. It’s okay to fall. It’s even okay to feel pain, the sting of the mat when you open up into a breakfall. Pain just means you’re alive.

The bond of trust

At the core of ukemi – and aikido itself – is trust, and trust is contingent on a willingness to be vulnerable. We must trust each other as we practice, despite our differences off the mat. We must show a willingness to be vulnerable – to be thrown through the air – so that our companion may practice, and they will do the same for us.

We must trust ourselves, the wisdom of momentum, the knowledge our bodies gain by practicing techniques and ukemi over and over and over. When we don’t trust ourselves, we hold ourselves back from the fall – and then wonder why we get hurt. We make things hard for ourselves, and for each other.

I struggle with trust, especially with trust for myself. When you’re raised with a mindset of contraction (as women often are, thanks to our culture), you see the world as a dangerous place filled with tricky gravity-holes and unreliable fellow-beings. You may learn to rely on yourself, but deeply doubt your ability to navigate the chaos and danger; you question your own competence. You’re afraid to fail because failure is the ultimate vulnerability.

Aikido forces me to examine how I regard others, and to stop walling myself off from vulnerability and human connection, which is a tendency I’ve had virtually my entire life. It forces me to look at my own level of competence – and realize that, indeed, I am competent. I can do hard things, as long as I don’t over-think, which is a form of contraction masquerading as intellect. (I can even tell my left from my right. This sounds small, but I had bought into the whole gender-spatial orientation difference that says female brains have difficulty learning and remembering directionality. This is bullshit. The reason we can’t tell left from right is because we are not asked to do this on a consistent basis.)

It’s funny, in some ways. I hurt my knee twice in my very first class, but it never occurred to me to stop going (although I did question my ability to learn). Getting through the first kyu wasn’t all that enjoyable, particularly the rolling part. The first year of study is a really hard slog, I must say. But now, I look forward to class –and get irritated when I have to miss it due to a snowstorm, such as the one swirling outside right now.

So, what does aikido mean to me, Cliff Notes version: Extension, trust, facing fear, and personal growth.

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Ogham poem: Ruis/Redness

Another in my ongoing series of poems based on ogham, the ancient Irish alphabet.

Come now with the glow of it, rising
a tide, upwelling of shame, the blood
leashed and struggling against the limits
of form —

Formed of the rust of the blade forged from
the rust of the land, sprinkled on forms
curled in and closing, an ancient child
unborn

then borne on blood. We cannot count the days
leading to that grave and so maddenened
with the fact of our frailty, faces
redden

reddening with that most painful of shames!
Fires flare along the body’s rivers
prickling from heel to hairtip. The glow,
anger

angling its element and scrabbling
for the blade. Let the flames lick the ferns
torch the woodland! Let the elder split
and smoke

smooring nothing. Let the inferno
match our restless hearts, flame for bitter flame
until we are but part of the wall
of fire

a firmament plastic, unbearable,
an ore dissolving all form, the bellows
of our shame, our hate, our lust and greed
feeding

the end of what we cannot engage.
We say this fire is reserved for men
an their pride, the honor that slays all love
all peace

pierced by the thorns of kindness, fearing
that soft web of obligation. Sit,
warrior. Break your sword and cast it,
a gift

given to the spirit of the waters.
Baring our breasts, we draw out your flame,
quench your hero’s light. Here is true peace:
come, come.

Cuinbattle

Cuchulain in Battle by Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874 – 1951)

 

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Poem: Anger

450px-Schmiedefeuer_2Anger changes nothing. It does not mend
the broken cup or soothe the crying child.
It does not tend crops or fold the laundry

or enclose the wounded with love. Anger
smashes the glass on the tile, dumps the basket,
reduces the lover to tears with a word.

It rips up seedling along with the weeds,
accuses the innocent along with
the guilty, stacking the logs for the pyre.

It intoxicates, a child with matches
drunk on the light, that flare of sulfur-scent,
that wild giddy joy as a world burns down

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Poetry dump: Poems featuring mythology, trance vision and other musings

Juggernaut.jpeg

The Car of the Juggernaut from The Illustrated London Reading Book (1851)

As part of my daily practice, I write a poem of at least nine lines. As a Druid priestess, naturally some of these poems express spiritual experiences, or explore mythology. Here are a selection of some of the pieces I’ve written on mythological themes, trance visions and other spiritual experiences this winter.

Jaganatha

Enjoy, then, the softness of the sky.
Too soon the storm will come, stripping trees
as Draupadi, once gambled away

in the hall of her enemies. Who,
then, will intervene with veils of green?
No one. Jaganatha, the great wheel

slow, inevitable. The devout
lay down in bliss, consent to be crushed
and then reborn in glory, in praise

Speaking to the dead

The lord of the dead has a kindly face
as he bars the entrance to a cave full
of darkness. Sometimes visitors peek out

and give their messages, speaking of love
and remembrance and waiting, and they fade
into the shadows of their other life.

They keep such semblance of themselves to forge
a link between us, but these links are held
lightly, by open hands urgent to fly

The journey to the mists

The mists rise under the foot of the tree,
eddy and swirl. What do you see in this
place of between? A star shines out from cloud

but otherwise I am alone, gray-cloaked
at the foot of the axis of the world.
Bite into the apple of your binding.

What do you leave behind to cement you
here? I bite and taste my anger, my pride.
Sweet and bitter both, more than a mouth can hold.

Dá Derga’s Hostel

The Red God readies his hostel for you,
king. The curt knock on the door announces
the final breaking of oaths, shattering

the last binding that protected you.
One-eyed and lame, the old woman spits truth
and vanishes on the wings of a crow.

You thought this temple was a mansion
for you alone. You seem surprised, seeing
a sea of spears restore tilted justice.

Note: ‘Dá Derga’ actually means the Red God, and is a title of the Dagda. The hostel is an ancient temple that survived, disguised, in folk memory. The story tells about the death of a king who has broken his geasa, the sacred vows that bind him.

Maenads

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Dancing maenad. Detail from an Ancient Greek Paestum red-figure skyphos, made by Python, ca. 330-320 BC. British Museum, London

Wield your sword at the creatures of the air!
An anonymous word accuses you.
A thirst for justice gave it flight,

until the frenzy took over, shaking
us like Maenads in the grip of the god.
With our joyful hands, we ripped the stag

to pieces, only mildly surprised
to see it has our father’s shape, our son’s,
when the thread of our ecstasies is spun

Note: Greek tragedies tell of men who illicitly watches the rites of women or otherwise pissed off Dionysus, and who ended up literally ripped to pieces by the Maenads, who thought they were killing beasts. I’ll let you figure out what I’m really writing about here.

Morrigan

The Morrígan as Battle Crow by Joseph Christian Leyendecker (1874 – 1951)

An impromptu hymn to the Morrigan

How little I know you, and so well —
The purple sheen on the raven’s wing,
the saw-toothed edge of the knife cutting

my thumb, the fountain that wells from that
slashed crevasse: deeper than rubies, brighter
than flowers, the river of my life.

You make me question the ugliness
of bones. Hear, then, the skull’s speech: always
of you, your glory at the edges

Meán Geimhridh with the Dagda

The_Mythology_of_all_races_(1918)_(14763049014)

Image from the 1918 book “The Mythology of All Races”

The father delights in feeding his kin —
all who live or have lived. Eager he haus
the cauldron on his back, bringing all

to the Hostel of the Red God. Fear not,
you with kindness in your hearts, generous
still as you forge the path in the brush.

All the generous shall find a home here
and food for their bellies, always enough.
You are loved in the world: enough, enough.

Tree Topper

God is the winged woman atop the tree
the evergreen filled with light
and all the symbols of the growing world.

I always hung the pale purple glass grapes
at the top. At the foot, a woman
gave birth to a baby, as women do,

and loved ones gathered with gifts. Still the light
rose from a woman, shone from a woman,
winged like victory on the highest branch.

Note: A remembrance of one of my oldest spiritual experiences.

Áengus_mac_Óg,_Irish_deity

A painting of a Victorian era description of Áengus mac Óg, via Wikimedia Commons. Painter unknown.

The Riddle

Waiting for the road, the long ride,
the transition from one place to
another, each moment a greeting

and a farewell, a welcoming
and a sorrow. This is more than
one day — rather it is Aonghus

and the riddle that won him the brugh:
for day and night, each and every,
a single moment that spans all time

Aonghus of Dreams

Do you hear him singing, with the birds
around his head? Where does that thread end,
the tapestry begin, the trailing fringe

of dream that brushes your face in sleep?
Which feather belongs to a bird and which
to the god? He spreads white wings in welcome

at the clear lake where he met his own
beloved in the throes of dream. “Sleep now,”
he hums, then spirits you away Étaín

Sixth night

Alexandre_Cabanel_004

The Druidess, oil on canvas, by French painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1890)

I was born on the sixth night of the moon,
a crescent of milk taking its shape
in the night on the journey from darkness

to waxing light. When white-robed priestesses
clambered up the oak trunk with golden shears,
dropping the mistletoe to the bullhide.

So close to the ebb tide, but the full floods
in, incremental as it lifts the boats
in the harbor. Above, the leaves sing on.

Note: Traditionally, Druids gathered the sacred mistletoe on the sixth night of the moon.

418px-BridesCross1.svgTea with Brighid

You serve me tea. The storm roars white outside
the thatch, the shutters latched. The hearthfire roas
and you pour it fragrant into the cup —

and push a scone with raisins on a plate.
Devotion is marked, you say. I pour you
coffee most mornings in truth, and the tea

in the Otherworld and you are grateful
enough to pour it in turn. This is what
binds Gods and us: friendship, kin, love and trust

The night before Imbolc

Evelyn_de_Morgan_-_Lux_in_Tenebris,_1895

Lux in Tenebris by Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919)

Like a ghost, like a phantom, the cloth
on the rail rises with the rain’s wind
the pale blue of its woad alight in the night

gathering every drop of light in
the inky dark. Will she come? Will she
touch it, press a pale palm against it

bestowing blessing before moving on?
Have I earned that grace, even forgetting
as I am to leave fodder for her cow?

Nera

The kitchen is a mess this nighttime
and I consider Nera, how he walked
the roads with a corpse on his back, talking,

and at the house with the dirty kitchen,
the dinner dishes unscraped, they cadged
a life, chaos shielding their thievery,

while the houses with sparkling counters and
clean plates threw up an unseen warn and
the man walked on with a corpse on his back

Note: The myth of Nera is one of the reasons I always try to make sure the kitchen is clean before I go to bed!

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Ogham poem: Straif/Sulfur

The keeping of secrets, and the smoke
rising from the match that lights the candle
that illuminates the room, that ignites
the bomb that clouds the street with sulfur
and you won’t know which one it will be.

A hidden hand holds the red-tipped stick
or the flint and the fool’s gold, the thorn tree
and its fruit that intoxicates the man
that dyes the weave on its shifting thread
and you won’t know which one it will be

that pulls you to otherness, that pulls you
to choice. The smoke stings with its scent, the fruit
on the tongue, the air marking its message
of change and pain, a toppling tower
and you won’t know which one it will be.

Its red runs in that chief of streams, hedged by
the thorns of the hearth, your animal warmth
for the time that you have it: a match strike,
a sun in the hand, a secret unveiled
and you won’t know which one it will be.

So what will you light with your one brief match?
A stick of incense? A campfire? Auschwitz?
What will you change with your one shining choice
before it burns out in its searing plume?
And you won’t know which one it will be.

800px-'Hale_Mau_Mau',_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Ogura_Yonesuke_Itoh,_early_20th_century,_HAA

Hale Mau Mau, oil on canvas painting by Ogura Yonesuke Itoh, early 20th century, Honolulu Museum of Art

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Poem: Cursed

We are all mad now. The enchantment
twists our words into unutterable
collections of sound and syllable

that bear no resemblance to meaning.
What taboo well did we perambulate
in the direction of the moon? What

mirror did we shatter, what gem lose,
what unicorn slaughter, what ghost loose?
The dark heart that has always dwelt there

rises forth unfettered, as we loosen
the chains decency once forged, and blame
superstition for our chosen crimes.

320px-Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_Hell

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Ogham poem: Gort/The Garden

Dearer than gold is the grass underfoot.
What is an emerald to a mushroom?
What are your questions to the song of a bird?
What is death’s darkness to the soil beneath

each inch bursting with more life than the moon?
There sits no high god here, or everything
is a god, neither high nor low. A beetle
bristles with the same beauty as a stag

a toad with the speckled galaxies that wheel
far above our heads, the inevitable
starlings unfurling their scarf in the sky.
The cow doesn’t ask more. Neither should you.

In the grass, the sating of multitudes.
In the dirt, the counterpart of heaven.
In the wildwood, the greenest of pastures.
In pale morning, the abode of the swan.

In dusk, ageless ivy, the autumn-red vine.
In the furrow, treasures beyond compare.
And of every worn tale, this you should know:
poets name the walled garden paradise.

800px-The_Unicorn_in_Captivity_-_Google_Art_Project

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