Let The Dance Begin

I learned about strength one night from a little old lady. I was in my late twenties and I was studying Aikido. On the night in question I was attending a seminar, which is a special class taught by a guest teacher. In this case, the guest teacher was Mary Heiny Sensei, whom I had never seen teach, but who was a bit of a legend within my circle of teachers.

Aikido attracts all types of people, young and old, tall and short, fit and not-so-fit. As I was stretching, I saw a little old lady step out of the bathroom. That is to say, she was short, she was pushing 60, and she had the pleasant energy of a friendly grandmother. “They’re coming out of the woodwork for this one,” I thought.

Then the little old lady put on her Hakama, the skirt-like pants black belts wear over the gi (the training pajamas). “Oh,” I thought, “Little Old Lady is a black belt.  Figures.” Then the little old lady stepped onto the mat, and instead of kneeling in the line of students awaiting the start of the class, she walked to the head of the mat and faced the students. The little old lady was Mary Heiny.

That was only the first surprise. The next was the class itself.  To demonstrate the first technique we would be practicing, Heiny called on two black belts, both men, both in their early thirties, both teachers of mine. She commenced to throw them around the dojo with a power I had never seen before.  What’s more, there was no effort, no strain; she might as well have been dancing.

I don’t remember any of the techniques she taught me that night; that first demonstration was lesson enough for me. And no, not to teach me to quit judging people too quickly – it would take me years more to learn that. Rather, I saw that strength is the effortless, focused, deliberate delivery of energy. She harnessed the energy around her and directed it in such a way that the black belts had to fall. It was beautiful.

I remember reading that Jimmy Hendrix wanted to play the guitar the way Little Richard sang. Since that night I have wanted to write the way Mary Heiny practiced Aikido. You don’t have to be a little old lady to fear someone else’s physical might because there is always someone bigger than you somewhere. In this same way, there is always some reason your story could fail: it’s too fast; it’s too slow; it’s too romantic; it’s not romantic enough. But if I harness my creative energy deliberately and effortlessly, I allow through something stronger than fear, and all my imaginary foes fall like weary dance partners.

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On The Beam

For many years I studied Aikido, a defensive martial art based the premise that all attacks inherently take their attacker off balance, if only slightly. The job of the Aikidoist when attacked is to remain balanced, or within his or her center, and guide the attacker to a place where neither party can be harmed. It’s a very Seattle kind of martial art.

Aikido was founded my Morihei Ueshiba, a ferociously skilled martial artist who was referred to as Ōsensei by his students, which means “great teacher.” My favorite story about Ueshiba was this: One day a student turned to him and said, “Osensei, I watch you train, and you are always on balance. I train and train, but I am always going off center. How do you do it?”

“No, no,” replied the sensei. “I am also off balance frequently. I am just very quick to back in balance.”

So quick, apparently, that it appeared he never left his center to begin with. I feel like this is the lesson I am trying to learn in my writing, in my marriage, with my children, at the grocery store—everywhere all the time. In writing, my center and balance is the story I am trying to hear and tell. Like a gymnast crossing a balance beam, I am in a constant state of rebalancing, of finding the story.

The trouble begins when I wonder why I am off balance, why I have lost the thread of the story. There is no meaningful answer to this question. That is, pouring my attention into why I am not hearing the story is like the gymnast crying out “Why?” every time she wobbles left or right. A better use of my attention would be to search for the center of the story again.

There are days when you are on that story so fully you require almost no effort in telling it. These days are productive, but not instructive. The best days, in many ways, are the ones where you begin far away from the center of your story and must bring yourself patiently and steadily back into balance. This journey is largely the journey of your entire life. To fear the distance between where you are and where you must be is to fear life itself. We will spend most of our lives off balance, but if we are kind to ourselves we understand the unique joy not in always being on center but, like the stories we discover, in finding ourselves over and over again.

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