Life, death and aikido

Wednesday 04 June 2003 at 00:23

A friend from the dojo, Debbie Kranzler, died from brain cancer just less than two weeks ago (May 22nd). She was only 44 and had been diagnosed only five and a half months earlier. Here are some disconnected thoughts that have been on my mind since her death.

I remember Debbie's answer to a new student who asked "Have you ever had to use it?"

"No. And that's the proof for me that it works ."

Debbie, and also Laurie Nusbaum, convinced me that aikido works early in my practice when I was still interested in that question. I'm substantially bigger than either of them. I had to come to terms with my own anxiety about attacking a woman. But it also felt like I would have been dishonest to attack them differently than I would attack men. But however aggressively I attacked I never seemed to give them much trouble. That helped with the anxiety quite a bit. :-)

There's something cool about a practice that requires you to connect with your partner in a very physical way. In many ways I don't know anyone at the dojo very well (it's a big dojo). And yet I regularly entrust my life to them. Anyway, somehow I found my entry to that kind of trust by attacking Debbie and routinely finding myself on the mat. Aikido works.

I remember something very small and also huge she did for me in my shodan [1] test. I was the first of three of us testing. I had finished the weapon-taking and randori [2]. I thought I was done. When the other two "finished" Ikeda Sensei called me up to demonstrate kumijo [3]. I had not prepared for this at all. In fact, I didn't even have my weapons with me. This was the first small thing she did. I was sitting next to her and she discretely lent me her jo [4]. As I was bowing in again I realized it could only go disastrously wrong if I continued. I took a deep breath and confessed to Sensei (and everyone else for that matter) that I did not know the kumijo. He allowed me to return to the line. It was a short distance back to the line, but long enough for me to set in on myself with strong words and self-condemnation. As I got back into line next to Debbie she said quietly to me "that was really courageous." The gentile overcame the strong. She applauded me and quietly dispelled my shame. [5]

I have been pleasantly surprised by the way our dojo has faced Debbie's death. She has been a central figure in the dojo for as long as I've been there. I have been surprised to witness a profound bond in this community and a sense that we grow closer in mourning our loss.

Thinking more deeply, it shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, aikido is a martial art and very much about life and death. Although we don't often talk about death, it's there in the thousands of years of military secrets that have evolved into this practice. O Sensei gave us a brilliant refinement to separate away the brutality and killing leaving an art emphasizing center and connection and balance and posture and movement and extension and breathing. These aren't just words or rhetoric. They map to specific physical experiences. In fact you really need to have the experiences to understand what the words mean. There's something that has not been emphasized in my training, at least verbally. All these elements are practiced in direct physical communication with a partner. Dealing with another human being in conflict is essential to the practice.

Tres Hofmeister Sensei was my first instructor almost fourteen years ago at the CU Aikido Club . For the past couple years I have been Julie Poitras-Santos' assistant there. Dave (Anderson?) was Tres' assistant and very good friend. Reminiscing with Tres after he taught a class at CU this Spring I learned that Dave died about ten years ago. Tres commented about how hard that was for him. He remembered Dave at the wake. I paraphrase here what I can remember.

Often teachers are even more instructive in their absence. Both Debbie and Dave -- and also Mark [Reeder, Debbie's husband] though he is still with us -- made a point of getting back on the mat in their last few weeks. We all have lousy days in our practice where nothing seems to work or our backs hurt or knees -- we question why we continue to practice at all. But we have those pains because we are alive. [Tres paused here for emphasis, I'll repeat it] We have those pains because we are alive. Every moment we have to practice is precious.

Indeed. Thinking about Mark's loss I've commented to Sarah that I want to have a lot time with her. Whatever might separate us, whether death or divorce or some other misfortune, I hope it will be a long way off. One thing death and the martial arts bring into focus is the profound beauty and frailty of life. Every moment we have is precious.

[1] shodan is first degree black belt
[2] rondori involves multiple attackers
[3] paired weapons practice with jo
[4] a jo is a short wooden staff
[5] The rest of the story of my shodan test: The other two people testing had also failed to prepare for the kumijo and kumitachi (paired sword practice). Ikeda Sensei could have failed all of us. Instead he gave us a little, but explicitly unspecified amount of time to prepare for the remainder of our test. "An important part of budo to always be prepared," he said. His point was well taken and he left us hanging just long enough for us to internalize that lesson. I think it was a week to ten days later when we finished our test. All three of us were prepared.

I can't leave out one highlight. I'm probably boasting, but my good friend Andy would be on my case for false modesty if I left out what he thought was the best part. Bill (who's last name escapes me) was my partner for the kumijo. We were demonstrating the first half of Saotome Sensei's kumijo curriculum. I felt like Bill was coming in awfully close. (Bill, if you happen to read this, I hope you don't find it offensive in any way. Just describing what I remember.) After we had demonstrated a few of the practices, Sensei warned us we were too close to each other. The next exchange involves a very big, sweeping counter-attack where the attacker must make a big and hasty retreat. Bill didn't get quite far enough back and I knocked his jo right out of his hands and almost into some of the people observing from the mat. "I told you," said Sensei. We were lucky no one got hurt. Andy was impressed. I don't want to be too full of myself. I think that's part of the point of that sweeping counter-attack.