Taste of the Sword

When was the last time you tried to do something totally foreign to you? Totally different than anything else you have ever done before. Around people that you have never met. In a place with rules and customs that you couldn’t possibly know…but everyone else does. It’s been a long, long time for me since I’ve done anything close to that.

So here’s the scene last night at my apartment. I’m scheduled to go to kendo class…again. My kids are sick…again. I keep thinking that someone is going to throw up. Or throw a tantrum. Or the dog is going to get heartburn. Something to stop me from going…again. It’s been too many times. So I finally escape…and the second I got out the door, I turned my phone off. I wasn’t going to get called back, not at this point.

I was giddy on the walk there. That nervous energy that might make you laugh at a funeral. Kendo is something I’ve read so much about. And talked so much about. And wrote so much about. The build-up was so great…what if I hated it? That was possible.    

I walked in and sat with the sensei. I filled out a piece of paper. And we talked for a few minutes. He said he was in his 70’s. He looks 45. I know this sounds cliché to say, but…he is wise. I wanted to hear the everything he said. It made me realize that when people serve a master, like I’ve read about, like I’ve seen in many movies, they don’t do it out of obligation. They don’t do it because they are bound to do it, like the picture was painted for me. They do it, to be around this certain person more, so that they can learn more from someone wiser than themselves. That was a cool and unexpected realization. He left me by saying…if you master this, everything you want will come to you. He speaks…like how I’d think an old samurai would. And that is awesome.

I learned that this dojo, as all kendo dojos, are non-profit. They cannot make money off of you. They can’t even sell you swords or clothes…or anything. And there is something really cool about that. It doesn’t cheapen the art. It doesn’t lessen the experience.

I walked downstairs to get changed. Now, the windowless basement kind of smelled like feet. It made me think about the glorification of some things vs. the reality of them. But I’m here already. And I threw off my jacket and bag. Changed into flip-flops and went upstairs.

All the people there were really nice and helpful. A dojo, and I didn’t know this, is like a community of people. One of the guys had to piece me together a shinai (bamboo sword) and he did it so willingly. I get up to the dojo…bare feet only inside…and everyone else is wearing the real kendo gear. I’m sitting there in my NBA logo sweatpants and t-shirt, feeling like a jerk. Like the guy who shows up to play basketball in jeans and a collared shirt.  

One guy comes over…he is superior to me, as everyone in the class and probably most of the world is at this point. He becomes my personal teacher for the whole class.

To start…we do all kinds of stretches…everyone is shouting out these Japanese words. I felt kind of lost. I read somewhere that so many people quit kendo after one class…I’m guessing the Japanese words and the overall confusion play a large part in that.

My earliest childhood memory is dribbling a basketball in a gym. My whole life has been around basketball. If I don’t play for a year, I can pick a ball up and it feels natural, and normal. And I can just play. Every once in a while I’ll play against a guy who has rarely played in his life. And while I’m not a jerk to those guys, I just assume they don’t play on the same court as me. Last night, I was that guy. I won’t feel that way about those guys anymore.

I am not a natural swordsman. There is so much to think about with feet, with hand positioning. With the cutting. With everything. And it’s all at once. I learned so much last night that the sensei helping me said I’d forget it all. And he’s probably right.

A few times last night he would teach me something that I would remember from The Book of Five Rings. And that was cool. And even that made me realize that book learning and practical skill are two very different things.

The moves are all about cutting down and killing an opponent. To picture a person in front of you and carving into his head. His wrist. His throat. Or his side. Everything this art teaches you to do has that ‘kill’ in mind. And I know this sounds weird…but that is cool. It’s hard to picture all that while you’re thinking about feet and hands and grip and everything else. But I know it will come.

So going in I was nervous I wouldn’t like it. After a little bit, I looked at the clock…two hours had gone by and class was over. It felt like twenty minutes. I would say I will get better, but from where I’m starting, that’s not saying much. But there is something great about this. Really, really great about this art. About this way. The sword tastes really good. When I get better, it will taste even better.

I do need to learn how to sit on my heels first…I guess just like dribbling a basketball, even the most simple things are difficult to someone who has never done them before.