I was 34. My Mom was 70 and she was dying. I walked down the long white hospital corridor to visit her. I smelled antiseptic, fresh paint and sickness. I was repulsed. As a single mother of 2 young girls I was in pre nursing at the local community college. I had a moment of clarity. I am impatient with sick people. I could never be a nurse. Pushed by my financial insecurity and my family’s ideas that I should be a nurse and make “good money” I had signed up for nursing. My moment of clarity came when I was really honest with myself. I wanted to be an Aikido teacher. This dream was so dear to my heart that I could tell no one. I had only been training for 2 years and was only a brown belt but I knew that this was a physical language that I could speak and teach. I was in heaven when I was on the mat. Teaching aikido wasn’t a good money maker and I knew that this idea wouldn’t make sense to anyone so I decided secretly in my soul that I would quit pre nursing school, work at any job I could find and train as much as I could in aikido.
At the time, this seemed even to me, a foolhardy decision. I was living in a family subsidized house paying only $107.00 month rent in 1987. And I was had a hard time paying that. I was driving a diaper van part time making $8.00 an hour with no benefits. My ex-husband was pretty sketchy about paying child support and I was attempting to raise my 7 year old and 4 year old daughters on my own. We were on food stamps and my daughters were getting health insurance from the state. I knew telling anyone that I was going to be an Aikido teacher when I grow up was a big mistake. Yet I knew in my heart it was the right choice for me.
I started training because a women’s basketball league that I played in was canceled. I stopped by the mat and watched as several men moved in what seemed like circles around each other and then fell and made a huge slapping noise on the mat. I was fascinated but unsure of what they were doing. The teacher Ron, (now my husband) came over to me and invited me to join class. I demurred. He demonstrated Unbendable Arm to me, which is a simple exercise where you extend your arm out as if you are shooting water out a hose in your imagination through your fingers. He then tried to bend my arm as I visualized the water jetting out my fingers. He could not bend my arm. I was fascinated. He invited me to come class the next night and I did. I was hooked.
The first year was so confusing and painful. I had no idea of what was going on. Ron would demonstrate a technique and then me and 10 guys would stand up, pick partners and attempt to do what Ron just demonstrated. I did not know how to fall or roll and I did not like anyone touching me. So every moment was uncomfortable and very challenging. I kept coming back anyway. I wanted to be able to move in circles and fly over the mat like I saw that first night. And I didn’t know it yet but I wanted to heal from years of abuse that I was not even aware of yet.
I continued to train 3 or 4 times a week. Luckily the mat was at a community center and my daughters could do their homework, take swim and dance lessons while I was in class.
I started playing basketball and baseball really early. I had 5 older brothers….it was our culture….we ran, we hid, we threw balls and caught them or got hit in the face. One of the first things I remember my father telling me was “keep your eye on the ball” as he pitched a baseball. I would shoot at the hoop on my brother Dickie’s, 6 foot 4 shoulders when I was just a peanut. Movement is my spiritual practice.
So aikido was a natural for me. Not that I knew it when I started. I just thought Ron was a “fine looking fella”, to quote my mother.
For the 1st year I stumbled about not having a clue. Not one clue. I did not understand the whole concept of being uke. Why would anyone want to fall down? I could not roll…not at all. It was very scary and pitiful. I used to hide at the end of the line but the guys would push me up and encourage me even though every roll and every fall hurt like hell. I cried after class a lot. Once after a particularly terrifying class I vowed never to come back. Ron saw me scurrying out and he called me over to explain it was only noise when the guys yelled as they attacked me. He said noise can’t hurt you and the guys would never hurt me anyway. I didn’t totally believe him but I really appreciated him taking the time to explain that to me. When I was a kid my father would yell at me and then hit me. I never knew there was a separation. I really needed aikido training badly.
Before Aikido, there was fear, constant fear, unrecognized fear, paralyzing fear, and unconscious fear. Fear manifested itself in buildings not entered, encounters avoided, and many drinks taken way past the point of where drinking was helpful. Fear prohibited conversation, stifled movement and restricted involvement.
After aikido, fear got different. Fear was noticed, acknowledged, breathed through, talked about and released though training and sometimes through tears. On the aikido mat fear was met again and again in a safe, supported and controlled environment.
Faced head on, fear slips away.
I starting teaching at anyplace that would have me. I taught kids and more kids. I taught a seminar at an old folks home where the old ladies heckled me, telling me to throw the old guys around. I taught corporate classes, classes for a motorcycle club, seminars at high schools, after school programs, special needs schools and for home schoolers. I taught at women’s shelters and summer camps. Anywhere I could throw down a mat and throw some people around, I would.
Now I am 59. I have been training and teaching for 29 years. I taught Aikido at that same Community College I dropped out of and at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. I have a beautiful dojo right at my house. So I kept training 3 times a week. And here I am waiting for classes to start up again in September….every few days I do some rolls so I know I still remember how. At 59 years old I can fly through the air and land in a nice round roll. I love that and I love the me that aikido has helped me find.
I believe in her dying days my mother helped me see what was really important. Work is one thing and a life’s calling is another. I work a job so I can help support my dojo. My husband and I met on the mat and we have built a life of honest communication and support together. Aikido gives us a language and community.