Monday, June 30, 2008

Except ye become as little children...

For a couple of years, I stayed with rapier and dagger.

I was, you might say, "highly resistant" to the idea of studying foil.
For one thing, there were the aforementioned white suits and the
silly postures.

But worse- it was in French.

I'm not learning any French. I've spent most of my life avoiding
learning any French. I took Spanish, and liked it. I refuse to
learn French. It's about as frou-frou as those little flimsy foils.

But the master would occasionally suggest- just suggest, mind you-
that I "drop by" one of the foil classes. Or that I go watch a
tournament. He said I "might like it."

Eventually, I weakened.

I went to a class to "take pictures."

As it happened, he was not there that evening.
I watched, I photographed, and it was mildly interesting.

I was invited to one of the introductory classes. Again, I went to
"take pictures." A nice, safe, non-French thing to do.

But this time, something interesting happened.

By chance, the class I visited was the last of a series of
introductory classes. It was held in a local gymnasium. There were
around 25-30 children in the class, ranging in age from about 7 to
about 12, I think.

At the beginning of the class, as they all arrived, they came in, sat
down in a line, and waited for the master to arrive.

Remember, it's a gymnasium full of young children. And at first,
without the teacher present. They entered, they sat, they waited.
Happily. Patiently. Quietly.

Having three rather enthusiastic children of my own, I could not help
but notice this odd behavior. It caught my attention, that's for sure.

Then they went through the warm up- the very same sequence of
exercises I had come to know and love.
Some footwork.

And then, something I will never forget.

It being the last day of class, they each had the "opportunity" to
get up in front of the entire group, ALONE, and perform the skills
they had learned. An "etude"- much like a kata in karate.

At that time, I would rather have walked barefoot on broken glass
than get up in front of a group to do anything.

Each of the children got up there, and did their thing. From the
first one, it was clear that they did not all know this etude very
well at all. I was horribly uncomfortable about this. Embarrassed on
the student's behalf. I hate seeing people uncomfortable or
embarrassed. I detest the kind of movies that use this as the
principle form of humor. It's not funny.

So the whole time the kid was up there, I was squirming. Worrying.

To my utter and complete surprise, things did not go as I expected.

For one, the other kids were respectful. Quiet and attentive, no
snickering or giggling. They politely applauded as each of their
fellow students finished his or her performance.

Each student stayed standing after the performance, to receive
feedback from the master.

Uh oh. What on earth was he going to say after some of these
unskilled "interpretations"?

And this is where it all got my attention again.

He was encouraging. Genuinely pleased with each performance. He gave
personal, to the point, honest appraisals, with a couple of
suggestions for what they needed to practice, and he did it in such a
way that they all smiled, they were all HAPPY, for goodness' sake.
Up there alone in front of a crowd.

I knew two things, right then.

One is that he was, indeed, a master.

The other is that I would NEVER be able to get up and do that.
Period. Not happening.


I went home.
Found myself oddly compelled to attempt that little etude myself.
Could not get it out of my mind.

At my next lesson- supposedly still rapier and dagger- he asked for
feedback on what I had seen. We discussed it briefly.

And then he handed me a foil, and asked me to show him what I had


How did he know I would go home and practice the etude?

Now wait a minute, here.
Something very fishy is going on. He KNEW, I swear he did, that if
he ever got me to go to that class, I'd be instantly hooked.

And he was right.

Suddenly, I was studying foil. In French. Ouch.

Not long after, I witnessed something that would change the way I
viewed foil forever.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Being a master means many things...

I'm in the middle of this story now, trying to tell it from the
beginning, and no doubt at some point, will look back on this and
laugh because things will have shifted again.

It started years ago, one evening, when I got a phone call from a
friend asking if I wanted to take a sword class with her.

Sure, why not?

My kids were young, and I hadn't really gone out and done something
just for myself since they were born. I'd always thought swords were
"cool." And it sounded "fun."

And besides, it was a rapier and dagger class, not those frou-frou
"foils" that people waved around while wearing white suits and
looking silly.

But right from the first minute of class, from the moment the Fencing
Master introduced himself, I knew there was something about this,
something beyond what I thought I was looking for. Something I
needed at some level I wasn't even aware of.

I had never been particularly interested in sports. Played soccer
when I was ten or eleven. A year of Tae Kwon Do in college. That
was it. And here I was, sweating and miserable, out of breath and
dying- and it was just the warm up. At the end of the warm up, the
master said something along the line of "you should be starting to
feel slightly warm now" and I wanted to kick him in the shins. I

Good thing.

Instead, I doubted seriously that I could even finish out the class.

Surprisingly, I did.
And I came back the next week. And the next. And I even looked
forward to it, crunches and push ups and all.

It wasn't the swords. We weren't even using swords. For the first
couple of weeks, we worked only on footwork. Then we used dowels,
called "wasters," as practice swords. Heavy. Unbalanced. Clunky.

Kind of like me, now that I think about it.

So why did I keep coming back? What was I enjoying? Was it fun?

I don't have answers for those questions. At least not short answers.

But I can tell you this. There was something about this person, this
fencing master, that was compelling. Part sense of humor, part
presence, part some undefinable thing.

It was the way he moved.
As if he was completely focused on every move- and as if he gave it
no thought at all.

I could not manage this. Not even close.
My feet had minds of their own. My shoulders wanted to go every-
which-way. When I intended to go forwards, I started out moving
backwards. And vice versa. Don't believe me? Try it. Watch
yourself in a mirror, and see if you can move directly forward, with
your entire body as one thing. No shifting your weight, leaning
backwards, no hint of moving your shoulder first when you want to
move your foot.

He moved like no person I'd ever seen. And he did so, demonstrating
each movement, while talking, telling stories, encouraging our
attempts, and keeping an eye on the whole room to be sure none of us
were accidentally killing each other or ourselves. Without breaking
a sweat.

Very odd.

That was the beginning.

I kept going to classes. Started taking individual lessons. Still
working with rapier and dagger, "real swords."

The more time I spent around him, the more I couldn't help but notice
there was something different about him.
He perceived things in a very different way than I did, than anyone I
knew did. He talked about things that didn't seem possible, or make
sense, but to him, they were clear and simple. He was direct, blunt
and unapologetic. And people were drawn to him like bees to a
flower. You could feel when he entered a room because the energy
changed. After classes, people would stay as long as he did, never
wanting to leave first. Not wanting to miss anything.

I could tell dozens of stories- and perhaps I will- of times when
things worked for him that wouldn't work for anyone else. Parking
meters. Doors. Clocks. Sometimes, even rain stopped. It has become
a running joke between us- "being a master means many things."

It took a long time, but I finally figured it out. I know how he
does it. I know why things- both animate and inanimate- behave
differently around him.

He stops time.

Time to Begin

I'm brand new to this blogging thing.
Been thinking about it for a long time.

Read a blog this morning that caught my eye, and decided it was time to start my own.

I'll start out slow and easy, introduce myself a little, and say a few words about why I'm doing this. "A few," in the relative sense.  Relative to the number of words in the books in the Library of Congress, I'm sure.

First of all, I really am a swordmaster's apprentice.  No kidding.  No fantasy roleplaying game, no SCA, no pretending.  Real swords.  And a real master. I'll get to more about that later on.

We've been talking for years about saving up our written correspondence and conversations, and writing a "swordmaster's apprentice" book because there are a number of things I've learned in the process that just might be useful to other journeymen in life.  And some of it is pretty interesting.  And some of it, some of the wisdom, if you want to call it that, that has been passed on to me over the past several years, I'd like some way to keep a record of, so when the time comes that neither of us is still around, perhaps some of what we know might still survive.  Face it, there are not many swordmasters still alive.  And it is unlikely- for reasons I'll also write about- that there will ever be many more.

Besides being an apprentice, I do- I am- a number of other things.  They might seem to be unconnected to the sword, but they are not. It's all part of the same thing, the same search, the same path.  The search for truth, for "what is," for the shape and substance of reality.  For the connection between people, and between everything.

I'm a firefighter, and an EMT.  Currently studying for the next level of EMT certification, with an eventual goal of being a paramedic.

I'm a Mom.  A single Mom, with three not-really-kids-anymore kids. Young adults. Good people.

I teach fencing, and CPR.  We're a homeschooling family. I was a Girl Scout for much of my life, a boy scout for some of it, and a La Leche League Leader for about 8 years when my kids were small.  Have worked in plant pathology, electrical engineering, and a grocery store.  Considered becoming a midwife at one point, ran a food co-op and have done a fair amount of web design.  I'm a photographer, a quilter, and hope to become a fire investigator.

So how does this all connect?

That's what this blog is about.

Way back near the beginning of my apprenticeship, my Master ("My" master?  "The" master?  We're going to have to talk about that word, I can tell!) once posed to me the classic Zen koan of "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

And then, he gave me the answer.

I didn't understand it then.

I think I'm getting closer.

I hope to share some of that journey in these writings.

It's going to take some time...