A few years ago, I was a beginner iaido student, and had been training with a wooden bokken and plastic saya, and on occasion, practicing with Dragonfly. Dragonfly was absolutely gorgeous. It had all of the regal stature of a true Samurai sword. Dragonfly had been loaned to me by the Steel, and while a very kind gesture, it was truly too heavy and long for me to perform saya biki, or practice for any length of time. As we are just about to head to Iaido conference, the Steel presents a lighter iaito of shorter length, and at 2.25 shaku it was more suited to my 5’2″ frame than the 2.45-2.5 of Dragonfly.
This is a story of Shorty. There are many stories about Shorty. This is just one.
The first time that Shorty and I practice together is at the iaido conference. It is early spring. We are with 120 odd iaido students, and as I am no kyu, am placed with other beginners while the Steel is practicing with those of 1st kyu and above. My excitement level is through the roof. Here I am surrounded by modern day warriors, aligned in army like grid, all dressed our best in our hippity hot hop hakama, and under the care and direction of 7th and 8th dan instructors from the US and Japan. I make sure to claim a space in the front, as I am one of the shorter ranks, and want to see and hear everything that was happening. It is important that I learn something, that I grow. Practicing and improving my kata have always been very serious business to me, as this was part of the agreement that was made with the Steel – I would learn swordsmanship, and he would learn music, and in learning we would grow together and hopefully as one. Because, it was just us. Right? Because, that was justice.
We begin the first five kata after a brief greeting from the visiting Sensei. Ipponme – Mae, from the front. I’ve got this. I’ve been practicing this one especially over and over in the past months. Mae is a foundational kata, and if I can perform this correctly, the lessons will translate to all of my other kata.
Seiza. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in and rise, toes curl under, step out with the right foot and cut. Shuffle up, bring sword above the head step and cut. O-chiburi, and rise like smoke into a deep iaido stance. Switch legs. Noto, and settle like fog onto left knee. Rise, feet together. Hands off, eyes come up. Back up left, right left ending with feet together.
Shorty feels awkward at my side. She much lighter than Dragonfly, and of a different length. It feels as though I can not reach my imaginary opponent, and I find myself stretching and straining. There is no elegance here. I need to relax. My mind is racing. I had never performed in front of others, separated from the Steel. I feel out of my element, awkward in my too tight obi, and the adrenaline will not quit. Is anyone laughing at me? Am I making mistakes? Doubt. Fear of failure. Embarrassment. Eagerness to please – sure, myself, but I want to make the Steel proud. I am his first student, after all. My efforts and performance reflect on him, and the last thing I want is to feel was his disappointment on top of my own anxiety and self doubt.
Nihonme – Ushiro, from behind. A kata very similar to Mae, in mirror reverse for the cuts, with a special corkscrew on the right knee. Nervous, I engage with the gross of samurai.
Left foot in a right angle to right, right foot turns to face rear, left becomes parallel to right. Seiza. Breathe in. Breathe out. A quarter breath in, raise to knees, corkscrew, left foot step and cut. Sword above head, shuffle and cut. O-chiburi and rise like smoke. Switch legs. Noto, and sink like fog. Stand, feet together. Hands come off, eyes come up. Back up, left, right, left.
Well, sort of. Drawing the blade and performing half decent saya biki is a challenge, even with a more appropriately sized katana. My technique still not correct or developed, Shorty clumsily tumbles out of the saya, evidence of this shows in blade chasms and wood dust that empties out of my saya after each practice. Even as my strength is developing I do not have control of the tip, and it wobbles with my feeble tenouchi.
I feel awkward, uncomfortable, hazardous, like a thrice broken pinky toe hanging out of the side of a flip flop. “This is just warming up, girl, you’ve got eight more hours of this,” I hear Shorty calling, and little good it does other than encouraging the life muscle from beneath my ribs to pound a deafening and quickening rhythm into my ears. She says, “Ride on top of the pain.”
I can do this.
Sanbonme – Ukenagashi. Receive, parry, and cut. Which side do I turn to? Just breathe, watch the man next to you out of the corner of your eye, and follow. You’ve got this. Left foot 90 degrees with heel to left, right foot steps parallel. Seiza. My kneepad is sliding. Breathe in. Shit-shit-shit-shit this hurts today. Breathe out. Breathe in part way. Eyes then head follows turning to the left as I rise and draw. Stand, right foot at 90 degrees and knees in that ukenegashi feeling (whoa, that ukenagashi feeling, I’ve lost that ukenegashi feeling), Shorty raised above head with strong edge facing opponent, tip down to make a roof over my head. Step back with left foot and cut. Tip of sword to knee, change hand position, weird upside chiburi, noto and settle like fog. Rise like smoke. Smoke. Damn, I could use a big fat bowl right now. I’m settling like a deflated souffle and rising like overproofed dough. Hands come off, eyes up. Small step back to starting position.
I want to puke. All of the tears are held back by a tenuous damn. Shit, I am just no good at this. Even though one of the lessons I’ve learned is that being a beginner is okay, I feel like I need to be more than what I am at the current moment. That there is something wrong with me. I am having trouble remembering the movements. The names of the kata. The parts of the sword. All of these spinning in a tornado that is threatening to rip apart my mind like an abandoned house in the countryside. This is all supposed to make me into a better person. Wait, what is wrong with the person I am right now? Aren’t I a good person? I’m by no means perfect, and I always do my best. Fuck, just try harder, woman.
“You can do this,” says Shorty. Breathe.
Yonhonme – Tsuka-ate. Oh, how the Steel cannot stand sitting in tatehiza, however I find it rather comfortable. I always feel bad for him as I can see the discomfort in his eyes, jaw, and tight shoulders about his ears. We do so much already but I bet the cobra stretch would work wonders for him. That’s for later, what are you doing? Tsuka-ate. Chuck saw? I always giggle when I hear this as I have never seen the word written. I imagine my brother holding a classic wood saw, smiling maniacally. A little levity now and then never hurts, and laughing inside without showing the smile is proving to become a useful skill. Rise from tatehiza and jab to solar plexus with sword still in scabbard. Slide saya off, turn, and thrust into forearm. Blood. Blood? Blood. Wait, blood is not part of this kata! No, neither is sticking yourself with the pointy end. Sure enough, a good inch of the tip of my brand new sword has created a new opening in my left forearm by the elbow. Thank goodness it is just the tip, and I haven’t gone hilt deep. Um, I need help. I wipe the tip of my blade and resheath it. Covering my wound with my hand, I start navigating the side of the mass of samurai in motion, searching for the Steel. I find a few kind souls to assist, and the Steel comes running, horrified and embarrassed. I am bandaged. Admonished. Congratulated. Encouraged. My head is spinning and light, and I cannot hear words that are said. I instead remember feelings.
The Steel said years later that I would be remembered. That because I continued for the entire day with a damaged arm, that I carry myself with dignity even when I am in immense pain, and that important people would remember me.
He was right.
I tell the lesson of the scar on my arm to anyone who asks. How I was not paying enough attention to what I was doing, and how I was naive to my blade’s length, and I was overexcited and zealous and it caused me to get into some trouble. And that if anyone tells you that size matters not, this is true. We are all the same size, inside. When engaged, though, some feel the need to seem bigger. Whatever. It’s just so childish, gambino.
So, what are some of the lessons from Shorty? I learned that when you have a new blade, it is best to take your time to get to know it really well. You should test your steel in various kata to see how it performs, and while doing so, ask it lots of questions. Where was this blade made? Has it been used before? What do other practitioners think of this blade? Is it like others that I have held? How so? How is it different? Is it balanced? Is it of the correct proportion? Is it hindering or helping my progress? Is it a pleasure or a pain? Is it a tool that I can work with? Can I perform all of the necessary parts of the kata with this blade? Is the blade responding to my actions correctly? Can I perform correct saya biki? Am I allowing my blade to cut the inside of my saya each time I draw/sheathe it? Can I protect the tender parts? Does its furniture fit, or is it loose and wobbly? Where is the tip? And, do I love it? Can I learn to love it? Or, am I settling?
Good questions, Shorty. Good questions.
“Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.”
Lau Tsu, Tao Te Ching