Crysalis

And so I change.

As cycles of the moon

Or celestial positioning

Or seasons

I change

As hands on the clock

Or highway lanes

Or underwear

I change

As cents out of dollars

Or aging faces

Or sex

I change

As some things never

Or others, always

Or weather

I change

Skuld the Valkyrie

Chicken Flavored Cornbread

“Some good food’s in order

For my Port-City Porter

‘Cause he don’t eat

Chicken flavored cornbread

This dog from ‘Carolina’s

A sophisticated diner

‘Cause he don’t eat

Chicken flavored cornbread

And have you ever (ever, ever)

Seen the back of the bag

Don’t it make you gag?

And have you ever (ever, ever)

Seen the ingredient list

Don’t it make you pissed?

‘Cause it’s just

Chicken flavored cornbread

It’s..

Fortified (fortified, fortified, porter-fried)

Chicken flavored cornbread

-Cheryl Sousa

“Chicken Flavored Cornbread”

The recent passing of the greatest percussionist and lyricist of our time has had me stumbling and stuttering.

My phone buzzed late in the evening carrying a message from my boyfriend. A carefully worded message had me wondering if he had lost someone, however he was instead lovingly passing along news he thought I needed to know. I called. The someone was one who was important to me. All at the same time, my heart imploded and exploded, in relief for his family, in dire grief of the loss of Neil Peart.

The drive home is non existent in my memory. I turned on Pandora to Rush-Artist, and began to weep. Sucked through time and space, the magic music made my mourning mood. The first song (Force Ten), the first concert (Counterparts), first t-shirt (bolt and nut), first band to tug at my heart strings. A widening chasm expanded in my chest. No amount of tears could ever fill this boundless ocean scape, though it was given a good faith effort. Even a few weeks later I find myself becoming melancholy and distant and introspective upon hearing the beloved lyrics that have become woven into the fabric of my reality.

As grief moves through my mind, body and spirit, I’m finding that it’s bringing up other unhealed losses that have been begging to be filled. These spaces, carved out carry treasure, instead left barren like forgotten backyard land mines. On the subject of hearts with holes, this is the story of one with a bone at the bottom.

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful dog named Porter. Porter was a Plott Hound mix from a high kill shelter in Whiteville, NC. He was named Porter for the deep, dark brindle color of his coat and, of course, in honor of beer. Plott Hounds are a North American breed, raised to chase down bear and climb trees after them. Porter’s arrival was a surprise from my ex, given just a few days before my birthday, and with my daughter visiting provided the perfect opportunity to add into the golden period’s brownie points. I was head over heels in love with this pup from first sight. He was soft and playful and cuddly and obedient, and as eager to please as any dog could be. House training came quickly, as did his adeptness at any physical activity presented to him. Porter, like his mama, loved a good chase. He was the bane of my ancient German Spitz named Jake, giving the old geezer the only incentive he had to get up on his arthritic legs and chase the growing pup around the house and eat any food before the pup could get to it.

Above all else, Porter loved his frisbee. It was thick and red. If we weren’t outside tossing it, he’d cuddle up with it, chewing and kissing. Around the house with it in his mouth he’d prance, or scrape it across the floor for hours if it was curved side down. We’d toss the disc for hours a day and still he would beg. Porter began growing quite fast, and could keep up with the quickest toss. Into the air he would leap, and would arch his tail and back to spring even higher mid-air. It was a rare sight to see him miss, and that was usually the result of a poor throw. He was so eager for that frisbee, he would have literally allowed his heart to burst chasing it. He’d begrudgingly climb into the Jeep after an evening of play at the park, his mouth full of slobber and blood as the chewed disc would scrape his gums. I’d watch him toss the disc to himself in the back yard, then run after it. His constant scraping of the frisbee against the ground completely tore up the grass in the back yard. And I didn’t care. He was happy.

Porter also loved to do “dog projects”. The house we’d rented in Salina had a sorry excuse for a garage in the back yard. As the structure was not functional for the use of automobiles, it was mainly used for storage. After unpacking from that treacherous move, I’d placed the packing materials in paper bags and stowed them inside. I’d noticed that Porter really liked hanging out in the garage, figuring he appreciated the refuge from the blazing Kansas sun. He liked it so much that we took to referring to it as “Porter’s Garage”. One particularly stifling day I ventured in to get the push mower, to find that Porter had pulled all of the packing materials out of the bags, and filled the bags with dirt from the garage floor. I asked him what he was doing, and he looked up at me with his dirty dog smile and his whipping happy tail, and I knew that I’d never understand anything other than that he was exceptionally proud of himself.

The evening of Porter’s death lays branded in my mind, a scorching portent of things to come. We had just come home from the four hour weekly round trip of picking up my beautiful step children. We were all excited and anxious to be out of the Jeep, and upon venturing inside found the dogs just as excited. Luna, our lab/beagle lowriding velvet beauty was happily milking about. Porter, on the other hand, was exceptionally excited to see “his kids”. As any two year old dog would that hasn’t been neutered, he lifted his leg and sprayed on my stepdaughter. My ex, suddenly infuriated, planted his size 13 into Porter’s stomach. Porter screamed. My ex yelling, he kicked Porter outside, landing another few blows to the dog’s abdomen. The kids were crying and screaming. I was screaming for him to stop. But none of our shrieking could match the ghostly sounds of Porter’s agony. I stayed home with the kids while he took Porter to the emergency vet. With his adeptness of falsehood, he claimed that the hound had something lodged in his stomach. I later called the vet, who confirmed the lie. He claimed they could not save him, that even if they tried the outlook was bleak. We cried. We cried, I threw up, and started crocheting for it was all I could do to keep myself busy.

Porter’s tragic passing was more than just a goodbye to a beloved and faithful hound, one whom I wrote songs about and sung to, (crap the dog had his own playlist for barking out loud). It was also the first time I had ever heard a dog scream, and the first real evidence of my then partner’s violent behavior and hidden drug use. Porter passed as a result of the injuries he sustained on that tragic day. I hugged his cooling body in the cardboard coffin, kissed him and cried.

I’ve come to understand that it was most likely my former partner’s embarrassment and inability to comprehend his responsibility for the violent action that prompted the waterfall of oncoming lies and falsehoods and, inherently, the end of our relationship. I no longer believe that he deliberately caused Porter’s death. I now understand that it was more along the lines of manslaughter. Dogslaughter, if you will. I remember him showing Porter love and affection. I remember abusive moments. I remember a man who talked about growing up with dogs being the only and best friends he had, always feeling like an outcast save for their company. I’ve come to understand that this was the model he used for his relationships with women. And if you weren’t obedient, you were likely to be beaten.

Porter-boy, you salty dog, you chicken flavored cornbread, I miss you. I miss you as much as a girl could ever miss a dog. As much as I miss my childhood friend Darby. I hope you two are running together in fields of gold.

And to my ex, I hope he understands why I told him I’ve forgiven him. I wonder if he remembers what he explained to me about forgiveness? It’s to ensure that I will never be hurt again by the same actions. That I will honor myself and protect myself and everyone I love. It’s a major change in myself to set specific and clear boundaries, and enforce my own convictions. It’s no longer turning the other cheek. It was the beginning to the end of my codependent behavior. It’s the beginning of my empowerment, and of embracing every fear, stepping right into that which I am most afraid, of training myself to let go of everything I feared to lose.

“The pain that your spouse gives you is a gift.” -Treehouse Counseling

Thank you. Thank you for the gift.

“In a dog’s life
A year is really more like seven
And all too soon a canine
Will be chasing cars in doggie heaven

It seems to me
As we make our own few circles ’round the sun
We get it backwards
And our seven years go by like one

Dog years — It’s the season of the itch
Dog years — With every scratch it reappears”

Dog Years – RUSH

“Baby let me be your Salty Dog

Don’t want to be your man at all

Baby, let me be your Salty Dog”

-Mississippi John Hurt

My Maai

Maai is a Japanese martial arts term that translates into interval, or the space between. Referring also to the distance, time, rhythm, and angle of attack, Issoku itto no maai  is an essential concept to master in delivering a correct strike within a single movement, while at the same time maintaining a distance in order to protect yourself from the strike of your opponent.

Basic maai development begins with examining yourself in a mirror. Consider an opponent your own size and build – with the shinnai or bokken, we learn to create distance between ourselves and our perceived opponent. Where is my tip? What angle must my blade be in order to maintain my target?

We then focus on our tenouchi, or the way the weapon is held.  Newer players will clench their hands around the handle for fear of dropping it, and typically will complain of sore hand and forearm muscles from even the shortest practice. More experienced practitioners will have developed a sense of balance, a holding-not-holding of the shinnai. The leather tsuka should be placed in the hands as such where the handle rests on the thumb meat of the palm, balancing the grip with the hypothenar muscles, then all fingers relaxed and ready for action. This creates responsive, flexible weapon that is always at the ready. Combining tenouchi with seme, we can create a longer maai. The shinnai is pressed towards our opponent, maintaining aim for the throat or eyes. We practice this by taking a slight step back when we are in the ready posture, to lengthen the arms and thereby creating a longer maai.

Once we know the target we are aiming for, we start to add concepts like seme – forward pressure. The weight of our intent is captured in the posture of our head over heart over pelvis forward push, all of our energy driving from our as though we were trying to roll away the stone at Golgotha. Every ounce of our being must be dedicated to the strike, and in the same direction. Seme is the intensity, energy, or xi that is channeled through the energy core through the shinnai and directed towards our opponent. We may have a lengthened distance, however the intensity of our energy can make us appear larger and closer to our opponent than we truly are. So while maai is the interval between, it also refers to the perceived interval.

Maai will be different with every partner. Some will be taller, some shorter, some fatter, some thinner, some female, some male, some younger, some older. The most memorable partner in kendo I have ever had goes by the nickname of Dondi. Dondi is an older southern gentleman, that will just as soon snap your kote as he will share with you some “christmas tree” or homemade apple pie moonshine. I learned quickly from Dondi that I needed to relax, and breathe. He caught me off guard and smartly with each strike, so quick that I saw the movement only after he had struck. His easy, Carolina’s style personality was perpendicular to his acuity in kendo. What caught me first, however, was his maai. During the rounds of ji-geiko observation on my first visit to Myrtle Beach Kendo club, I noticed how unassuming he was at first sight. After sonkyo, he became a different being, visibly growing to match with his body posture the size of his 6’3″ opponent. I noticed he seemed taller, wider, and much deeper in his stance, not unlike the scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf uses his magic to bolster his posture and impart the seriousness of his message to Bilbo. I noticed as he refined his adjustment, like Indiana Slim going for the corner pocket off a bank shot. To continue the billiards analogy, he began sharking, making calls and hoots and shrieks to psyche out the other newbie. “Meeenn!” he would make a strike, and following through, rolling around to ready himself to secure the next. And again. And again. The loser, put in his place by his superior, seemed to visibly shrink after such a display of prowess. It was nearly the smallest I had ever seen him become.

The concept of maai has been of tremendous use in other aspects of my life.

In music, there are many different kinds of intervals. Each note on the staff can be any distance of interval from another. Each interval can be thought of in number of half-steps away from the tonic, or they can be thought of as the entirety of the distance. For example, in the scale of A minor, the distance or interval to C is a minor third. So when I do a scale of minor thirds, I move the distance of three half steps up or down the scale, however I can also think of this as an interval of minor thirds, so A – C – Eb – Gb – B – D – F and so on. There are intervals between beginnings of measures. Intervals between length of notes and rests. Intervals of repeat and reprise. Intervals even in bowing or breath phrasings. Understanding maai helps me apply correct phrasing, tonality and depth to my music. It helps me understand how to blend and play well with others, harmonizing instead of always taking the lead, and also to have the confidence to play on my own.

In my life’s relationships, I can use the concept of maai to help set boundaries and create openings for our partners, friends, coworkers and neighbors, allowing myself to love each individual to my fullest potential without sacrificing the self. This opens the heart, to more fully exhibit my true nature without fear of partners or of the future. It allows me to hold-not-hold every relationship in the bounty of loving-kindness, to hang on and let go all at once, so that I am neither grasping of nor in aversion to any circumstance.

 

Letting go

Western New York in autumn

black beauty with the heat on and the back windows ajar

for the moon to jettison her head and

let her ears flap carelessly in

the wind.

Western New York in autumn

catches the spray of Niagara on faded denim and

a lumberjack flannel, caring not for

frozen fingers or windblown

tresses.

Western New York in autumn

communes with veins of rivers, mugwort and

anne’s lacey tunneling pathways

through japanese knotweed

forrests.

Western New York in autumn

brews tea and reads books and colors the nights

with pastels and pencils, finding beauty

not only around but also inside

herself.

Western New York in autumn

emerald rosin in hand readies her bow for

playing along with radiohead and rhianna

and rush, no, easy does it, you’ve

got time.

Western New York in autumn

mentally catalogues each tree’s metamorphosis

the most prodigious examples displayed

atop the altared second coming of the

commode.

Western New York in autumn

pays the rent, makes soup, bakes bread, dances

with carmenere and high heels in the

kitchen, walks the dog and is

happy.

Vital Signs

It’s another glorious day for plasma collection. Densely packed evergreens at the top of the hill behind 235 are painted black against a kaleidoscope bursting above the rising sun, and the autumn air meets my lungs like a forest spring; refreshing, crisp, and sweet with the scent of receding chlorophyll, fungi, lake effect air, and when the breeze is just right, Cheerios. Gratitude envelops the steam of my exhale, evaporating into the morning breeze, and hoping I am not the only witness to this display of glory, with bowed head step back inside.
Each morning is the same routine. Center walk, scrutinizing the janitorial staff’s results like a shieldmaiden inspecting her clan, ensuring temperature controlled supplies are stored within acceptable range, checking “the hatch”, entering the numbers, delving into the -38 degree freezer for an immigrant song, reporting on the previous day’s plunder of liquid gold, writing today’s “Sprechen Sie?” on the board, then out to the front door to greet my team with a flash of upper canines and unctuous positivism; with caffeine as my sword and sunshine as my shield, I’m ready to face the day. Rasta mom. Rainbow RN. My Ukrainian goddess counterpart. The Swan. Anger. Best friend. The Joker. Whether received with a smile or a complaint, all are blessed as I call them friend, and they enter into our shared domain for the day.
I had once overheard our donors once compared to cattle – lining up in the feed bin, do whatever it takes to keep them fat and happy, only to get slaughtered. They pulse through the center like cells on a heartbeat. Check In. Vital Signs. Hematocrit. Total Protein. Physical. Venipuncture.  Cue Dracula. Revert. Disconnect. Departure. Come back in two and let’s do it again. Thum, thump. Thum, thump. Thum, thump. Every motive varying, some philanthropic and eager to share their stories, others desperate enough for disconnect to threaten wetting themselves, and still others deliberately let their bladders loose for a quick payday.
On this day, nearly a quarter of our machines have been on the lockdown for mutiny. The goddess spends the entire morning in the dungeon flogging and ripping the offenders from weigher arm to centrifuge, discerning blasphemies, and absolving them with tender touch and methodical detail. Emerging with a quick puff to her bangs and eyes like cerulean Scandanavian lakes, she reinstates another reformed sinner back into service to the vampire king, claiming victory.
Rhythm starts: defer this, remove deferral on that, counsel, pout, metrics, schedule, counsel, muscle, dance, donuts, eclairs, open, close, counsel and another EMF. Unbelieveable.
I find humor, I find music. I find rhythm. I find spoofs of songs and hugs and tears, joy in my low pulse and blood pressure, and in the song of PCS2s starting in the quiet of the morning, each with its own frequency depending on the power supply type. I see every coworker as a marvel to behold, beauty in their own madness. And in their eyes, I see my own. I find myself being triggered in the correct ways, and honing my skills and intent.
There is healing in learning something completely new. There is a reminder of how you can do anything if you set your mind to it. That there is power in being forgiving of yourself for having made a mistake and immediately accepting and embracing the lesson. There is satisfaction in finding transferable knowledge and skills. When there is a void to the information, or an unknown skill, you can use the absence of knowledge as a template and resist to create an answer or new skill. Like finding shapes in the clouds, and also seeing the shapes in the sky-shadow between.
The day ends, sun setting over the parking lot. Inhale. Exhale. Feeling my body. Is that my heart? Thum-thump, thum-thump. Have I checked my own vital signs?
159 lbs. 108/62. 58 bpm. 97.5 degrees.
An ounce of perception
A pound of obscure
Process information
At half-speed
Pause
Rewind, replay
Warm memory chip
Random sample
Hold the one you need
Leave out the fiction
The fact is
This friction
Will only be worn by persistence
Leave out conditions
Courageous convictions
Will drag the dream into existence
– Vital Signs, Rush
The spaces in between
Two minds and all the places they’ve been
The spaces in between
I try to put my finger on it.
-Bloodstream, Stateless
6D855A8D-F1BE-4410-B9FB-DCEB1B41CFF3

Dust in the Wind

Stiflingly hot middle-of-nowhere wind whips through my shoulder length locks, stinging my cheeks with thousands of grains of sand picked up off the Kansas tundra. Picking up my rag, continuing to scrub the windows of my rented house despite the futility of the task, I’m lost in the rhythm of the squeak of the pane and elbow grease. My sister and her partner have been working tirelessly for weeks readying the shelter, their voices muffled by the walls and the gales. I hear her feminine optimism, and understand that without her, my dog and I would be homeless. My mind is jammed with thoughts. Is this the life I chose? What is here for my future? I’m so far away from my family. I’m in love, smitten. Captivated, really. I left everything I ever cared about behind for a whole new world that is turning out so far to be little more than a desert without a magic carpet to ride out on.

With a small section cleared, I can see through. My sister, scrubbing with determination. Her partner, finding tools and talking. My dog. And him.

Why? Why was it that I loved him so deeply? He hadn’t stopped his soliloquy all day, and who can get a word in edgewise? Why was it that I traded that which had once held such value for this? Dirt from the window transferring to the bucket, bucket dumped on the ground, fill the bucket from the faucet, the eternal hair dryer evaporating the water, picking up the dirt and placing it back on the window. I had clicked my red ruby slippers wanting something completely different, and had received that indeed. I’d run away, with my Toto, to the land of black and white, and radio stations that played the same songs for 30 years on a never-ending loop. I was running away from disappointment, from shame, from one prison to another grass here isn’t greener ’cause it’s all dried up one.

The air has a sort of chemical smell, like the taste of the coating of unwashed brussel sprouts. This is not the grease cutting dish soap that I am scouring my windows with. This is the scent of farms being sprayed and death of that which once naturally thrived. The scum under my nails is thickening and lifting the bed off of my fingertips. Taking a moment to scrape it out, I pull out of my turmoil and close my eyes. I have to find something I love here. Something where I can look out of these windows I worked so hard at cleaning, and say Yes, I love this place. And then I realized, if this was going to be my home, I needed to love and accept it just as it was, without trying to change it or idealize it. I needed to find peace and comfort and contentedness not despite, not because of, just that I was going to choose to make my own sunshine regardless of my situation. The choices I had made in my life brought me here. This is my choose your own adventure.

I start humming, and with a smile, finish wiping the last streaks off the glass.

I’m going to enjoy cleaning house.

Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won’t another minute buy

-Kansas, Dust in the Wind

Life in the Key of B

“I love you, dearly.”

Upon reaching the sanctuary of La Villa, I was immediately immersed in the everyday rhythm of family life. Morning rituals of coffee and english muffin, yard duty, trips to the everyday low, family dinners, small projects like cleaning and organizing, and cat snuggle talk filled my days.

Every Saturday, I ventured over into the Broad to bring dinner to B. I met her years ago at the wedding of the Landlord, and despite her 104 trips around the sun she was spry, quick witted, gentle, and with a heart large enough to engulf even the most bitter of souls. As age had collected its toll from her memory, I knew she would not remember my name. It mattered little to her, as on the first dinner day she greeted me with the warmest smile of familiarity and love.

“Hello B, my name is C.”

Her award winning half smile-smirk lit up a face that had been previously blank and sorrowful. I learned quickly that B had a way. She knew and remembered more than she let on, which is a stroke of wisdom that I am just a beginner at understanding, the kind of power that silence brings.  I knelt beside her rocking chair.

How are you, B?

Oh, good. Did you eat your supper?

Not yet, I brought some for you. Are you hungry?

*sly smile* Yes.

Each Saturday nearly the same conversation. Most of the family thought that increasing the volume of their voices would help her hear, however there was a different result from kneeling at her side, holding her hand, and talking low so she could read my lips. At times, we prayed. Fond of The Lord’s Prayer, we would say the Presbyterian version she was accustomed to, and finish with “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever.” And Ever, she would add, and squeeze my hand in signal to start again, and we did.

There were days where B seemed to navigate a world that was not entirely in this dimension. She would have conversations with her Lord, asking to join him. It was often snowing in her world, and I came to understand this as where her mind was taking her.  On the second visit, the following conversation.

B, what is your secret? How did you manage to live so long?

I always worked, and found something about my work that I could love. I always try to be kind. I always try to be a good friend.

B, can I be your friend?

Why yes.

You are the first friend that I have made here.

*smiles*

What does it mean to you to be a good friend?

To be loyal. To be there to support one another. To laugh. To sing, and dance to the music. I can’t dance anymore.

So, if I play my violin and dance for you, will you sing and laugh?

*biggest smile* oh yes, I would like that very much.

And so, each subsequent visit I played my violin. I’d get a kiss, we’d eat, then sit in the living room and gather around the music. At first, songs that were written in my memory. Ashokan Farewell, some Bach and Mozart melodies, Vivaldi; then requests – New York, New York was a hit. When asked to sing something that she liked, B dug up O Marie, and I sang at her feet with her and tried to follow along with the Italian lyrics. During the weekdays, I would practice to have something new to play for her, but it would usually default to her favorites, and to grandparent’s house we went. I explained to her that I was working on something special just for her, and she would hear it at a special time. This last piece, I played for her on December 22. Two days later, she was in the hospital.

Each day I went in to visit her with the violin, however I did not always play. Sometimes alert and sometimes asleep, always thirsty, and with the most delicate hands that became more fragile by the day. On the last day she was alert, I noticed there was a song hidden in the life support machines, and started to sing it. She tapped her fingers in my hand, and together, we began to write a symphony of life, and a finale of death. I explained to her that my violin needed a name, and I was wondering if she would honor me by allowing me to name it after her. She nodded. I explained that every song I played would be her, and she would be music that would fill souls with love for as long as I was alive. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her last words to me, “I love you, dearly” still remain in my mind, her voice a soothing salve.

B passed away on my 44th birthday. She was easily the most beautiful soul I have ever encountered, and a gift from the Universe when I desperately needed to be reminded of what it felt like to be loved without condition.

Oh to live life in the key of B.

The Bee

If on my mind you choose to rest
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
If in my dreams you find it best
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
For you will not leave at my behest
Those thoughts which I have since caressed
Think you now that I jest
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
I have no mind to run away
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
No sleepless nights, no seizing day
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
The choice is yours to act this way
Caterwauling shrieking jay
Here in peace I choose to stay
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
Sail-less ship, lost at sea
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
No longer bound, I set you free
I’ll let you be, I’ll let you be
Alone I’ll sing my melody
A harmonic minor key
No nectar for the stinging bee
I’ll let you. Be.
-skuldthevalkyrie2019
photo credit to Anna

Shorty ショート

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.

Hajime.

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

Shavasana (Death)

“Who needs sleep?
well you’re never gonna get it
Who needs sleep?
tell me what’s that for
Who needs sleep?
be happy with what you’re getting
There’s a guy who’s been awake
since the Second World War”

-Who Needs Sleep, BNL

What is another sleepless night? Wrapped in my fluffy cocoon at La Villa Strangiato, I am as snug as a doodlebug in a rug. The Landlord still prefers to keep the thermostat down, of which I am most appreciative. A hot room leads always to discomfort, and around here there is always a moose blanket or down comforter or a soft, warm, little ball of fur to snug up against. Cetri Zine and Ben Adryl, I thank you. Going with the flow means to accept all situations you can do absolutely nothing about, and this includes The Reynolds genome – small amount of sleep, early riser. The only remedy for this I have ever found was inhaling massive amounts of what my buddy from SC would refer to as “pine tree”, and such as it is, there is none to be discovered here.

I lay on my back, without pillow, arms by my sides and heels shoulder width apart. At times, I am laughing and crying with Mrs Maisel, and at others with the Outlander. Midge understands, and Jamie is the perfect human known to man. Even amidst the Carolina Cherokees and the unforgiving landscape he manages to find gratitude in the smallest things – a fish caught, the moonshine ripening, the daily battle for life, the daughter that he had never met traveling 200 years into the past to join him and her mother and welcoming her with open arms, and joyfully pulverizing her would-be aggressor. You know, the small stuff.

What I have come to understand is the truth in the small stuff. Exactly what it is in this life I appreciate and find value in.

A visit from one of my children.

Sunrises and sunsets.

The taste of a tart clementine.

Kisses from a beloved pet.

Unconditional love from my family.

A little job.

Safety.

For the snow to shovel in the morning.

For chances to spread kindness.

Playing my violin as often as I like and learning a new little song.

Morning yoga basking the beauty of the Shire.

True, loyal, lifelong friends.

For all I have loved and then lost.

For my imperfections.

Life. Breathing. In. Out. Weaving consciousness through every cell of my body.

Gratitude readily pours out of my eyes. As I have taken to wearing mascara again and not wiping tears, my face is morosely marked with the streams of release. Gratitude for these lovely things. Gratitude for lessons learned. Gratitude for the alchemy of the heart. Gratitude for the pain and suffering, welcoming it with open arms. Opportunities of being regularly challenge, with my response of “take me, and let me get swept away”. I feel every need for forgiveness and every transgression as the day it occurred.

Asking for the forgiveness of others.

Asking for the forgiveness of myself.

Offering my forgiveness to others.

https://jackkornfield.com/forgiveness-meditation/

It is through this divine forgiveness that I feel comfort. There are those who are no longer around me whose forgiveness I ask of and extend to, to the best of my ability every day. Time makes this easier, and laying in the complete vulnerability of Shavasana offers my being to experience this healing to its most intense capacity.

So on death? This is a process of letting go, as forgiveness in and of itself is a death, is it not? Of righteousness? Of vindication? Of shame. My dragonflies in amber are a reminder of the beauty in change, and of the hope of what remains to be seen. It is only through acceptance and understanding of death can we fully appreciate life.

So to sleep, perchance to dream. Or, not. Maybe someday.

Tonight, dolce far niente.

“I know it’s not my fault I did my best
God knows this heart of mine could use a rest

What more and more I find the dreams I left behind
Are somehow too real to replace

Last night I didn’t get to sleep at all
The sleeping pill I took was just a waste of time”

I couldn’t close my eyes ’cause you were on my mind”

-(Last Night) I Didn’t Get Any Sleep At All, The 5th Dimension