Two days after celebrating my 80th birthday, I’m looking at photographs from the event. There’s a lot of variation in these photos; I look younger in some than in others. In a couple of them, I’m struck by habitual gestures of the hands that I tend to associate with old age. I suspect that they are gestures I’ve had for a while that now look different in an older body. I wonder, not for the first time, how other people see me. Did I detect a question in our instructor’s glance at the dojo this morning, as if he was wondering about my physical situation as I rolled back and forth on the mat during the warm-up? Or was it just me wondering about that as I ventured a bit stiffly into the first Monday morning of my 81st year? Things flowed better once the body became more flexible, and Travis seemed to stop wondering—or maybe I just stopped imagining things. We did some suwariwaza, and knee-walking on the mat went okay for me.
Toward the end of the hour, Donald and I were doing iriminage. Donald is very strong, and I was concerned about getting behind him, making sure that I had a hand firmly around his neck, that his head was nestling against my shoulder, so that he’d be led off balance before I stepped back toward him for the fall. It wasn’t working too badly; in fact, Donald seemed pleased at being sent into hearty falls.
But Travis had seen something. He came up to us and commented that I was focusing on securing Donald’s head and neck, had gotten caught up in that and was trying to pull him toward me. (Travis generously allowed that he sometimes had that problem himself.) He suggested that I turn my head in the direction toward which the technique was traveling, the direction toward which our two outstretched arms were pointing. Then everything would go better.
Remembering that sense of direction made a difference right away. As I turned my head a little to the right, my eyes disengaged from their fascination with what my hands were doing, and my shoulders relaxed. Now my body was moving as a whole, and controlling the head and neck became part of that whole—a means, not an end in themselves. As I remembered where we were going, everything lightened up; I could experience how each part of a technique informs all the other parts. And Donald thudded onto the mat quite satisfactorily.
At eighty, I can say I know where I am heading. The body will do what bodies do. And yet this laboratory of the dojo is still teaching me so much about living that I’m grateful for every day that my body can go there and be a useful vehicle for learning. There’s always something important that I’m forgetting–and there’s help here for remembering. Realizing that leaves me oddly confident about stepping out on the road ahead.