Just Show Up

by Beth Eisenhood

When Kim first introduced the idea of participating in sword class to me, I laughed. The closest I had ever come to a martial art was in selecting a weapon-bearing toy action figure as a talisman. Facing cochlear implant surgery, and wanting something to embody the warrior spirit I was going to need, I found a 5” female Celt in a sexy little ‘battle dress,’ wielding an outsized dagger. In the weeks before the surgery, I enjoyed placing her on my computer at work and next to my bed at night, posed in various assertive stances and always with her sword at the ready. However, she wasn’t such a projection of my own spirit that I ever imagined myself handling a weapon.

It’s possible that I am the least kinesthetically-aware person ever to find her way to Embrace the Moon. I came to tai chi class by way of Swedish Hospital’s pain clinic, and stayed due to Kim’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of my limitations. She accepted that I can observe a simple gesture or movement five or six times, and still not be able to mirror it back. Sequencing of movements (let alone inner intent) is even more of a challenge. But somehow I stayed in tai chi class; Kim poured energy into teaching me, and I slowly grew in faith that even I could learn this beautiful form.

So, time passed, I began to have a home practice, and then last fall Kim announced that Madame Gao was going to teach sword. This doesn’t concern me, I thought. My life is full, and anyway, Kim would never assume that a person at my level of ability could work with a weapon.

WRONG! Kim said, “You need to try this!” Along with the shock came my sarcastic grin; ”Oh yeah, ‘Beth and her sword!’” But soon there I was, enthusiastically attending the first several classes. After language challenges in Peace Corps Brazil, and then 20 years of increasing deafness before surgery, not being able to understand the speech of the instructor was nothing new or intimidating, and actually freed me from hearing concerns so that I could concentrate on Madame Gao’s body language. I felt reasonably confident with, and very attracted to, the practice.

Then my good beginning faltered…I missed a class, struggled in the next one, left town for a family crisis that climaxed with my mother’s death. I returned several weeks later, seriously behind in the form and shaky in my psyche.

I left partway through the subsequent class with Madame Gao, feeling spacey and disconnected. My journal for the next sword practice says, “Kim is very intuitive about what I can absorb,” but I was but I was becoming my own worst critic. I missed yet another practice, then stayed about five minutes into the following one before giving up and slipping out the back door of the dojo.

This retreat did not go unnoticed, however. Kim met me at the street; “Where are you going?” she confronted me. My weak excuses for my ‘sword form failure’ were not accepted. “You’re putting up barriers; you’ve decided you can’t do this. If you leave now, you will never come back.” Was she reading my mind? Torn between giving up or persevering, I agreed to rejoin the class if Kim would walk back with me. My goal for that night became just to remain in the room, no matter how imperfect, inadequate and out of place I felt.

Thus was born my new philosophy for sword class—“just show up!” I dropped expectations for levels of performance, hopes for internalizing sections of choreography, and embarrassment at being out of synch with the rest of the group. My discipline, from then till now, is to clear away the excuses that subtly encourage me to stay home, and, at whatever cost, to simply arrive for a class or a practice session. I try to have no preconceptions about what might happen once I get there; the main thing is create the possibility for the unknown by just being present.

Much of the time I still feel awkward and ‘behind,’ and usually I’m struggling to figure out what move comes next. But there have been a few times of grace, where I get an easy flow of energy and I feel that beginner’s confidence that I did in the initial classes. Comparisons with others fall away, and I’m just left curious about what I can absorb and embody this time around. If you’re having trouble meeting your expectations for yourself, I invite you to join me and ‘just show up!’