July 24, 1997

Dear Sensei:

Many friends wanted to know details regarding Chicago. Perhaps you will be interested in my thoughts.

On Friday, June 20, 1997, I took and passed my Aikido Shodan (First Degree Black Belt) test before a national committee and an international gathering in Chicago.

For those of you who do not know, I have been studying this art for 17 years and nine months. Except for two periods when I was off the mat for injuries, six weeks each time, and except for the year when my son Jonathan was born when I only went to classes one evening per week (sometimes only three times in a month), I have been on the mat two to four times each week since September 15, 1979. Each year I have attended at least one seminar which included from 12 to 18 hours on the mat and during a number of years I attended two, three, or four seminars.

Most people who devote this much time and focus generally take from eight to 12 years to reach Shodan. Partly because of my own stubborn ways (it was five years before I took my first test), partly because of my own "unique" learning curve (a form of dyslexia), partly because of moving between schools and changes in requirements, and partly because this is just how it happened, my path has been somewhat extended.

Two and a half years ago I was blessed to meet Sensei Ginny Whitelaw who is a student of Shihan Fumio Toyoda, founder of the Aikido Association of America. Toyoda Shihan studied in Japan at Hombu Dojo (Aikido World Headquarters dojo founded by O Sensei) and was Uchi Deshi (live in student) of Koechi Tohei (one of O Sensei's first students).

I arrived in Chicago last Thursday morning having spent the early part of the week fighting off a sore throat and a cold. I taught classes in Atlanta on Monday and Wednesday evenings. Ginny had been out of town a good portion of the last two months and Scott Hawkins, our second wonderful teacher in Atlanta, had been in Japan for the previous nine weeks, so I had been teaching most of our dojo's classes. This was good for me in many ways yet I was also feeling the lack of direct assistance as my own test time approached.

Having checked into the Chicago dojo where I planned to sleep during the seminar I made my way across town to the campus of Northeastern Illinois University where the seminar was staged. This required a walk, carrying weapons and uniforms and the like, of about a mile from the end of the train line to the gymnasium at NIU.

From six to nine PM there was a session on the mat which was fast paced and full of energy. The only real problem was that there was a black belt from Bulgaria who was more into demonstrating strength than grace. He applied a wrist turning technique, called kotegaeshi, to my right hand, and by the time I got up I was convinced that my wrist was torn if not broken.

I stayed on the mat and worked it out and stretched it out, protected it and prayed not a little, and by the end of the evening was certain that there was no permanent damage, merely pain and some limit to my movement. We retired from the mat and made it back to the dojo where I spent a very restless night on a very hard mat with loud city noises, louder snoring, and growing pain and tightening of my wrist through the night.

By morning I was half a wreck and all tired but we headed out again to the seminar sight. We did not know when the tests would be conducted other than that it could be at any moment. Another three hours on the mat at a brisk pace. My wrist was fairly loosened up and only a little painful by the time the session was over.

At that point we were informed that the five Shodan tests would be conducted during the lunch break and the other tests would be during the same break on the following day. We bowed out at 1:00 PM with instructions to be back at 1:20 with four or five "Uke" (attackers) in tow.

At 1:20 we bowed in. There were six senior Sensei's on the Test Committee all lined up to the left facing the center of the mat. There were about 20 black belts lined up on the right facing the center of the mat and there were about 20 brown belts, including the five of us being tested, lined up at the base of the mat facing the central area and the Shoman. The Shoman is the head of the mat which held a picture of O Sensei and calligraphy in his hand naming our path, AI-KI-DO, the way of harmony with the energy of life. Any resemblance to a star chamber or an elaborate gauntlet or The Valley of the Shadow of Death was completely intentional. Another 50 people were sitting in bleachers practicing pointing with their thumbs.

The first candidates name was called and he went to the center of the vortex, sat and bowed to the test committee. One after another, Uke were called from the ranks of the black belts and attack instructions were called out. Each Uke did his or her best to impress the testing committee that the attack was as near "street quality" as possible. The student demonstrated from ten to 15 responses to each attack form and a new, fresh, rested, and restless Uke was called for the next onset.

The student continuously and immediately responded with a variety of techniques from standing positions, sitting positions, and to attacks with the Boken (wooden sword). Then the student demonstrated a 22 step kata, twice, with the Jo (wooden staff), once with a count audible to the whole gymnasium and once again in a curiously deadly silence.

He sat again facing the inquisition in expectation of a short respite before the randori (multiple attack). The short respite turned out to be long enough for the test committee to call the names of four large, fresh, rested, restless, eager to impress, black belts. The head of the committee yelled "hajime" which means "start" but has etymological relationships to "kill" and "fetch".

Each of the four (horsemen of the Apocalypse comes to mind) were intent on bringing the student to his knees and the four as a team were working on the same goal. (Mathematically this works out to 15 sets of attackers in the forms of A, B, C, D, AB, AC, ABC, ABCD, and etc. It is, however, an illusion as I know that the real combinations are infinite no matter what the mathematicians may say. The problem is that this is a digital analysis, we live in an analog universe and the mat has more dimensions than other places.)

Just as the student begin to fail from the knees downward the committee chair yelled "ya mei" or "stop", (rip apart with the hands, eat) and the infinite number of black belts with an infinite number of techniques forming the words "to be or not to be...", all stopped and sat down. The student, recovering his grasp on life, time, and gravity, sat and faced the committee, bowed, said thank you and walked, somewhat upright, to the sounds of thunderous applause from the entire room, back to the row of brown belts where he sat again.

My admiration and awe was overshadowed only by the sound of my own name being called, echoing from the caverns of despair, resounding with the rhetorical shapes of "In the name of the father...."

I saw the first student's life flash before my eyes as I walked in a trance to the position of impossible completion. Before I knew it the sacred words of Ya Mei sounded once again just at the moment when my body, mind, heart, and soul sang out in perfect harmony, "I prey the Lord my soul to take."

Somehow I turned and moved the proper spot facing the committee, was able to sit and bow saying "domo arigato gozeimashta", thank you, rose and walked back to my place, to the still resounding sound of applause from the hundred gathered there.

My completely exhausted body relaxed and my consciousness slowly returned as I watched the next student walk the path of no return. Then during the next test I heard the name of the first person who had been tested called out to be one of the attackers. He ran to his position and became as one of the black belts, intent on simulating a street mugging.

If, then, students come to inquisition, when shall winter ever end?

At that moment it came clear that I too would soon be called as Uke. Warrior from the other side of the line. What would I do? I had nothing left, no heart, no strength, no hope, no will. Yet when my name was called I rose and attacked with full strength, full participation, and clear intent. How could I let my brother face anything less than complete reality? By the time my ten attacks were done and the student, Oliver from Puerto Rico, pinned me to the mat I knew that when I got up I would vomit and fall down again.

I made it to my knees and resigned myself to my revolting stomach and gave up all struggle. I had just enough time to resolve the humiliation by planning to throw up into my gi jacket which was open enough in the front to allow this small salvation. My resignation and resolution provided a miracle and I did not heave just then but made it back to my seat on the sidelines where my traitorous stomach again threatened. Once again it was overcome by my resignation and resolution. I neither heaved nor died on that spot but was reborn into another shell of the atom of life.

It was four hours later before we were told that all five who were tested had been awarded the rank of Shodan, "beginner."

My Sensei took me to dinner along with a most beautiful Shodan named Lis and we talked about many things. During the next day there were another six hours on the mat plus an hour and a half watching three Nidan (second degree black belt) and one Sandan (third degree) tests. One of the Nidan's entered his test with taped up toes which had been broken the day before ,and two of the Nidan applicants failed their tests.

On the Sunday I wore my hakama (flowing skirt originally used by Samurai as badge of rank and to hide the position of the feet from the opponent) for the first time. There was a three hour workshop in the art of Iaido, the art of drawing the Samurai sword. My balance and movement were entirely changed. There was focus where there had been none before, there was grace where there had been clumsiness, there was calm where there had been fear. The seminar ended with a public Aikido demonstration by the senior Sensei's from around the country. There was a crowd of about 150. I served as on of the Uke for my teacher's part of the demonstration

On Monday night I taught my first class in Atlanta as Shodan. I do not quite know just who this is inhabiting my body but it is not the Robert I knew just last week. I will be presented with my actual black belt on Friday when we conduct tests in our dojo where I will sit as a member of the test committee. These will all be "kyu" tests, all white belt steps toward Shodan. They start at 7th kyu and the highest we will test is 3rd kyu.

As I went into this process I was working on the assumption that I would be tested on my knowledge. I was entirely wrong. This was a test of character. They wanted to know just how much I was willing to put into it. When I sat down at the end of my ordeal I knew not what I actually had done, I knew only that I had given all I had and whatever the outcome I was satisfied with that.

It is true that what I have or what I know or what I can do has little meaning and that the only lasting measure is of what I am willing to give. My view of my own life has changed entirely. I have been operating as though being tested for ability or knowledge or product and in these I have succeeded and failed at various times and in various ways. What I know I have always done, however, is to give all I have to what I am doing, and whatever the outcome, and for the first time in my life, I am satisfied.

Robert