Note: I do write actual books, both about Aikido and about fitness. But this isn’t a real book. There’s only Chapter 10. The rest is for fun, and to provide context.
By Linda Eskin
Aikido of San Diego
Dave Goldberg Sensei
19 November 2022
In our dojo, at each rank, we write a brief essay discussing what Aikido means to us, the difference it has made in our lives, or some lightbulb moment or epiphany we credit to our training. This is my essay as I approach testing for the rank of sandan — third-degree black belt — at the age of 60, and after 13 years, 6 months, and 15 days on the mat.
I’ve found it terribly hard to write this. It feels like it should be momentous, should capture the one thing that is most important to me about my Aikido practice, should be the last word about how Aikido has changed my life. There’s too much there to pack into one brief paper. For that, I’m grateful that I’m free to continue to write and share more at my site, GrabMyWrist.com. I have started and set aside a dozen other essays. This is the one I chose to keep, for today. What you read here is just what is burning most brightly for me at this moment in time.
I’ve left out many, many details about the health issues I mention here. It’s not out of concern for privacy, but so I don’t bore you to tears. If you have any questions, ask. I’ll be happy to answer them.
The Quotes and Lyrics
I suggest you not skim over the quotes and lyrics interspersed among the paragraphs. They are integral to the story.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – May 2009: Training Diary – The First 6 Classes
Chapter 2 – September 2009: 6th Kyu — Reflections at the 1st Milestone
Chapter 3 – February 2010: 5th Kyu Test & Beyond
Chapter 6 – January 2012: 2nd Kyu — Hearing My Own Advice
Chapter 7 – March 2013: 1st Kyu — Happy New Year (kinda)
Chapter 8 – December 2014: Shodan Essay — Dear Ueshiba Sensei
Chapter 9 – February 2018: Nidan Essay — There’s No Waiting
Chapter 10 – November 2022: From Nidan to Sandan — A Winding Path
Chapter 11 – Coming soon…
The Journey of a Lifetime
Chapter 10: From Nidan To Sandan — A Winding Path
The Start of a Journey
I am nothing if not patient. Things take time. I stand back and wait my turn. It will all work out in the long run if I just hang in there and keep going.
I’m starting to see that a more proactive sense of immediacy might be worth cultivating.
February 18, 2018 – My nidan exam did not go as I’d hoped. Problems with my heart rate and breathing made it impossible to do my best. Training was hard, physically, and emotionally, and my test was a miserable experience. I was disappointed and angry.
My options were to pick myself up and keep going, or … Well, there weren’t any other options. I always pick myself up and keep going.
I dove right into serious fitness training, and earned the StrongFirst Kettlebell Instructor certification, the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done. It felt amazing to accomplish that.
I participated in fitness conferences and a martial arts teaching conference, ran online fitness challenges, worked to get my brand in front of people. I put cool graphics on my car.
I was determined to develop my sputtering little business into something that would make a difference in the world, and to reach beyond my local community with my writing.
Meanwhile, my left foot was becoming a problem. I had Morton’s neuromas — clumps of painful scar tissue on the nerves between the metatarsal bones — in both feet since about 2015. Periodic shots helped, but never for long. I did my best to keep going, but everything is hard when it hurts to walk.
I tried to be patient. Healing takes time. Things would work out. I hung in there.
2019 was a fantastic year for seminars. I went to every one I could, taking long road trips to the out-of-town events.
- San Diego Aikido Bridge Marathon Seminar in January
- Evolutionary Aikido Seminar at our own dojo in February
- Association of Women Martial Arts Instructors (AWMAI) “Teaching the Teacher” Conference, San Diego, in February
- Sensei Revisited Aikido Camp with Nadeau and others in Occidental, in May
- Aiki Summer Retreat at Granlibakken in June
- Doshu 2019 Seminar – Moriteru Ueshiba, the “Keeper of the Way” in September
- ASU Fall West Coast Intensive at Redlands Aikikai in November
Over the previous year I’d watched a vibrant young friend die. I saw how easily we can all make that leap from a mysterious bellyache to advanced disease, from fully expecting to have a limitless future to knowing we’re only traveling as far as the horizon we can see.
I jammed as much fun and adventure into these trips as I could. I took extra days. I visited friends and family. I stopped everywhere there was a wide spot in the road, and saw everything I could see: scenic drives, beautiful lakes, cute hotels, volcanos, tiny towns, high passes, lovely museums, and the oldest working soda fountain in the state.
I took risks, hiking alone in remote areas. I scared myself half to death when I encountered a mountain lion crouched in tall grass on the opposite shore of a small river. I felt its gaze, then saw its eyes, black on fawn, staring, motionless. My heart stopped. “This was stupid, being alone out here. I know better. I’m going to die” Then it raised its head, pricked its ears, and turned into a deer.
I took it all in, did All The Things, because we never know when we might be back. Or if.
I haven’t been back.
It was a fantastic year for seminars, but not so for my Aikido, or my work.
My left foot was worse. It didn’t just hurt to walk, it just hurt. I sat out much of the training that year, watching from the sidelines, taking thousands of photos, being a good sport about it all and pretending to be OK.
Also, how could I do fitness coaching if I couldn’t even stand for long? I held back on promoting my business and focused on getting better.
In October I scheduled surgery. I’d had all I could take of patience. I wanted someone to fix it. My usual podiatrist couldn’t fit me in until the next spring, so I went with a recommended doctor who could do it before the end of the year. I’d be back in business in a few months.
At about that time my dear husband, Michael, gave me a tremendous gift: He suggested I quit the contract gig that had been consuming all my time and energy, and instead focus solely on my writing and coaching. I spent the next few months wrapping up client work and getting prepared to take on my business with nothing in my way to stop me.
In early December I finally had the surgery. A little knot of tissue the size of a garbanzo bean was causing all the trouble. Now it was gone, and I could look forward to moving, pain-free, in just a few weeks. To celebrate I got myself a 3-year subscription to AllTrails, and sat with my healing foot elevated, researching and bookmarking all the places I wanted to walk and hike, just as soon as I was able.
I was so excited about my opportunity to coach people to better health and fitness. My vision is to reach people who aren’t being reached by the fitness industry. It’s work that matters, that can change lives, and I’d be free to do it.
2020 was going to be amazing.
2020. Well …
You know. You were there.
About the time I was finally free, about the time I had time, about the time it was all supposed to come together, the world fell apart.
My foot didn’t heal as expected. At least it didn’t hurt all the time now, only when I walked.
And I kept getting sick. I called it The Pain Flu. Everything hurt, even my eyeballs. Coughing, fever, gut troubles, … Every few weeks, for months. The cough never went away.
I couldn’t catch my breath when I was active. Sometimes it was really bad. I nearly called for rescue from a easy local hike, on a trail designed for children. I thought it was an existing problem with my heart, but monitoring turned up nothing. I was told I had asthma.
Then the pandemic stopped everything.
Almost everything. My dad was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He (understandably, at 86) refused the brutal surgical treatment. He’d have maybe two hard years. Maybe.
My foot troubles were multiplied by knee troubles. Just getting around was hard. Hiking? Nope. Training? Ouch. In October I ordered a kick scooter so I could join Michael on walks.
We only saw our friends and families on Zoom. Weekly gatherings, online workouts with my mom. Not the same as being there, but it was something.
I’d expected that in 2020 I would be building a modest business, would be making a decent living, would be showing clients what they were capable of, changing readers’ lives. I’d envisioned I would be selling my first book on tables at those seminars I’d been going to for years. I’d hoped I would be hitting the trails and getting in great shape again.
Instead, well… You know. You were there.
Aikido Amidst the Chaos
Aikido was the thread that held me together. As the world was falling apart, as I was falling apart, Aikido was still there. The eye in the hurricane. The dojos were dark, and many gone forever. But the people, the community, the art, the energy… It was still there.
We had to give up our space. That space was my home, the place where I grew up. It broke my heart to lose it, like watching the bank auction off the family farm. Nothing you can do. It broke my heart to see my teacher have to take his dojo apart, piece by piece, alone.
Our dojo went straight to virtual training. Like water flowing over rocks, around boulders, through impossibly tiny cracks in a landslide. We kept going. We found a way. We hung together.
We took turns teaching on Zoom, being sure each time to include a check-in to see how we could support each other. Sensei led months of mindfulness sessions. We got creative with solo training. We took our phones and iPads out to our yards and trained together with our weapons. By fall of 2020 we were training in the park, too.
During the pandemic I did everything on Zoom, and that was just fine with my sore foot and knee, and my asthmatic lungs. I did every seminar and workshop I could find. The worldwide community pulled together to keep Aikido going. I saw teachers every week that I’d be lucky to see once in an average year. There were conferences on how to lead virtual classes, workshops on inclusion, thoughtful weekly discussions, deep explorations, courses on teaching, and even a course on sitting and standing properly. We saw old friends, and made new ones. A lot of those things are still happening — part of our new world.
When talking about the challenges of adapting to our new situation one teacher observed “This is what we’ve trained for.” It was truly an inspiring experience. This intimate, hands-on art shifted seamlessly to a new way of doing everything, and it worked.
Turning a Corner
No winding path is steep forever. Things started to level out, to ease up, to look hopeful.
My dad had found, via a fragile thread of unlikely connections, an oncologist who would treat him with immunotherapy. No surgeries, no chemo, and now, no cancer. Incredible!
In March of 2021 we got our first vaccine shots, and in April our second, triggering a momentous shift. We were able to go out now, masked still, but out. We were able to see friends and family in person. I felt safe enough to train, masked, in the park.
It started to look like life would go on.
Between not being able to be as physically active as usual over the past few years, and eating out of stress and boredom, I had packed on unwanted pounds. In January I hit my highest weight ever, and it wasn’t muscle. In fits and starts I began working to take it off. I started eating better. I still had no cardio-pulmonary endurance. I couldn’t walk much, so I got a cheap rowing machine. It was something. You have to meet yourself where you are.
I was able to get to physical therapy for my knee. I was able to visit my awesome care team: chiropractor, massage therapist, and podiatrist (not the one who did the surgery). Together we got my body in good working order. I found shoes I could tolerate (shoutout to Xero Shoes). I was able to start walking and hiking again.
After a particularly useless visit to Urgent Care in July I sat in their parking lot and Googled my symptoms: shortness of breath, sore spot in throat, chronic cough, and discovered that my “asthma” was actually laryngopharyngeal reflux, or “silent” reflux. I made a few easy changes to when and what I ate, and adjusted a few ways I did things, and within weeks all the presumed heart and breathing problems resolved. No more inhalers, no more steroids.
In August our dojo moved into a new space. It’s small, it’s cramped, it has low ceilings, and we have to set up the mats every day, but we’re able to train again. What a joy!
Making a Comeback
This year has been amazing — intense, happy, hard, beautiful, and in many ways normal.
Normal is amazing.
Dad is doing great! We will celebrate his 88th birthday a week from today.
Once I could breathe, and move without pain, I set my mind to improving my fitness and losing some of the pounds I’d put on. So far I’ve dropped over 30 pounds.
A dojo mate suggested I run a 5K to improve my cardio-pulmonary fitness. I’ve never been a runner. I was told as a kid that I shouldn’t run, because of the way my feet are built. I’d never so much as run a mile in my life. But I started training, slowly. Last Sunday I ran my first-ever 5K race, with bib numbers and finishing medals and everything. I came in last among the runners, but I didn’t walk, I didn’t stop, I didn’t quit. I did it! Injury-free, pain-free.
In 2021 I had joined a wonderful community of writers and found new momentum for my work. With their coaching I started to develop a new perspective on my writing, reworking the whole approach to my books to make them more accessible and effective. I am only one person, but I still believe that what I have to say can inspire and encourage people. I’m excited to get it out into the world.
Running Into My Own Walls
It is said that any big challenge puts you up against whatever stops you in the rest of life. Between trying to finish my book and prepare for this test… Boy, have I been challenged.
It turns out I’m great at generating ideas, brainstorming, outlining, researching, imagining, writing, trying things out, and expanding on ideas. Divergent thinking. But when it came to narrowing things down, cutting, editing, choosing, refining, and finalizing? Convergent thinking? Something about that kept stopping me in my tracks.
While working on my book I’d find my mind wandering. I’d need to do laundry, make lunch, do some yardwork. Maybe study some point a little more, first. I got sidetracked, traced my family history, took up whole new hobbies. Progress was slow and discouraging.
These were important points to notice. I’m now able to see some long-standing patterns.
Aikido training was tough, too. Early in preparation for my sandan demo I was badly out of shape! I was still working to lose weight, not yet running, and had no endurance. We’d only just gotten back onto the mat. Everything felt awkward, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and hard. I was excited to be training for something so big, but it was a struggle.
It seemed like everything was stopping me. I’d been down for so long… My business was dormant, but work seemed impossible. I was going to be 60 soon. Friends asked if I was retired — done — when I was really struggling to get started. I felt small. I desperately wanted to be OK, to write well, to train hard, to be successful, but… Could I even do this?
One afternoon on my way to the dojo my iPhone served up a song I’d heard before but had never really noticed: Rachel Platten’s Fight Song.
I know it’s pop-y. I know it’s cliché. But it spoke to me. I will take inspiration wherever I can find it, cliché or not. I played it on repeat every day on my way to class:
“Hey Siri. Play Fight Song, acoustic version, by Safari.”
Rising from Ashes
This demo, in my mind, was going to be a celebration of rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the last few years — overcoming physical challenges, surviving the pandemic, beginning to heal from years of political malevolence. A new chapter for family, work, Aikido, and life.
In my early notes I wrote these keywords:
“Restoration, healing, optimism, determination, delight, recommitment, possibility, wonder. Continuing forward, fresh eyes, shoshin, a new beginning, persisting.”
Soft. Light. Easy …
I often choose an energy or quality to work on at each phase of my Aikido practice. I might spend a season focusing on being grounded, or direct, or airy. For this demo I initially chose softness, lightness, ease. Blending smoothly with energy. Using as little effort or force as possible. Deescalating encounters. Caring for the attacker. All that Aikido-y stuff, you know.
That’s what I was working toward. Cool. Calm. Quiet. Minimal.
But the coaching I got was something quite different indeed.
I was told my techniques felt tentative, cautious, like I was holding back. I was told to be clear, direct, active, sharp. “Are you afraid of fire?” “Show confidence.” “Get the job done.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten this feedback. But I found it perplexing. What about the lightness? In my mind it was a koan. I let it be and felt my way through as best I could.
Sometimes I feel like I have too much fire. I can be forceful, strong, obstinate, hurried. I can try to muscle my way through. I didn’t want more fire, I wanted to work on its opposite.
Or that’s how I thought about it, at first.
As I continued training, I began to see alignment instead of opposition. Water and fire. Receptive and direct. Calm and powerful. Easy and effective. This is not new to me — I know this stuff — but when I started to physically put it into action it made sense in a new way.
I started to see the consequences of shying away from fire energy in other areas of my life: waiting for the right circumstances, hoping things would get better, not feeling ready to act.
With that intense, hot, fire energy I could finish a book. Being confident and direct could only help me reach my business goals. Sometimes a little fire is called for.
How a Phoenix Works
When thinking of the theme of my practice I’d pictured a beautiful bird hatching from an egg in ashes and flying off. Ashes from… well, something. That was the image in my mind.
But that’s not how a Phoenix works. For that beautiful new bird to emerge and take wing, the old one has to end its long existence.
It sets itself on fire. On fire!
A phoenix doesn’t rise from just any ashes. It rises from its own.
Its own ashes!
Before we can rise from the ashes, we have to burn ourselves down.
Where have I heard that before?
What can I let go of?
What can I stop doing?
Who can I stop being,
So that I might become who I am?
This year I turned 60.
60 is an age where you realize all that “getting ready” is behind you. Someday is here.
At 60 I can see that I might have 40 years left, or 10, Who knows? There’s no more time for being patient, for hoping things will work out, for somedays, for waiting for my turn.
Now is time to get the job done, time to speak up, time for action. Time to put recent insights into practice, on and off the mat. Time to stop being tentative, holding back, being cautious. Time to “do it the way I meant to do it,” every day. Time to bring some clarity, some immediacy, some heat. Time to turn on the fire.
This is my turn.
Light it up, Baby, it’s time to burn.