My Plan for Ruthless Focus & Productivity in 2020

My plan for 2020 and beyond: Aikido, Writing, and Fitness

Ten years ago I decided to write a book. I actually did write one – a just-for-fun throw-away I wrote for the learning experience – with plans to get to work on my “real book” after that. Even started my own publishing company. And I have been writing. My to-do list of books has expanded to around a dozen. I’ve created titles, outlines, chapters, front matter, marketing copy, graphics, …

Know how many I’ve completed so far? Zero.

Lots of Movement… in Random Directions

I’ve gotten lots of other things done – closed the horse-keeping chapter of my life, worked with a contractor to renovate the house, earned several fitness pro certifications, started my Fit Coach Linda business, sold the truck and trailer, doctored a sick kitty, created business websites and graphics, helped a friend though his mom’s last few months, participated in workshops and networking meetings, and of course I’ve continued to train regularly in Aikido. 

But mostly for the past four years the bulk of my productive hours have been consumed with doing relatively low-paying hourly work for a handful of non-profit web clients. This is the kind of work I had to give up as full-time career because my body can’t take 8 to 12 hours a day working at a desk. But these were paying gigs, part time, on my own schedule. Good work if you can get it, right? So I took them on. 

Amazingly, I had two instances where I’d wrapped up a major project, sat down with coffee in hand the next morning to get reacquainted with my writing works-in-progress, and within hours got a call asking me to take on this or that new client. Ever feel like the universe is deliberately taunting you?

It’s Time to Regroup!

While the clients and the work have been great, it’s been frustrating to feel that I have an important contribution of my own to make, while having my plate full with tasks for others. For years I’ve been just about to really get rolling on my own work. Any minute now. Right after I handle this urgent e-commerce issue. And document these bugs. And take this phone call. I never seemed able to get any momentum going. 

“The key question to keep asking is, 
Are you spending your time on the right things? 
Because time is all you have.”

Randy Pausch
The Last Lecture

My dear husband noticed this pattern, too, and proposed a solution that’s going to change my life dramatically for the better: Stop doing outside work. My work offers no benefits, and we are fortunate to be in a position now where I do not have to bring in a steady (if small) paycheck. I sat with the idea for a week or so, to be sure it was realistic. It is. So at the beginning of December I gave 60 days notice to my web/UX clients: No more outside work after January 31st.

What a gift! It is thrilling and a little frightening. It feels fragile, precious, slippery. During school I had to work, and for a few semesters also cared for my ailing grandparents. With several employers I learned after years of dedication that I never really had a chance of succeeding there. I’ve made tactical career mistakes and wasted time on pointless projects. I’ve been through health challenges that knocked out a year or two here and there, too. I’ve been variously blocked, sidetracked, distracted, and thwarted. Now…?

“Your heart knows the way. 
Run in that direction.”

13th Century Persian Poet

Now, unbelievably, the road ahead is clear. No hindrances. No excuses. A chance to create exactly what I want, how I want. At 57 one doesn’t get many more do-overs. I can’t screw this up. I have work to do, and am determined to take full advantage of this chance to do it. I’m laying track now so on February 1st I can lock myself in my office, ignore my phone, and get down to business. I am so excited!

I really need to nail this.

This rare opportunity means taking a hard look at developing better ways of keeping my mind in my work. I need to be checking more things off my to-do lists than I’m adding. I have some longstanding habits that serve me, and some that don’t. It’s going to take an intentional effort to fully take advantage of this.

Are you with me? 

I know I’m not alone in this. In just the last few days I’ve talked to so many friends in similar situations. Some are realizing that another year has gone by without getting the really important stuff done. Others are setting out on brand new adventures. A couple will be starting new jobs in the new year. It seems there’s a lot of change in the air.

“The scariest moment is always just before you start. 
After that, things can only get better.”

Stephen King
On Writing

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to stay on track, how to actually accomplish the things I have in mind. So in case it’s helpful, here, in no particular order, are some thoughts I’ve been thinking on how to (finally, goshdarnit) stay focused and be productive.

Let’s get started.

Set goals, measurable, with deadlines. Yes, I know, this strategy is older than dirt, but it endures because it works. I am setting challenging but realistic process goals and performance goals. 

“Wait, what?” you say, “There are two kinds of goals?” Yes, two kinds. 

Process goals are about developing habits or regular patterns of behavior that support us. They are the means by which we succeed. “Sit down and write for 4 hours each day” is a process goal. Similarly, “meditate every morning,” “eat ten servings of vegetables a day,” or “write all my random to-dos and errands in a list to deal with on Wednesdays,” are all process goals. 

Performance goals, on the other hand, are about the ends we are trying to achieve. “Have my first book finished and printed by June, 2020,” is a performance goal. A single objective, with a deadline. More examples: “Finish a 5K by the end of October,” or “Earn x dollars by ___ date,” are performance goals.

Either way, they need to be specific enough that I can answer “Did I do that today, or not?” Did I accomplish it as planned, or didn’t I? I’ll be writing them down and posting then right where I can see them. They will be the compass by which I can tell if I’m going in the right direction. Moment by moment, are my actions moving me closer to my goals, or are they not?

Use systems, tools, and rituals to stay on track. I’ve already updated my calendar with blocks of uninterpreted work times. I’ll use timers, track my hours, whatever it takes. I’ve worked out what should be a sustainable weekly schedule, and will do my best to stick with it. If it’s unworkable, I’ll modify it and try again. I find it also helps to observe rituals like consciously turning on the right lighting in my office each morning in my office, starting music from my Writing playlist, and turning on a fan to keep the air moving. At the end of the day I deliberately close things down and move on to the next thing.

Be mindful of attention and generosity. I have lots of interests and hobbies. I love my friends. It’s fun to learn something new. It’s rewarding to help out with a project here and there. It is against my nature to be stingy with my time, attention, or money. But if I’m to reach my goals, I need to skip a few lunches, say no to some requests, shut my office door, and get to work. That also means judicious use of social media, video binges only on my off hours, no photo-a-day challenges…

Focus, or relax. I’ve discovered that, for me, stress is doing one thing while feeling I should be doing another. Catching up on gardening while ignoring the papers on my desk. Tidying my office while while the yard goes to weeds. My solution is to set aside reasonable time for those chores and errands that need to get done. They won’t happen by chance – they are going on the calendar. So when I’m working I can be working, and when I take time to play, I can relax. 

Magically wishing away distractions doesn’t work. It’s all well and good to block off interruption-free time. But the fact is one still needs to run errands, make appointments, return phone calls, shop for groceries, clean the house, and deal with paperwork. My plan, then, is to handle all those things, as best I can, on Wednesdays. Wednesday is a day set aside for handling personal business – not for trying to work, and failing in frustration. Need a few minutes of my time? Great, let’s set up a call on Wednesday. Want to do lunch? I’d love to. Are you free on Wednesday?

Shopping and meal prep supports health and productivity. Earlier this week, for breakfast, I ate some cold “leftover” salmon I had deliberately prepared the previous night at dinner time. It was delicious, and supported me in eating healthy. I was able to grab an easy morning snack because some thoughtful person made some good food ahead of time – me! When I can prepare several days’ worth of food at once, and stock up on easy, nutritious snacks, it saves me time and helps me eat better, too.

Let most of the “important” causes take care of themselves. When I recently saw a Facebook group against something that really annoys me I almost reflexively clicked “+ Join Group.” Then I remembered that if I’m going to make a difference in my chosen area, I can’t spread myself so thin. This battle would have to be fought without my help. I can’t save the whole world. I might be able to make a difference in a little corner of it, but not if I succumb to every “important” distraction that comes along.

That doesn’t mean I”m going to bury my head in the sand. But maybe listening to one good news podcast each day is sufficient. When more in-depth understand is called for, set aside time on the weekend to catch up. My personal moment-by-moment comprehension of political, scientific, or other matters is not going to change the course of things for anyone. My completing my chosen work, on the other hand, might.

Keep training, and keep sleeping enough. It’s the time-management version of false economy to skimp on rest or grab easy junk food just to get in a little more time on a project. It seems every day we are learning more about the importance of sleep for our physical and mental health. That tired “just get up an hour earlier” advice won’t lead to success (or good health) in the long run. And skipping Aikido is out of the question for me. Aikido is my daily source of physical activity as well as socializing, plus it keeps me centered and happy. Plus it’s the inspiration and primary topic for my books! 

Say no, and honor boundaries.It took me five days to write this, squeezing in an hour or two here and there. During that time a client’s online store required urgent attention, a neighbor wanted my input before her gardener trimmed a hedge, I managed to get a last-minute appointment only days before my doctor retired, and my foot was still slowing me down after a minor surgery a few weeks ago. I had to sort out how to exchange a gift that broke, my husband had a minor dental emergency, and there was a dinner with friends. On one morning alone, four phone calls resulted in my leaving for an errand two hours later than I’d wanted to.  

“This is your life. You are responsible for it. 
You will not live forever. Don’t wait.”

Natalie Goldberg
Author and Writing Teacher

Stopping my outside client work will open up many productive hours and free my mind from most of the urgent interruptions. But there will always be other distractions and emergencies. A business cannot become profitable (or stay open!) by consistently giving away product, I will not succeed if I’m not disciplined about how I spend my time, and where I focus my attention. The strategies above are only nice ideas if I don’t respect my own schedules and deadlines, and honor the boundaries I set. It’s going to take conscious, ongoing, intentional effort. Always asking “is this what I mean to be doing right now?”

Countdown to Launch

I have a little more than a month to finish handing off work and training colleagues. I’m doing my best to dump all my client knowledge into persistent documents where the clients’ and their staff will have easy access to everything that’s currently in my brain. This is taking even more of my time than usual, but is a good investment. They don’t yet know what they don’t know, and will undoubtedly discover that they need the information. 

I have told my clients I will be minimally available, rarely, by appointment on Wednesdays only, for any lingering questions. No “just a 5-minute phone call for a quick question.” Tempting as it will be to be helpful, there’s that boundary thing again. For me even a brief interruption in my working time is like a small hole bored through the hull of a ship – it brings all forward progress to a dead halt. A few of those scattered throughout each day? Disastrous. For me, it’s focus, or allow intrusions. It can’t be both.

Meanwhile, as I’m wrapping up loose ends I’m also bringing the writing parts of my brain back online. I’m excited to get back to work, and want to hit the ground running. I’ve been listening again to favorite audiobooks about writing, refreshing my memory of the tools I use, and reviewing my works-in-progress to see what state I’d left them in. I’m even writing a bit, which feels really good. Only 41 days to go…

“All writing is launching yourself into the darkness, 
and hoping for light, and a soft landing.

Paul Theroux
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A Few Extras

Writers and Ritual – Bowing In

I heard some great advice recently, and it’s been working well for me this past week. It’s one of many useful practices from Ally Nathaniel’s “Productivity for Writers” session, in the Nonfiction Writers Conference (NFWC), a tremendously valuable presentation at this annual online event.

The idea is to create rituals to support your work. Simple things you do every time you write, habits that help you get into your focused flow state. Writing every day in the same place at the same time. Drinking coffee from your special writer’s mug. Listening to a certain kind of music, or a playlist of songs that work for you.

My Own Writer’s Rituals

So I put some thought into what my environment is like when I’m in a good flow for writing. When I just randomly walk into my office, listening to a podcast on my phone, I flip the overhead bare light bulb on and try to work, it feels like I’m only dropping by casually. Perching. I don’t settle in. I can’t seem to focus, and tend to wander off, either mentally, or physically. Maybe I should start my laundry, feed the cats, tidy up my desk…

So now I’m being more deliberate about it. I turn on three indirect “daylight” lights that create a whole different natural, open kind of energy to the space. I take my earbuds off, and set my phone on the charger instead of leaving it in my pocket. I put my favorite writing music on, playing through the speakers in my office.

It makes all the difference in feeling like I’ve settled into writing right from the start. Now I can achieve a flow in my work right away, rather than stumbling into that state randomly after hours of aimless fiddling around.

Bowing In

These actions are like bowing in. When we go to the dojo we put on our uniforms. Before we step onto the mat, in Aikido and other martial arts, we stop and bow. Those are rituals too–declarations of intent. Bowing in is a gesture of respect for the space, and it’s also an opportunity to set aside whatever daily concerns might be rattling around in our brains and commit to focusing on our training.

Bowing in works at the dojo. The same concept can be applied for writers in our work.

Preparing for an Aikido Exam – The Week Before

2nd kyu test candidates bowing in with their ukes

Someone in an Aikido group on Facebook has an exam coming up on Saturday. Here’s the gist of his post:

“Next Saturday I will do my 1st kyu exam. I am a bit nervous. I feel confident about the techniques but it’s still a big thing for me. Some advice or nice words would be appreciated” 

I answered him briefly there, and it got me thinking about all the things I do in the week before a test. When you are preparing for an Aikido exam, in addition to polishing your techniques you can also be preparing your body, mind, and circumstances to help you do your best. Sometimes I’ve prepared well, and sometimes not. Here are a few things that have worked for me.

Take care of your body

Between now and Saturday take care of yourself. Drink plenty of water, eat well, and get extra sleep. Stay well and uninjured. Run away from sick people! Wash your hands a lot. This is not the week to start a new fitness program or go to the trampoline park for the first time. If your test will be in the morning, and you are not a morning person, start getting up earlier this week.

Stick with “safe” foods in the days leading up to exam day – things you know agree with you and leave you feeling energized. Don’t try a new broccoli casserole recipe for dinner, or visit that just-opened sushi restaurant the night before your test.

Get in a good mental space

In your training, focus on building your confidence.  Save exploring new variations or cool, weird techniques for after your test. Instead, become more comfortable and fluid with what you need to demonstrate. In class, practice in the same connected, flowing, expansive spirit you want to feel during your exam. Don’t fiddle with things.

Understand how your test will be conducted so you know what to expect and aren’t thrown off by surprises. If you have any questions, ask your teacher, mentor, or sempai (senior students).

Each day visualize doing the beginning of your test brilliantly, starting with knee-walking to the center of the mat calmly, shoulders back, head up, breathing freely. Do not entertain our habitual pattern of imagining all the ways one could screw up. See yourself doing your best. 

Whatever will come first on your test, have it down solid. You will be fired up and nervous, and nailing those initial moments will do wonders for your sense of ease throughout the rest of your exam. Begin on a strong, confident note, and let the rest come naturally.

Handle your circumstances

If your test includes an essay or other written component, complete it several days ahead of time so you aren’t left cramming at the last minute. Same with thank-you notes or gifts – have them done and ready to go.

Set yourself up to have a relaxed, early evening on Friday. Trim your nails a couple days ahead of time. Fuel up your car. Set out your clothes and a clean uniform the day before, so you’re not rushing to do laundry into the wee hours – or the morning of your test! 

Pay your exam fee early, too. Don’t add the last-minute chore of stopping at the ATM to your already-busy Saturday morning.

The morning of your test

On test day, get up earlier than you think you need to. Eat right away, so you’ll have time for your breakfast to settle. Arrive at the dojo early and warm up slowly, especially if it’s a chilly morning – still visualizing doing well. If there are any techniques you’re worried about, review them with a friend. If you need to demonstrate weapons, put them where you can get to them easily during your test. Remind yourself that you are well prepared, and relax.

And finally, some nice words

You are ready or your teacher wouldn’t have asked you to test. You are as prepared as you can be. You have done everything you can to support yourself in preparing for an Aikido exam. Now relax, breathe, flow, and demonstrate your best Aikido with gratitude for all the teachers, dojo-mates, and experiences that got you this far. You will do fine.  

Self-Defense Tip: Use a “Code Word” for Emergencies

Note: It’s been a while since I’ve posted. All is well, training as usual, just focusing my time on my fitness coaching / personal training business. The thought of “getting caught up on my blogging” is overwhelming. So I’m not even going to try. I’ll just jump in and start posting… again.

“Self Defense” Isn’t Just About Getting Mugged

Often when I talk to people about Aikido, if they are at all familiar with the non-violent, non-fighting, non-badass philosophy of it at all, they grasp it on the level of “it’s just for self defense.” That’s a start, but it’s a very incomplete understanding of the art – especially the “-do” aspect, the way of being the Aikido supports.

Keeping oneself safe in the world is an important thing to think about. In my experience, 99.9% of self defense has nothing to do with being able to fight well or fend off an attacker. Real-life self-defense tips have been occurring to me recently, and I’ll be sharing them as I have time. For now, here are a few that came up in a discussion with friends this morning.

Use a “code word” for emergencies

A friend’s 90-y/o mom just got one of those “your son is in trouble and we need you to send money” kinds of calls.

To avoid future drama and worry, the family came up with the idea of reinstating the “code word” idea from childhood. You know, the one you needed to hear if someone pulled up in an unmarked windowless van and told you they were your mom’s friend, and she was hurt. (An excellent self-defense tip for kids, by the way.)

Also, their mom has caller ID, so some folks mentioned the idea of just not answering unknown numbers. (The caller can always leave a message.)

Both are good ideas, but I have a couple of issues to consider.

A few weeks ago received a call late at night from an unknown number about an actual friend who was actually injured (needed a ride to the ER)… Luckily for me, the phone’s owner was able to hand it to my mostly-coherent friend, so I could talk to him directly.

First, emergency calls likely would not come from the person’s own phone. They would come from the police, hospital, or lawyer. That’s why I don’t have unknown numbers blocked at night – or ever. (In my friend’s case the call came from the people in a nearby house who heard him yelling for help out on the sidewalk.)

Second, if the person were unconscious (as my friend nearly could have been – he’d hit his head) or unavailable, they would not be able to give the code word. So be sure it’s entered/written along with one’s emergency contact phone numbers, like on a paper behind one’s driver’s licence, or in the emergency info/Medical ID in one’s phone*. And of course keep it secret otherwise.

p.s. Keep your Medical ID info in your phone (or in your wallet)

Did you know that on the iPhone you can set up Medical ID information, including emergency contacts? It enables first responders to get important information about you, like known medical conditions (diabetes, epilepsy, having a pacemaker, etc.) that could help in treating you. You can include medications you take, allergies, any notes, and contact info for anyone you want to be called if you are found lying on the sidewalk or something. One would hope emergency personnel might look there for it.

Here’s how to set up Medical ID on your iPhone. Be sure to keep it current, including updating any medications that have changed. There either is, or isn’t, something similar on Android, depending on the model or version of the OS. I’ll leave it to you and Google to figure out if it’s available on your phone.

And of course it’s a good idea to put all this info in your wallet, too. Handy if your phone gets smashed in a wreck, or you don’t have it with you, or the paramedics just don’t think to look at your phone or can’t find it. Old school, but effective.

Aikido – It’s a Lot Like… Handwriting?

Printing versus Handwriting

When I was training for my nidan test (2nd-degree black belt) it seemed like everything I’d learned previously was wrong. I would do what I was sure I’d been taught, what I’d been doing all along, and then we’d stop and work on doing it right. My spacing and timing was wrong. Things I’d practiced carefully over and over were wrong. Things I’d heard as perfectly clear, specific instructions were wrong. “But, but, but, … Damn it!” It was terribly frustrating. At some point (unfortunately not until just before my last pre-test run-through), I just decided that nidan must be the level at which you have to un-learn everything you thought you knew, and chose to take it all in with a kind of detached, bemused curiosity. “Oh, goody. Let’s see what I’m doing wrong today.” That made the apparent contradictions easier to deal with, at least.

Even the morning of my test, reviewing a weapons partner practice I’d be demonstrating, I learned that the way we’d all been very deliberately doing one particular detail was wrong. Aaauugghh! At least I was able to fix it in time for my test.

I’ve long thought of the stages of learning Aikido being analogous to learning to write. At first we learn our letters. “Aa Bb Cc Dd …” Then we put them together to form simple words. “Cat. Dog. Toy.” Soon we add more words, and put them together to form simple sentences. “My cat likes to sleep in the sun.” Over time we learn to express more complex ideas. We can write persuasive essays, evocative poetry, and powerful novels.

This was something different. I finally realized it was like having worked to master legible printing, and now being expected to write in flowing cursive handwriting.

Cursive is smooth and continuous. There’s no stopping and starting between the letters. Words are whole, not made up of separate parts. Once we’re good at it, writing in cursive should be faster and easier. Done well, it’s beautiful, too.

Printing is kihon waza, basic technique. Cursive handwriting is ki no nagare waza, flowing technique.

To write in cursive we have to let go of much of what we know about printing. Things we’ve worked to master for printing are “wrong” for cursive. Those deliberate, absolutely vertical straight lines? Ditch ’em! Now our lines should lean and bend and loop. The perfectly round, complete circles? Out the window! In their place we pen graceful ellipses and swirling curves that sometimes (horrors) don’t even completely close. As we grow more confident, and mature in our ability, we develop our own style. Our writing may be tight and orderly, or swirly and free. Regardless of our individual style, we can convey beautiful messages that connect us with our readers.

I admire beautiful handwriting, but I’ve never been any good at it, and haven’t used it since elementary school. I’m really good at printing, though! In fact, because of my background in engineering I can print in perfectly straight, disciplined, careful, all-caps block letters like nobody’s business.


Time to work on my handwriting.

Nidan Essay: There’s No Waiting

“There’s your trot.”

Mark stood in the center of the south end of the arena, near the barn. His long oilskin duster and cowboy hat seemed out of time with the black boom mic he was wearing. His moment-by-moment feedback reached me via the PA sitting on the tailgate of his truck.

“Too late. Circle until she comes back to a walk.”

Sabrina was a beautiful, solid black mare – my first horse – half Friesian, half Morgan, with rockstar hair and an energetic, bouncy way of going. She was powerful, smart, and gorgeous. She and I alternately walked and trotted along the rail of my friend’s big arena. The west side overlooked the long mountain grade down toward San Diego. On a clear day you’d be able to see the ocean, 50 miles west.

A couple dozen folks – other participants in the horsemanship clinic, or auditors just there to watch and learn – looked on from a deck off the barn at the south end, bundled in Carhartt jackets and warming their hands on mugs of hot coffee.

I had been struggling with Sabrina taking off with me right from the beginning. She would launch into her big trot. I’d try to get her to walk. She’d toss her head and swish her tail – signs of frustration. This was how it always went. We were in a seemingly constant battle between her wanting to go faster and me wanting to go slower. I didn’t mind speed, but I felt I didn’t have control, and so I didn’t feel safe going out on rides. Well into my 30s I’d finally gotten the horse I’d dreamed of since childhood, and now I couldn’t ride her.

I had been through two trainers, taking lessons with each for months, working on this. I’d been advised to use a stronger bit to force her to listen to me, “show her who was boss,” “not let her get away with that disobedience.” But Sabrina was a sweet-natured horse without an ounce of malice in her. Force and domination was not the answer. I knew that much, at least. In desperation I’d forked over the painfully large sum of $425 to spend an hour each day for four days working with this guy I’d heard about, Mark Rashid.

“There! Did you feel her walk speed up? That’s when it happens. That’s when you need to address it.”

It was my first time working with Mark, although I’d read a few of his books and liked what he had to say. As modest and self-effacing as they come, he seemed to be a magician when it came to fixing problems with horses. Or more often, problems with their people.

“Nope. Just circle and try again.”
“Feel that?”

No, I really didn’t feel it. Not at first. But over and over, until I could feel it on my own, Mark called out when he saw her intent building to break into a trot. Maybe her ears would prick forward slightly, her head would come up, she’d pick up the pace a little. She was, in essence, asking if it would be OK to trot now. My timing was off in answering: “Not now, thanks. Please keep walking.” When I failed to notice the signs, she’d start into a lovely fast, rhythmic trot. Naturally she’d get frustrated when I’d then pull her right back to a walk. “But I asked… and you said… dammit.”

“There it is.
“Circle until she’s walking again.”

At first we’d only get a few strides before she’d start into a forward, determined trot. Then maybe 100 feet. Then the whole long side of the arena.

“That’s it.”
“Yes. Good.”

Not even halfway through my first session we were walking the entire distance around the arena. No head-tossing. No tail-swishing. And that was that. It didn’t take months of progressive training and repetitive practice. Just a new awareness and better timing. The problem I’d been working on so long was just gone.

“Great. Now, what do you want to work on for the rest of the weekend?”




A decade or so later – another horse, another clinic, in another arena with Mark.

“There’s your problem right there.”

Rainy was a big goofball. Imagine a 1,600-pound black and white puppy who always wants to play. He was half Percheron, young and athletic. Feet not quite the size of dinner plates. Maybe salad plates. He was big. Big enough that you’d think he wouldn’t have been afraid of much. But Rainy would get scared at a little rustle in the grass every now and again and bolt, heading for the hills, bucking and snorting. I’d been dumped more than a few times. We weren’t safe on the trail.

Mark spotted the problem the moment I entered the arena, with Rainy following at the end of a soft purple and teal lead rope. I stopped walking, but Rainy kept going until his nose bumped into my back, then he stayed right there behind me, breathing in my ear. The big dufus.

“There’s where your bolting starts.”

I have always been a cat person. One simply doesn’t order animals around. I had set a few boundaries for Rainy, and he’d respected those. But bumping me with his nose? He was just being a goober, right? Wrong. Mark explained that Rainy, like most horses, was looking for clear guidance. I wasn’t providing it. I wasn’t being the calm, reassuring presence that would let him relax about those scary sounds in the grass. “You’re with me. We’re fine. Don’t you worry about that.”

Again the root of the issue was in my not noticing a problem was developing until things “got a little Western.” Mark coached me on being in charge right from the beginning, and then keeping that connection alive. He wanted me to give direction for the littlest things – where to stand, when to move, how fast to walk. I was to set and reinforce boundaries. Consistent, clear, direct. It felt mean-spirited to me. Discipline for the sake of discipline. Nit-picking. But I trusted Mark, and what I’d been doing on my own sure wasn’t working. So I tried doing as he said, but it was really hard for me.

Later that weekend, after all the rides were done for the day, Mark asked me if I’d heard of Aikido. He suggested that training in that martial art – which focuses on connection with one’s partner rather than fighting – might help me with my horsemanship.




Another ten years… I was at the dojo preparing for my nidan exam – 2nd-degree black belt, training with a friend who is my mentor, with other senior students, and with junior students, too. There were common themes in their feedback.

“There’s no waiting in Aikido,” they’d say, reminding me of one of Sensei’s mantras.

“Go in before their strike develops force.”

I have heard this feedback so often. You’d think it might sink in eventually. It’s like I need to learn it all over again in each new context.

“Take out the pauses.”
“Keep the connection throughout.”

At the dojo we often train slowly, step by step, from static attacks. Kihon waza. Basic technique. But mastering basic, methodical movements is not the goal. Consider studying music. Playing perfect scales with perfect timing is not what we are trying to achieve. That exercise is only part of the learning process. We ultimately want to perform evocative music with expression and feeling. We may add syncopation, vary the tempo, bend notes. At some point the rules change, and there’s no big sign with flashing lights to tell us to let go of what we’ve been practicing and open up to a more natural expression.

“Take my partner’s balance and don’t give it back? In this technique, too?” “Go in and meet each attacker even with weapons?” “But, but, but…” “That’s not the way I learned it.” “I thought I was supposed to…” “Dammit!” I know these things. (Well, most of them.) I just wasn’t practicing them. Working with the kids, working with beginners, that’s valuable training, but in many ways contrary to the energy I needed to bring to my Aikido now.

“Bigger! Continuous! Be early! Stay close! Enter deeply! No stopping! Relax! Follow through! Breathe!” I joked that I should get these tattooed on my forearm as reminders.

“Move in as soon as you feel their intention.”

It was so frustrating. Like everything I thought I knew was wrong. I know, I know, “the purpose of today’s training is to overcome yesterday’s understanding,” but this was getting ridiculous.

I’d try to run through a few techniques, and each one became a project. So. Frustrating. I wanted to be refining and polishing for my test. Instead it felt like I was slipping backward, having to re-learn everything from a new perspective.

One day I’d meant to breeze through some familiar weapons take-aways. Instead after 15 minutes I was still working on the first one, the simplest technique. My partner patiently attacked again and again with a straight, smooth strike. Trying to hit me in the head with a heavy wooden sword, or bokken. All I had to do was grab between his hands and turn out of the way as the strike came down, sending him into a forward roll and keeping the bokken. I’d done it a thousand times.

“You were late. Try again.”
“You don’t have to be faster. Be earlier.”

I was beyond annoyed with myself by now. I couldn’t seem to get it. I was intimidated, jumpy. I’d flinch. I’d duck out. Too far away and I couldn’t connect with his center. Not in soon enough and the energy of the strike was gone before I could redirect it into the throw.

For a moment I stamped around in a circle and cursed my own ineptitude. “Dammit, dammit, dammit! Why can’t I do this?” Then I shook it off and took a few deep breaths. “Hmm…” I turned back to my partner with a completely different look in my eyes. “Again.”

He raised the bokken and I was already moving in on the line of attack, hand reaching up between his. As his strike came down I pivoted and dropped, extending my energy forward. He flew across the mat.

“Yes! That!”

I didn’t let my focus waver. He came back at me and I was under the bokken and following it down, taking his balance just as the strike should have connected. Again and again, giggling and giddy by now, I took the weapon and sent him rolling away.

“Yes, keep doing whatever you’re doing.”
“What changed?”

Before, I had been coming from the perspective of dealing with an attacker, avoiding being hit, trying to get the timing right. Now instead, I tried on the perspective of “Hey, that’s my bokken you’ve got there!” And I just took it. No drama, no fear, no struggle. “That’s mine. Thanks for bringing it to me.”

It was a moment of that same magic Mark could bring to working with a horse and rider, only this time I was the magician. *poof* Problem solved.

Ultimately the solution wasn’t a matter of practicing drills to get my feet to move more quickly, or learning perfect timing through intense focus or endless repetition. Instead it was about approaching the situation in an entirely new way. Not about doing different, but being different. Coming from a confident, centered place of calm, welcoming acceptance.

I took that feeling into other techniques, and then into the rhythm of my training in general, and it worked. When I can remember that state of being – and not fall into old habits of feeling attacked and reactive – it naturally leads to a better outcome.


“Don’t ask how to do this.
Ask who you need to be where this is possible.”

~ Robert Nadeau Shihan



I have gotten feedback since the beginning that I tend to be cautious, tentative, careful. I’ve worked and worked on it. And yet…

“It’s like you’re afraid you’re going to hurt us.”
“Stop holding back”
“We can take care of ourselves. Do the technique!”

It was echoed in how I was managing my training opportunities.

“Be greedy.”
“We are here to support you.”
“Ask for what you need.”

If ever there were “on the mat” coaching that could be taken out into the world, this was it. I just didn’t recognize it until the last moment.

This is another lesson I keep having to learn.

I feel like this time it is sinking in.

I can see the lifelong pattern – hanging back, waiting, being understanding – from looking out for my sister and caring for my grandparents, to defining requirements and managing projects. I am the one everyone can count on to get things done. No slip-ups. No drama.

Be strong. Be capable. Be reliable. Do the grunt work now, and maybe you’ll get a more challenging role someday. Don’t ask for help. Shun recognition. Don’t consider your own needs. Others come first. And whatever you do, make it look effortless. Be invisible.

One begins to internalize these messages. It became my place to help out, to be good, to support. To hold back on going after what was important to me. To not even think about what was important to me.

Patience can be a virtue. Consideration of others is honorable. But always hanging back and waiting is self-destructive.

Waiting for permission.
Waiting to be asked.
Waiting for the right time.

When I’ve fallen into that pattern it has not worked out well for me. I’ve been passed over for opportunities. But habits can be hard to break.

Being clear about what I want? Asking for what I need? That is a very uncomfortable place for me. It’s asking Sabrina to stay at the walk. It’s telling Rainy to keep a polite distance. It’s asking for the role I want, delegating, saying no. It’s hard. But it’s important.

It’s reaching unflinchingly into that strike. “I’ll take that – it’s mine.”

I don’t need permission.
I can ask for what I need.
Now is the right time.

There’s no waiting.



Nidan Exam Prep – First Pretest

Tonight, December 14th, 2017, on the third anniversary of my shodan exam (first-level black belt), I did my first pretest for nidan (second-level black belt).

What a relief to have that behind me! It wasn’t good, but it is over.

It has been an intense and scattered couple of months. I’ve been training, and working regularly with senior students to prepare for my test, but I’ve lacked energy and focus. Between sporadic work and big personal projects, alarming political news, terrible firestorms, focusing on other people’s exams, prepping food for a potluck, dealing with a few minor injuries and illnesses of my own, and being concerned for a very sick friend, plus keeping up with all the usual chores, it’s been… Unsettling. Distracted. Hard. Whatever I was doing at any moment, it seemed I should be doing some other thing instead. I over committed in a few areas, got overwhelmed, and ground to a halt. My eating and workout habits went to hell, and just staying caught up on normal things was a struggle.

Then during the past week I was starting to feel like I was getting it together. I found some new jeans that actually fit, so replaced the old ones with the hems walked off and the threadbare seams. I started a fun, smart fitness support group online. I did some work I’d been putting off. Things were looking better.

Then yesterday I checked my calendar: “Acck! My pretest is tomorrow!” My gut tied itself into a knot. I thought I might actually throw up. Or cry. Or both at once. It was like one of those nightmares about finals week. I was not ready at all, and 24 hours was not enough time to get ready. I didn’t even have training partners lined up to be there! It’s not like it hasn’t been on the calendar for weeks – it has. I’ve just been paying attention to other things and the reality of the date being upon me hadn’t quite sunk in.

I dropped everything and got after it. I studied, which I haven’t done in ages. I watched my shodan exam video, and read my training notes. I deliberately took care to manipulate my physical, mental, and emotional states so I’d be on top of my game, such as it was. On the way to the dojo for classes yesterday I got my filthy car washed – the good $12 super wash, even. Everything feels easier when your car is clean. And I lucked out – the second instructor last night covered some of the techniques I most needed to work on.

Today I wrapped up work at noon, shut out the world (mostly), and studied some more. I organized in my mind (and in a Google Sheet) some techniques I could do in each section of the test. I refreshed my memory of a few techniques in detail, but had to entirely leave many for another day.

There were awful parts of tonight’s pretest, for sure. Mostly awful, really. Forgotten techniques, poor form, … I have no memory whatsoever for how the weapons partner practices go. They make sense when I work on them, and sometimes I can do them pretty well, but they don’t stick. (Sorry… stick pun not intended.) And kaeshi-waza (reversals)? Uggh! In that sense it was pretty disastrous. And I’m not just being humble. Seriously. As Mark Rashid might say, “Now you know how not to do it!” Indeed.

Thank goodness my exam isn’t for another two months. I’ll need every moment to get to where I need to be by February 18th, 2018. But now I have a much better idea of where I’m headed, and a road map for how to get there. While I’m mortified by tonight’s performance, I’m hopeful about being able to improve significantly on it.

The structure of the test – the order of things, how to approach each section – has been very fuzzy in my mind, which has made training in earnest challenging. My understanding of how it all should flow is very clear now, and I feel like the ground under my feet is more solid, so I can really dig in and get some good traction. I’m seeing the whole box-cover image for a jigsaw puzzle I’ve been working on in bits and pieces.

I know I’ve come a long way on a few qualities and habits I’ve been working on in training. I haven’t watched the video yet, but I had some specific goals for myself, and I think I improved quite a lot on those. Plenty more room for further improvement, of course.

And I’m very happy to have managed nearly everything around the pretest successfully. I often find myself floundering to get things done at the last minute, which puts me in a frazzled state of mind. Not this time. Here are some of the things I did right:

  • Created a special playlist of positive, high-energy music over the past few months.
  • Listened to my playlist at home while getting ready, and on my way to the dojo.
  • Kept from distracting myself with social media, news, and podcasts, and instead stayed actively engaged with going through the test in my mind.
  • Reviewed videos and my notes, especially where I had any question about a technique.
  • Wrote down an outline of the test, and started to fill in some details. (Should’ve done more, sooner.)
  • Any time I caught myself anticipating a horrible performance I tried to turn that mental energy toward positive visualization.
  • Avoided injury as best I could, and took care of any little things (bandaging cuts and scrapes, supportive wraps for an ouchy wrist, SMR for muscle cramps, etc.) right away so they wouldn’t get worse.
  • Got fuel yesterday so I wouldn’t have to stop on the way in today to gas up the car.
  • Picked up Gatorade yesterday, and left it in my car so I couldn’t forget it.
  • Cut all my nails short yesterday during a brief break in the action.
  • Went to bed at a reasonable time and got a decent night’s sleep. Well, half-decent. I was reasonably well-rested.
  • Made coffee in the morning, and drank just enough throughout the day to be “on,” without being hyper or frantic.
  • Ate a hearty, easy-to-digest lunch of an omelette with gluten-free bagel and cheese, and a handful of grapes.
  • Drank lots of water for the past two days.
  • Breathing is an issue. Started taking Sudafed (a decongestant) the day before. Took a full dose before leaving home so I’d have a chance of being able to breathe through my nose. Yes, I can breathe through my mouth, but there’s a certain level of underlying panic in the body when one can’t breathe freely. It’s not good for anything, and it sure isn’t good for staying centered during an exam.
  • Charged my phone (and power brick) early in the day, and cleared off space for video well before I had to leave.
  • Remembered to pack up a small tripod with iPhone mount so I could get video to review later.
  • Did my laundry with time to spare so I’d be able to wear my most comfortable gi.
  • Got showered and dressed a couple of hours early, and arrived at the dojo on time without rushing.
  • During class I made sure to train with some senior students so I could be practicing at the level appropriate for my pretest.

I had more energy and felt stronger and more focused tonight than I have in a long time. There’s lots more I could do, but those things all made a big difference today. It may not have been apparent to anyone else, but I felt the best I’ve felt in a while, in spite of being stressed out. I’m sure I’ll be adding to the list for next time.

Meanwhile, I’m exhausted, but energized and encouraged. Ready to get to work on more nidan exam prep. Well, tomorrow anyway. Maybe in the morning I’ll even wash all the dishes I’ve been ignoring in the sink. For now, I’m going to bed.



After a Firestorm

After a Firestorm
By Linda Eskin

Flat gray rings of former trees dapple the black hills.
Angry chainsaw growls and purposeful shouting replace the stunned silence.
A charred oak sounds like a truckload of lumber when it falls.
Front loaders and roll-off bins gather out of nowhere like vultures around a carcass.

Your home was spared, or it wasn’t.
Dozens of friends lost theirs.
Whole neighborhoods are just gone.

You will rebuild, or you won’t.
You may live in a trailer on your land for years.
You’ll deal with insurance, your architect, building permits, contractors,
Or take the money and move on.

Your neighbors will stay, or they won’t.
You will cry and laugh together.
We are OK, and that’s all that matters.
It was just stuff.
But it was your stuff.
Share a take-out meal at a folding table and tell your stories.

Everyone will have a story.
Trauma hammers memories into our minds. Vivid, indelible.
Everyone will tell you their story. They will need to tell it.
You will need to tell yours, too. You will tell it a hundred times.

One day next week a friend will venture onto a familiar trail.
They will see still-smoldering stumps and the remains of animals trapped by the flames.
They will see a panoramic vista where dense Manzanita and Ceanothus once grew.
They will see an ending, and a beginning.

One day next month it will rain, just a little.
The air will smell like water on a dying campfire.
Cold, wet ashes.

Then it will be dry again.
A strong wind will blow and the air will turn gray.
Not brown like smoke. Not white like fog.
Something you have never seen before.
Fine gray ash swirled up into the air.

The holidays will come.
They will be an inconvenience. Celebrations will be simple and sincere.
Someone will put up lights out of sheer defiance.
“The fire will not ruin my holiday spirit!”
Those who can will host dinners for displaced friends.

One day this winter it will rain, a lot.
With nothing to hold the soil the mud will flow into stream beds blocked by debris.
There will be warning of mudslides and flash floods.
You will stay out of low-lying areas.

Communities will go dormant.
The annual parade, the horse club fun show, the scout troop outing.
No one will have the time or energy.
The mailing list on someone’s computer will be lost, along with their house.
Decades of history, club records, newsletters, group equipment, supplies – all erased.
Like the Manzanita and Ceanothus in the hills,
And the scorched hedge by your driveway,
Some of these will sprout again from their seemingly-dead roots.
Water them when you can – the rituals and the hedge – they may come back.

Soon the light green of new grasses will appear on the hills.
Fresh 2x4s will outline walls and roofs of new homes.

Next year, in the fall, you will see a quality of light,
You will hear a siren or a shout, feel a dry, warm breeze.
Your gut will tighten and your breath will catch in your throat.
At first you won’t know why.
The year after that when it happens, you’ll know.

A decade from now the mountains will be green,
Alive again with meadows, deer, and tall trees.
Black Halloween skeletons of oaks will stand guard over the new growth,
As if to remind the exuberant youngsters of their mortality.

Many years from now, when you are old, mention the fires,
and someone will tell you their story.

Linda Eskin is a writer in San Diego County. She normally writes about the non-violent, non-competitive Japanese martial art of Aikido. Her blog, Grab My Wrist, is about connection, mindfulness, and the pursuit of mastery. She has been affected by several major wildfires, starting with the Kitchen Creek/Laguna Fire in 1970, and has assisted in large animal rescue operations.  You can read Linda’s story about the 2003 Cedar Fire here.

Fridays are for Writing

Fridays are for Writing

By Linda Eskin

Fridays are for writing!
Lay in snacks and coffee.
Clear the decks.
Lock the office door.
None shall pass!

Fridays are for writing.
But the cats are meowing,
And mustn’t starve.
Feed the cats.

Fridays are for writing.
But there’s that thing tonight,
And one mustn’t go naked.
Real quick, before you begin,
Start the laundry.

Fridays are only for writing, damn it.
But it’s hot as blazes,
And the yard is withering.
The trees mustn’t die.
Start the sprinklers.

Are you through yet?
Top off your cold coffee.
Close. The. Damned. Door.
Take a breath.
Fridays are for writing.

Mailboxes Versus Firestorms

Mailboxes Versus Firestorms
By Linda Eskin

After the flames are out,
You can go back and see.

Let yourself breathe again.
There’s no hurry now.

Your home may be standing
Or you may be standing in ashes.
Either way, it’s over.

If your home is gone,
If your neighborhood is gone,
If your mailbox is gone,
You have a job to do.

Go get a new mailbox,
And a sack of posthole cement.
Install it by the road,
Where your flowers were.

Do this first.

You’ll need your mail.
So much mail.
Insurance papers, government papers,
Official papers, important papers.

No mailbox, no mail delivery.
So put up a mailbox.

This is your stake in the ground.
I exist.
This is my place.
I will go on.

If you are able,
Get an extra one.
Put it up, too,
for your neighbor.

I’ve started a new weekly habit – Fridays are for writing. I was going to jot down a few notes tonight, to be ready to dive into my planned work for the morning: sharing my experience of what to expect in the weeks and months following a firestorm. Advice for my friends and others affected by the North Bay fires in Northern California. Instead, this tumbled out. It’s serious advice, actually, based on the experiences of many friends after the Cedar Fire in 2003. Please feel free to share.