Tell us about an experience you’ve had coming back to something — or someone — after time away. What changed in your absence? How did you change? What are the funny moments, faux pas, discomforts, and joys that came with returning to an old situation (or your pre-pandemic life) with new eyes?
It was a little while through the pandemic when my brother broke the news to me: our old dojo, where we trained our entire childhoods, was closing up shop. It, like many other businesses, were hit hard by the pandemic. It was an uncomfortable experience: like hearing a family member or friend you haven’t spoken to in years has passed away.
It was a weird feeling. Mostly numbness. Not in the sense that you’re not phased by the news, but that all happiness, sadness, anger, joyfulness, all of that just disappears. You’re left with an empty, vague feeling that seems to last forever. Time slows down. And suddenly, after what feels like an eternity, memories of your past rush back into full view. Years are condensed into seconds, and before you know it you’re watching 11 years of your life happen right in your head.
There was an immense sense of guilt that came with those memories. In the time since I left the dojo for University, I visited maybe twice. I never had the time to stop by, because it was closed for the day by the time I was free. But I didn’t actually put in much effort. Reminds me of that age old lesson: we rarely appreciate what we have until it’s gone.
My brother and I processed the news differently. He paid a tribute to the dojo and what it taught him; and how it shaped him. I didn’t. Maybe it was cowardice. Maybe it was fear. I just didn’t know how to put into words what I felt. So I didn’t talk about it. I just gathered my feelings, accepted what happened, and told myself I would revisit the dojo; just in a different way.
Over the course of the next few months, I gathered all the things we had from our time at the dojo: crests, manuals, budo passes (they were like our “sign in” booklets), weapons, Gi’s, etc. I poured over each one and studied them in detail, soaking in all the memories that came with each. Like my sparring gear, and how it reminded me of the countless hours of sparring practice that I dreaded attending (I’m a tiny guy). I always hated sparring. And then I remembered: in my senior years, I got really good at it. I was often directed to instruct sparring practice for younger martial artists, and to spar with the bigger people who needed to be challenged. At one point, a painful experience I viewed as a prime example of how bad I am. Then, one day, a showcase of my capabilities. All achieved through constant improvement.
Or my bokken, which I now have in my new place (I’m working on making a display for it). It was the last weapon I learned before I left my dojo. Our practice, which involved precise cuts of the sword done in a matter of seconds, was fun and exciting. I felt like a samurai back then. Cool and powerful. But as I held this battered wooden sword in my hand years later, I started remembering all the lessons we were taught. Lessons I didn’t take to heart until much later in my life.
The bokken is a popular weapon. It was in our dojo atleast. But its genius lied in its influence on every aspect of our training. It taught us the value of respect. A random weapon like a stick can be swung around. But a sword? One wrong move and you’re toast. Even though it was wooden, its art was a solemn reminder of the power of a weapon, and the importance of respecting it.
This realization wasn’t anything new: it was taught to us at a young age, with the first weapons we learned. But I never truly took it to heart until now. This sword is not just an object of violence: it’s an extension of ourselves. And should be treated as such.
Which nudged another question into my mind: if I’m not respecting the things I use in my life, am I respecting myself?
Returning to my dojo materials after 7+ years was odd. The materials themselves hadn’t changed: they collected dust, that’s for sure. But I changed. The news forced me to take stock of the 11 years I had committed to my martial art, and revisit the lessons I learned back then (and what I hadn’t). Maybe the time away from it all made me realize how important it was to me. Maybe the news made me, in the span of moments, change my entire perspective on things. Or, maybe, I was always this way, and I just never let myself accept it.
Who knows. All I know is that it’s high time for me to embrace the lessons I was taught as a martial artist all those years ago. I may not have my dojo anymore. But I have my books, my equipment, and my memories.
Let’s see how far they take me.