Dragon At My Back


My life has seemed like a perfect storm of chaos much of the past few years, lost in the center of a yowling maelstrom of worry, fear and drama, prowled by monsters of threat and ghosts of loss. Even the ground beneath my feet seems uncertain, sometimes.

Yet, there’s one place the monsters cannot come, where flimsy doors close tight against them, and I can stand in unfailing calm for a time.

Preparation. Shake out and don my gi. Position my obi. Unfold my hakama, press out any wrinkles with my hands, straighten the pleats. My fingers linger on the worn areas over my knees, testament to dedicated hours. Tie the himo to enclose and support my scabbard, my saya. Each step brings a sense of deepening calm, as the student/warrior emerges from chaos.

Feet bare, I step into the dojo, bowing. The door swings gently shut behind me, and a sudden quiet falls that has nothing to do with the sounds of squeaking shoes in the next gym over, boys scuffling in the hall, bleachers rattling. This is one threshold the monsters cannot cross, the ghosts cannot breach. This is refuge.

I leave them outside the door, and with them I leave my own monsters – pride, embarrassment, the need to prove my worth. In here I become simply a student, neither gifted nor slow, where the true values are teachableness and intention.

The sense of safety is a paradox. What we do can be inherently dangerous, each of us wielding a three-foot katana, striving for power and precision in a stylized art of battle. Even our unsharpened practice blades or wooden practice swords can inflict major injury in clumsy or careless hands. We form a network of trust, each of us knowing that a loose blade, ripped hem, or moment of inattention can bring injury to another. We’re forced to be attentive both to our own movements and to those around us, moving in
harmony, always ready to react and modify. Together we bow to the shomen, to each other, to our swords. The formalities focus and bind us, and then we begin.

Kneel in seiza. Breathe. Draw. Cut. Chiburi – clean the blade. Noto– sheath. Stand. Again. Again. And again, kata flowing together. Around me, I can feel my comrades, intent yet open,  weaving an invisible wall against the dark. Ken, gentle and good-natured, with a hidden thread of fire and steel infusing his iai. Mitch, precise and flowing with banked force. Wes, passionate, fast, intent. Sarah, light and efficient and graceful. Sam, rangy, deceptively fast beneath his humor. K, a kindly bear who uses his power carefully. Sensei, quietly teaching, a warrior with smiling eyes. Outside this space, we’re students, engineers, EMTs, artists, techs. Here and now, we’re journeying together seeking something that can never be mastered, opening doors within ourselves, the blades in our hands as much expression as reality.

"Remaining heart"

Faintly, I hear passing echoes of the ghosts and monsters outside the door, then the breeze carries them away again. This door they cannot pass. I will not let them into this space. I am surrounded by a flashing of metal and the ripped-silk sound of air being cut, and I feel safe. I have a dragon at my back.

4 thoughts on “Dragon At My Back

  1. You have captured in words the awe and magnitude of martial arts study! I read this and I am emotionally catapulted back into my own study of Tai Ji and Xing Yi. You’ve captured the wisdom of ritual – I want to quit what I’m doing and go practice! This is a delicious read to be savored. Thank You!

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