The Aiki Toolbelt
A Yondan Article by Jacob Clapsadle
At the door of the dojo, I sense a presence before I enter. A figure in silhouette stands on the mat, white on white, backlit by the window’s afternoon sun. An adversary and a friend, a caring teacher and a mortal foe. Danger awaits, and I greet it openly…
The old cabin was the final refuge of the blight and garbage that I had worked so hard to remove. The goat barn and chicken coop were gone, and the decrepit old trailer had been hauled away, along with the rusty farm tools that had festooned the hillside. All around our Mendocino home, the land was tidier than it had been in decades, except for the cabin crouched in a grove of firs above the main house. Years ago it had fallen into disuse, and as such buildings do, it became a receptacle for all the funky odds and ends with nowhere else to go. Paint cans and Christmas wreaths, lampshades, quilts and old mattresses were stuffed inside, with much more besides. But the roof collapsed one year in a winter storm, and all was forgotten in the ruin.
Once upon a time it had been a charming little hut- someone even emblazoned the facade with whimsical paintings: A sun, a chalky cratered moon, and a sailing ship floating through those heavens. Now it was impossible to say where the pigment ended and the lichen began. The windows were broken out, whether by nature or by man I couldn't say, and the door yawned upon a single petrified hinge.
Demolition was the only option. Though I toyed with the idea of asking the volunteer fire department to torch the place for practice, there were simply too many strange and unknown materials inside. Not to be put off any longer, I rented a sixteen cubic yard dumpster and gave myself a long weekend to finish the job. It would not be easy, but I had a secret tool on my belt: decades of Aikido training had taught me invaluable principles to use in carpentry and in life.
The first lesson is awareness. As I bow to my partner, I remain mindful of the distance between us should he close in for a strike. Even as he seizes my wrist, I push awareness in every direction, ready for other attackers.
I lined up my tools on the bed of fir needles below the threshold and considered. There were many things that could go wrong on a project like this, and I tried to imagine all of them: I might fall off the ladder, cut a powerline or slice myself with my saw. I could be pricked by scorpions or stung by rusty nails. I pondered all these hazards and then took a breath. “Not today," I told myself. Most accidents do not occur because of risky work; they befall us through absent-mindedness, impatience or frustration.
My partner holds me strongly and plants his feet into the floor. I want to push him back, to shove him over and show that I’m bigger, stronger, meaner than he. But this is not the way. No matter how much muscle I have, there will always be someone who can block me. Instead, I blend around the energy, turn power into motion and search for his points of balance.
The remains of the roof came off easily, but the wooden frame and sheathing presented a greater challenge. My first instinct was to smash them apart with brute force and finish the job that time and the elements had started. Those home renovation shows on TV always start this way, with demolition montages of gleeful sledgehammering. In reality, this is a waste of time. Instead I would remove the fasteners in critical balance points of the structure; the corners, centers and edges. Then gravity could do the hard work of pulling it to the ground.
His grip is vice-like; I cannot rip my arm away. But I apply kokkyu to the weak point between his thumb and fingers. With my other hand I plant his fist firmly in place as though to help him hold me; this prevents his grasp from following as I escape.
Fasteners are fickle. Whether screw or nail, they are only as useful as the connection that can be made with their head. Nails may be pulled by hammering a cat’s paw tool under the lip and then levering them out, but if the connection is imperfect the head will snap clean off. Screws have the same problem; if the driver is not firm to the slot the metal will strip from the head and the piece will be stuck. Therefore, patience and concentration were required, and though it seemed a paradox, I pushed the fasteners harder into the wall in order to get them out. Most of the power was employed in the connection between tool and material, joining them together not just with my hands but with my whole body. Only then I softly transferred the energy into prying and twisting; shifting my weight and turning from the hips. One by one, the fasteners came free.
The hand that once constricted me is locked at the wrist, and I spin around the corner of my adversary’s power. His elbow, shoulder, neck and hips all follow, and I guide him in a throw towards his third point of balance. But then he surprises me. Instead of falling naturally, he collapses at my feet, seizing my sleeve with his other hand. His dead mass yanks me crosswise and I begin to topple, my knee wrenching awkwardly…
Once the main fasteners were removed, I got off the ladder and went inside the cabin to push the plywood sheathing from the frame. The room was dark, even without a roof, and smelled of wet moss and rotten wool. An old bunk was the only furniture, but piles of debris crowded the corners, and as my eyes adjusted to the dim, I could see an army of spiders agitated by my sudden entrance.
I picked my way through the rubble to the shed’s back wall, braced myself, and shoved it outward. The wood came off easily at first, until I came to a section that was holding fast. Here I took a strong stance and pushed a little harder. The panel fell as desired- but my foot came to rest on nothing. The floor joist vanished into splinters, and with a moist crunch my leg disappeared up to the knee.
Training and discipline save me from injury. Had I tossed my weight onto one foot when he began to fall, all would be lost. Instead, I keep something back, committing only enough to throw without losing my posture. When my partner yanks me down, I shift the power through my legs and into the mat. Instead of spilling face first, I land upright with one knee on top of him, still holding the wrist lock, and flip him into a shoulder pin.
There are times on any job when disaster may strike despite the most painstaking precautions. In a moment of calamity, instinct takes over, and the body reacts all on its own with movements that have been practiced over and over, ingrained to the nerves. After the floor collapsed beneath me, I was surprised to find myself still in the shed instead of lying broken legged on some sharp and rusty wreckage underneath it. Through reflex I threw my arms out, dropped to my haunches, and pulled my weight back to the other foot. Slowly I stood up and backed out of the structure, tapping and testing the floor before every step. Outside, I took a deep breath and leaned against my truck. It seemed that my heart would never stop racing, but there was nothing to be done except get on with the job.
Like clapping thunder, my partner slaps the mat to signal surrender. I release him from the pin. He is on his feet again in a flash, a smile upon his lips, and I wonder; who is the teacher, and who the student? Is he friend or foe- or something else completely? He offers me his wrist. It’s his turn to throw me now.
As the sun fell low behind the ridge, I took my gloves off and surveyed the day’s work. The shed was down; its walls stacked away in the dumpster, a pile of shingles beside it to be used as kindling. The broken glass was all raked away, the foundation blocks exposed, with newts and centipedes scurrying off to find a new hiding place. I wiped my brow. If I hurried, there was still time to drive into town for evening keiko. Yet I felt that I had been training all day. With no one in the quiet woods to see me or to hear, I bowed my head in thanks.
“Domo arigato gozaimashita.”
by Jacob Clapsadle
Yondan test 4/30/22
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