When I was in my 20’s and had scads of time, I belonged to the YMCA in Tacoma where I practiced Aikido. I remember l how incredibly stupid and awkward I felt for the first 6 months in our small dojo. I am not sure why I kept at it, but I am glad that I did.
In Aikido the first move to get down is a roll. This roll is not at all like a gymnastics somersault where I tucked my head and flopped my feet straight over my head. In an Aikido roll, I put my arm out almost like blocking a punch. I tucked my head and followed the curve of my arm in a sideways motion that still pulled me in a straight line. The idea was to then gracefully move onto my feet and back up to standing.
In my first 500 rolls, I flopped every single time. A soft-spoken black belt spent the hour of class doing nothing but positioning my arms and guiding me to help me get it right. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember his patience with me and the other newbies. I ever so slowly got better.
One day about a year later I realized the rolls were no problem. I flew around the mat in warm ups with the rest of the dojo. I rolled on my right arm, I rolled on my left arm and then I rolled backwards, by golly. My left backwards felt the most awkward, but it shocked my to realize how strong my muscle memory had become. I’d also gotten reasonably good at joint locks with long Japanese names and the kata with the long stick called a jo that frightened people as I walked into the Y.
After I had my first son, I could not keep up the hours needed to practice. But I’ve retained something (aside from a longing to find another dojo like that and squeeze in a few hours of practice again).
I’ve retained the memory of plugging away at something day after day and getting better even though I was so awful I didn’t know how awful I was. It’s helped me with innumerable things, especially physical activities where I feel so horribly uncoordinated, but also with mental activities like teaching and writing. I started where I was and plugged along. I found a teacher or a few who knew what they were about and who had unreasonable amounts of patience. And ever so slowly, though it feels stuck up to admit it, I realize I’ve gotten better.
Getting older isn’t always as joyful as turning somersaults at the park, and this past week I gained another year. But it’s true that a few blessings come with age. One of my favorite is this ability to look back, see that I’ve made progress and then continue rolling forward with years of experience telling me that things are bound to get better if I keep sticking my arms up, tucking my head and rolling onto the mat.