Chicago. July 1998.
I was 17 years old. I’ve never been on an airplane and away from home.
On a Friday night, I arrived in Chicago to train in Aikido for the summer at Tenshinkan Dojo, headquarters of the Aikido Association of America led by the late Fumio Toyoda Shihan.
I spent the weekend acclimating to the new environment. I had a bit of trouble understanding English, but I got by. I explored the dojo and walked around a few blocks to see what was around within walking distance. There was a Dunkin Donuts, a bookstore, and a Japanese Souvenir Shop. That was about it for what I remember now. We did some training, but it was light during the weekend.
I lived in the dojo with four other students who were uchideshi of Toyoda Sensei. They were all gone for most of the weekend, so I spent it by myself at the dojo, but by late Sunday night everyone was back. I went to bed early because there wasn’t anything to do, nor I had anyone to talk to.
Monday morning they woke me up at 5:30am. I only had time to quickly pee and put on my gi. Within minutes, I was walking up to the second floor of the dojo.
In silence, we lined up large white cushions on the hard wood floors forming two lines facing each other. After everything was set-up, everyone lined up to face the front wall where there was an altar with a statue of the Buddha. The line of cushions waited in front of us.
Before heading towards the cushions, everyone grabbed a few small cushions that were piled at the front of the line, tucked them under their arms, bowed with palms together and proceeded to take a sit at one of the large cushions. I saw them put the smaller cushions under their butts and sat cross legged.
I looked at the guy in front me and tried to follow what he was doing. He grabbed his left thumb with his right hand making a loose fist and enclosing it with his left hand. I did the same thing but it felt awkward. My wrists felt strained as I pulled on my thumb.
The guy who led the sitting grabbed two thick wood blocks and clapped them together. The sound startled me and it echoed the room like a thunder. He followed with with three bell rings.
Then everyone was still. The room remained quiet.
“How long are we staying here?” was my first thought.
My feet are getting numb.
My back aches.
My nose is itching.
“Why do I need to do this? I came here to do Aikido not some religious shit”
I wanted to stretch my back but I was afraid to move. Even though no one said a word about it, it was clear that moving was not allowed.
After a while I got sleepy. I closed my eyes. I figured if I shut my eyes for a second I can doze off for a moment and maybe feel a bit better.
“WAKE UP!” yelled the guy leading the sitting.
I startled, but didn’t jump. I was pretty sure I was being discreet and told myself he wasn’t yelling at me. There’s no way he could’ve noticed.
I stayed awake now. I kept thinking “Fuck, how long are we going to do this?” It felt like forever. Maybe we’ve been sitting there for an hour or so by now.
I wanted my mind to be quiet. Instead, I thought about everything. Maybe I should’ve stayed home for the summer and hang around with my friends. I knew I had to call my mom but I didn’t want to. I was afraid that if I listened to her voice it would make me upset. For the past two days I ate only egg sandwiches from Dunkin Donuts and candy from the convenience store a few doors down. My heart beat so hard I thought it was coming out of my chest. Maybe I should’ve waited until I was older to do this. Or higher in rank. I’m not that good. What is everyone going to think of me? What if Toyoda Sensei kicks me out?
I couldn’t feel my feet any more. My lower back was killing me. I tried to stare at the floor, picking a spot where I could lay focus on, but my vision would blur and my eyes teared. I found myself changing my focus constantly. For some weird reason my mouth would get full of saliva and I had to swallow every 5 minutes, or so it felt. The room was so quite that I was pretty sure everyone could hear my throat swallow.
Suddenly, the guy leading the sitting grabbed the bell and rang it once. He set the bell down, grabbed the wood blocks and clapped them twice. Everyone else joint palms and bowed.
Immediately they stood up and grabbed their cushions. I tried to follow through but my feet were unresponsive. When I put my feet on the floor it felt as if I had stepped on a bed of needles. Surprisingly, I managed to stand up without falling. We moved in a line, cushions under our arms, to the end of the room, turned to face the wall with the Buddha statue and bowed out.
I checked the clock and realized we only sat for 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe it. I agonized on that cushion for at least an hour, I told myself.
I was putting my cushions away when a senior uchideshi told me: ” hurry up class starts in two minutes”
I hurried downstairs and lined up for the morning Aikido class that started at 6:00am.