January 6th, 2021
This is a departure from my normal format. This is a story, Vanessa’s story.
I remember when Vanessa joined the dojo three years ago with her cousin, Ernesto. He was protective of her and wanted to make sure she was OK at a martial arts school. She instantly fell in love with Aikido and quickly became one of those students that showed up all the time, happy to be there on the mat.
Vanessa took to Aikido surprisingly easily. She was timid but smiled warmly and apologized when she threw you. Her 5th kyu test was a family affair, with her two cousins (also ASNJ members), Heidy and Ernesto, all testing together. I remember her 4th kyu test as it was preceded by a myriad of questions: “Is this ok?” “Is it alright if I do it that way?” I remember her apologizing to her uke during the test. Of course, she passed.
Fast forward to this December. It was ASNJ’s first tests since the Covid-19 shutdown and she was a little different this time. She had been working with many of our instructors and developed a new confidence. I asked Tom, who teaches noon classes, “Is she ready?” He is like the Kaplan SAT Prep Course for preparing students for kyu tests. If you want to be ready, ask Tom. He is beyond dedicated to anyone who asks for help. When Tom said yes; I knew she was ready.
The night before the tests, I got a text from Vanessa, “Can we meet before the test, Sensei?” I am usually there on Saturdays and I had been hoping to get some painting done in my office that day.
She came in and asked if I would close the door, instinctively, I got a box of tissues (every good office has tissues). She began by telling me how her life has been affected badly by the pandemic. Some she had already told me, but she needed to get it off her chest. Like many of us, her life had deteriorated, and she had been fighting to stave off depression.
As she told me about her year, I could not help but feel her pain. She, like many, saw their world shrink to a few rooms, cut off from “everything normal”. She became depressed, filled with thoughts of dread.
When I reopened the dojo in June, she remembered her Aikido community who supported her unconditionally through thick and thin and despite pandemic concerns and fears, as all of us had, she came back to the dojo and started practicing again. It was a balancing act of wanting to be on the mat but not wanting to unintentionally bring this unknown disease to her loved ones, especially her parents. It slowly helped with her depression but was not enough to counter all the parts that were in pain: her job was difficult, and money was tight. Many family members were out of work and she was supporting them. Her parents were shut-in. Vanessa, her brother, and cousin bought food for them. Life was becoming overwhelming.
Then I announced kyu tests. Vanessa felt she had something to work toward: her 3rd kyu test. Something to focus on, a goal to pull her out of despair, she thought. And work she did, not without fear but with determination and drive. She found a way to manage her life. She was suffering from other stress-related ailments since the onset of quarantine, so this made it especially difficult to prepare.
But, like much of the year for her, that also hit a snag. The day before the test, she got hurt. Not uncommon in any martial arts practice: two people tried to occupy the same spot at the same time. A foot smashed into her leg and after she found she could barely stand. Forget about kneeling, walking was a challenge. How could she test now? Not only was she physically hurt but mentally bruised and beaten. Her morale was in shambles. She was in tears in more ways than one, so close to achieving her goal which suddenly seemed out of reach. Vanessa explained, “Aikido was the only thing that gave me purpose during this difficult time. Aikido gave me motivation. Not only did I not want to leave the house because of Covid. I did not have a drive to do anything. I was entirely in survival mode. Work, eat, sleep, and visit my parents. There was an emptiness.”
After listening to her story, I gave her the three options. First of all, I knew she was ready to test, I would just award her the kyu. “No.” was her immediate and firm response. Then I offered: “I will give you 3rd kyu now, and you’ll take the test later when your leg is healed.” “No.”, again, she responded. (This was not going to be easy). I would modify the test, just a few techniques. “No.” I was out of options.
Vanessa said, “I want the whole test!” I said swariwaza was out of the question. She countered, “Okay, but why can’t we do those standing?” (I felt like was negotiating with an attorney). I said, “No randori.” – “No, I HAVE to do that.” (Oy, this was not going easy.) “Okay,” I said, “Two ukes for randori.” – “No, three. Send as many as you can. I can do it.” I sighed and told her I would agree only if I could explain her injury to everyone before her test and the slight modifications. Agreed.
4th kyu test over, mat sanitized. 3rd kyu up. Only one today: Vanessa. She slowly walked to the Kamiza, at this point just a slight limp betraying her pain. Annie, her uke ran up, the contrast in movement was startling. They kneeled. I gave a short explanation about her injury, that I would let her do each technique four times in an attempt to keep it short. Sitting up front, we could hear the grunts and all-too-often yelps from pain but with a straight back and good hamni, she completed technique after technique.
I called up three ukes for her randori and allotted her 15 seconds. Wow, did she pull it together. When I called time, she bowed to the ukes, bowed to me, to O’Sensei, and then nearly collapsed. Two Aikidoka helped her off the mat where she sat down and burst into tears, half from pain and half from joy. It was a tremendous personal victory and achievement.
I am sitting at my laptop, recalling my memory of that day and am deeply moved as I re-experience those moments. I asked her if I could share her story, she replied, “Oh Sensei, that would be great. I don’t remember much of it.”
So, I am proud to share with you Vanessa’s Story. A student of ASNJ and our friend.
--Sensei Jay Tall
“Where there’s a will, there’s is a way.”