Sliding down a sharp blade


Last night, I started taking Japanese sword again. Within five minutes of class, I managed to whack a fellow student in the elbow – and that was only during the warm-ups! My inner klutz showed its prominent head again, and as I stood there, bare feet on a thin carpet and a wooden sword in my hand, I found myself reevaluating the wisdom of trying all this again. I used to love sword class. Nitto tenshin ryu kenjustu means “the art of killing with two swords.” You might have heard of a famous Japanese swordsman Musashi. He was the father of this style.

I used to love sword class – until I got too pregnant to wield a sharp blade safely. All those pregnancy hormones relaxed my tendons, and when I drew my sword, it didn’t just stay pointing forward – it kept going, and going and going – in a languorous arc, aimed at the student standing to my right. That, and the fact that I started to grey out when getting up from seiza, convinced me that I should give my study of kenjutsu a pause. Fainting while wielding a long, razor-sharp sword is considered poor form in most reputable schools.

My break was going to be just few months long. One year at most. I did manage to continue the study of karate through pregnancy, after all. I returned to karate only few weeks after my older daughter was born. Going to the dojo was a form of self-defense, and those of you who ever had a baby to take care of, you know what I mean. It kept me sane. Human. It dragged me out of post-partum depression. The prospect of close physical contact with people other than my husband made me take yet another shower before class, just so I didn’t smell like burped-up sour milk.

Karate continued. My older daughter started to walk and talk, and yet I never quite made it back to sword class. As I kept learning new katas, and as I was being introduced to arcane, weaponized Okinawan farming implements, my older daughter entered kindergarten. My younger daughter was born. I continued with karate as best as I could, but I never quite made it back to sword class. And I missed it. Boy, did I miss it! Adrenaline-filled movies reminded me of it. My sword languished in its case. My uniform remained folded on the bottom of the weapons drawer. 

Every few years, I’d pull out my sword gear and make my way to the dojo. Coming back was hard – the technique has changed the slightest bit and I have forgotten things and my shoulders hurt from lifting the bokken over and over again. I had the best intentions to come back the next week. I would come – and it would get better, and I would improve and get that sense of calm flow all over again. Yet I never did. The girls had sports practices, I had work, the dog threw up in my shoes, my husband and I needed our little space to just collapse and decompress together.

Yesterday I went back not because I thought I should, but because I felt the need to reset my inner workings and relax my mind. My spirit was plagued with the kind of sluggish indecision that comes with finishing one project and not quite being ready to start the next one. Nothing would console me – a workout wasn’t relaxing enough, a haircut wasn’t pretty enough, reading wasn’t entertaining whatsoever and I definitely didn’t feel ready to write again. I needed to think of something so wholly encompassing, so urgent and so new, that all my ennui would be left in the dust. I needed the urgent threat of physical injury to make me abandon my stress. Only that would reboot my mind.

Dinner was a quick affair. I said good-bye to my husband and my younger daughter, and left. As I drove, my excitement and determination mingled with nervousness. How bad would I be this time? Would I really suck? Would I not get it? I am not a naturally talented person, and every step in the right direction is a direct result of focus and practice.

Sensei was surprised to see me, and he measured me with a careful look. I took a deep breath in an effort to compose my thoughts.

“I feel like I’m a spaceship,” I finally said. “I’ve tried to reenter the atmosphere several times over the years, and every time I tried, my angle of reentry was wrong. I bounced right off, back into space again. So I figured I better try better this time and get it right before I run out of fuel and oxygen.”

He laughed. I smiled. My older daughter was hundreds of miles away at that very moment, studying for one of her college classes. It took me twenty years to come back with a sense of serious intent.

I was surprised to find that many techniques were still there from all those years ago. I will have to fix them and update them, but after all that karate, at least I know how. I know what questions to ask and I have the confidence to make mistakes. When I stepped out of the dojo and into the snowy night, my mind was clear and I felt refreshed. A hint of sandalwood incense still lingered in the air around me and dispelled the chill of the unwelcome springtime freeze. At that moment, I knew that I will figure out what to write, and what to do, and how to face the day with good cheer despite yet another dose of snow that I had to sweep off the car. And I knew not to relax too much, lest I hit my sempai by accident again.


Martial artists in Japan consider kenjustu – the applicable combat technique – dead and lost to the world. They believe only kendo survived the tooth of time. If you’d like to experience that feeling of flow and tranquility that comes with learning an arcane weapons’ form, visit and ask John Hamilton sensei to join a class. If the sword chooses you, you’ll become a custodian to an art that is both ancient and graceful.

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