Sunday, October 28, 2012

The vinegar tasters

Frank and I face off. I move quickly toward him, a wooden practice knife -- or, tanto -- gripped firmly in my right hand. At the last moment before I enter Frank's space, I playfully switch  the tanto to my left hand and jab him lightly in the ribs, throwing off his defense and forcing him to adapt his technique. Frank laughs and smiles that brilliant, open smile of his. "Thank you!" he exclaims, with a twinkle in his eye. He has accepted what was given him and learned something from the exchange.

In the last several months, I've started training in aikido, a Japanese martial art brought to this country back in the 1970s by a man named Mitsugi Saotome. Aikido is appealing to me on a number of levels, but it's how my fellow dojo-members -- especially my teachers -- respond to the practice that makes it feel somehow right for me.

When the technique's essence is captured, and the uke (attacker) finds him- or herself hitting the mat, there is almost always a smile, a laugh, a congratulatory "Yes!" or "Nice!" to the nage (defender). The energy in the room is light, playful, happy. And, yet, we are engaged in attack and defense.

As I've been training over the past several months, I've had this funny, nagging bit of memory knocking at the back of my brain every time someone falls to the ground with a smile or a laugh. It finally broke through: The Three Vinegar Tasters.

The Three Vinegar Tasters is a painting that comes from Eastern tradition and its story goes something like this: Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu are pictured around a vat of vinegar, which represents life. Each of the men has dipped his finger into the vat and tasted the vinegar, and his facial expression reflects the nature of his philosophy about life. Confucius wears a sour expression; Buddha's grimace is bitter. Lao Tzu, however, smiles with an expression of "Ah, yes!" And why shouldn't he?

Life is, after all, perfectly itself.

In my observations, martial artists can also be vinegar tasters. Certainly, some wear sour expressions as they practice. Some look angry or bitter. Many look as though the practice is a strain. But I somehow landed in with the smilers. So, in addition to feeling (especially on some Saturday mornings) like I've just walked into a roomful of rowdy brothers, a pile of squirmy puppies, or a gang of otters at play, I now also associate my dojo-mates' smiles as they tumble and roll with the smile of Lao Tzu. There's an "Ah, yes!" expression on their faces as they learn  from the energy they exchange with one another. Any why wouldn't there be?

That energy -- attacking, defending, moving in agreement -- is perfectly itself.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

In the land of giants: Sugar Bowl Trail

The ridge is the only place where I struggle a little to breathe. The altitude is part of it -- I'm approaching 7,000 feet -- but it's mostly the exertion of climbing the switchbacks up to a grove called The Sugar Bowl. The way is sometimes open and rocky, sometimes overhung with twisted, stunted oaks and a few pines of various species. There are overlooks here and there, previewing tomorrow's climb: the Big Baldy Trail. Silver-leafed brush reaches out and tugs at my boots, and I watch for rattlesnakes because, yes, diamond-backs are sometimes spotted even at these elevations.

Big Baldy -- hidden on the right -- is my hiking companion
Big Baldy is a silent, impersonal presence off my left shoulder. He peers through the trees at me where they open to reveal me. I've seen only two other humans on the trail -- a young, energetic couple climbing down the switchbacks I'm ascending -- and the effect is of having the park to myself. Kings Canyon National Park is an archipelago of park lands, interrupted in places by seas of national forest land and wilderness areas. It abuts Sequoia National Park, its sister park, a little south of where I'm hiking. But only the maps know the boundaries. From where I am, they don't matter, except that they protect this part of the Sierra Nevada from logging, cattle, and development.

The trail bends around a rise and disappears into the forest ahead. I turn the corner and enter the Sugar Bowl Grove.

There are two hikes I've taken in my life whose beauty has literally brought me to my knees. This is one of them.

Sugar Bowl Grove
The Sugar Bowl is a pristine grove of sequoia topping Redwood Mountain. It lacks the well-mannered, museum feeling of Grants Grove, where the third-largest sequoia -- the General Grant Tree -- and his massive neighbors are safely corralled behind fences, apart from the scores of tourists who visit every year. This grove, Sugar Bowl, is a riot of growth. Among the huge sequoias grow redwoods, white pine, ponderosa pine, red and white fir, and the sugar pine for whom (I think) the trail is named. Generations of sequoia stand together: tiny seedlings, slender saplings, cone-shaped adolescents, and ancient giants, some of whom are more than a thousand years old.

I'm dumbstruck as I fumble with my camera, pointing my lens this way and that, trying to find something on which to focus. And realizing that there is no way to capture what I see, what I'm experiencing here. How do I capture the depth? The light? The greens, sages, cinnamons, golds? How do I convey the enormity of the towering giants surrounding me, sheltering their growing legacies, reaching roots deep into the soft soil? I can't. But I do what I can, tears streaming down my face.
Looking up into the treetops
Ancient giants

The beauty is almost painful.

When I finally continue on the trail, walking deeper into the woods, I am shaken. It's difficult to breathe again, but not because the walk is strenuous -- it isn't -- and not because the air is thin. I'm still gasping from the awe of the place I'm leaving behind me, one heavy step at a time.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Unblocked: whew!

I started noticing it a couple of weeks ago: I'm writing again.

The writing started sneaking up on me in various forms: Facebook posts, a FoldingStory entry or two, comments on others' blogs, emails to friends. Suddenly, there was a blog post for one of my other blogs.

And now this.

I have to admit, I'm relieved. I'm too skeptical to launch into a full-blown celebration, but I am hopeful enough to breathe out a sigh and gear up for just letting it happen again. I've come to realize that my writing might be cyclical, that it might have phases like the moon. I have to be okay with that. I have to accept it.

Acts of creation take time and patience -- and a kind of energy flow that's been missing as I've determinedly slogged through my professional writing in a dogged commitment to deliver on what my clients pay for. It's been painful, these past months. But I've learned a lot, grown a lot, and am now ready to write. Create. Speak my own words and deliver my own message. And I think it will help me deliver the messages of others, ultimately. Creating works that way.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A professional case of writer's block

So, it's been a while since I've written anything out here. I've prepared my excuses:

  • I've been sick.
  • I've been busy.
  • I've been working a lot.
  • I had to find a new catalytic converter for my truck.
  • I went on vacation.
  • The holidays were crazy.
  • I suck at being disciplined.
Yeah. That. But the real reason is simply that I've been suffering from writer's block. In a turn of phrase from a coworker's observation about one of her own foibles: "Probably not a desirable attribute in a writer."

Yep. I write for a living. And that, I think, is the germ of the problem.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Night of the Vampire Army

Park rangers are among my favorite humans, and they are among the few people from whom I take orders. If they tell me to avoid a trail, I avoid it. If they tell me to watch out for rattlesnakes, I keep my eyes and ears peeled. If they tell me a particular trail leads to a spectacular view, you'd better believe I'll be right there with my camera at the time of day they tell me has the best light. They are concerned with my safety as well as my enjoyment, and I've heard too many of their horror stories about arrogant hikers and campers ending up injured or, in one case, dead. I listen to every word park rangers say and adjust my plans -- and behaviors -- accordingly.

Except this one time.