Friday, August 31, 2007

A Story About Sword Training

One of the great challenges in trying to keep up on my sword training since I moved out of the temple is finding good places to practice that are near my new home. There are two main requirements for this: enough open public space, a relatively low traffic unexposed location. From my early days of studying martial arts I learned that there are a lot of people in the world with strange ideas about it, ideas I do not fully understand, that result in them harassing you about it. I think it might have something to do with what people think of as the audacity or arrogance of the martial arts student. Their feeling may be, “How dare this guy walk around claiming he knows karate! He’s nothing special.” I’m not sure what it is. It still confuses me but I’ve learned to try and keep my hobby under wraps as much as I can, at least among people I don’t know or trust. (There’s an additional story about how this complicates my life on the island but that is not for here now.)

So anyway, it took me a little while to figure out some places where I could train around here and all of them are a little bit of a hike from my house. It is perhaps less convenient than I might have hoped but not too bad. Part of the trick with these training locations is not just the place but the time of day. There’s a certain school nearby where if I go really early on a Saturday morning or late on a week night there’s a bit of lawn and parking lot I can swing my sword around in. There’s another place along an abandoned railroad behind and abandoned warehouse that is very private all day during weekdays but becomes a spot at night where underage folk seek that privacy to smoke and drink. Another spot I found is a seldom used park near a highway where most of the time cars are flying by fast enough they don’t seem to see what I do out on the lawn.

One day I went to train in this location and came to realize that the issue of timing applies there as well. I guess it must have been during the afternoon rush hour. The traffic got backed up and instead of flying by a few drivers became an audience. Concentrating as I was on my forms I didn’t notice until I heard someone shouting from the road. I didn’t quite get what he said at first. So between forms I heard more clearly, “You’ve got to be joking! You’ve got to be kidding us! What, are you crazy!?” So there it was, my first heckle and a reminder why I hide to do this stuff. I kind of looked for the guy out of the corner of my eye as I went to do my next form just to be sure he was directing it at me. There he was, with his head hanging out of his window and an angry expression on his face looking at me and shouting “You’ve got to be kidding us! What are you crazy!?”

He drove on and I have to confess this sort of itched in my mind for a while. Two things sort of stuck out for me. First of all, who is this “us” he keeps referring to? Is this guy presuming to speak for everyone else on the road? Did he somehow come to think that I was out there training with the hope of benefiting him with a show? Mostly I was just confused as to why he’d even care enough to say anything at all.

It was as I tried to continue in this confused mental state that my next distraction came. this day. A couple of apparently Chinese folks came to the park with a little kid. The kid was also fascinated with what I was doing but in a much more positive way. “What are you doing? Why are you fighting?”, he’d ask. He kept hanging around me getting sometimes dangerously close to getting clobbered. I had a couple of short sticks with me in addition to my sword and I gave him one to play with. I told him, “You can play with this one but you’ll have to stay at least this far away so you don’t get hurt, okay?” He agreed and what I thought might become a sword for him instead turned into airplane wings. Oh well.

Let us just say I don’t practice there during rush hour any more.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Retreat

So… I took the train and made a three mile hike carrying my eight days worth of clothes etc down to the center. I had recently purchased a new bag so that I could fit one of my full sized swords in it. I thought training might be appropriate and having not had a chance yet to talk to my director I took the sword in case. It turned out that he encouraged my sword training and this was a form of meditation that provided a couple of insights useful to the retreat.

The center ( is a rather large building and is currently used primarily as a residence for aging or hospitalized Jesuits. When it was originally built it was a school for training novices to become Jesuit priests. It has a nice big chapel with a dome and a half dome in the middle front of the building. The grounds are quite large and are used by retreatants for meditative nature walks.

When I arrived the director’s secretary, a woman I had talked with trying to get set up with this retreat, took me up to my room. It was one of the old dorm rooms of the Jesuit school. Eventually I met my director Fr. Mattaliano and he scheduled to meet with me each morning at 10 am. Our morning meetings consisted of him asking how my meditations and prayers of the previous day went and me telling him as I felt it appropriate or useful to do so. We would then discuss the potential meanings and importance of the things I observed in my own thoughts and feelings. Then he would sort of assign me passages of scripture to read and a direction for meditating on them. He would also direct me to pray for what he called a grace, which in Mormonism we might call a spiritual gift. An example of the type of grace he would suggest praying for might be a deeper understanding of some aspect of God’s love in a certain context. He would of specify the aspect and context. Then I would try to do it and we would talk about it again.

I found this interesting and useful for a couple of reasons. First, we discussed things in my spiritual experience that I very seldom have talked about with other people. It was sort of like having someone else there to listen to my thoughts and reflect them back at me in ways that helped me to see what was going on with a bit more clarity than I could have accomplished on my own. In the Zen temple this is not something we got much chance to do as discussing things experienced in meditation was pretty discouraged. Why this is the case has something to do with sacredness but, I think there is more to it than I understand. I have experienced some difficulties in having discussions like this with people who are LDS too, I think particularly of my mission but at other times as well. Part of this I think has to do with a strange sort of cultural corruption of our faith where people are afraid to believe in taking instruction from the Holy Ghost. It’s sort of like a denial that we as common random individuals, “non-prophets,” might have interesting and important revelations. The other part of our difficulty may lie in not having much in the way of training or teaching on how to have these conversations. Not knowing some appropriate method, we may feel inordinate fear or hesitation to having these sorts of dialogues.

The second major benefit I found from having spiritual direction, as it is called, was to be directed. The way I know the scriptures is different from the way that he knows them. Of course he’s trained to do this stuff and has been through a formal and rigorous theological education but that’s not really what I’m referring to. The scriptures that have the most interest to me, that I know well, and the sorts of interpretations I’ve put on them are different than those of my director. So, when he hears about my meditations and assigns me passages, he is doing it from his background and experience. Because it is different from mine it offers me a new perspective on the issues at hand, or his suggested prayers and meditation offer me a new perspective on old scriptures. I found this to be valuable as well.

Now, some may wonder about the Jesuit aspect of this whole experience. Now because of my knowledge of St. Ignatius, the Exercises, the way that it seems Jesuits seem to have a certain thing for schools, education, and the sciences, as well as an evangelical function I have felt a certain kinship or relationship with them. To some degree I wondered if this trip might not further tempt me with the idea that I had played with a little of joining their order. Somewhat to my surprise it did exactly the opposite. Being surrounded by these men, who had so dedicated their lives to the service of God as they understood it, I realized that I could never do it. On the grounds there is a cemetery for Jesuit fathers that they suggest walking through as a sort of meditation where one can contemplate the number of people who have served as witnesses of Christ. However, this is not at all how it felt for me. The identical grave markers in perfect rows gave me a sense of extreme loneliness. These were all men whose lines had ended. They were not with their ancestors, they had no descendants. It was quite sad. As I saw them around the center and overheard them talking in the dining hall I had much the same impression: theirs was in many ways a life of loneliness, grandfathers with no grandchildren.

Now as for the content of my meditations… let us say that I feel the experience was a good one. I learned new things and sort of relearned things I’d forgotten. It has also been interesting spending these last few days in the wake of the retreat because I see with greater clarity the meanings of the things I derived from my meditations and by and large what I have to do about them. I found a lot of my vulnerability exposed to myself and certain of my strengths, things I depend on daily but don’t give much thought to. A greater appreciation of these things and a desire to grow in strengths by allowing myself to experience vulnerability may be a fruit of this experience.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Cashew Tree

So, it has been over a year since I first got the idea to try and do this and at long last I have had some success. Below is a cashew tree seedling, I sprouted in my room. I'm excited enough that I'm posting this before I talk about my retreat. Normally I'm opposed to naming inanimate things but in this case I'm going to make an exception so, I'm offering anyone with ideas a chance to discuss names for a cashew tree.

Though, I've discussed this with some people I should explain part of the reason I decided to try to grow a cashew tree. First is the obvious: I like cashews. Second: When I first read about doing it, I thought it to be a rather unique, interesting, and cool thing to try. Third: I found out that the cashew tree grows a fruit sometimes called a cashew apple that you can never buy in stores because when it is ripe it is too delicate to withstand any packaging or shipping. You have to have the tree to eat this forbidden fruit.

When I tried this before it failed for a couple of reasons. First New England isn't all that terribly sunny in the summer compared to Utah. My mistaken assumption. Also, I think I may have overwatered them. Apparently these guys like the desert. So, I think I planted 7 or so seeds then and got nothing. This time around I modified a sort of cabinet so that it is covered with reflective insulation on the inside and rigged a fluorescent coil light that comes encased in a plastic device that alters the light spectrum that's emitted to imitate natural light. I planted the seeds in some little contraptions designed to water the plant without human attention (important considering my job) with lots of food and a special chemical called gibberellic acid that stimulates seed germination and stem growth. I rigged the whole thing with a timer so that the seeds (and now plant) get 13 hours of sunlight a day. And.... voila. If you look closely at the picture you can see the two cashew-shaped cotyledons.

It's supposed to be a year or so before it starts to produce fruit.