The Harsh Reality of Becoming a Warrior, Part II

This of the story of my training in Jujutsu at Futen Dojo. Part I is here.

The reason for this story is not the importance of martial arts themselves, but of what Sensei told me when he first heard about my adventure.

I should put this in context. When you announce an adventure like mine, you get a lot of criticism. Dump trucks of the stuff. You’ve got people who are scared for you, and will say anything to get you to stay. You’ve got people who have lived a little and want to assess how serious you are. And then there are people who just think the whole idea is stupid.

In the face of that kind of criticism, you learn pretty quickly to just ignore it.

So I weather objections on the grounds of safety, language, health, culture, terrain, income and occupation. Almost daily, I shrug off remixes of the same cautionary tales I heard the week before. Sorry, but if you’ve given me a passionate reason why I shouldn’t go, it probably went in my mental spam filter.

But never Sensei. He gets a free pass to my complete attention (so do my parents).

You could say it’s the years of training. I’m required to treat him with respect, so I’d listen closely to his opinion on any topic. But it’s more than that.

As my teacher, Sensei is uniquely placed to gauge exactly how ready I am. He knows my reaction time. My attitude. My energy. My spiritual state. How I handle fear and surprise. His feelings about this goal of mine are of great interest to me.

So, three weeks ago, stretching on the mat for the first time in too long, we talked. He asked where I’m going after my stint in Milwaukee, and I told him.

“Sensei, I’m walking to Brazil. From Minnesota.”

He nodded his head.

I waited to hear what he would say.

His answer:

“It would be good if you lived through it.”

Photo Credit: "Hanami or Flower Viewing" by Jesslee Cuizon

Life is Itself Beautiful

Life is an easy thing to lose. Martial artists know that too well. We train to learn the many fragile points on the body. We discover how hard it is to protect them, and how easily an outside force can reach them.

Life is an easy thing to lose, but the cost is high. Because life is also beautiful. The experience of being conscious is the first and greatest gift anyone gives us.

What Sensei said to me carried great meaning. His words held no judgement, in the truest sense of that phrase: no evaluation that my trip is bad or good. Like anyone else who cares about me, he might rather I not risk my life. But unlike others, he knows it is useless to tell me not to go. So he didn’t even start that conversation.

Instead, he cut to the quick of it. It would be good if you lived. 

These words carry the heavy implication you might die, and the hopeful assertion it is possible to survive. But do I have the skills to avoid the former, and ensure the latter? There’s no point in asking. The only way to answer that question is on the mat.

A New Humility

Last week I finished another training session, sweaty and blissfully sore like always. I thanked Sensei for the lesson.

“You did well today,” he said.

It was hard to hear. Praise is rare in the dojo, but when given it’s always sincere. I knew Sensei was right. I had practiced hard between classes and did everything he said. Compared to my usual performance, I did great.

But that was what stung so badly. However good I might be by the Drew Jacob standard, I was not very good by the Handling Myself Against Murderers standard. Being better than I was in college doesn’t mean much if I’m not good enough to save my life.

With the past few weeks of training under my belt, I’m aware of a painful fact: Three months of hard training may not get me to where I need to be. 

This leaves me wondering:

  • Can I add more training before my trip? When? How?
  • Are my other pastimes worth it? Should I give up longsword and focus on the most effective art I know, Jujutsu?
  • Should I pivot? What other skills will help save my life – social skills? A spiritual demeanor?

This weighs on me. What would you do, my friends? Blog posts always end with a call for comments, but this is a very serious question for me. If you can imagine yourself in my shoes, how else would you prepare? What more would you do?


The Harsh Reality of Becoming a Warrior, Part I

Right now I’m in the first stage of preparation for the Great Adventure: three months training at Futen Dojo in Milwaukee. Futen Dojo is where I first learned what true martial arts are. They’re an important part of who I am, but they weren’t always.

I was nineteen. I had just transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I had fond memories of practicing Tae Kwon Do throughout my adolescence. At the time, I thought of martial arts as each having a “niche” to fill. In my head Tae Kwon Do was good for striking and kicking, Judo for grappling, and Ninjutsu for hiding and ambushing. Perhaps you think of the martial arts this way too. But I was about to be introduced to a single martial art that has all of the essential techniques.

I missed martial arts, so I decided to find a place to train. I might have gone back into Tae Kwon Do if there was a school near me, but there wasn’t. On the other hand, every day I walked past this beautiful little martial arts studio in a storefront on Brady Street.

Brady Street in Milwaukee.

As I recall, the window said Jujutsu and Ninpo. I didn’t know what Ninpo was. As far as I knew Jujutsu was a lot of locks, takedowns and ground fighting (wrong). So when I went inside, I told the teacher that was what I wanted to learn. “Tae Kwon Do doesn’t do much ground fighting, so I think Jujutsu would be good for me.”

His answer: “Before you learn ground fighting, maybe you should learn fighting.

I soon found out what he meant. My blocks were designed for loose sparring, where no one really tried to hit the other person. They didn’t work against killing strokes. My posture was terrible; I was all in my arms and legs and never thought about my balance. The idea of off-balancing my opponent wasn’t even in my repertoire.

Sensei showed me blocks that disabled the enemy’s arm. He made sure I could feel it myself, reducing my arm to the numbness of pins and needles. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “That will go away in a minute. I went soft.”

He showed me what it means to feel my own body. Months of practicing rolls, falls, and ritualistic etiquette taught me secret lessons I can’t begin to describe. With time I noticed more than just where my hand or foot should go. I began to feel where my weight should go, and how to move my opponent for my own gain.

I was receiving the training of a samurai, something that no American and very few Japanese could have hoped for just decades ago. Given that amazing privilege, you might think I’d be honored and dedicate myself completely to it.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

I treated Jujutsu the way people treat hobbies. It was fun and interesting, but it was always the first thing to go. Too busy? Skip Jujutsu. Tired? Skip Jujutsu. Running out of money? No need to go to that special Jujutsu seminar.

As a result I progressed slowly. When I moved away to Minneapolis, my visits back to the dojo for training became less frequent. I could see real physical improvement, and spiritual confidence, from Jujutsu. But I didn’t treat these skills as something I’d need to save my life. Like a decorative sword, I didn’t keep them sharp.

Now, after half-assing it for a decade, I’m getting ready to walk to walk across Latin America. Let me try to put that in perspective.

Last night at dinner a new friend, himself from Mexico, asked me a jarring question: “What’s the world capital for beheadings right now? Iraq. How about second place?”

I shook my head.

“Mexico.” He explained how his father, a biologist, used to do field research in his home country. An expedition he was on met with thugs, resulting in robbery, beatings and the rape of a woman in the group. Able to escape alive, he refuses to go into the field in Mexico again.

If it was meant to change my mind, the story failed: it’s not the first such incident I’ve been told of by concerned friends. The reality is, I’m walking into a very dangerous area. Followed by many more dangerous areas. So I may require my Jujutsu skills to save my life.

Which makes me wish I had spent the last ten years treating my art as much more than a hobby.

See Part II.


How Gods and Dinosaurs Made Some Kids Very Happy (I Hope)

I want to start off today by saying thank you for all of you who share Rogue Priest on Twitter, Facebook, Stumbleupon, or even just emailing the link to a friend. The site wouldn’t be growing as quickly as it is without you, so thank you.

Okay, on to dinosaurs.

Wait what? You heard me. A few years back I read an article by a woman who left plastic dinosaurs at local playgrounds. Anytime she saw dinos at rummage sales she snagged them, took them to a playground, and left them at the edge of the sand for anyone to use.

Why Am I Talking About Abandoned Dinosaurs?

Lately I’ve been on a minimalism jag, which is making my move—and my life—a lot easier.

As I got rid of my things, I found that most fell easily into one of three piles: sell, donate, or throw. But what about stuff that didn’t fit any of those?

I’m thinking of things from my personal shrine. I’m a polytheist, and it’s common for us to keep small statues of our deities or items that are sacred to them. In my case, that includes a variety of animal figurines, stones, pictures, and trinkets.

Traditionally a shrine was a very small shelf or nook in a home with a few figures and a place for offerings. Nowadays many polytheists suffer from sprawl. Their shrines become a massive collection of sentimental knick knacks. You know how I feel about that. I decided to get back to basics.

But what can I do with this stuff?

It doesn’t travel easily. Some of it might be worth a little money on eBay, but I’m only selling big-ticket items. It feels wrong to throw them out, and not worth a long car ride to take them to charity.

Time for a Field Trip

That was when I remembered the dinosaurs. I rounded up a few choice pieces and headed out to the local playground.

The items I abandoned today include a stone tiger, owl, and dragon; and a metal deity statue. Originally I intended to leave them all in places where kids would be most likely to find them, but I couldn’t resist putting the owl on the bench at a retirement home. Someone will surely cherish it.

Deciding that the metal deity statue was too pointy for children, I set it in someone’s shrine-like garden for them to do with as they wish. The dragon took its post beneath the slide at the playground, and the tiger was left to guard a solitary tree off to one side. You have to leave something for the loner kids to find. 

My Personal Giveaway

I realize it’s a minor thing, but it really made my day to pass these items on so organically. Whoever finds them can use them however they see fit, probably never knowing they once sat on an altar. 

As a kid, If I had stumbled upon a tiger made of luminescent green stone I would have been thrilled (and mystified). It’s like finding a hidden treasure. Hopefully they will bring that same joy to somebody else.

Have you ever left something for a stranger to find? Did you get any weird looks doing it? Let me know, but first please tweet or Facebook share this post. Doing so is the only way to get into heaven, so you know it’s important.