Around 13 years ago, I became a bona fide addict. Missing scheduled training for even one evening affected me deeply, both mentally and physically. Aikido and I shared a symbiotic relationship, with me undoubtedly more dependent upon Aikido than Aikido upon me.
My wife appreciated my passion and even shared my practice right up until we learned that we had conceived a child. My practice continued with our dojo family, and my wife would sometimes come to watch from the sidelines, appreciating the camaraderie before and after practice.
For months after the birth of my daughter, I continued to practice with this group, and my wife and daughter occasionally came, watching from the sidelines, appreciating the camaraderie before and after practice.
Without question we were poor, and when our daughter was born our finances only worsened. We were older students, Army veterans attending college, surviving on monies left over from our Army College Funds after tuition, books, and other expenses were paid. When we could no longer afford Aikido classes, Sensei allowed me to clean the dojo and perform other chores on the weekend in exchange for training, even offering hand-me-down gis and weapons to keep me in uniform. I was not too proud to accept these duties or the gifts, for I knew the value I placed on the opportunity to train with him and my extended family.
Eventually, my wife agreed with me that it was in our best interests for me to accept a summer internship out-of-state, about a five hour drive away from our home in West Virginia. The work there was consuming and I was without a car. It was my first extended period without practice since beginning.
I returned after the summer to my wife and daughter, to graduate school, and to my dojo. A year later, though, I found myself in the same position. I returned to the same employer for another summer, this time bringing my wife and daughter with me. As this second summer came to a close, though, it was clear that we should pursue changing my internship status to that of a full-time employee. We packed our belongings and left the hills and our dojo family behind.
I was invited to join my peers that fall to test for my shodan. There was no question I was well-prepared: Sensei ensured that we already exceeded anyone's expectations before ever recommending us for promotions, and we had indeed practiced over the last year at or above the required level in preparation. Now though, several months out of practice and again penniless, I could not return. Moreover, I did not want to shame Sensei or my peers with less than a perfect performance. I deliberated, decided, and then declared that I was just not ready.
A year or two letter, a close friend we gained from our dojo practice visited us. Like an emissary, he brought a gift from the dojo. "Sensei says to wear it when you are ready." It was a black obi, embroidered with my name in Japanese katakana, prepared in anticipation of my successful test some time before.
The emotion surrounding that moment remains beyond description... It was a testament less to what I had achieved and more to the faith my Sensei and my extended dojo family had placed in me. What we had was truly a dojo in the best tradition.
The belt remained unworn, stiff and bound with a pair of rubber bands, tucked away on a shelf for some time to come as I focused on establishing myself at the office and strengthening my family in our new life. My stature at the office increased, we had a second child, we purchased our first house, we began homeschooling our children, I changed employment, ... Life moved on without Aikido.
I dabbled now and again as Aikido called to me. I visited various local dojos, unconsciously seeking that same spirit, style, and camaraderie that I had left behind. There was no perfect fit; moreover, I rationalized that I did not have the time to invest in recreating the past, nor did I have the emotional energy to develop such deep relations anew.
And it is this end that marks the beginning of this story...