The Art of Peace

An essay I wrote in 1995, as a freshman at Duke University, for my writing course.

Hot, sweet jasmine tea has made me warm after my shower. I put on my gi in a sort of morning ritual, pulling the drawstrings of my pants just enough and tying them, slipping my arms into the heavy, quilted cotton, wrapping the front left over right, and finally fitting the belt, wrapping the middle from front to back, slipping one end under the other, evening the edges, and tying. I stretch out morning-stiff muscles, sometimes lying in meditation as well. I relax my body, feeling the warm pulse creep through my veins. I know my heart is beating, and I notice my breath. It is good to be alive.

Some mornings, I walk to dojo barefoot, feeling the pavement under my feet, the mulch, the cold metal fire escape steps as I walk around to the back of the dorm, to the gym. It is good to feel the ground; wearing shoes produces a sort of detachment. On entering, I bow to the floor, already having slipped off sandals if I’d been wearing them.


It is the same here every day. I take Eric’s wrist, loosely, and he turns into me, under my arm, and I have to fall, turn and turn and flow to standing. We do it again and again, switching roles. Sometimes it is shomenuchi, sometimes kotagaeshi, sometimes riminage. We are always partners, though. It is always the same.

We are in aikido class, dancing on the blue mats, while the morning light flows in through the windows and casts our gis an unnatural white. Our belts are symbols of our knowledge – ours are that same bright white, pure and innocent. We are all beginners.


On the first day, Shihan, our instructor, asks us why we have come. For some of us, it is self defense, for others, relaxation, for others, concentration or discipline. Shihan asks Kuhlbir. “I wanna kick some ass,” he eagerly replies. “Well, we’ve gotten right to the point,” Shihan tells us, smiling. I know, as do some of the others. We are about to hear a speech.


One of the many translations of “aikido” is “the art of peace.” Also, ai, harmony, ki, the essence of the universe, and do, path or way, combine to give the translation “the way of life through harmony with the universe.”

Shihan asks Zack to stand, tells Zack to resist as he pushes backwards on his chest. We watch Zack strain and grimace, and finally his back arches and he steps away to regain balance. Shihan then asks me to step up and stand about ten feet away. He tells me to put out my hands, palms-up. He asks Zack to relax and “grab” my hands, hold them tighter, tighter, tighter. . .

Shihan pushes again. I close my hands, lean back against Shihan’s push, focus on Zack and on holding him up. Shihan leans and leans, but Zack does not move. Without touching him, I have held him up. I am smiling. We are all in awe.


One day, his assistant Jason, the yellow-belt, is not there. Shihan must demonstrate a new technique, shomenuchi ikkyo. He needs a partner. “Good uke,” Shihan says under his breath as he touches my elbow, indicating that I stay. I tug at the bottom of my gi top, pull out the slack, adjust my white belt, toe the mat. Everyone gathers. I have never done this before.

Rei,” Shihan tells me, and we come to attention and bow to one another. “Yoshi,” – good – he says, softly, deeply. He takes my arm and demonstrates the cranking motion, the ikkyo, bending my arm and pushing my elbow into my face, leaning in, which sets me off balance. I sidestep, uncertain. “Trust me,” he says soothingly, “I’m holding you.”

When he is finished, we pair off – Shihan is now my uke. He performs shomenuchi, the overhand strike, and I step in to catch his arm. “Project,” he advises me, peeking out from under his elbow. He tugs at the knot in my belt until I move in closer. He is teaching us to use ki, an inner energy very different from physical power. Ki is the “essence of the universe.” It emanates from the hara, the center, a spot on the stomach a bit below the navel. We must move, then, from our hips, always. Shihan and I are face-to-face now, only inches away, matching stances. I trust him absolutely.


We have all practiced projection in our stances, called hanmi. We shift back and forth, projecting with our hips, focusing on the front and back walls, mentally gluing ourselves to them. Shihan walks around pushing our chests and backs. We must not react with force. When we do, we lose our balance.

It is a different way. Shihan tells us that the study of karate goes three times faster because it relies on tension. Aikido bases itself on relaxation. We have to relearn our whole way of living. We cannot fight each other with force, cannot hurt one another. We must blend, become one.

My partner throws me and wants to know if he is bending my wrist properly – “Does it hurt?” Shihan overhears him and corrects him. The aim should not be to hurt, but to perform the technique correctly. He then tells me to perform the attack, the wrist-grab. He circles into me. I can barely feel his touch, he is so gentle. He is the nage, Japanese for “throw,” I am the uke, the attacker, from the Japanese for “one who takes a fall.” Because I have disrupted harmony by attacking him, I am destined for the soft blue mat. My wrist is straight, it does not hurt. Shihan has not conquered me with force, but with love. He takes my hand and helps me up. We bow to one another and smile, and Eric and I continue with this lesson in mind.


Shihan invited us to his test for seventh degree black belt in karate. After he earned his black belt, he knelt on the floor, yellow-striped black belt laid out before him. He asked that all his students gather around in one great circle, from the lowest white belt to the highest black belt. We three Duke students who went to watch him test were apprehensive – we did not belong to his dojo. He announced that we, too, were welcome, and, grinning, we joined the circle of Shihan’s students. We watched as he tied his belt about his waist. There was an energy there that I have not often felt before, a great sense of harmony and belonging.


Practice is over for the day, and it’s been a rough one. I am sweating and a bit dizzy from all the falling and standing. Eric feels lost. He’s missing part of one of the techniques, still. Alexi, our third partner, has been throwing us hard. I’ve been thudding on the mat for all of class, getting up more and more slowly the more I’ve been thrown. And “tapping out,” slapping the mat to indicate excessive pain. I have never tapped out before; I never needed to.

Tall Eric puts his arm around my shoulders. “Good practice,” he says, and I agree, putting my arm around his waist, hugging him. We’re both tired, feel beat up. Shihan has taught us, though, to be positive. “How are you doing?” he’ll ask, and our response should be “Better and better and better, sir!”

After a particularly frustrating day, I tell Shihan, “Today has been a difficult day.” And truly it has; it seems as though I’m losing ground. He touches my shoulder. “Today has been a great day,” he says, grinning. I smile and chuckle. Shihan is the eternal optimist.

Sometimes I wonder why this positive ki does not go outside the dojo. In our dojo, in that warm gym in the back of my dorm, we learn to relax and embrace one another. What has happened that we so seldom feel the sort of peace that we did at Shihan’s testing, in that great circle? I could feel the energy, the ki, among all of us. For us in aikido, circles are essential: the whirlpooling embrace that sends an attacker falling, the embrace of a friend. It is the spirit of aikido, according to O-sensei, the art’s founder, “that of loving attack and that of peaceful reconciliation.” No anger, no resentment. Only love and harmony. Shihan jokes about one of the techniques, saying to his uke, as he is being attacked, “Come here, let me give you a hug.” He pulls the uke in, uke’s head on his chest, and spins him to the mat.

O-sensei tells us, “The true meaning of the term samurai is one who serves and adheres to the power of love.” The path of the warrior is not in the physical. As we walk this life, it is something we must remember that often there is greater strength in kindness.

At Holy Name of Jesus

on the dark-lacquered lunchroom floor
we sat crosslegged in our red, white, and navy jumpers
and khaki uniforms
watching the old
tube TV, transfixed,
as t-minus counted down to
main engine start
then liftoff.

After a minute
something awful happened,
though one of the boys
who liked to draw swastikas
in the margins of his notebook
whispered, too quietly
for the nuns to hear,


Our eyes glued
to the screen
with millions
of other schoolchildren
on that January 28th
in 1986
for the pall to lift,
for the shuttle to reemerge triumphant,
for the teacher to walk again
among the living.

When nothing happened,
the nuns led us back
to silent classrooms
where no one spoke,

with no one to save us.

A higher education

A small bat clings to the bulkhead outside my high school’s library. Soon, a Xerox of an encyclopedia page on bats is taped to the glass door beneath it. We ponder its arrival with our physics teacher. No one ever sees the bat move, but it changes positions once or twice. In a couple days, it disappears.


My classmates are bright and quirky, as are most of the faculty, who generally give us as much as we can handle. In our ninth grade Civics class we read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and some of the Federalist Papers. We memorize landmark Supreme Court decisions, volunteer with political campaigns. At 14, we know more about good citizenship and the foundations of our government than most American adults.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are prone to subversion, even mutiny. When we are required to attend the swearing in of an alumnus to the school board, some of my classmates walk out on the unmistakably Christian prayers. I do not, but I feel uncomfortable. My friends are Jewish, Hindu, Jain, Bah’ai, agnostic, atheist. After the event, I run into the favorite Catholic priest of my childhood. This time, I can barely look him in the eye.

In AP American History, two of us escape to the office to complain about a hostile substitute with a crazy haircut and a bright purple suit who overuses the word “apropos” and insists we debate with him. By the time lunch is over, he has been removed. It is we who are in charge of our educations, and we demand, if not to be challenged and respected, then to be left alone.


My physics teacher, Ira Nirenberg, is a skinny, balding, bearded vegan and animal rights activist. He is the faculty sponsor of the environmental club, and once or twice a year, he tries to introduce all his students to vegan hot dogs. He wears t-shirts and runners with his trousers, and the mental image I will always carry is of him jogging in a tight circle, his outstretched arm the radius, his downward-pointing finger the center. He is talking about electrons.

Nirenberg is my first science teacher there and my last. I have him for both Physical Science and AP Physics. He is also the founder of Physics Dress Up Day. I paint my face like a cat and carry around a small cardboard box on which I’ve written passages from The Dancing Wu Li Masters. As Schroedinger’s cat, I am simultaneously dead and not dead. A classmate from a different year dons a sombrero and serape and wraps pieces of a vacuum cleaner around himself. He has come as Pepe the Partial Vacuum.

The grand event on Physics Dressup Day is the scavenger hunt. Nirenberg takes the time to tape a Physics problem to the door of every classroom. He gives us the first problem, the solution of which is the room number of the next problem, and sends us solving.

Nirenberg spoils us by doing real science. Absentmindedly bouncing a superball on the lab table, he notices the bounce goes dead when the ball hits a piece of paper, and we wonder for a few minutes about the shock-absorbing properties of paper. When he receives some posters in cardboard mailing tubes, he puts “reduce, reuse, recycle” into action by inventing a challenge for us. We try to predict where to put the tube so that a ball bearing rolling off an angle ramp will fall in the opening of the tube.

Nirenberg hates memorization, hates what he calls “formula grunts.” He can’t stop us from memorizing the formulae for use on tests, but insists we derive them ourselves at least once.

We enter every endeavor this way, not knowing what the answers are. It is entirely up to us what we deduce and write in our lab reports, what we take our best fit curves to mean about the speed of a ball bearing rolling down the hallways. We are rewarded not so much for being right — he doesn’t know the answers either — but for how we think about the questions.

When I take my first college science course, freshman Chem at Duke University, the canned lab experiments depress me, and the lectures, memorized to the 12th decimal place by the famous Dr. Bonk, bore me. I stop attending Bonkistry altogether.


When I return to university after many years, the picture is still as bleak as a Vancouver winter. Sometimes, the sun breaks through and the teaching — and learning — are superb. We soak it up while it lasts.

Often, though, there is a succession of dreary days. My high school classmates would have been to the administration by now demanding an education, but no one has ever told my classmates at the university that they deserve one. Few complain. Many leave. The rest quietly accept what is offered, focus on survival, and commiserate outside the classroom.

I am too committed to finishing my degree to consider quitting, but in some courses I become the kind of student I don’t even recognize: bored, present in body only when my attendance is required, skipping sometimes when it isn’t. I do the bare minimum to get the grade I want, or settle for something slightly lower. I am too polite to text in class, but a couple times I sit in the back and hide a crossword puzzle in my binder.

I feel bad for these profs, whom I imagine being driven to drink by long sessions grading papers we couldn’t be bothered to put our hearts into and by the dearth of class participation. I get the sense from the way they talk in class that their expectations of us are low.

We do our best to live up to them.

Image of bat used under Creative Commons license from binux’s Flickr stream.

Ira Nirenberg is still kicking around. You can read his book, Living With Math, free from his website.

Short Story: It Will Be Seen

On his last day of work, Nate boxed up his Blues Brothers figurines and posters from his cube, collected his severance check, and proceeded home, where he got drunk in front of the television.

He didn’t recall having landed in bed, but that was where he woke up, wearing the previous day’s plaid boxers and “All your base are belong to us” t-shirt. He cupped his hand under the faucet and drank some water from it, then brushed the fuzz off his teeth.

“The end of an era,” he said to himself. “Fuck.”

He pulled on yesterday’s jeans, pocket checked, and left for the 7-Eleven to buy Gatorade.


A middle-aged guy and his wife and their suitcases were already in the elevator on the way back up. “Y’all could use another elevator in this place.”

Nate smiled weakly and nodded at the man, whose baseball cap said “Wiener Dog Races, Boda, Texas.”

If he felt better, he thought, he’d have asked about them.


The good news was that, between severance and savings and not even counting EI, Nate figured he had a year easy to figure out his next move. The bad news was that the days stretched out before him endlessly, without real interruptions. The milk would expire and the bills would come due, but it didn’t matter when he was awake and when he wasn’t, nor how he filled his days.

He’d spent the past eight years working his way up the games industry ladder, starting in the large cadre of testers. He stuck out the insane overtime and cyclical boredom until he got to be, at long last, an artist. This was what he’d suffered for. And in the beginning, he loved it. But the work became routine again over time, and as the layoffs started, it became clear he was still just a small cog in a very large wheel. Management ordered up meetings in which they showed organizational charts without his job on them and talked cheerily about business needs and future plans. For once, Nate considered himself lucky to be single; many of the guys had families to support.

Lucky, but lonely.

With that thought, Nate crawled back under the covers.


The second time Nate got up, he flicked on the TV and made himself a pot of coffee, scrambled eggs, and toast. He sat down at his computer with his breakfast, checked his e-mail, and fired up World of Warcraft. He and his guildmates played into the early hours of the next morning, stopping only for bio breaks and to pay the pizza guy.

He occupied the better part of the week this way, but by Thursday, the novelty was wearing off. Low on groceries and starved for fresh air and self-respect, he showered, shaved for the first time since he’d been let go, and left to run errands.

At the library, he wandered the stacks and picked out some fiction, some philosophy, some photography. It was midday, and with everyone else at work, it was peaceful and quiet. At the grocery, Nate bought fruit and veggies to atone for the sins of the week, and plotted a big pot of chili.

Close to home, he ran into the cute neighbor with the Dachshunds, one brown, one spotted like a Guernsey cow. He bent down to pet them. The brown one was cautious, but the cow-spotted one wagged his tail happily as he scratched it behind the ears.

“Day off?” his neighbor asked.

“No, I got laid off last week.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’ll work out,” Nate shrugged, sparing her his misery. “I should get my groceries in, catch you later.”


Nate’s dreams that night were chaotic, but one scene stood out clearly – he was in the middle of a muddy track trying to catch wiener dogs. He couldn’t remember why, but the dream had a feeling of urgency. What could possibly have been so important about catching wiener dogs? Dreams were funny things.

When he sat down at his computer with breakfast and checked his Facebook, one status update caught his eye.

“Scott Samson ‘s sister has a litter of brown Dachshund pups for sale. 9 wks old.”

Christ. This is getting fucking ridiculous, Nate thought, and put his head in his hands. He’d often thought about getting a dog, but his work schedule had prohibited it. But now. . .

“How much?” he typed back.


The next day, Nate walked out of Scott’s sister’s house holding a shivering brown boy pup inside his jacket. The pup had chosen him; when Nate sat on the floor to look at the litter, this little dog wobbled over curiously, sniffed Nate’s leg, and then began playing tug-of-war with his jeans.

“It’s ok,” he told the pup. “Everything will be ok.”

On the way home, Nate stopped at the pet store. It was a bit much to carry in his pack and one-handed, but he bought everything he thought he would need. Everyone smiled at him and cooed at the little brown eyes and sharp nose that peered out from his jacket.

Nate’s world had just taken a turn towards the friendly.


When Nate got inside, he put his new pup down to explore.

“This is home, bud. How do you like it?” The pup waddled around the apartment, cautiously sniffing everything.

Nate shook his head. The whole universe seemed to be telling him he needed a wiener dog. It was a little like God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It made no sense. Abraham must have looked up at God and thought, however it came out in Hebrew, “Are you shitting me?”

That was it. Abraham. “Hey, what do you think of that name?” he asked the pup, who’d claimed a stray dirty sock as his first toy. “Hammy, c’mere Hammy.” He seemed torn between staying with the sock and going to his new owner.

Nate took the sock away and scooped Hammy up. He picked up the remote, lay down on the couch, and stood Hammy on his chest. “What do you think? It’s not so bad here.”

He stroked Hammy and scratched behind his ears. Hammy’s eyes began to blink and he soon fell asleep in a little ball in the middle of Nate’s chest.


For the first few days, Hammy avoided the fleece-lined pet bed Nate had brought home, preferring to curl up on Nate’s dirty t-shirts, but once Nate put one in Hammy’s bed, he happily began snoozing there. When he wasn’t sleeping, Hammy was underfoot. He liked to tug at Nate’s pants leg and nibble his toes with his sharp puppy teeth. Nate had to be careful not to squish him as he stood washing dishes or cooking dinner. The days were filled with trips outside, attempts at housetraining, and, once Hammy was finished with his shots, socializing with the other dogs and their owners. Nate enjoyed these excursions, especially as the weather warmed. Hammy was, true to his breed, stubborn and fearless, and, true to his name, a comedian. He lifted his leg so high when he peed that he often nearly fell over. “He can’t help it. He’s got a Napoleonic complex,” Nate joked.

“He’s like a little cartoon character,” Jess, the girl with the two weenie dogs, told him one day. Later, as Hammy slept, Nate pulled out his long-neglected sketchbook and pencils and drew a napping cartoon Hammy.

He was so pleased with himself that more drawings soon followed: Hammy chewing on socks, Hammy singing, Hammy’s ear dangling from his head as he tilted it, questioning whether he’d get a piece of Nate’s turkey sandwich. Nate began drawing other things too. Some days, he sat on a park bench with Hammy’s leash tied to the leg and caricatured the people in the park.


One day, as Nate sat on that park bench, doing what he’d initially gone to art school for, it suddenly struck him as funny that he had spent years working up to the level of anonymity his previous job had offered. Games shipped without him. Nobody read the credits, and no one cared anyway after they’d exhausted the game’s 30-70 hours of playtime. No one gave a rat’s ass if he wasn’t the one who designed the skin of an orc or the scales of a dragon.

Nate felt free. Maybe he didn’t know what he was going to do to pay the bills once the money ran out, but he wasn’t going back into games. Couldn’t. The idea of never going back filled him with a child-like glee.

“Whaddya think, Hammy? What shall we do next?”

Hammy just tilted his head and looked at him.


A few days later, Jess stopped by the park with her dogs, Frank and Oscar. “Hammy! Hi Hammy!” Hammy wagged his thin little tail furiously, and Jess’s dogs strained at their leashes.

“Plotting world domination?” Jess asked.

“Heh, no. Just sketching a bit.”

“You sure draw a lot. Can I see?”


Jess tied her dogs up close to Hammy and sat down beside Nate. He handed her his sketchbook and she began paging through it backwards.

“These are amazing,” Jess said. “Oh my god, that’s the crazy old guy with the shih-tzu!”

Nate laughed, and he felt his face flushing. “Yeah, that’s him.”

Jess pored over his drawings.

“You know,” she said, closing and handing back Nate’s sketchbook, “I have a friend who publishes children’s books. You should talk to her. I think she’d love these.”

“Children’s books? You mean like See Spot Run?”

Jess laughed. “They’ve come a long way since we were kids. My niece and nephew have the coolest books. Are you on Facebook? I’ll friend you and then I’ll try to arrange something, if you want.”

“Yeah, that’d be great.” Nate and Jess exchanged last names.

Jess got up and untied Frank and Oscar. “Bye Nate, bye Hammy.”

“Thanks, see you later,” Nate said, stretching his arm across the back of the bench.

Nate had never considered himself a sappy guy, but the idea warmed him. He imagined his drawings in a book, imagined it being read in classrooms and libraries to squirmy little bodies, imagined it preceding kisses goodnight, imagined little fingers turning the pages and following the words, sounding them out. The idea had never entered his mind before, but it felt right. He looked down at Hammy, who tilted his head quizzically.

“And a wiener dog shall lead them,” Nate chuckled. “C’mon, Hammy, let’s go home.”


The two hundred fifty dollars
from selling my keyboard
still sits on my desk

I look up from my book
and the classical music
I play for some peace
in our tiny condo
and muse, sad and guilty
that I am giving up
as the day my father
sold the black baby grand.

But then Horowitz
begins to play Moonlight Sonata

and suddenly we are
heart to heart.

I listen
over and over
trying to know
this man I’ll never meet.

play me the piano

and I will write you poems.


hangs over the railing
at the first townhouse
next to my building
only I don’t know yet
his name is Ronnie.

He is 15, maybe,
tall, Chinese, with
smart, stylish glasses.

He skips hellos goes straight
to my dog’s name,
then sticks his hand out.

I’m Ronnie what’s your name?

I decide against
my citydweller’s caution
shake his hand
and tell him.

How do you spell that?

He spells it back in staccato,
tapping his leg at each letter.

His parents call him back in.

It’s ok,
he says,
you go on without me.

I stand there dumbly, smiling,
wanting to tell them
he isn’t bothering me,
staring at the crack in the door,
from which he struggles
to emerge,
pressing his long,
taut fingers against it,

telling me again,
It’s ok,
you go on without me,
as his parents
wrangle him inside

and the door closes
in front of him.


My parents say
I stooped to sing
to dead crows on the curb

they drove me past
dead end signs
so I could flirt
with what lay beyond them

I piled around me
in my canopy bed
a pillow grave
so I could pretend at death.

amid the pillows
I fold my arms across my chest
and hope to remember
whether death fancied me

and whether the crows
whispered back.

Da thing

Enunciate — The

thing I wanted to tell you
is dat


I used to sit
in the chair across
from my father

And dat


I couldn’t pronounce
th’s da way


way he wanted.

It isn’t dat


I have nothing to say.

It’s just dat


half da


The time,
I don’t think

you’re willing to wait.

I asked my God

for a black leather biker jacket
from the secondhand store

about twenty dollars, please,
I said

instead He did me one better
and answered
a long unspoken wish

I’d eyed one
in the J. Peterman catalog
for years
a duster,
cowboy coat,
made of oilcloth
split down the back
straps for each leg

my father frowned
at my tomboyishness
when I was a teenager
and refused to buy it

but my God
found me one, black,
at the secondhand store
for twenty-five dollars

my God,
who answers back,
“Ride ’em, cowgirl!”

Mendel’s Curse

Thumbing peas from their pods
I can’t help but think
of Punnett squares
and the phytochemicals
that would protect me
from a patrimonial predisposition
to cancer.

Sitting cross-legged
on the couch with a bowl
inherited from my husband’s grandmother
in my lap,
I prefer to think
of the pea-shellers
who’ve gone before

sifting cool green marbles
through their fingers

feeling peas.