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When I’m Ninety Six

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

As the milk for my morning’s cappuccino was frothing, I tore off yesterday’s page from our daily Zen calendar. Today’s quote was brief: “Practice thirty more years”.

Last night I went to the first session of a beginners’ class that Michael was teaching. He called me up before the group to demonstrate a technique, then surprised me–before using me as an uke–by asking a couple questions: How long have you been doing aikido? “Since 1991.” What does aikido mean to you?

Unnerve an introvert by ambushing him with an unannounced public speaking engagement, will you?

I stammered out a disjointed list: “First of all, it’s a lot of fun” (let’s get clear on that.) “People practice aikido to learn self-defense, and you can learn it for that, but it teaches you a lot more.” (And, hmm, should I add this?) “I consider aikido to be my spiritual path.” (Then, not to end on too esoteric a statement,) “And it’s great exercise.” I paused. “I could go on and on…” (Then why didn’t you say something more coherent?)

Apparently the skill of spontaneous movement that aikido has taught me has not migrated into a talent for impromptu discourse.

In my mind I immediately went into “I should have said” mode. I should have explained that aikido embraces a morality where we learn not only to defend ourselves, but to protect even our attacker. I should have said that aikido teaches us to be calm and act skillfully in a crisis. Yes, it’s great exercise, but I should have pointed out that I am 66 years old and, except for a slightly funky left knee, I’m in pretty good health, and I have aikido to thank for that. I should have talked about how learning the physical techniques of aikido teaches you in your bones a new way to relate to the world, an effective way to resolve conflict in your daily life.

I should have said that aikido is a martial art, and that the diligent practice of any art transforms you. When I was younger, I saw practice as an annoying means to an end. You practiced something so you could learn it or achieve a goal or finish your homework and be done with it. You practiced in order to be able to stop practicing.

But the Beatles changed all that. When I first heard those fresh, brilliant songs, I knew, more than anything, that that’s what I wanted to do. So I took up the guitar.

Learning the guitar was my first practice. Along the way I learned discipline and focus. My love of a good song expanded into a love of all forms of music, an appreciation of all forms of art, and of nature. I learned a new way to hear and to see. And though I’ve never been able to write songs like Lennon and McCartney or play guitar like Jimi Hendrix or sing like Stevie Wonder, I have learned to find joy in the pursuit. And at some happy moment the path became the goal.

Practice thirty more years? Unlikely, perhaps, but I’ll give it my best.

Could I ask for anything more than to be on the mat, rolling around with friends, when I’m 96?

Zen Garden by RC Designer

Beatles by Jacob Mei

Aikido by Penny Maycock

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