After two weeks out of the office, my energy is returning, or so it seems.
There’s a small hill near my house where, as a child, I used to walk the dog. It’s not of any particular size, but to get there you walk through the oldest part of the village, past the remnants of the castle that dominates the river valley. I’ve been meaning to walk back up this hill ever since I came back from China, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have except that my energy and will to do anything have been so depleted. But, this morning, I went up there, and it was quite magical. Once you get onto the path upwards, slipping and slithering through the mud, you get into a new-growth forest where there was once common land, and sheep grazing. The trees are bare now, of course, but many of them are covered in a vivid green moss; ferns and fungi are everywhere around.
Reaching the top of the hill, the path splits, forming a crossroads. As you stand here, you can see over the treetops and see all along the river valley, from the brooding black hills to the north, and southwards towards the sea. Just next to this is an older tree, with dramatically spreading branches. Someone had left a bunch of brightly-coloured flowers between this tree’s roots. Who knows why? Perhaps there’s a coven active locally.
Retracing my steps, I went along the the riverside towards town. The music of hounds suddenly reached me from above; the local fox hunt were working the fields adjacent to where I’d just been. I could see the hounds following a line into the woods; behind them came the field – 20 or so mounted followers – silhouetted on the skyline for a few moments before vanishing from sight.
All of which is nothing much to do with anything, other than – perhaps – it’s a part of the process of re-connecting with the qi of the land, and of rebuilding my own reserves of qi.
Earlier this evening, I stood in zhan zhuang; I was practising indoors, because that’s what I’m used to doing now, what with the constant rain we’ve had these last months. I was ready to go to bed, to be honest, but I thought I would take a look outside first – and what do you know, it’s cold and clear outside.
So, I wrapped up, turned all the house lights off, and took myself to the bottom of the garden for another session of zhan zhuang. There’s a spot where all streetlights are blocked from my line of sight; there’s still the lo-glo of course, but there’s nothing to be done about that. The sound of traffic from local roads is much heavier than it was when I was younger, but you can tune it out. And so I stood there, the stars clear overhead; the calls of two different types of owl, out on the hunt, were clear, and close. The wind is light, and draws out the presence of branches.
So I finished my session, and came indoors… but then realised that the moon is rising. Soon, I’ll be able to go back outside to that spot, and stand for a while with the moon visible over the rooftop. It’s late; I’m tired; I really should go to bed… but moments like this are rare.
I’ve just come indoors after a session of zhan zhuang, shoulders aching…
It’s a lovely evening again; we’ve had a few in the last week. The sky is clear, and the stars are out, bright and clear. At the moment, Venus and Jupiter are visible, outshining everything else in the sky. As I stand, I can hear the waterlogged soil groaning and shifting; the warm sunshine has started it into a slow motion, rising and stirring the plants into spring growth.
Last week, I planted a Snowdon Queen pear tree, and an Abergwyngregyn damson tree – heritage Welsh varieties that should be well adapted to the damp climate. I’ve planted two climbing roses, both very fragrant varieties; one flowers in early summer, the other in late summer/early autumn, so we should get scent for a good half of the year.
I’ve had a few practice sessions with my new Weaponedge shashka now. The video I posted, Dance with a Shashka, has led me to adjust the way I hold the handle. In Beijing, I got into the habit of holding the handle high, right next to the pommel; the pommel effectively became the pivot as the sword swung around. After watching ‘Dance with a Shashka’ closely, though, I saw that she was holding it much lower, at the base of the handle where it joins the blade. Copying this, I’ve found that a finger on the ricasso becomes the pivot, with my little finger occasionally using the pommel to guide the movement. Doing it this way, I’m finding it easier to do a lot of the moves, and the sword swings much more freely. However, I still need to practice much, much more – even this evening, I managed to hack my leg just above the ankle, drawing a little blood. Good job the shashka is blunt! The other day, I even managed to smack the back of my head with a glancing blow…
Anyway, swinging the shashka, and transferring it from one hand to another, is really showing me that my shoulders have tightened up a heck of a lot over the last year; that’s the tension from work… I don’t have the endurance in zhan zhuang that I did, either. It’ll be easier to practice now that spring is coming, though – I’ll be able to stand outside in fresh air at last! Thank goodness for that, I’m so tired of winter!
Spring is definitely on its way, at last. In the last week, we’ve had some very misty mornings followed by cold, bright days. The earth is beginning to warm up; flowers are pushing their way to the light, and trees are beginning to bud.
I’m finally able to breathe a little; the last few weeks have been very, very hard work. I don’t mind working long hours when it’s constructive; I definitely object when it’s to clear up someone else’s mess, with no thanks for it.
Still, this afternoon I got out into the garden. I’ve got two more fruit trees on the way to me for planting – heritage Welsh strains of a damson plum and an ordinary plum – as well as two fragrant climbing roses for hedging.
I managed to get a few minutes with my new shashka – yes, I gave in and bought one! It’ll take a while to get back to the fluency I had in Beijing, and more to get to the standard of the woman in the video I posted, but I’ll get there. This Weaponedge shashka handles very well, I have to say. I suspect I’ll wind up with a second, to train double-handed.
In the late afternoon I walked to a nearby village (the one with the church dedicated to Hilarion). It was a beautiful day, with warm sunshine causing me to sweat as I walked along the Roman road, and through ancient sunken lanes. I had a couple of pints as I read the Times, and then came back the same way, the road illuminated by stars and a waxing moon in the cloudless sky. I found that yiquan’s mo ca bu worked rather better than bagua tang ni bu on the broken ground in the half-light…
JEB CORLISS: Well, you wanna know what I think is crazy? I think waking up at 6:00am, eating breakfast and getting in a car and sitting in traffic for 1.5 hours on your way to a job where you then sit in a box for eight hours, get a 30 minute break to eat some lunch get back in that car and sit in traffic for another 1.5 hours on your way home where you eat dinner and watch the TV then go to sleep. Repeat that until you’re about 60, you retire, and then you die! I think that is absolutely insane!
Phew. Well. That was a tough summer. After the fun of North Wales…. dunno. I fell into a ‘slough of despond’ led there by a combination of things but in particular, I guess, by the… smallness? of life in the UK? The lack of interest and vision? The acceptance of the lifestyle Corliss talks about above, and the assumption that it’s both right and normal? While all the time, events loom large and the storm gathers on the horizon that might sweep it all away… Meh. Took me a while to remember that I’m bigger than this. Getting back on top of things now.
That said, there have been a lot of positives as well. Still with the girl I met on the CELTA course; her and her little boy. It teaches you a lot about yourself, accepting the trust of a child. Dealing with an indefatigable 5-year-old when he’s playing up? That teaches you a lot about yourself as well. I got the qualification, by the way; can’t remember if I mentioned it, but I’m a qualified teacher of English now.
After a last-minute effort, I also submitted the paperwork and assignments for the meditation course. This was the follow-up for the training weekend I took back in June, so I’m now also qualified to run meditation sessions (which I could do anyway, but now I’m able to join an industry organisation and get insurance, which is so important these days).
For the last few weekends, I’ve been travelling up to London for the training course in tui na at the Asanté Academy. I’m really enjoying it, and my course-mates are a really sound bunch of people; some are working acupuncturists, some are martial artists, some are just interested. A good mix of people, all of them interesting. The gf has been accompanying me, so no time yet to catch up with other London-based friends (readers of this blog included) but that’ll come.
A lot of the theory we’ve been covering has been discussed in terms of acupuncture rather than tui na, and I’m finding that really interesting; it’s definitely getting me more curious about that course in Tianjin. Not sure how I would pay for it (the year’s living as a student, rather than the fees as such), but I’m looking into it now as a serious option.
My martial arts training has been largely on hold, what with everything, apart from zhan zhuang and some xingyi, but as I’m getting back into a more focused state of mind I’ll be trying to ramp that up again…
Interesting times, and all that…
Oh, and a software update broke the blog theme, thus taking the site offline for a while, and leading to yet another new look and feel!
As I was standing in the garden yesterday morning, a flight of wild geese flew over the treeline, not all that far above my head. There were about twenty of them, honking to each other in a leisurely conversation, on their way somewhere…
As it turned out, I was in the garden quite a lot. Two sessions of zhan zhuang: one early afternoon, with the sun warm (for once!) on my face, the other approaching midnight, with a full-ish moon and the stars clear and bright. I also spent a while planting herbs on the bank of the garden; once they’ve taken, I should be able to do my meditations and standing practice with their scent in the fresh air… I remember vividly what it was like to stand in zhan zhuang when I visited Qingbiankou in Hebei Province, with the herb-scented breeze flowing down from the hills… Quite an experience… Finally, I lifted the first of my potatoes… A rather disappointing crop so far, but I bet they’ll taste nice this evening…
Not what you’re expecting from a martial arts blog, perhaps… But wait…
There was a car boot sale behind the town hall yesterday morning, and I strolled down to take a look. I ended up buying a bunch of books, and four chili pepper plants. I’m not sure what type they are, but the peppers look as if they’ll be rather small, which suggests they’ll be hot! (Oh, and I ordered some sichuan pepper bushes from an online garden supplier; give it a year or two, and I’ll be able to prepare my own ma la mix with entirely home-grown ingredients!). Anyway, as I walked down, I found myself being greeted by shopkeepers standing in their doorways and passersby… People I went to school with, or I regularly shop with, or who drink in the same local pub as me, or even just are faces I see regularly… It was a good feeling.
What’s this got to do with anything, you may be asking. Well, it’s been a crazy week, world-wide, hasn’t it? The US downgraded; even so, things will get worse there, because there’s no money left. As I’ve mentioned several times before, in the US, government at every level is broke, and will have to stop its operations. In Euroland, there’s no respite as governments try to find a solution to sovereign debt – but they won’t, because there is no good solution. And, in London, the cracks started to show, as the streets burned, and the police barely held the line. It’s all quiet again now, but the problems are not going away.
Behind all this lies resource scarcity. Oil, food, water, minerals, whatever. It’s all costing more than it did, and that’s only going to get worse. In London, Minnesota, the Middle East, Africa, China… those who have nothing are finding it hard to cope as the costs of living rise… Those who have something will become ever more desperate to hang on to it…
So, it’s a good time to go back to examine basics. The targets I set myself, and described on this blog, a year or so back are proving to be sound ones. I’m re-establishing myself in a strong community, where people know and look out for each other. I’m getting familiar with how the garden works; reading my books to learn about the medicinal values of herbs and spices, so that I can decide which to plant… And working on the martial arts and meditation, to build mental and physical resilience…
At the top, the photo is of London Sikhs, who gathered to protect their gurdwara from the mob; standing on the steps with swords, axes, and sticks. Perhaps that kind of thing will become more common.
Not too much to report at present. Sometimes when wake up at night, my fingers hurt from being tensed during zhan zhuang. I’ve started using the steel rings on my wrists in some postures.
The pair of blackbirds nesting nearby are getting pretty used to me now, especially the female. She darts around my feet while I’m practising the ba mu zhang (slowly, of course). She’s even coming within a few inches of me while I dig up the lawn to become a vegetable plot, hopping here and there in search of fresh, juicy worms. The male is more cautious, and won’t come near. This evening, the female landed right in front of me, and pulled a large worm halfway out of a large clod of earth, held it for a while, and then hopped off. She was looking at the male, perched nearby on the ridge of the greenhouse, as if to say “Look, it’s OK! It’s safe, and there’s good eating!”. I think she’s mentally classified me as strange but useful type of livestock; good at churning up earth, but not dangerous. A pig, perhaps.
There are times when I’m standing in zhan zhuang, maybe in the morning with all different kinds of birds flying about, and the sun just creeping into the corner of the garden, or in the evening with the mud from the garden drying on my fingers, when I simply don’t want to do anything else. I think of the hermits that Red Pine met in China, and I think to myself, this is how they live. Meditation, martial arts, growing their own food, close to nature and in harmony with the wildlife. Could anything be better?
Well, that isn’t an option for me at this time, but I’ll tell you what: these sessions of practice, morning and evening – nothing else comes close…
I am still here, I just haven’t been in to mood to post much.
London was great. I was lucky, and the weather was beautiful – blue skies, and hot sunshine, mmmm! There seemed to be cherry trees in bloom everywhere, and the scent at night was heavy and soporific. Of course, the main thing was that I caught up with S again. It was wonderful; we just picked up our friendship as if we’d seen each other last week, not seven months ago. We practised zhan zhuang together in Earl’s Court, went to see Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds exhibit at the Tate Modern, and generally had a good time hanging out.
Speaking of zhan zhuang, I did quite a bit, in parks or the gardens of the Youth Hostel where I stayed. Got a few funny looks, but that’s only to be expected!
I’ve been working a lot on the standing recently, getting a fair bit done most days. I’ve been working mostly on the basic health stances, working on opening up the kua to take the pressure off my knees, and working on loosening up the achilles tendons. I’m about ready to go on to more of the shi li stances, and also practising some of the more advanced health postures. I’m finding Lam Kam Chuen’s books very useful as guides for the time being. (S and I almost wandered over to Hercules Street from the Tate Modern to check out the Lam Association offices but decided that it was too hot and a bit too far, so we went to Covent Garden instead).
One of the pleasures of the standing has been the reconnection to nature as I practice in the garden. In the early mornings I have ducks and wild geese flying low over my head. A little later, I can enjoy the songs of the blackbirds, and the hoarse calls of the crows. In early evening, the birds are all settling back down into their roosts, and I slowly hear them all go quiet, until at last the final holdouts cease their lonely songs. This is also when the bats emerge, flittering overhead in the dying light. Then, at late night practice, I listen to the owls hunt, calling each other through the darkness. Something snuffles and crunches in the darkness – a hedgehog, perhaps?
Of course, I don’t do all of these slots every day! It just depends when I have time. But it’s nice.
In the garden, the trees I’ve planted are starting to bloom. The pear tree has the most; it’s very vigorous, and has put out a lot of flowers. The cherry tree is also doing well. The apple trees may bloom later this year, or it may be that they need to establish themselves, in which case I’ll see the results next year. The first five that I planted are all already much taller; they’re prospering, it seems. Good job I put a few handfuls of concentrated manure in the hole… Tomatos, chilis, and sunflowers are all germinating… Need to get a rambling rose planted soon, and to look at getting sweetcorn, rocket, beetroots and climbing beans underway…
The house move is in progress; hopefully all will be completed soon. I need to get deposits off for the anatomy course, and for the meditation leadership course. I’ve made contact with the local group of Thich Nhat Tran’s Order of Interbeing; they should have a meeting soon, but it seems they don’t get together very frequently. There’s also a branch of the Western Chan association nearby, who meet several times a month, so I’ll get in touch with them too.
Life goes on!