Imagination Gone Wild

         On the morning of May 30, 2012, the day that 5 people were shot and killed in a north Seattle café, I was at the dojo. Café Racer is a popular hangout for artists and musicians, located just a mile from our Aikido school. A 40-year-old distraught man, when asked to behave or leave the premises, slid his gun out from under his coat, aimed his weapon at those seated at the counter, pulled the trigger multiple times and then fled on foot.  For the next several hour’s continual news feeds reported that the armed gunman was heading north (in our direction).  Banks, restaurants and schools in our area closed their doors and placed black coverings over their windows. 

         We the teachers at Two Cranes had a dilemma. What to do with the children who would be arriving at our doors throughout the afternoon for aikido class?  Anticipating that after a half-day of lockdown for their protection, the kids would be shaken up - some would be traumatized-, the teachers encouraged each other to stay calm and think out of the box. Parents would need attention, worried and hoping that we would have a method ready to shift the minds and hearts of the kids to a more positive place. 

“I feel helpless,” one mother expressed to me upon arrival. “But I am relieved that my son is here instead of parked in front of the TV watching the endless coverage of the shootings.  In the car on the way to the dojo he kept saying, “Mom if this could happen to those people today, it could happen to me too.”

         Outside the familiar array of soft grey hues carpet the afternoon sky. As families approached the entrance of our school just off of Lake City Way, our program director watched the door, unlocking it as each child enters.  The seven, eight, and nine-year olds poured through the door in varying degrees of dishevelment, flinging their coats to the floor and pulling off their shoes, while my instructors brainstormed what material would get the kids grounded and centered.  We had little time to plan, relying largely on our intuition and imaginations to direct us once we felt the children’s energy on the mat. Silently I was celebrating how confident I felt about my instructors’ abilities to find the appropriate response for the moment.  Yes, this was an extraordinary moment.  In effort to deal with the children’s’ fears and apprehensions, we made a snap decision to spend the time investigating our animal bodies.

         As the children change into their gis (training uniforms) and bow onto the mat, I could see that 7-year old newer girls, and a few others, were not their normal selves, presenting shy and withdrawn. We gently coaxed them to remember that this was a safe haven and we had games in store.  In a speedy five minutes the training mat becomes a sea of white uniforms with jewel colored belts at their waists. Like clockwork most of them began the striking and rolling drills they have practiced so many times. There’s a buzz of heart-heat–fire-and a rumble of ‘not know what to do with all the turbulent feelings of the afternoon’ in the air.

         One of the more experienced students, Teresa starts up a game of tag, chasing the younger students by traveling on her knees. However she has taken in the events of the morning, I can tell that she her confident attitude will be helpful in holding an affirming mood this afternoon “Don’t let me catch you,” she says to the younger kids. With a perfect straight back samurai posture, she covers the entire distance in seconds, tagging one kid after another. “Ninjas down,” she roars. 

       The other kids squeal with glee trying to escape her fierce attention. She looks back at me with a pant and a smile. Out of the corner of my eye I note Sam is standing off to the side with arms crossed holding her tiny chest. Her eyes are fixed inward as she dabs her toes back and forth on the edge of the mat, tentatively assessing the room, not quite sure what to do.  One minute she cowers like a church mouse, the next it’s as though she is a cougar preparing for a hunt.  I could see her shaking, so I didn’t expect her to step onto the mat with such dignity, bow to the Shomen (altar), and reach for her 4 foot oak staff on the weapons rack. Magically I see her grow taller in her body as she twirl the stick in circles. It’s as if the staff calls out to her, ‘be brave.”  The staff is taller than she is.  It arcs slowly at first, and then gains speed as she whips it around her torso, like Star Wars deadly Darth Maul. I watch her settle into her dainty structure, her shoulder length jet-black hair aglow like the gleam of a steel sword as she momentarily shakes off her anxiety. 

       With two claps, the pre-training period comes to an end and I announce the intention for the day.  “Let’s journey into the world of our favorite fish and flying creatures. Let’s go to the forest, the ocean or the jungle this afternoon. Find your favorite animal and try her on.”

Children line up across the mat preparing to bow in.  In order to get them to sit silently I ask, “ Here’s the bonus question: What animal do you know that can stay quiet for minutes or hours?”

         The room grows quiet. Out of the corner of my eye I watch my youngest twin girl students elbow one another swallowing giggles. Five more in and out breaths and I ask the question. “Have you got your animal?”

         Sophia blurts out, “Do birds count?  I know I am a raptor. Sometimes I’m also a saber tooth tiger.”      

“A chicken,” says Teresa, without missing a beat. 

A what? I think. She is my star pupil. Almost a purple belt with five years of training, she is the highest-ranking child in the class. She has stuck it out when her old friends have quit and I count on her to assist me the new kids (which lately are strong-willed little boys).

“A chicken?” I ask, trying to hide my smile.

“They are very smart,” she adds.

Sam selects a selkie. “What’s that?” I ask, amazed by the possibilities.

“It’s a seal that can disappear in a flash when trouble comes. My mom likes them.”

 Buck is a duck billed platypus and Cody a newt.

“What can a newt teach you?”  I ask.

“Newts blend in, they’re aquatic and if they live in California, they’re poisonous.” Touché.  

Of all the kids in the class, six-year-old Chaz is the roundest when it comes to rolling. His smile fills his face and melts me to the core. He can do slow motion rolls-a feat that few adults execute well.  Chaz’s totem choice is a porcupine.  I have to hold back my chuckle as I picture a porcupine somersaulting.  “They are vegetarians,” he whispers.

         For just a moment all is still. The sweet quiet fills the room.      

         “Let’s warm up our animal bodies before we train. Start by bending at your waists and touch your fingers to the floor.  Take a deep and place your hands on the back of your neck. We’ll hang upside down here for a moment like a bat.  Now plant the bottoms of your feet firmly onto the mat and touch your fingers to heaven. Grow tentacles out the bottoms of your soles like an octopus and reach deep, deep, deeper to the center of our planet.  Rub your palms together as though whittling sticks for fire making. Stand as tall as a giraffe.”

       “Did you know that when the founder of Aikido was a little boy he was given a totem?” I tell the students.  “Does anybody know what that was? “ 

“I know for sure it was a tiger,” says Chaz.

“Not quite,” I smile. 

Another child queries, “Is it a raccoon?  An eagle?  Maybe a rabbit–they can see a long way.”

  As the children shout out their guesses, I watch how their offerings match their picture of this samurai warrior.  Gentle, fierce, masked.  I’m getting ready to tell them the answer when long legged, longhaired 10-year-old Brent raises his hand and announces,  “O Sensei was a dragon.“

“ Yes! How do you know that? “ I ask, picturing the fire-breathing painting I’ve seen of Ame no Mura Jumo Kuki Samharar Ryuo, the bright and mysterious Dragon King.

“It just seems logical and, well, my dad reads O Sensei stories to me before I go to sleep,” he reports, tossing his bangs off his face.

         As I listen to the children and observe the parents sitting on the bench intently watching the flow of the training, I remember to check in with myself- pay attention to my state of mind and my posture, coax my shoulders to relax and my spine to lengthen. While holding the space this afternoon for the community I found a familiar fluid, elastic feeling. Stay positive I coached myself wondering if the attacker is near by.  Sara continues her vigilant watch at the door. I know that there will be plenty of time for us all to debrief –on and off the aikido mat- the entire spectrum of grief and despair that erupts when a tragedy of this magnitude touches our daily life. For now, most of the children are intent on imagining what it feels like to be a tenacious moose or a talking dolphin. I remind myself and the children that animals who get to live in their natural habitat have an inner peace.”

         It’s essential that we cultivate our children’s imagination.  A primal force, it is a tool that will be available life long to help us find our creativity, develop our problem-solving ability or shift out of despondent and fearful states of mind. When children claim animals as their best friends or a part of themselves, they can change their internal reality and perhaps the world around them as well. They become stewards for our precious planet.

“Let’s have our totems teach us a special trick this class,” I offer.  “Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose and bring the whole universe inside you.  Exhale through your mouth and get completely empty. Bring in your animal guide and listen.”

I count to ten and watch Sam find her courage and shoot a sly smile to her much bigger, broad training partner who has decided he is a silverback. 

“Here’s my trick,” she tells him. I’m going to appear then disappear like a selkie.” 

         In the next moment she extends her arm towards her partner, like initiating a perfect handshake.  The movement speaks volumes. I dare you to grab my hand, she says without uttering a word. Samantha has already decided how they are going to dance together and she is leading.  With her palm up, facing him, as though holding a Tahitian pearl, she catches the older boys lumbering attention and scoots her knees three feet behind his body, before he can reach her hand.  Behind him now, she can see him, but he will need to turn before he can eye her.

         “Yoo hoo,” she chirps as if to say over here in hide and seek. Elegantly she wraps her fingertips around the back of his belt and pulls him down in a diagonal line towards his heels.  Too late to recover his balance, he tumbles to the floor like a giant redwood, slapping his hand to the mat and letting out a roaring shout (kiai).  She claps her hand in victory. “Remember what I said.  Selkies are shape shifters. I am here, but now I am already back in the sea.”  Not yet ten years old, she already knows that a significant part of self -defense training is the ability to regain your composure when you lose it, like today. She has heard the teacher’s say a million times “picture a peaceful outcome. What a change from her shaky and timid temperament at the beginning of the hour to this moment.

         With only a few minutes of class remaining we hold hands and form a circle.  Each of us then takes two steps back, closes our eyes and pictures our animal of the hour.

“Let’s have our animals guide us through our day. If we think about them a few times before we go to sleep tonight we might learn something about them.”

As I kneel down to the map and sit on my heels I close class by sharing a secret.

“When I enter the dojo, I always have to decide whether I am one of two of my favorite animals: a white crane swooping through puffy clouds, or a playful river otter.  Your movement can be like whatever animal you feel like when you step into the dojo. We want to know how we can be like the creatures we love.  We are nature.  We aren’t visitors on this planet, we are this planet. Remember, O Sensei says ‘Just connect with everything’.  When I get inside my crane, I know crane mind.  Riding the air stream, I feel safe and connected in this world. No thinking required.”

          As the children continue their practice and animal play, I ponder what use this practice is for them.  We live in complex times where unthinkable acts of violence occur when we least expect.  There are billions of people and animals to share the planet with - and so many ways to learn how to get along.   I close my eyes and I am that otter drifting lazily in the river current. As the canyon tightens and pours into the rapids, I feel the hydraulics pulling me under the surface and popping me up like a tennis ball. I am the otter. I am the river. I am free.



Kimberly Richardson