Warrior for Peace

by Maria Schell

My warrior life began with pride. I was thirteen and eager to grab at my place in the world. In my new adult size I wanted to be a force to be reckoned with, and I wanted to know others saw that in me.

I was the daughter of an Aikido student, and he was the son of my father’s teacher. In those days the two of us hung around the practice studio, seeing the power of Aikido and wanting it, neither of us really ready to commit to its study. That day we were pushing at each other, turning the energy of puberty into jesting insults, neither relenting. Then he called me “just a girl.” But I was a warrior daughter, and I knew no warrior could ever be thought of as “just a girl.”

In my thirteen-year-old mind what I did next was an act of Aikido. (I was of course defending myself.) I understood that the world gave you two choices: to let others take advantage, backing down in the face of their threats, or to stand up proud and unafraid, defending yourself. I wouldn’t be pushed around by a puberty-stricken boy. So I slapped him. Hard. And I felt proud of myself, and smiled when I saw the redness on his face.

That was many years ago. I don’t tiptoe around Aikido anymore. I simply practice it. On Aikido mornings I rise before the sun and dress in the familiar white gee of karate movies, and the less familiar hakama (long blue culotte pants), and join my Aikido partners on the mat. I come to the mat combat-ready, attacking my partners and finding each attack turned against me, my energy to harm taken to the floor. In turn, I face the fists and blades of my partner’s attack and take them safely to the ground. I do this to learn the way of peace.

Through practice I know now that I don't have to lie down when faced with an attack, but I also know now that I don't have to be aggressive. I can defend myself without hurting others. This is the way of peace for a warrior.

So what is Aikido? In the most simple terms it is a purely defensive martial art born from the teachings of Morihei Uisheba. Uisheba understood that it is in war that we understand and seek peace. It is no coincidence that Aikido came from Japan, a warrior nation that brought the world both Zen meditation and Kamikaze suicide pilots. Aikido is the daughter of kendo, the Japanese art of sword practice, and she has never rejected her warring mother. However, unlike her more aggressive sisters (karate, judo, and jujitsu), Aikido is completely defensive. We direct an attacker’s energy away from the attack and to the floor. There is no “against,” no “push” or “pull”; we simply join with the attack and redirect its energy.

For those who practice it, Aikido is way toward peace in our daily lives. Through practice I know now that I don’t have to lie down when faced with an attack, but I also know now that I don’t have to be aggressive. I can defend myself without hurting others. This is the way of peace for a warrior. This is the third option I never considered that day years ago. It is the way of Aikido

My Aikido practice is a constant internal battle for me, a war against my desire to use my strength, height, and weight against my partner, to force my way forward. I am neither a small nor a large woman. I know that I can push my way to success at least half the time. But odds like that only work on the mat. In the world, conflict most often comes from those who believe me an easy target.

Two years ago, just as I was beginning to return to Aikido, I had a job working at a summer camp. It was a good job: I was the director for the entire staff and the 60 kids who attended each session. Toward the end of the summer I supervised a camping overnight for the whole camp. It was a huge task, not just because of its logistical challenges, but also because I was taking the campers and staff out of the safety we created at the camp into the big bad world.

Shortly after I arrived at the campground with the first group of campers, I got word that a middle-aged woman had been swearing at some of our kids. Apparently she was angry about where the kids were playing. I found this woman and introduced myself; she immediately began her verbal attack. We were breaking rules, were not being environmental campers as the campground requested. We were too loud and out of control. I assured her that I was in charge and would address her concerns to the best of my ability. It wasn’t good enough for her. She began to yell at me, swearing and waving her arms, threatening to get the ranger and “let him know exactly what was going on.”

I could feel her trying to make me mad. She wanted me to snap, to confirm that I couldn’t handle this situation. “How old are you anyway? I don’t mean to be rude, but you seem just too young to be in charge of so many people.”

It was a good attack. I was young and it was my first time being responsible for such a large group. But standing there in front of her I could see the eyes of my staff and the campers on me. I knew they trusted me, and I knew they were behind me. Once again I was faced with a choice. I could counter her attack, yell at her for swearing around children, making up rules that she alleged we were breaking, and being ageist. I could point out that her version of environmental camping involved a battery-operated TV and two large coolers of beer. There would have been some winning, of that I was sure, but not much peace. Instead I offered to buy her permit and suggested another nearby campsite. I left feeling compassion for her anger and loneliness

I think about both those days together, and know that I have come a long way since the one day so many years ago, when I confused my bravado with real bravery. That piece of me isn’t gone; I am still filled with fight. But now I understand it differently. I know that I am here to be a warrior for peace: to take bold steps into the battlefield and make my peace there.

Maria Schell is a writer who currently divides her time between San Francisco and Chicago.

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