photo of a geisha

October 23, 2005

Crows and Cranes

Filed under: EAC News — aaron @ 7:48 pm

by Natalie Stanchfield (2005)

Assembled in a large circle, grass under bare feet, we stretched out our limbs, elongating to the sky, bending to the ground, loosening our joints. It was an overcast day, not too hot, with trees all around us at Gosho Park near the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. I listened to the alien cries of the Japanese crows and cicadas from the trees, but if I closed my eyes, then everything, every sound seemed strangely familiar—like home. Like I was a kid.

There it was. It was the sound of lawnmowers, that ubiquitous suburban noise, the background of all of my Southern California childhood memories. I remembered the same feeling of fluid movements and grass underfoot. I remembered tai chi class on the lawn of the community college with my mom when we took that half a credit course together. I remember it not being as relaxing as I had hoped. I remember being in a rush with my mom. She was always late.

We were late today too. Crunching the gravel underneath our bike tires, we arrived noisily. Self-conscious, we silently joined the circle.

“Hurry up and relax.”

It was the same way with my mom. She would dash around the house, finishing up her last minute chores and projects she had started in the morning, always thinking she had more time than she really did. I remember once betting my mom twenty dollars that if we stopped for that last errand we would be late to class.

She never did pay me.

I was always frustrated slipping into tai chi class with my mom and her loads of bags, extra towels and thermos filled with day-old coffee, interrupting class, missing the opening stretches and just joining in the middle of the routine, as if nothing was wrong. Trying to focus on the flow of chi, when my chi was just frazzled and upset, was nearly impossible. Add to this the excessively repetitive and simple nature of the form of tai chi we were learning and it was obvious this class was not suited to relieving my tension.

We were being taught a particular type of tai chi called Tai Chi Chih, which to me seemed more appropriate for geriatrics or physical therapy patients. Tai Chi Chih was developed in the twentieth century, consisting of a routine of motions repeated eight times, each side, eight times, each side, bring in the chi, push it out, contract, expand, eight times, each side. I got very bored with this over the 16-week semester.

I was expecting something very different here in Japan. A form of tai chi with more history, not one invented in 1974 by a man named Justin Stone. Where Tai Chi Chih has no connection to the martial arts, the tai chi movements we practiced in the park were essentially slowly performed self-defense techniques, drawn-out to bring focus to the chi-flow and develop precise posture. From a distance, tai chi looks easy yet all these motions required incredible control and focus.

And yet I slide easily into the rhythm of these new moves; though in foreign surroundings, they feel familiar. The anxiety and stress of being late starts to disappear and I think of my mom again. My perpetually fifteen-minutes-behind mom. But who else would have signed me up for a tai chi course for fun? And it actually was fun sometimes. I remember once practicing tai chi on our own in the park across the street. After a heavy rain it was flooded, water up to our ankles, the grass under our feet pressing into mud. Maybe we looked like cranes in a marsh, moving gracefully, slowly expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting; very foreign-looking birds for Southern California suburbia.

3 Responses to “Crows and Cranes”

  1. East Asia Center » Crows and Cranes Says:

    […] Tai Chi was nostalgic, bringing back memories of previous experiences in California. She writes: Assembled in a large circle, grass under bare feet, we stretched out our limbs, elongating to […]

  2. Agent Cooper Says:

    “Hurry up an relax”…I like that. You write real purty.

  3. Natalies Mom Says:

    Here’s my side of the story:
    Natalie was such a purist that she always grumbled that the content of the class was not authentic enough to suit her tastes. She could seek out a more genuine form later when she traveled to China and Japan, I thought. The park was shaped like a deep baking dish filled with water looking as if it could reach four feet in depth. The smiley-faced sun streamed down upon it and an almost nonexistent breeze turned the surface into glittery diamonds, the skies showing no trace of the heavy storm the night before. Natalie had seen the newly transformed playground and burst into the house to get me to come splash in the water. How lovely to have an invitation to play at my age! It reminded me of how we would run to the same playground so I could push her on the swings when she was tiny. Housework would have to wait this time too.
    I ran to the corner and saw this enormous, peaceful lake basking in the sun. A few ravens looked for worms around the edges and a few insects inspected the water, seemingly searching for the grassy field that was there only the day before. We ran back and changed into shorts, fairly skipping to the schoolyard laughing. Gingerly we waded into the chilly water and giggled that we were the only ones taking time out to enjoy this transitory gift from Nature. The waters got deeper and colder until out in the center they came up to just below Natalie’s knees. The shimmering mass stretched out around us like a huge platter and pushed the neighboring houses far back into the distance. It was so peaceful at the glorious sunny center I wanted to do something other than just splash around.
    Of course! The setting was perfect for a tandem Tai Chi routine. Natalie resisted but I begged til she gave in. At first it felt very silly on top of how silly we must have looked out there to begin with. Then within a few motions, it seemed to click into a time-honored groove shared by millions and stretching back through generations over ages. My heart spilled over with joy; our feet grew numb with cold. By the next day the lake was completely gone. It has never returned though there have been longer storms dumping far heavier rains. I still have housework to do but now I jump at every chance to play with my grandkids.
    I feel so ‘honored’ like my slip is showing or my shoes don’t match or I came to the door with only a towel on. I guess I should deduct the twenty from her tab for her costly international private schooling. Will she ever forgive my debt? Oh, and now no matter how hard I try, I’ve gotten worse — I’m twenty minutes late to everything. It’s usually because I’m having too much fun whereever I am to leave to go somewhere else.

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