“What’s the matter with you!” Sensei boomed at a student stretching before class—silencing what little noise there’d been.
Shocked, the hakama-wearing student jumped from his pose and asked what he’d done wrong.
“You should know!”
Years later, I’d still not figured out just what the student’s mistake had been. Perhaps he’d had his back to the kamiza. Or to Sensei. Or maybe he’d left his shoes at the door facing in the wrong direction. Whatever it was, for me, the incident came to represent the dojo’s atmosphere: one of an almost palpable tenseness, a heightened reality in which constant awareness was demanded. And tested.
And then one day, “I’d like you to clean my office for a while,” said Sensei. “I’d be honored,” I said, but, Oh fiddlesticks, I thought.
That winter night, lying in my bed unable to sleep, aching from a particularly brutal Aikido class (a pre-emptive “thank you” for my services?), my ego outlined for me just what my new commitment was to require: more subservience; unpaid work; a boss whose eye for detail was unparalleled; and, of course, responsibility over his personal stuff! What if I broke something? Was this actually—like the rest of the dojo—just one big test? Excuses for backing out of my new job rolled from my tired brain faster than—forgive me—anticipating ukemi. I’d write him that very second! Tell him I was too busy, too overburdened already, concerned with wage laws, needed some time, money, vacation days, respect… I fell asleep.
My first time cleaning the office, I was assisted by the student whose role I was assuming. She seemed giddy.
“Are you excited?” she asked.
“Not really,” I said.
And then that voice again, roaring from somewhere down the hall: “What are you guys doing in there? Cleaning or having a coffee?”
This won’t do, I thought.
We finished soon afterwards. And the next week, cleaning by myself this time, my companion’s parting words lingered: “Wow—this goes by so much faster when you have two people!” How true! Alone in that room—an elegant office kept so pristine it looked as though it had been sanitized that very morning—a polished, hand-crafted desk made of a single piece of wood, a collection of antique swords, a rock garden, stunning pictures of picture-perfect Aikido—I was suddenly overwhelmed by just how many objects there were to clean. Books, kamiza, desk, computer, floor, many knives, many swords, teapot and cups, windows, an array of precarious glass picture-frames, calligraphy materials, more books, carpet, incense holders, medical supplies, curiously positioned stones, a whicker, undustable basket, decorative boxes, functional boxes, yes, more books, briefcases, zafu and zabuton, whiskey bottles, and objects so foreign I couldn’t even guess their purpose. An hour passed and I was only half way done. I missed my partner.
“You can take a break,” said Sensei, and I finished after class.
I went home both happy to be done and frustrated I’d have to do it again. For the next six months. Or maybe a year. Or maybe forever: I hadn’t been given an end date. And waiting for me in my email, a note from Sensei’s wife, whose eye was apparently just as keen, just as fiendish: “The office looks pretty good, but here’s a tip from an old pro: Use one book to line up the spines of the rest of the books.” Line up the spines? I didn’t even know that was a thing. I looked at my own overcrowded bookshelf. This was either a test or some cruel joke.
The following weeks, I was determined to do better—to be more efficient! Attempting to banish thoughts of free labor, I decided I was being tested. Every speck of dust, every misplaced object had been left or moved on purpose to see just how aware I was. When a month into my weekly cleaning routine I realized I’d never taken a match box out of its wooden container to look underneath, I did just that to discover a miniscule ball of lint—Aha! I thought. This must be the test! I passed! But more weeks went by. No mention of the lint or the little white fleck I’d found underneath an extension cord.
Months. A new season. One week I was told not to over clean. Another week to clean areas within the span of a single breath. Another, after asking whether to return a relocated marker to its original place—the place I’d been carefully laying it since I’d started—I was told: Use your brain. On another occasion, after Sensei had been abroad and I’d been cleaning in his absence, he asked whether I’d cleaned the office that week. Cleaned it? I’d done more than clean it: I’d loved it! I’d treated each item with a delicate, nurturing respect. Had cleaned nooks accessible only to the smallest of children’s fingers. But it was true: The office was so consistently clean, that some days, it was hard to tell whether I’d been in there at all. What kind of test was this?
Summer. Some weeks I tried to work quickly. Others more thoroughly. Sometimes I focused on my breathing, others on my sense of hearing, touch, or that most important of all body parts in Aikido: my gut. And still others my mind wandered: to my own chores, my own responsibilities, to anywhere but where I was. And as the weeks passed—as I came to know that meticulously organized office better than my own home—I grew more confident. My goal became speed. Then one day, with a confidence bordering on cockiness (perhaps already tipped over that line), I’d just finished wiping the picture frames when timed with a loud yell from Sensei’s misogi down the hall, a framed quote fell and shattered across his office floor. I cleaned, vacuumed, and brought the remains to Sensei.
“I broke this,” I said, handing him the now glassless Arabic quote.
WHOOSH! He stopped a punch a half inch from my face. “This is the most important thing in the dojo,” he said. “It says: In the name of God. Fix it.”
I trembled. But of course, it was not the most important thing. It was no more or less important than any of the objects that, through their grouping and individualized care, comprised that rarified space we call dojo. Had I broken a picture of his sensei, that too would have been the most important. A sword? The same. No, I thought, this is finally the test. I fixed the frame, replaced it so that it looked like nothing had happened, like I’d never set foot in his office—left it, in fact, better secured than it had been—but I was no longer sure if my job was a trial. Maybe I was just cleaning for the sake of cleaning, training for the sake of training. When a month later he said he’d be assigning the task to someone else, I was surprisingly disappointed. I had grown accustomed to my chore, had developed a liking for it even.
My last week, he told me to see him when I was finished. I had to meet him before class started, and so I cleaned faster and yet more thoroughly—with greater efficiency and awareness—than any of the days before. If it was a sort of test, I didn’t know, but I don’t know that I really cared either. I would miss the four-stoned rock garden, the finely sharpened swords, the philosophers’ quotes and books that every week reminded me of how much there was to know, to ponder. On my way upstairs to meet with him, I noticed a single flower petal on one of the steps. I picked it up and went to sit with him.
“Ah good,” he said, “you got the flower.”