by Eva Thaddeus
In the Northeast, our coldest cold spell this winter came in February. It was down to zero where I live just north of NYC, and windy as well. In an otherwise mostly mild winter, it suddenly felt dangerous just to be outside. My chickens, who usually strut around happily in the open air all season, took refuge in their dog crate and did not want to come out. I was reminded that cold, very cold, and extremely cold are all quite different things.
So it was for Kangeiko weekend. I planned to join the gasshuku late, driving up to Massachusetts in time to make the second keiko, because I had business at home on Saturday morning. That morning I got voice mail from Mary Foran saying, “The dojo has no heat. We are in the basement with a space heater. Just letting you know in case you want to rethink coming all this way.” I texted back, “Unless you decide to give up and go home, I’d like to come. I want to see everybody.” Since Kangeiko means cold weather practice, and since we’ve done a lot of Kangeiko together for many years, I didn’t think there was much chance of disbanding because of cold weather, even extremely cold weather.
Sure enough, when I got to the Town Hall in Petersham, Massachusetts, I was greeted by friends in down vests and gloves, saying, “Wear whatever you want for this keiko as long as it’s warm.” They led down to the basement where, with the help of the space heater, the space was up above freezing, just barely. Bela Breslau had taught that morning, and had to start by discussing with the group what to do about the lack of heat. Unfortunately, a couple of people had needed to drop out because the cold wasn’t workable for them, including Michael Thompson who had been scheduled to give some of the instruction. The people who stayed had begun by huddling in a circle and sharing verbally some of what was going on in their lives. Then Bela led freehand sword cutting. Swords turned out not to work because the basement ceiling was too low.
For the second keiko, Matt Shorten led warmups and Stephen Billias taught. I found that the basement was really very cold! After a 3-hour drive, it was hard to feel that warmups had done much in the way of warming my body. But as we went through our usual keiko progression, bringing more vigor into our movement, the warmth started to come. We practiced more sword movements free hand: hasso and mugen. Finally, Stephen asked if we were willing to go upstairs into the dojo with no heat at all, so we could use our swords. We agreed, we went, and it was even colder! But – now we had bokutohs and boken. And Stephen had us working in pairs. There is something about the alertness that comes with kumitachi that warms my body, every time. It was especially noticeable once Stephen put us in groups of five, with four attacking one who stood in the center. The eyes, the brain, the blood, the arms and legs all went on high alert. Now it seemed good to me to be doing such a very cold weather practice, bringing life and warmth into the depths of winter.
Stephen brought us outside for a final tenso-shoko. We stood in a patch of the village green and cut forward as the church bell struck five and the bell tower of the Town Hall turned orange in the setting sun.
Dinner was at Matt and Bonnie’s home, cozy, potluck, with a dog and a fire. Some of us stayed at Hartmann’s herb farm, a place we have been before, before the pandemic, before Joe Zawielski sensei’s passing. It was good to be back. As Margaret Guay- who was my roommate – said to me, “This feels important.” The importance was not in the content of the keikos so much as in the resumption of the gasshuku kata. It was important to eat together, to do more than one keiko and experience the physical/emotional/spiritual changes from one keiko to the next. It was good that at least some of us could be together under one roof.
On Sunday morning, Margaret led us in beautiful katas: diamond eight (free hand and then with sword) and finally Taimyo Part One. As we walked out of Town Hall after saying our goodbyes, guess what! It was up to forty degrees. The cold weather lasted just as long as the Kangeiko.