I’ve been thinking about our butter knives. We keep them in the horizontal section of our silverware organizer in an allocated drawer. Like the dinner and dessert forks and serving and table spoons, they have their place. Everyone agrees to store them in standard fashion with the handles facing south and the tips facing north. Yet, when it comes to the butter knives no such concord exists.
|Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, South Korea|
I use the law of common sense: handles should face east. After all, in our family everyone is right handed; this should make things easier, more natural. It’s a minority opinion. Still, I wage a silent war, returning the knives time and again to their “natural” position, despite knowing the very next time I pull out the drawer, west-facing handles will stare at me with unabashed mocking and converts will follow until order is wholly abandoned. Should I stage a protest? Post signs? Hand out pamphlets declaiming the benefits of handles facing right (No smudged blades! No hyperextended wrists!)? Forget it. I’ll ban butter knives altogether—and extend the battle to include the marauding crumbs who invade every nook and cranny.
Kidding aside, it’s not really our butter knives I’ve been thinking of, but how they relate to a central tenet of the um-yang: the acceptance of constant change, how change is inevitable, even in the silverware drawer, and how closing yourself off to change closes yourself off to possibilities, to openness itself. If a knife handle faces left, my left hand is available. My youngest daughter easily points this out. Ah, I think, beginner’s mind, infinitely open. And, it’s true. I have two hands; I may as well use them.
Change one part of your life and you change in myriad others. It’s been nearly a year since I crossed the threshold of the dojang floor. From the outside I look about the same, though, perhaps, I’m a little more toned. I remember doing ten push ups that first morning all belts class. It took me so long. From the dazed looks of the other students’ faces when I’d finished I had the feeling they’d been watching me for quite some time. Nevertheless, I’m used to push ups now and can roughly keep pace for twenty to thirty in a set.
Meditating on constant change is natural, as with every belt level change marches forth with a strong, sequential cadence: new kicks, strikes, self-defense techniques and poomsaes—and the challenge to build the whole of them into a integrated repertoire. Doing well requires focus, intention, practice and a willingness to be loose, flexible, adaptive. In other words, being willing to grow. I have always been willing, but I have never taken growth so seriously as I have in taekwondo. To the contrary, I have often lived my life like a leaf in stream, perceptibly content to either flow swiftly with the current or ensnare myself in the debris of a bend.
It’s been only a year. Change manifests itself subtly and overtly. I’m more engaged in life, more relaxed, more willing to surrender ego in the service of a broader confidence, less anxious and less likely to become entwined in the emotional vortexes that arise from within and without. My ability to focus has increased. I’m faster in the kitchen, faster with domestic chores, more efficient overall. When I toss something in the trash, I often hit the basket. In the dojang, I’m comfortable among fellow students, comfortable with the hierarchy and routines, more willing to learn through mistakes and failure. Beyond this, I sense within myself an opening, a deeper understanding and appreciation of life’s flowing nature.
Taekwondo inspires within me a reckoning. What are my intentions? Am I present with them? Fulfilling them? Ignoring them? Taekwondo keeps me, if not on, then mindful of the path, and the path is life itself. If life is a river, I need not be a leaf but a tree, deeply rooted in the stream, withstanding the gush of wind and rain, contemplating stillness and calm, accepting the changes that come and go. I suspect the further I go with taekwondo and the sincerity of my practice has much to do with the perspective through which I approach all of life. What I do within the dojang, and the consequent contemplations of my mind flows outward into everything else. In-class meditations inspire me to learn about and meditate on my own; sporadic interest is manifesting itself into a routine, focused practice.
Some kicks require jumping. Yop chagi (side kick) requires a torque of the hips unnatural for many my age, myself included. Knife hand, executed properly, is entirely foreign. Yet, having an open mind and a willing spirit, I know I will persevere. Physical changes, physical challenges. When you change something outside, it changes something inside. Physical challenges induce resilience and strength. Between inner and outer life, there is no distinction. One mirrors the other. I may not be the fireball of reckless daring I once was—recklessness is a folly of the young!—but my spirit remains; it burns strong. I can kick. I can jump. I won’t just persevere. I will succeed in all the ways it’s possible. One thing flows into another; change is with us always. Crisscrossed knives, missing forks, the rosebud spoon of unknown origin. Accept change here and you can accept it elsewhere. You won’t need to stop and wonder what silverware has to do with taekwondo. You’ll already know. Nothing. Everything.