They called him Rat Little. This kid was the poster child for mean + bully. I remember one Friday night at Shoneys Restaurant seeing him use the cast on his broken right arm to wail unmercifully on another kid. And the cast? Yes of course, the result of a previous fight. Rat Little was 16 and I was 13.
Somehow one of my best friends (EF for short) had been mistaken for another kid who had insulted Rat Little’s younger sister. At least in his mind, game on!
Walking down Eastway Drive after school that week, an old chevy pulled up beside us. Before we could scramble, Rat Little jumped from the moving car knocking my friend clean off his feet with one fierce blow to the head. My friend got up but was immediately pounded to the ground again. EF was face down now. I was terrified. What did I do next? Before I answer, let me say I’ve thought of this event hundreds of times since then. Each time hoping my reaction had been different.
Because I ran. I panicked and ran. I ran as fast as my feet could take me. My courage had been tested and I failed in a big way. Yes, he was older but I had still let down my close friend. Thankfully it was a busy street so Rat Little retreated as fast as he’d arrived. I did return to help my friend but felt a deep sense of shame.
In an unspoken act of kindness, EF didn’t blame me for running. In fact we never talked about it very much at all. For him it became a kind of badge of courage. And even though he let me off the hook that day, I kept putting myself back on it.
Years later, as a poet and lover of language I found myself attracted to the ancient meaning of courage. From Latin we get cor or heart. So courage for me became larger. It became the act of knowing and then following my heart.
But there was still a missing piece for me. A need to heal in a fuller way. And it showed up as an attraction to the martial art of Aikido where I spent well over a decade of my life studying and practicing this art. To explain the deep need I felt to study Aikido, let me speak as if Rat Little were reading these words:
Rat Little hear me. Your real name is now forgotten. But what you did is not. And since it is true that hurt people–hurt people, I can only imagine what put you on your course. But know this, Aikido seeks to reduce violence not simply meet it with more. If I could take my Aikido hopes and skills back to my 13 year old self, I may have been able to act differently. No, you wouldn’t have been hurt, but neither would you have hurt my friend. This is the great hope and promise of Aikido. As a gesture of forgiveness to me for running that day and to you for hurting my friend, here is a poem of reconciliation for us both.
Aikido is a prayer
a poetic articulation
of the flesh.
the most sublime