Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tai Chi with Bruce

Isn’t it true that we thrive in large part because of our gifts? That is, whatever we have that is given, though unearned. It’s true of me, certainly.

I’ve had a gift from Bruce McDougall these last nine years or so. Bruce taught me Tai Chi, in the all-purpose Elspeth Room of Dixon Hall’s main building, where we both worked, he as executive director and me as housing support worker and later youth worker.

Bruce was a wonderful man and leader. He was kind and attentive and unflaggingly supportive of our staff. One of his ideas for community building was for those of us who had particular interests and were inclined, to share them with others. I decided on a reading club that never got off the ground – says something of my own leadership abilities. But Bruce canvassed the interested about a mutually good time, and we settled into Fridays at noon.

Soon, Bruce was leading a group ranging from three to six of us in a range of graceful Tai Chi movements, including the single whip, white crane spreads wings, brush knee, repulse monkey, embrace the mountain, stroke the mare’s tail, and wave hands like clouds. I don’t imagine I’d ever have been drawn into the practice of Tai Chi for its own sake. It’s Bruce that was the draw. It didn’t hurt to think I was learning a martial art, except that I’d seen Tai Chi, and wasn’t particularly impressed. Too slow, for sure. And it didn’t seem to achieve much in the way of power or athleticism either. But I was a quick convert.

It took awhile to learn some of the most basic moves. The positioning of the body through the sequences is very specific. Some are difficult on the muscles and joints. Most require a degree of balance, that rises as we enter deeper into the set, the foundation movements being repeated often as they segue way into others.

The strikes and blocks of Tai Chi are surprisingly and economically brutal from a martial prerspective – no wasted movement, every effort to maximum effect; lots of bone crushing and joint wrenching. But the practice of it, moving slowly, seamlessly from pose to sweep to stance, is a flowing practice, a study in all the ways the body can form a circle. It is concentrated and meditative. The bending and arcing of the body becomes a previously unsuspected medium. The 108 movements of Yang style are a lesson in balance. And balance is something that starts as a glimmer, a tickle, somewhere deep in the sensitive body, then it spreads, and it tunes and embraces the senses and limbs, to the point where it becomes impossible to fall out of balance, with anything!

My first efforts at solo practice were a few minutes remembering the turns of my body, and Bruce’s feedback to me, always, to relax my shoulders, to mind my breathing, to be tense only where required. It soon became an almost daily practice, the first intentional act of the day, carried out every morning on my apartment building’s roof deck, before going to work. Later on, I found a group in Grange Park that I sometimes joined. Later on, it was the groups in Greenwood Park. It’s been welcoming and gratifying, to be studied by elderly Chinese practitioners, who after a few minutes of scrutiny, usually say, “Good, good. Who taught you. You have good form.” Or alternately, give me some little suggestion, how to bring a particular element of my body more alive in a sequence.

Bruce was very generous, and central to his message to us about the practice was his own benefit through sharing it. I was pleased, a couple of years later, when, after cancer and treatment, Bruce asked if I’d help him begin to re-remember the long routine. We met a handful of times, but circumstance gradually made those meetings rarer and rarer. His sudden passing in early 2009 underscored the lost opportunity to know him better.

This fall, Bruce’s wife, Kim, asked if I’d like to have his Tai Chi books and his staff. I agreed, and she and I spent time over coffee, talking about life, our jobs, Tai Chi, and their growing daughters. Emma and her French study, and her eminent semester in Paris, got me thinking to get her a copy of George Perec’s “Life: a User’s Manual”. Kendra has a growing interest in medicine.

The staff I brought home was unexpected. I’d been expecting a sword, which I knew Bruce practiced. We’d spoken about whether or not he remembered enough of the sword sets to pass along. I hadn’t known he worked with a staff. The tool, or weapon, is impressive. It’s a bit short of seven feet, so almost a foot taller than me if I stand with it. It’s made of ten slender cords of waxwood, twined around a finger thick center piece. It’s solidly constructed, hard, but with a whisper of bend to it. A very elegant tool, radiating an almost biblical authority.

I haven’t done anything with the staff yet but to heft it. I haven’t taken any steps toward learning one of the many staff sets, beside viewing some videos on the internet. But I’m proud to have the staff, and I’ll treasure it. I’ll come up with occasions to walk with it, if nothing else. In the meantime, what I intend for myself is to get back into a more consistent practice of the basic routine. I no longer practice daily, and it becomes too easy to allow entire weeks to go by without making it out to the park in the morning. I’ll have to recall to mind the tranquility that greets me on those quiet mornings, the energy I finish with, however tired when I started. The sense of balance, the knowledge of the power of flowing with, rather than struggling against. It is a vitalizing art. This practice has shaped me and increased my control, not over life per se, but over my reactions to whatever comes. As I told Bruce way back when, upon realizing it myself, he gave me a powerful tool for the rest of my life.

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