Andrew Sutton Workshop Hilo 2012 - Part 2

Instead of making snap judgements about our partners or simply ignoring them when we danced, we were encouraged to try and understand them first. In physical - or dancing terms - this meant looking at their mood, posture, and movement, and adjusting to them as much as possible in the beginning of our dance. Through both visual and physical adjustments, we could enter their world and understand them. Once we had met them on their level, we could then attempt to increasingly invite them into our own world. My aikido teacher describes this type of behaviour as ‘Entering through form.’ It is difficult to communicate with our own or other people’s spirits, but we can grasp the spirit and connect with it through its physical form manifested in the body and its movements and posture, which is more apparent and palpable to us. ‘If somebody wants to dance fast and angry’, Andrew says, ‘and you want to dance slow and mellow, start fast and angry with them and try to gradually convince them to come the other way with you.’ ‘First seek to understand, then to be understood.’ 
He compared this with a conversation. If your field of expertise is mathematics and you talk to somebody who does not know much about mathematics, you first find out the other person’s level of mathematical knowledge, start talking to them on this level, and then possibly invite them further down your path of expertise if they seem willing to go along with it. 
When Andrew demonstrated how he looked at somebody’s posture, body angles, and way of walking and adjusted his own movements accordingly, I felt reminded of a book by Nicholas Boothman called ‘Convince them in 90 Seconds - Make Instant Connections That Pay Off in Business and in Life’, in which Boothman describes the phenomenon of the likeable chameleon: If you imitate people’s posture and movements the first time you meet them, they will instantaneously like and trust you without knowing why. Another essential skill of the dancing ninja: chameleonage. 
Another component of Andrew’s fusion class that coincided with ancient Japanese martial arts philosophy was ‘Love your basic.’ In the martial arts, we say ‘Keep a beginner’s mind’, which encourages martial artists to always keep working on their basic skills and never let themselves be fooled by the illusion that they have truly mastered their art, or even fully understood its basic building blocks. The more we search, the more sincerely we explore our basics, the closer we will get to the wisdom our discipline has to offer.
In terms of dancing, we were specifically encouraged to make our basic step interesting rather than letting ourselves get bored with it, to put it exactly where the music called for it, and make it match the respective flavor, energy, rhythm, and atmosphere of the music, to experiment with it and use it to full effect. 
Open Mind
In terms of emotions, Andrew suggested developing an open mind that did not give preference to one emotion over another. Anger, sadness, jealousy, all these could be expressed in dance as well as happiness and lead to new interesting discoveries. 
Beauty of Doing Nothing
In another exercise, Andrew encouraged us to discover the beauty of doing nothing by simply ‘listening to’ or ‘feeling’ what our partner was doing rather than superimposing our own opinions and impulses on the dance immediately. This resulted in a better connection and a better understanding of what our partner was doing, as well as a more enjoyable and relaxed dance. 
Find Love in a Hopeless Place
Another point connected with the beauty of doing nothing in a different way was the thrill of the ‘stop’ moment after a build-up of ‘go-go-go’, demonstrated in an exciting solo performance by Andrew to ‘We Found Love’ by Rihanna, a song he had never heard before that tricked him into an extended stretch of jumping spins he committed to early on in a long winding-up crescendo after the first chorus - before the song finally allowed him to come to a much deserved stop and take it easy in his new chill out pose. 
The lyrics in the catchy chorus ‘We found love in a hopeless place...’ serendipitously reinforced the idea that any partner, any music, and any part of a song has the potential to rock. Andrew’s dance sample was also a great lesson about texture and clearly revealed the essence of interesting: nothing is exciting if it just keeps going, and nothing captures the heart if it is stagnant throughout. The idea that dance, mostly understood as physical movement needs stops and moments of doing nothing in order to be interesting was another point that may sound obvious but is often forgotten or neglected.
Leading the Follow, Following the Lead
A recurring theme throughout the weekend were lead and follow roles blending and overlapping. True to his likeable chameleon philosophy, Andrew explained that even as a lead, his dance consisted to about 75% of following, and that the better we got, the more we would start following our partner (even as leads). 
He spent parts of his Saturday class giving followers hints on how they could temporarily take over the lead, and some leads discovered that the way their follows moved gave them fresh inspiration for their next leads. The bottom line was that we should respect and follow our partner, no matter whether we were acting as ‘leads’ or ‘follows’ in the dance. 
Contact Lindy
During Saturday night’s party I made the acquaintance of yet another type of dance I had never heard of: Contact Lindy. Once again, it was love at first sight. Well, maybe not only sight. Love at first touch may be a more appropriate description considering the way people connect in Contact Lindy, a form of Lindy Hop that allows everybody on the dance floor to constantly remain in flux and dance alone, with different partners, or even with multiple partners as the music unfolds. 
Connection, as Andrew aptly said, is a world in itself, a term as elusive and difficult to define, and yet as basic and essential as love. We can connect on a visual level, through touch, sound, smell, and taste - these are all sense connections, of which touch may be the most visceral. We can connect through rules, moods, concepts, ideas, and experience. We can connect over time or within moments. In Contact Lindy, connections are made and dissolved in a large group of people within a short time. This can help us reinforce the sense of importance any connection with any human being holds, and encourage us to respect each connection we make, give it our best, enter and leave with care, commitment, and gratefulness. 
The basic parameters to work with in Contact Lindy are: dance alone, dance with partner(s), and dance to the music. Rules for this enjoyable group activity include respecting, committing to, and using one’s own and other people’s momentum, matching the speed and intensity of the connection people offer, and consistently telling one’s own story throughout the song (which manifests itself in choosing a consistent basic like ‘six-count’ or ‘bouncy’ for the entire song), while adjusting to others in order to connect and dance with them. 
This resulted in a fun fusion of independence and interconnectedness, freedom and commitment, belonging and responsibility. It was my first experience of Contact Lindy, and I got nothing but a mere glimpse of its possibilities, but I was thrilled to discover another game that was fun and at the same time, stimulated the skills and efforts I want to work on in my daily life.
Tell your own story. Only then can you crosspollinate successfully with others and enrich their lives as well as your own. Open your mind and energy flow to other people and, like the Dalai Lama says, make it the focus of your life to connect with as many people as possible. Forget past and future and let music remind you of the unique value of each moment. Open yourself up to spontaneous eruptions of love - hopeless and fearless - like cherry blossoms in spring or autumn leaves in autumn. Go with the flow and stop at the top. See what is new and cherish the view. Roll through the goal and dance out your soul. 
Constantly seeking for new ways to connect and create harmony, I consider myself blessed that in random moments full of sudden purpose I occasionally encounter the touch of love, and that I am healthy and wealthy enough to keep working on this ultimate technique myself. 

Andrew Sutton Workshop Hilo 2012 - Part 1

Disciplines for Life

Thursday night, sitting in the community kitchen with some friends, I heard myself say: ‘No matter what discipline, if you practice it enough, it becomes your life, so then, when you talk about your discipline, you talk about life.’ 
My aikido teacher has been practicing Zen and aikido for over 50 years. These disciplines have become his life, and when he teaches them, he teaches an approach to life. I find this approach useful, so I decided to write down his teachings in simple, short texts reflecting the simplicity and immediacy of his philosophy, and put them together in a book, accompanied by wabi-sabi photographs representing the beauty he finds in everyday life and encourages everybody to constantly appreciate and keep creating. 
I believe wisdom and beauty can be found in any discipline. I remember being a teenager and listening with wide open ears and eyes to my piano teacher, who, as he described to me what mistakes I was making and what aspects I should work on when playing a certain piece, always managed to make me aware of the problems I was experiencing in that particular stretch of my life, and how I could go about fixing them. Piano lessons were like tarot readings to me, like therapy sessions without the gut-wrenching navel-gazing. My teacher could read in the way I played what I was struggling with and what I should work on.
When I made my Thursday night statement about disciplines having the potential to become tools for understanding and informing meaningful lives, I had no idea that I was about to meet another teacher who had polished his discipline into sparkling gems of practical knowledge that were not only a direct road to lots of fun but also offered a helpful universal philosophy for daily life that enabled people to connect with each other and harmonize. On Friday, January 27th 2012 I attended my first class with Andrew Sutton, followed by an entire weekend of fun, connection, and inspiration.
The first eye opener of the weekend was ‘fusion’. I had never heard of this approach to dance before and was in for an exciting surprise. Fusion, as described by Andrew, is ‘blending with your partner and with the music’. It may sound like what people (should) do in any kind of partner dance anyway, but this was exactly why learning some basic techniques to truly achieve this ‘fusion’ was so exciting. The more information we got, and the more we moved to put it into practice, the more fascinated I became with the fusion approach. 
My aikido teacher often writes this poem in his calligraphies: 
Harmonize with Others
Harmonize with Heaven and Earth
Dance with Others
Dance with Heaven and Earth.
For the title of the book about him I used the line ‘Dance with Heaven and Earth.’ It did not take much to re-adjust this concept I had immersed myself in for the past eight months and turn it into ‘Dance with partner and music.’ 
While I had done both many times before, the pointers Andrew offered in his class gave my concept of partner dancing a thorough overhaul. 
For realizing fusion, Andrew points out, it is helpful to get rid of ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, and ‘can’t’. While many dance teachers have clear ideas about things that are ‘wrong’ within the boundaries of their dance, he suggests to look at what they call ‘wrong’, find out what this actually means (eg. ‘bouncier than I want’ or ‘slower than I want’ etc.) and store it in our minds as alternative possibilities that might be right and appropriate in a different context. 
Another frequent case of thinking ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, and ‘can’t’ concerns our approach to different partners. Who has never had thoughts along the lines of ‘O my God, this guy has no rhythm’ or ‘Geez, this girl has no connection’, ‘Does he have to the same thing a hundred times?’ or ‘What’s that bitchy face about?’ Filtered through Andrew’s thinking, this type of thought was exposed as a simple lack of cooperative spirit, which prevented us from harmonizing with our partner. 
Pirates & Ninjas
To eliminate thinking ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, and ‘can’t’ type thoughts concerning our partner, we played a game in which one person was the pirate and tried to epitomize ‘bad dancing’ while the other was the ninja whose mission it was to make the dance rock nonetheless. 
Once again I felt strongly reminded of aikido. Every time we practice, we face the same challenge: somebody attacks us full force, but instead of letting this faze us, we try to maintain ‘shizentai’, our ‘natural posture’. My teacher describes shizentai as a combination of the following factors:
  • Eyes: look at everything equally, not just at one thing
  • Back: straight - shoulder blades together and down
  • Shoulders: always relaxed
  • Breathing: always calm, in coordination with your movements
  • Ki (energy): emanating freely from your body, flowing in whatever direction you decide
  • Knees: always relaxed, ready to move in any direction
  • Mind: always calm and open for whatever may happen (mizu no kokoro - mind of water)
The challenge is that while we respect our partner and try to blend with him or her, we try just as hard to maintain our own center, and provide an axis stable enough for others to revolve around. 
What made the dancing exercise much more relaxed than an actual attack-and-defense situation, however, was that even when we realized that blending with our partner was a challenge in this particular case, we still had music we could blend with, so that even if we reduced the points of connection with our partner, we still had a common denominator that informed our dance. All we had to do was respect our partner, and respect the music. In this way, we could find points of connection with both and enjoy a much more harmonious dance than any dance based on premises like ‘O my God, he has no rhythm,’ or ‘I hate techno music.’
Instead of getting angry about our partner or a particular song or type of music potentially putting us in a bad place, it sounds like a better idea to remember that it is our own responsibility to put ourselves in a good place, create harmony, and tell our story as well as listening to our partner’s story.


Opening the Mirror

As human beings, we have a conscious grasp of time. We lose our ability to experience each moment without thinking about the past or the future early on in life. After that, the way we handle our perception of time defines our personalities. Some tend to preoccupy themselves with the past, and fill the present with it, carving it into warped sculptures of guilt, nostalgia, fear, anger, longing, or hope that populate their world. Others tend to forget the past immediately and look to the future for new loves, riches, adventures, experiences, missions, and achievements. 

Where we find ourselves on this spectrum plays an important part in how we perceive life, and in how others perceive us. One of our most important tasks is to take responsibility for achieving a good balance between past and future, to open our eyes to the past - not to sink into its swamps or be dazzled by its brightness - but to cast its substance into a useful shape and forge its lessons into a sharp, precise carving knife for the future. 

When we look to the future, we should sketch it in the likeness of our wildest dreams and move towards it with determination and steadfast actions, but at the same time retain the discipline not to let dreams of the future hinder our ability to taste the present and accept its gifts and opportunities. 
Another fact of life - alias mortality - is that the past is already lost, and the future may never come, which puts the art of relishing, respecting, and utilizing each moment on a special pedestal in our time perception priorities. 
New Year’s celebrations are a symbol of our constant quest to manage our complicated yet unavoidable relationship as mortals with time. In Japan, O-Shōgatsu, the New Year, is the most important celebration of the year, and one of the traditions associated with it is the ‘kagami-biraki’ ceremony celebrated by martial arts dojos on the first or second weekend of January, marking the first training session of the year. Literally, ‘kagami-biraki’ means ‘opening the mirror’.
The fourth Tokugawa Shogun is said to have started this tradition and continued it because he emerged victorious from a battle soon after. The kagami-biraki ceremony involves sharing some form of rice alias energy with fellow human beings and thus facilitating a fresh, energetic start to the New Year.
The central Japanese New Year decoration involved in this event consists of two sticky rice balls stacked on top of each other like a snowman, topped with a fruit resembling a tangerine called daidai. The word ‘daidai’ sounds like ‘generations’ and symbolizes the success of past and future generations and the continuation of the family. The two balls of mochi are said to contain the spirit of the rice plant and symbolize the going and coming years, the human heart, or yin and yang. The decoration is called kagami-mochi, or ‘mirror rice balls’ because it resembles an ancient copper mirror with religious connotations.
At the kagami-biraki, either the kagami-mochi, or a barrel of sake is broken to share the spirit of the rice plant, the essence of energy with everybody present. As the Japanese are extremely touchy about their use of language, however, and avoid using unpropitious words, especially at ceremonies, ‘break’ is a no-no, and was replaced with ‘open’, which led from ‘breaking the rice ball’ to ‘opening the mirror’. The simple need to eat combined with a desire to party and a love of propitious words became a mysterious yet clear symbol of everything the New Year invites us and enables us to do.
Our kagami-biraki ceremony at Aikido of Hilo was held on Sunday, January 14th. Sensei Robert Klein showed us the kagami-mochi placed in front of the dojo and gave us his idea of how the opening of the mirror could be interpreted in connection with aikido:
The way your partner moves is a reflection of the way you move. If your partner gets hurt, correct your movements in order not to hurt him. If you feel your partner is hurting you, look at what you can improve in your actions and attitude to prevent getting hurt. If your partner moves gracefully, attempt to discover what exactly you are doing that may be contributing to the beauty you see, and save its memory in your body and mind so you can extract it from others, too. 
With these concepts fresh in our minds we proceed to start the first practice of the year and continue our efforts to polish the mirror, and work on what we present to its clean surface with the help of our discipline and our fellow students. 
After training, we open a bottle of sake and drink to the birth of a fellow practitioner’s son and to another good aikido year. Generations continue, and people keep sharing the energy of the rice plant and the divine spark, I think looking at the daidai resting on the two rice balls in front of the dojo. I will honor the rice plant and the divine spark. I will dance more and practice harder. I will take a good hard look at myself and what I’m doing and improve what I see. As I begin to ravel in glorious New Year’s resolutions sculpting a perfect new self, I catch somebody giving me a piercing look and am startled to meet the eye of my own reflection in the sake cup I am holding. 
With this piercing look, my reflection reminds me of a question Brendan, a visiting film maker asked everybody at our New Year’s Eve community campfire. ‘So what is the most important lesson you have learned this year?’ At the time I was on my way to the kitchen to help chop up the Italian sausages that had been barbecued to perfection on a smokey grill for every one to share, which prevented me from staring into the flames and combing my mind for an answer. But now the question was back, reminding me that learning from the past was an essential part of time management, the ticket to the right destination.
The New Year had consumed all my attention chatting me up from the right, seducing me with the razzle dazzle of imagined future perfection. Now I looked over to my left and saw the outgoing year. Its eyes were deep and drank in my own. Until a conspiratorial spark in them brought me back to my own body and allowed me to share a precious moment with the past year. ‘Ichidaiji’, we said simultaneously and held each other’s hands appreciating the sparkling layer of understanding between us. 
Of course. Shimamoto Shihan had taught me this year’s most important lesson after his battle with stomach cancer - in teamwork with my friend and mentor  P. I was fortunate enough to meet one last time before the sharp claws of his advanced pancreatic cancer whisked him away forever. It was nothing other than ‘Ichidaiji’ - ‘the most important thing’. Which was the here and now. It was this very moment, this very life, this very self aware of itself and able to give its best to everybody in its vicinity. 
Stunned back into the present I emerged from the mysterious mirror-shaped time machine I had temporarily traveled in, and went straight for the sake bottle to pay my respects to another Japanese custom: never let your friends’ glass get empty. Refill glasses as soon as their liquid level nears the bottom. I filled my friend’s glass and listened to the ringing sound of our toast. Its music became a cloud, on which our smiles floated in a dance filled with the energy of the rice plant, and imbued with the divine spark, here and now, suspended in mid-moment, forever moving on, opening the mirror.



Christmas. A celebration. A tradition. A feast. A consumerist splurge. A religiously biased and therefore contentious term in public relations. What else? What is christmas to you? 
I am not a Christian, but I am anthropologically and theologically curious, adventurous, and flexible. The chameleon is my totemic animal, and I tend to experience any colors I crawl across with my entire body, observing with rolling eyes the environment I have blended into. If I enjoy the sensation, I retain its memory in my scales for future use.
I grew up celebrating christmas as a day when fairy-tales come true, when families get together, when the house is decorated, when music is played, good food is eaten, and gifts are exchanged. Occasional snow and cold weather added romance and winter fun, and made the warmth emanating from cookie baking ovens and bustling family members inside the house even more precious. The tale of Jesus’s birth in the stable was part of it, too - served in christmas carols, kindergarten plays, and porcelain nativity scenes inherited from more pious generations - so even though I was not raised in a Christian household, I grew up immersed in Christian traditions, and I am happy for it.
Jesus is best known for dying a horrible death on the cross and rising from the dead a few days later, but it is his birthday that marks the most elaborate Christian celebration in most Christian countries today. Jesus of Nazareth brought significant gifts to many, including universal forgiveness for their sins, constant soul support and companionship, and eternal life in exchange for following his rules here on earth. When he was alive, he built things. He taught generosity, neighborly love, courage, charity, and honesty, and healed people from ailments and handicaps. The festive food eaten for Christmas - and traditionally shared with the poor - as well as the gifts exchanged are apt symbols for the honorable life style he advocated. 
Watching scenes of customers attacking competitors with pepper spray at Walmart to secure the best deals for electronic items on Black Friday, and desperately pushing our way through cities that seem to hemorrhage christmas spirit while consumption madness sprouts like a giant tumor from every commercial-ridden street corner, and christmas carols lull shoppers into more vexing desires, more tempting deals, and more outrageous splurges, it seems that the original spirit of christmas has become perverted and distorted in many minds and places. 
I, on the other hand, was blessed this year to celebrate christmas with a group of people who have chosen to counter-act this trend, seeking a life based on ideas like community, self-sustainability, exchange, and making the most of local resources. When a small core group of people started this community 20 years ago, they made a rule that no kids would be allowed on their land. Today, they have matured. We have babies, children, teenagers, adults, and elders, and there is talk of finding space for a cemetery. Whatever life style, whatever ideology you choose, being human, you cannot escape birth, disease, old age, and death - and all that they entail. 
The focus in community life is on walking the path of being human together. On eating the cake together instead of having it alone. On baking the cake instead of buying it. On sharing and thereby multiplying our strengths and possessions. On “Mend and make do to save buying new.” On giving and receiving. On nurturing our own and each other’s individual sparks; creating and disseminating skills, joy, and support.
The three main items on our agenda for christmas day express this philosophy in a nutshell. 
  1. Piñata - The children whack the piñata until it cracks open, and are rewarded for their efforts with copious supplies of candy. They are happy and high for the day. 
  2. Potluck: everybody makes and brings food to be shared.
  3. Everybody brings a present. Presents are exchanged in a game with the following rules: each participant receives a number. The number marks a person’s turn. Number 1 means, you get to choose and unwrap the first present. Number 2 means you get to choose the second present. As Number 2 you may either take the present Number 1 has already unwrapped or unwrap a new present. The game continues in this fashion, and each person has the choice of either taking away a present that has already been unwrapped, or getting a new present from the pile. After a present has changed hands twice, however, it is locked and can no longer be taken.
We have had two months of nearly constant rain in Puna that has turned our land into a swamp. Four-wheel drives are increasingly useful; diseases like sore throats, headaches, and eczema are going strong and must be kept at bay with saltwater gargling, hot drinks, ginger, garlic, and turmeric; leather, towels, window screens, fabrics, furniture, and yoga mats get moldy and must be checked and cleaned daily. 
One day I open a drawer and hardly recognize my passport under a layer of blue fur. I have to wipe a drop of sweat and a distraught look off my face as I grab a cloth to save my internationally mobile identity, threatening to be overgrown by jungle mold. When the blue-gray coating gives way to chipped golden lettering on wine-red leather, however, what I hold in my hand seems like a mysterious alien object from a long forgotten world that has nothing to do with myself. Spooked, I throw it back in the drawer and kick it shut. I might go back to this later. For now I am merging with the elements around me, exploring the chemical reactions that occur and the new materials they yield.  
We have all been dreaming of a dry christmas. And our wish is granted. Christmas day this year comes with rich blessing of sunshine. We enjoy the first glasses of home-made organic eggnog and locally brewed beer outside in the sun, hang the piñata from a tree, and let the kids pick up their candy from a patch of nearly mud-free lawn. 
Potluck today is bounteous. People have made extra efforts to piece together a special feast. In addition to my usual oat and raisin cookies I have made the second cheesecake of my life and decorated it with chocolate and whipped cream. Other dishes served include: brined roast chicken, kumquat skins filled with chocolate, grilled ribs of grass-fed Hawaiian beef, vegan sunflower paté with gluten-free gravy, English cheese, freshly harvested avocado, lemon pie, mozzarella and tomato with basil, filled wine leaves, oven-roasted vegetables, orange, green, and white tortillas, vegan and non-vegan rice pudding, mashed, and scalloped potatoes. 
After our bellies are filled, the most interesting part of the party begins: the gift giving game. In our community, company executives are rare. We have some licensed medical marihuana growers. Alternative medicine makers. Teachers. Homemakers. A clown. A translator. People scraping by on welfare and small jobs including market vending, crafting, cleaning, house-and dog sitting, etc. Creative genius and eccentricity abound. These demographics make for an exciting variety of presents.
But what is even more exciting is observing the dynamics of the game. How people handle getting something and then having it taken away from them. The choices they make: Do they go for the gamble of taking something they know and love that might be taken away from them again? Do they go for the safe choice of a present that gets locked in their hands? Or do they go for the surprise of unwrapping a new gift? 
Are they selfish? Or do they pay attention to other’s needs and valiantly hunt presents for their partners, children, friends, or parents? Are they active or passive? Bold or polite? Impulsive or calculating? Do they try to advertise unwanted presents to the next taker so they can conquer something new? Do they express their love for a particular present passionately as soon as they see it or quietly hide their feelings until they get a chance to grab it? How do they take the loss of having a loved present taken away from them? Crisis or opportunity?
As the gift giving game unfolds, I see all of this and more. D. almost cries when his machete gets taken away from him. T. pulls a sneak attack on my chopsticks. N. conquers a beautiful shawl for his wife; she tries to return the favor with a 30-minute full body massage for him, wrapped up in a mandala, but it gets snatched away from her again. Old G. who usually needs a walker, performs a hot little dance with his Hawaiian ti-leaf crown, waving two large leaves by his side in an enchanting hula imitation. 
I see people barter, rattling boxes of energizing mints to make them look more attractive, sticking decorative tiles in people’s faces to hide all their other choices. Some carelessly show off fashion pieces only to be flabbergasted when somebody else claims them. Participants blessed with precious gems hide their booty, silently looking away as the present hunter passes by to strike. 
Another interesting element is to see what presents are the most coveted. Watching the spectacle unfold I feel inspired to make an experiment and have people play this game in different communities, in different places and living scenarios to compare the most coveted presents. Gifts that change hands twice in our game include: a set of 3 cast iron skillets, a bottle of Jack Daniels, a machete, a full-body massage, a studded belt, and a pair of hand-crafted warm walking socks with snake tongues- and faces. 
It is an enriching experience to be exposed to all the forces and factors at play in the gift giving game. I start off with a beautiful set of handmade chopsticks. They get taken away from me unexpectedly. I go for a new surprise and get an equally beautiful shawl. Once again, I get robbed of it. I decide to open an interesting small envelope and am thrilled to discover a voucher for a quart of home-made yoghurt (expensive to buy here!) by a good and trusted cook. Once again, very unexpectedly, it gets taken away. This time, there is only one more wrapped present left, and I go hunting among the unwrapped loot for the first time. I decide to claim a gift box that contains a silver pen, an empty journal, and a calendar for next year - a fresh angel message for every day. 
During the game, I feel animated and emotionally engaged in the gift giving part, but really I am much more interested in the human dimension of it, watching everybody’s moves unfold like the chapters of a psycho-thriller leading to its resolution. While I have each present, I am happy with it. When it gets taken away from me I go through a short stage of slight disappointment, competitive indignation, or surprise, then happily grab the opportunity by the reins. 
After all I know what I signed up for from the beginning, and our founding father quite aptly describes this activity as “a Buddhist game” of non-attachment. While I was happy with each present I had, I feel I have ended up with the perfect present. If this development is any indication for how things are going to go next year, I see an abundant, happy year coming. Now, is this due to the way the game went, or to my carefully crafted attitude? I will never know, but I will always keep working on my attitude - just in case, and because it is all I can do. 
As the tumultuous, exciting, dramatic, and competitive mosaic of human relations, emotions, and individual psychologies comes to an overall happy end, I feel that really, it is not the presents that matter. It is the exchange, the gathering, the game. Maybe, what we should focus on as we try to make this annual celebration meaningful again is presence instead of presents. This seems to be much closer to the origin of christmas than greedy consumerist pepper spray battles. After all, Christ’s most appreciated gift to people is his continued presence. I’m sure you’ve heard fervent preachers say “Jesus cares!” or “Jesus loves you!” A caring, loving presence in our life is something we all long for, something we all need, and something we all can give, regardless of our circumstances. 
Darkness descends, a fire is lit, and music is played. Ukuleles, drums, guitars, recorders. Voices: some musical but uneducated, some the exact opposite. Listening to these songs, equally familiar and unknown, a smile spreads across my face. We are doing something important here. Regardless of our skills, talents, and backgrounds, we are actively striving for harmony. We are born, we get sick, we grow old, we die. This is the part we cannot change. But as long as we are here, we can do out best. We can give and receive presence. Mele Kalikimaka. 


Between Halloween and Thanksgiving

November 2011 was a month of sickness, work, and grief. Not bad, but sad. 
Right on time for Halloween I was struck down by a mighty virus. Falling under the category ‘communal funk’, a term we use in our community to describe the downside of sharing almost everything in our daily lives, it had been going around, hitting everybody at their weak spot - in my case thrusting its pointed blade straight at my left tonsil, an easy target, which, along with the other one should have been pulled out when I was a child suffering from tonsillitis every other month. 
This particular funk had an especially powerful beat to it. It knocked me out so thoroughly, I could not even muster up the strength to leave my bed and drag myself to the desk, never mind sit and work. Once again it opened my eyes to how vulnerable we are. No health, no wealth. I did, however, have something to cheer me up: I was filled with confidence that whatever had snuck into my system would retreat within a matter of days or, at worst, weeks. 
As my dear friend and mentor P. was on my mind, it struck me how my situation stood in sharp contrast to his. Suffering from something that according to the specialists would not heal, but take him rather rapidly to his grave, he was preparing for his departure. Having just met him in this condition, seen him laugh and make jokes, teach and practice aikido, sit and drink whiskey with his friends, gave my admiration for him another boost. 
I have always loved costumes and jumped at any opportunity to wear one. I once imposed a super hero theme on a Bath aikido party. Nobody else shared my excitement, which resulted in me being the only one wearing a costume. P. had come as himself, however, beating the heroism of my Lara Croft hands down, in spite of authentic gun holsters and pellet guns. 
This year I was forced to leave my love of costumes in the darkest corner of my wardrobe and forgo the spooky costume craze of Halloween. Instead, the face of life unmasked presented itself to me, grimacing like a reflection in a trick mirror, silently screaming out the blunt reality of being mortal and living in a circle of friends and loved ones who share this trait with us like the creeping shadow of communal funk, bouncing and bobbing in the sun, while we drag our cursed bodies along in the heat. 
This resulted in a truly spooky Halloween. My fever-shaken body fell into an uneasy sleep, heat threatening to coagulate proteins, shivers hammering in the pending reality of eternal cold like a jackhammer, mind maneuvering through the stormy strait between this world and that, between sleep and wakefulness, dream and reality. Then suddenly, into an expanse of calm, a vision unfolded. 
At first, I could barely make out the silhouettes of the two figures sitting opposite each other at the small table. But as I drew closer, the scene brightened like an oil lamp had been lit between them, and before I knew it I could see them as clearly as if I was right there with them, first hovering, then clinging on to the grapevine. 
At one side of the table sat my friend P., bent over slightly, clasping a glass filled almost half way with golden liquid, turning it left and right, left and right. Opposite him sat a tall skeleton wearing an ornate late 17th century tricorn on his head, sporting two perfect round eyeballs still attached to their sockets. Next to this grotesque pirate leaned a saber, which he swiftly picked up and swung about in a masterful circle, swishing past P.’s face, whizzing through his own spine at the neck, making his head jump up a foot before it landed crooked between his spine and collarbones. His eyeballs rolled around in their sockets, looking for help. His bony fingers picked up his head and re-attached it to his spine. 
He picked up his own glass of golden liquid, and raised it. ‘Tis the last day of autumn, my brother,’ he said with a voice worn down by liqueur and tobacco, then upgraded with the echo of eternal life. ‘The time has come to take stock and prepare for the cold winter months ahead. Come drink with me to that!’ He clanged his glass to P.’s and poured its contents through his jaws, from where they dropped straight down his rib cage. 
This captured P.’s attention. He had so far been watching the light play in his drink, dejected. Prepared for anything, but tired and unsure what to expect. Now he was following the drops of rum down his interlocutor’s vacant body, licking them with his eyes as the last trickle ran across his vertebrae. With refreshed curiosity, P. now lifted his own glass, raised it to the other, looking him deep in the eyeballs, and took the smallest sip. Testing and tasting it on his tongue, his teeth spread like pearls into a rare and precious smile. ‘Excellent.’ An explosive sound of monosyllabic laughter jumped from his throat, ringing bright and clear in the air, making the bones across the table vibrate loudly against chair and floor. 
In lieu of clearing its throat, the skeleton quietened its rattling and spoke up again. ‘I am not here to show you the sense-void emptiness of death. You are aware of it. You taste each sip of life with all your senses, you make each moment rich with deed, you exercise your flesh and work it through your spirit.’ ‘Spirit!’ P. chuckled quietly, and a mischievous look of love permeated his facial features. ‘I’ll drink that. I mean TO that!’ He clanged his glass on the pirate’s, looked him in the eyeballs, and relished another sip, joy and intentional indulgence spreading across his features. ‘YES, rub it in!’ The pirate retorted, crossing his arms in front of his rib cage, having poured down the contents of his own glass in one loveless sweep of futility. 
The warmth of the drink began to glow through P.’s cheeks, and he straightened his posture facing the pirate. ‘I like your eyeballs. Do I get to keep mine too?’ A gust of held back indignation swept against the pirate’s eyeballs from inside his bones and pushed the left one out, where it bobbed up and down, hanging on to a thin nerve like a spider on a desperate thread. He took the tip of a handkerchief tied around his left wrist and carefully rubbed the fallen eyeball clean. He popped it back into its socket like a lost contact lens and looked at P. with fresh brightness. ‘If you take good care of them, you might be lucky.’ P. blew a puff of amusement through his nostrils. 
The skeleton continued: ‘Now as I mentioned, ‘tis time to prepare for the cold winter months ahead.’ ‘I am a diligent wood chopper.’ P. replied and took another good look at the two eyeballs across the table. The pirate’s jaws opened into a garish display of shrill laughter. Two ribs clattered to the ground, and his spine cracked as he bent back and forth in frivolous spasms of senseless amusement. P. picked up a rib that had fallen on his side and clicked it into place as the skeleton was repairing his other parts. ‘You take good care of yourself!’ P. smiled and took another sip of rum. ‘Such a handsome body.’ The pirate’s jaw dropped onto the table, while P. laughed, indulging in his own joke without holding back. ‘Sorry,’ he finally managed to say. ‘I just had to see your jaw drop once. Go ahead. Speak.’
‘Thank you,’ said the pirate, cracking his jaw back into place. ‘Now, my diligent wood chopper friend, this is your lucky day.’ ‘One of them, no doubt,’ P. replied, gaining more and more color as the liquid in his glass receded. ‘What gives me the pleasure?’ ‘Tis Halloween, the time of year when the physical and the supernatural worlds are closest, and magical things can happen with ease.’ ‘Such as our meeting?’ ‘Such as our meeting.’ the pirate confirmed, now obviously talking business. 
‘So it is magical, not fated?’ asked P. The pirate clarified. ‘An opportunity, but not an imposition.’ ‘What a charming host,’ P.’s eyebrows rose. He grinned. ‘Let’s drink to that.’ He held up his glass and spotted irritation in the eyeballs across the table. ‘I’m sorry,’ he forced down his chuckle with another sip. 
The skeleton spoke up. ‘You have been feeling the tug of your final sentence on your days, and then the tug of your days on your final sentence. Your life is shrinking yet expanding.’ ‘I am my own event horizon.’ P. completed the pirate’s accurate description of his recent experience. 
‘You are an expert at Japanese martial arts,’ said the skeleton. P. raised his eyebrows, wondering what he was getting at. ‘You know the Japanese custom of seppuku?’ ‘A gruesome custom, yes.’ ‘Gruesome like your condition. But with an inbuilt clause of mercy. A helper who cuts off the disemboweled’s head to end his pain and shorten his throes.’ ‘O mercy.’ ‘You’ve seen my skill with the saber.’ He offered. ‘I felt it swish past my forehead,’ P. confirmed. The pirate elaborated. ‘I have come on this propitious day to tell you, you may call me if you need me, and I shall assist you.’ The room darkened as face and skull approached each other across the table, illuminated eerily from below by the waning flame of the oil lamp. ‘Who do I call?’ P. asked, and the pirate answered: ‘Saber!’
The light went out, leaving the room in complete darkness, and I suddenly felt cold. I woke up, cold sweat covering my body, teeth clattering like rattling bones. Chilled to the bone, my fever was receding. 
A few days later I got a message from P. ‘My life is getting shorter, but at the same time stretching. Maybe I am my own event horizon. One of these days I will have to invent my own version of seppuku. But not quite yet.’
My brave friend and mentor P. passed away between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I was drowning in an exceptional flood of finance and alien cult translations when I got the news, struggling to keep my focus, digressing again and again into conjuring up memories, mopping up tears, talking and writing to my dear friend. Work - like life: a blessing and a curse. 
Addicted to the shape I take on, the shape my words draw when I address him, I still write to him. No new feedback can contribute to the way I keep shaping myself. I can hope for no more custom-tailored advice. No more shared laughter or practical jokes played on each other. My task from now on is to cherish his life, his teachings, and his friendship, including the grief his passing has left; to keep putting his advice into practice, and encourage myself and others to emulate the essence of his teachings. He summed it up in a nutshell after informing me he had been diagnosed with cancer:
‘There are good things about this business. I have discovered that all I want to do is carry on doing what I am doing. This is good because it means that I always have been doing exactly what I should have been doing.’
In his native Bath, a host of friends, loved ones, and family saw him off with sparklers to Bob Dylan’s song ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ as he had requested. I was unable to attend, so on Thanksgiving day, I used the occasion to give thanks to him on our lava platform, introducing him to Pele, Goddess of the Volcano, lighting a little fire, and imagining all his new shapes and adventures. 
Six Limerix
I once met a man in Bath
He put me onto his path
With a left-handed punch,
An enlightening crunch,
And a thweep that that me on my arthe.* 
*note to the reader not to be read: = “a sweep that sat me on my arse” said without front teeth 
Our fighting got better and bolder
I knocked out his tooth with my shoulder
He had a new story
I basked in my glory
It made us both richer and golder. 
Our first shared passion was fighting
The next we discovered was writing -
Soon followed by cooking,
A theatre booking,
And then the odd werewolf sighting.
To capture his essence is tricky
Though it does stick around like a hickey
Compulsive mischief was part of his kiss
Compulsive charity beefed up its bliss,
His humour was limericky. 
He may pretend to be dead
But he’s alive in my head
And kicking in my actions,
And frolicking in my distractions,
With all that he did and said. 
That lightning-struck night I heard him howl,
Saw thunder clouds roll back and scowl,
And reveal a full moon
To a well known tune
I take it he’s out on the prowl.