SHIFTING WEIGHT: Forty Years on the Dojo Floor

SHIFTING WEIGHT: Forty Years on the Dojo Floor

by Lisken Van Pelt Dus


I haven’t often written of this thing inhabiting my body, its claws and feathers, its dragon breath pacing the circuit of my spine. It caught me when I was seventeen, though it had been stalking me since long before that. Each time it had neared, my mother had draped herself between us, and I never even got a good look at it. But when I moved far away, it sank its teeth into me and took up residence. My mother never said, really, what she objected to. She didn’t need to. A girl shouldn’t fight, a girl should hold herself, a girl shouldn’t flap her wings.

No, said the creature. What a girl should do is learn to defend herself.

The irony of my mother’s protection is that she was always more combative than I. She stormed, I tiptoed. She flared, I fetched her slippers.

I didn’t really think I needed to defend myself, but at seventeen I was learning my body, and this thing was in it. It lit bruises on my forearms, thickened my shinbones. In my mouth, Japanese rolled like the river stones I tried to lift in jars, nigiri game, thumbs straining. I bore down.

At the end of class, I kneeled intently, learned the length of seconds as I counted breaths. Inhale…shi-go-roku. Exhale… roku. Maintain mokuso – thoughts silent. Sit right in seiza – the proper way, the just way. Just as a girl should.


What am I leaving out? I may narrate no more than fragments. It’s hard to know. Memory is a language of which I understand only a few phrases.

I’ve thought about omission a lot. It’s been crucial to my training, learning to reduce and simplify. After years of learning movements, the training becomes about leaving movement out, the most effective technique the most efficient one. It’s true for poetry, too, my other art, the search for the fewest words, the right words.

But efficient is whatever works, and of course sometimes this is circuitous. One might even say deceitful. Evade. Redirect.


In the early days, the goal was to be impenetrable. Ten-shin – an evasive step – sounded like tension. Back then, I gripped the proper posture like a coin in my hand, staked myself rigid. My teachers were men: Frank, John, Jim, and Tony. I worked hard, learned to withstand punches, to hold my ground.

Sanchin, sanchin, sanchin. Kanshiwa, kanshiwa, kanshiwa. Kanshu, kanshu, kanshu. Then seichin. Then seisan. I made black belt.

More speed, more power. The creature whispered taunts. More speed, more power. It didn’t come easily. I made myself spar, struck the makiwara.

In truth, all my targets have been small as a pebble, a grain of sand, and large as the beaches I’ve practiced on. Small as the half-moons of my steps, large as the full moons in the sky.


Incrementally, a change. My power gathered over oak, pine, concrete; my bare feet learned to sink. My weight has dropped, and, though it may seem paradoxical, this has allowed me to learn to move. To weigh used to mean to shift, or to lift, as in weighing anchor. Out there in the sea, icebergs wait, floes in balance. Each year. Yesterday. Tomorrow. They move when they move.

I’m becoming too old to startle easily, halfway through my life, or sixty-forty, or seventy-thirty. Forty years on the dojo floor.

It’s better not to move until the attacker is fully committed and cannot change directions. In this way, you can avoid impact by no longer being there. This is ten-shin, and it can’t be executed if you’re afraid. You have to let danger approach. You have to wait.

I released the tension, let the anchor go. I softened, weight shifted, flow grounded. For years now I have loosened. I’ve begun to breathe, easily, without counting.

I remember how fast this thing in me first leapt. I have learned to ride it, to let it move around and around. I have learned to let. Power flows to the tips of my fingers, and out.


The verb to let carries the history of my training. Its earliest meanings were to hinder, to stand in the way of: mother-thrum, should-shadow.

Then to withhold oneself, to desist, to omit.

Cross the ocean: in Japanese, to let someone is saseru. Also to make someone. A girl should.

Cross another: the French synonym for let – laisser – derives from Latin laxus, loose. So: I let. First then, then now.

Do I conceal or reveal myself? Peripheral vision is central: I am here, I am not here. I move with the target, hip up, hip down. I am feather, I am fire.

At the last second, wait.

Lisken Van Pelt Dus teaches languages, writing, and martial arts in western Massachusetts. Her poetry can be found in a variety of print and online journals and anthologies, as well as in her book, What We’re Made Of (Cherry Grove, 2016). She has been training in martial arts since moving to the US from England in 1980, and is ranked Kyoshi Hachidan in Okinawan Uechi-ryu Karate-do and Yondan in Ryukyu Kobodo Hozon Shinko Kai.