Hélio Gracie, 1913-2009.
I had tried to pass his guard about a dozen times over the last three and a half weeks, since he moved here from Brazil, and I was getting no further than I get with my professor. So I tried something new. I jumped off of a cliff. Literally: I rolled forward, my foot still in half guard, in a way that would free my foot. It almost did, my ankle sliding to his thighs, and I was doing a shoulder-stand, based with my hands on the mat and shoulder next to his head so I had good base, and my one leg hanging in the air, like an arm bent for work, the thing I could move to shake my other foot free. It worked, I was about to shake free, but he signaled for us to stop: I was ready to roll into a mirror. He let go and we laughed, me still upside down.
Think about it. There are no kata, none of the positions that are learned by rote and repeated. His great Jiu Jitsu invention was contextualizing all the technique. You learn the steps by dancing, not learn steps then start dancing. The shift may seem semantic until you realize that a hundred years of this way of learning has created a unique practice. It allows for a lifetime of learning, a forever deepening of experience. You are always hungry. The prospect is a little frightening. You are both always and never complete with it. But this kind of journey is familiar to me.
He has started to roll tougher with me. At first it was like my professor 18 months ago: very careful. But that quickly ended to simply creating a maze. This week he is shifting to fighting. He is a fearsome opponent when he looks at me like this. He is going to fight me. He is much taller than I, muscular, lean, fast, powerful, and much younger. And third degree black belt. He is no joke. Professor has looked at me like this only once. My new friend is transitioning to this as our normal mode, him knowing that this is what I need to take my dumb blue belt jiu jitsu to the next level. And I love playing like this. I'm not afraid of any opponent anymore.
He was the scrawny brother who, because of his health and frame, devised his own techniques so he could fight any opponent. He is like a bump in the evening. Like the bump in the P in "The Walrus was Paul", a sound that inspires decades of music, yet was made in passing.
After we are finished he always does something that secretly tickles me. I am usually on my back and he in my guard, and when the timer rings he turns his head and puts the side of his face to my stomach and chest. He stays there for a few seconds, touching longer than most Americans are used to, and then we stand up, embrace, and move on. It is tempting to try to capture the moment, but I am content to simply observe how the moment impacts future moments, and other people in the room. The other samurai have started hugging me tightly after a good roll now, too. We just started doing it, and I can't remember a time when we weren't this close.
Familiar to me. I did write that. Because it is always practiced in families. Families of all kinds. But families still, and nothing less. It causes one to continually be connected to the world conversation of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu not by watching but by participating, at all levels, until you are 95 and your body one day just gets pneumonia and that's it.