The end of an exciting week and I'm celebrating by sitting here with a cat by my side, wondering how long my foot is going to keep hurting and thinking about what to say. Should I tell you about the conversation I had this afternoon with one of my colleagues about what it is that makes fencing "physical chess" or should I share the reflection I had yesterday, driving to fencing practice and listening to a recording of Kirtan as sung by the swamis of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers? It was a beautiful day here in Chicago today, warm and sunny with only a little bit of wind, but it's cooling down this evening and looks like it's going to rain. My husband spent the last three days at a meeting in NYC and by accident the DVD of the movie that I was thinking about watching this evening is with him, still in his laptop. This would be an excellent time to write, but I am still so tired from my adventures in Atlanta, it's hard to think about anything coherently. And yet, it is not an unpleasant feeling.

My thought on the way to practice last night? "These are some of the best days of my life. I have my health and am able to compete. My son is still living at home and will be for another five years. My husband and I have been married now for almost fifteen years. We have built a home and careers together; our work is flourishing and our home life is comfortable and joyous. It really doesn't get any better than this." Is this a happy thought or a sad one? For, after all, this too--this joy and comfort and productivity and health--will pass, not because we will want to change, but because change will come, no matter what we do. Our son will grow up and go away to college; I am missing the arguments with him already. We will grow older and, yes, one day, die. But for the moment, we are here in this life, blessed to be together, blessed to have friends like Badger and Sweet Warrior and Fencing Gypsy (you know who you are, ladies!), blessed to live in the neighborhood that we do and to do the work that we have.

It's difficult to write about how wonderful this feels without falling into sentimental mushiness, but perhaps what the world needs is a bit more mush. Why, my colleague wanted to know this afternoon, do I compete? Why the compulsion to put myself through what it takes to get on the strip and fence when the last thing one might think that I'd want to do, given my profession, is compete? I tried to explain what it feels like--the exhilaration of getting that touch, the pleasure at matching wits so physically with another person--but I'm not sure he really understood. It still seemed to him something alien, peculiar perhaps to fencing as a sport, although we both agreed that it was good to have something that spurred one on to physical activity without being solely about "getting in shape" (you know the saying, "I'm in shape; round is a shape"--that's what I'd be without fencing).

What I wanted to say, perhaps should have said, was how much fencing really is about the people you meet. It's not battle, but it's psychologically so much more raw than almost anything else one does, other than argue with one's spouse, it is impossible not to feel a bond with those who have been willing to risk their composure with you. There' s no pretending in fencing, if plenty of feints. What kind of shape psychologically, indeed spiritually, would I be in if I had not spent the last six years trying to learn to fence? For starters, I would never have found the courage to blog, nor would I have most of the friends that I do now. Nor would I have had to face up to my ambitions and pride in such a pure state. Nothing--and everything--is at stake for me when I fence. Nothing, because happily fencing is a sport, not a duel to the death; and everything, because it is myself at my most essential, body, spirit and mind. And therein lies its appeal, for when else do I get to engage so purely with another human being, matching not only muscles but wits, daring each other to become more than just bodies with thoughts, more than just minds with certain technical skills?

I'm not saying this well, but it's not only because I am tired. It's also the nature of the game, the mystery of why it is we get back on the strip, night after night, bout after bout, when to those off the strip what we are doing must look like more and more of the same. It is, but it isn't. And it is more than just an addiction to finding one's "zone". There is something about the adrenaline rush of having to move right now, in just the right time. There is the testosterone rush of dominating another human being (and the corresponding low when one loses). There is the pleasure of feeling one's animal self so perfectly (ideally, at least) in balance with one's calculating mind. But there is also the willingness of the other person to act as one's opponent, which is why we salute. I can only fence as well as my opponent challenges me to; she can only fence as well as I push her to do so. A great bout is a creation of both fencers, each striving to fence as well as she possibly can. Idealistic--and mushy--I know. But it's true.

So how is fencing "physical chess"? I used to think that fencers said this to make what we do sound more intellectual, so as to insist that fencing was more than just a physical sport. Which is true, but it's more subtle than that. I didn't understand until I tried last winter to learn to play chess (highly recommended, anything by Bruce Pandolfini, but particularly his Pandolfini's Ultimate Guide to Chess [2003]), and I experienced what it felt like to lose over and over again to my iPod. You know the feeling, I'm sure, if you've ever played chess: when you are suddenly clear that no matter what you do, you cannot outmanoeuver your opponent, that you are trapped in the inexorable march towards checkmate. This is the exact same feeling one has after losing a fencing bout: utter psychological devastation, particularly if the bout has been especially close. Okay, maybe not every bout, but the ones that one thought one could win and somehow simply couldn't. And the feeling when one wins? Exactly the opposite: relief, euphoria, confidence and strength.

Why put myself through all of this when I could just relax after work and do (e.g.) more yoga? Because bliss is knowing that you have come through the struggles--the diapers and teething and tenure review and fights with colleagues and anxiety about where to live--everything, in fact, that makes living worthwhile--and have not quit, but persevered. Yes, there are struggles still to come, changes to endure, bouts to lose. But--mushy warning--it really is worth it for those moments when everything comes into focus and suddenly you realize that it is a miracle simply being alive. Thank God it's Friday because today is the day we are alive.

P.S. The cat left at paragraph two. Too much mushiness, I suppose.


  1. Beautiful. Really. Would that we thanked God with such eloquence (and sincerity) every day. I'm certain it would have a profound effect on how we choose to live.

  2. For me, this is the essence of prayer: praising God for the gift of being here, being alive, able to love God for all that He has given us.

  3. You can't lie to yourself in fencing, because your opponent mercilessly exposes the truth. There is nothing more valuable to personal development than an accurate mirror, immune to one's self-deception and evasions. Just don't ask it to flatter you :).

    And I think that is, in large part, the value of a good coach. Someone with insight into how your mind tries to wiggle and twist and build pretty stories about why or how you lost. And not let you get away with it...

    Remind me why coaches make so much less than psychiatrists? Proof, if any were needed, that the salary scale in this country is sadly askew.


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