Butterfly Among Broken Glass

sumi4They start at my forehead, streaming freely down my face to drop from the nose and chin of my hanging head in steady progression. Sweat flows out of every part of me, seeming to take with it my strength and resolve. I sit on a hard metal chair on the dusty white tile balcony of my room, my forearms on my knees, head slumped forward. I watch the steady stream of drops draining from my face as they fall to the balcony floor, each exploding in a splash of muddy water. Some drops leave their appointed routes to enter and sting my eyes. Clothes from the morning workout that have been rinsed in the sink are draped across a line above my head. Limp, they desperately attempt to dry in the humid air.

I know how they feel. My breath is slow and heavy, thank heavens breathing is automatic. I am exhausted. It is 1:00 pm on an August afternoon with a temperature of about 88 degrees fahrenheit. My second story balcony at the Shaolin Wushu Guan Hotel faces Song Shan (Song Mountain) and in the distance (off to the left) the large white statue of Da Mo looks down at me, no doubt in bemused distain, for my current state.

But, I can’t see that now, for that I would have to lift my head.

One hour from now, afternoon practice will begin and I cast about desperately for the inner drive to get up and do it again. It is day three of my six day training stop at Shaolin and each of my 46 years betray me. Six days is nothing when it comes to training here or anywhere. What am I doing here? I am too old for this. Why do I keep returning to train in China? Stay at home with your wife and children (whom I desperately miss each trip), my emotional mind says.

At this I slowly lift my head. Across from my balcony is a cracked brick wall, plastered with a white surface coat that long ago lost track of its color. The top of the wall is trimmed in rows of broken glass, a common inexpensive security measure in many countries.

The afternoon sun shines through the brown, green and clear shards that separate the back grounds of the hotel from the (apparently dangerous) corn field on the other side of the wall. I am unclear on the need for security here, little of value is in the hotel and it is easily entered via the front side of the building. Today, I am content to watch the sunlight play through the glass as I search for a little energy. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the brown bottle shards move. I scan the edge of the wall looking for the specific piece but all are still. Then again, that one moved.

As I focus in on the one piece, I can see it seems to get larger, then smaller as if opening and closing. Even in my tired state, my brain soon recognizes the butterfly that rests among the broken glass. When folded, it’s triangular wings are almost indistinguishable from the pointed shards of glass. I am struck by the martial metaphors of this juxtaposition. The butterfly, the very symbol of gentleness and beauty, is set hidden amongst the rough, jagged edges of an aggressive defense. The yin lies within the yang, almost unseen unless you yourself are still. There is strength in the hidden softness.

On a broader canvas, it represents my on-going love affair with this country. China is a developing nation, rough on the outside. At first glance one sees the poverty, pollution, dirt and disrepair. But if you look closely, this is only a rough surface on a culture and people of great beauty. Let go of the surface and experience what is actually here. These are the reasons I keep coming back. China and her martial arts should be experienced within the context that they evolved, within the culture that spawned them.

A smile spreads across my face and I draw a long steady breath. The butterfly catches a breeze, rising from between the glass shards to drift past my balcony. I trace its path with my eyes, my head rising and turning as it passes. As it drifts out of sight, I realize I am looking up at Song Shan, looking at the stature of Da Mo barely visible in the August haze. My head is up. I place my hands on my knees and stand up onto legs that groan slightly from their previous efforts.

It’s time for afternoon practice.

Steve Matchett

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