Volume 1 Number 2
By Edward Clark
It's morning's damp-chill time in San Francisco's North
Beach as I head down Columbus Avenue for breakfast and tea, and am stopped
by a scene that melds two seemingly divergent worlds into one. On ground
level, space staked out on the wet grass in Washington Square, are dozens
of Chinese-Americans, nearly all older women, practicing Taiji as they
do each morning.
Old-world energy replaces frenetic modern buzz, which
is what draws me and many others here. It's enough, for the moment, to be
on the edge of this collective practice, and even though I'm just an observer,
somehow I end up pulled closer to a balanced center point simply by being
here. Whether this floating Taiji energy is real or imagined doesn't seem
to matter much. Dualism moves to the background, if only for a moment.
Leaving solid earth behind, my sight line moves further
up a vertical plane to something just across the street from the park that
couldn't be less Chinese: St. Peter and St. Paul's Catholic Church, as appropriate
to this originally Italian neighborhood as Taiji is to Chinatown. Two weeks
before this visit, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio's funeral was held here,
just blocks from where he grew up. DiMaggio, whom I never actually saw play
baseball, looms larger to me as I've edged into middle age. In some ethereal
way, his haunting presence joins me more and more during my morning Taiji
These words might seem a bit silly from someone who has
spent decades in this linear, Western world of ours, and whose M.O., frankly,
has been to live in his head as a way to avoid the fear of where the integration
of body, spirit, and unconscious would lead. This push-pull, of yin and
yang, I suppose, is why I feel so drawn to various Chinese and other Asian
practices and philosophies, not to mention the need to fill in holes left
by abandoning the rigid religion imposed on me in my youth. And why I so
respect those with a more finely honed body intelligence than I have, whether
of these graceful and calm Taiji practitioners, or Joe DiMaggio.
The more I think of Joe DiMaggio, the more I see Taiji
movements in how he related to his artful craft of baseball. His movements
were long, flowing, fluid, full of grace, not short and choppy like those
of other players whose names have not been so etched into our culture's
consciousness. The way he swung the bat in a full sweeping motion, or lengthened
all of his joints and limbs to effortlessly run down a long fly and sail
it to home plate in one movement, seems to mirror the grace of these Taiji
practitioners in Washington Square this cool and damp morning.
Equally important, DiMaggio's emotions were always in
check -- externally at least -- so he gave the image of flowing with the
game, even when chance moved against him, whether it was the baseball itself
or an arbitrary call from an umpire. This persona, perhaps exaggerated for
our benefit, of approaching this balanced center point is one key reason,
I think, why he was able to set his 56-game hitting streak -- statistically
speaking, the record least likely to be broken in all sport. Concerning
himself with the detail of the mundane, not the spectacular, Joe DiMaggio
ended up creating the spectacular.
There's yet another important connection for me between
Taiji and baseball. The collection of practitioners in the park connect
not only to themselves but to each other, and to the others of us in the
park, including me and the homeless people still asleep on park benches.
The Taiji practitioners work as a unified team. Baseball, too, requires
this level of connection. To win requires a team spirit and energy, one
that cannot be bought with the employ of highly paid stars, but is often
created out of a unified, synergistic team of lesser overall talent.
This holds for Taiji practitioners, who, when practicing
in relationship to each other and outdoors in nature, even in such a contrived
space as a city park, achieve a balance, richness, connection, even human
victory, not achievable practicing alone within four walls.
DiMaggio represents still something else for me, a small
crevice leading to openness and possibility. My formative years were spent
being pummeled by all kinds of rigid ideas, religious and otherwise, yet
an exception was made for baseball. In my family, the law of obeying the
Sabbath, along with many other rules, was not a subject for discussion,
ever. Yet so much respect did my father have for baseball that when he picked
me up after a Little League game, he allowed me to finish, even though the
sun had gone down signalling the start of the Sabbath, and nothing was ever
said. Our secret, our bond. So there was even flexibility, thanks to baseball,
Ironically, Joe DiMaggio was the one thing my father
and I never fought about. And when he said the name, it was always the full
name, Joe DiMaggio, spoken in the most reverential tones, as in, "Joe
DiMaggio could throw a perfect strike from the center field wall in Yankee
Stadium." Something in the way that it was said, in a moment of calm
and respect, disengaged my ego; it was not even thinkable to challenge him
and argue about it.
This beginning at openness, of letting the mind and the
ego drop even for a moment, or the marvel of the actions of a great athlete,
or of being on the periphery of the Taiji practitioners in Washington Square,
all these combine to create this small wedge that opens me to Taiji and
other practices that continue to guide my life. Maybe doing Taiji isn't
the sharp contrast to my background that I imagined; rather, it is all a
continuous flow of life's silk. All it takes is one small opening.
Edward Clark is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.
Copyright © 2000-2004 by Taijiquan Journal.
No portion of this article may be reproduced in print, electronic
or other media without permission.