Fencing in the Time of Covid

If you’re worried that a steamy tale of love and betrayal follows, fear not; the title of this piece is a nod to Gabriel García Márquez’ famous book, but has nothing to do with any of its subject matter save that both treat tragedy. We are seemingly inundated with a new disaster each month, but objectively many of our current woes are as old as (or older than) the nation. What’s worse, much of our current plight might have been avoided or better mitigated had there been any leadership nationally and had our populace a better grasp of science. We’re a young nation and act like it.

In light of these truly terrible problems—a pandemic and the 400-year-old evil of institutional racism are pretty terrible—it feels selfish, irresponsible, and bit gauche to discuss the challenges one obscure person running a fencing program faces. Were it just my own struggle, I wouldn’t bother, but most everyone with whom I am in contact, from my own students to other fencers and instructors world-wide, relates that the loss of fencing in their lives has exacerbated the more serious ills. I won’t pretend that what we do falls in the category of “essential labor,” because it doesn’t, but for many of us it is essential (small -e-) for one reason or another.

Fencing for most of us is more than physical exercise; it’s mental as well. This is true both in the sense of an intellectual problem and in terms of mental health. The combination of movement and decision making, of explosive large muscle activity with the fine motor skills required in particular techniques, all serve to remove us from reality for a while. When we are in “flow,” as it’s often termed, the world melts away—we are present only in each second, no thought for the second before and barely one for what follows. In flow our mind or soul or whatever you want to call it relies on the hours of drill and just does what it needs to do. There is harmony of the body, of the mind, of the spirit, and all at the same time. In few places in our daily lives do we achieve that synthesis. It matters.

My students range in age from those not yet ten to those in their sixties, each with the weight of life appropriate to their stage of life and experience, and while fencing is fun for them, it’s more than that. It’s a break from the trials of school, the grind of work, or the challenges in their personal lives. It’s a form of rest, a chance to partake in an ancient rite, one shared by people all over the world, and, one practiced for centuries much as we practice it now. It’s time-travel. It’s time apart. It’s a safe, controlled, and dynamic way to let off steam and establish control over oneself in a world where so much feels out of control. It matters.

Like many instructors, I’m in limbo—I cannot meet students safely as yet, but I’m working on “out of the box” approaches to make that happen again. I’m scheduled to teach a summer camp for my local parks and rec, but have no idea how to introduce fencing to beginners from 6 to 10ft away. I don’t have many students, so the online sessions that colleagues of mine hold—which are excellent—make less sense for me. Most of my students are young, struggling with online school thanks to the pandemic, and at a stage where the deep dives into the material are less effective and definitely less fun. The adult students and attendees that remain are too few, and in the latter case are running groups of their own. Having taught college for over a decade I know the horror of an empty online meeting room, and where there is a lack of interest there is little cause for the work that goes into such a class. My students, colleagues, and I chat via IM, phone, and email, but it’s not the same. The interaction, the movement in real time, the decision process, all of that is absent. It is fencing abstracted, academic, which is part of the Art, but only a part. The Art is meant to be practiced. It matters.

The pandemic brought the momentum of my school and many other clubs to a halt. Just as our community was starting to find possible ways to reenter the sala, years (centuries really) of righteous anger, ignored by so many for so long, have exploded into city streets in response to so many racially motivated murders. The gravity of these two challenges, pandemic and the ongoing battle for civil rights and equality, overshadow—rightly—the plight of individual pursuits and businesses. This doesn’t mean I won’t be teaching as soon as I can, because I will, but it does mean that we face far more weighty issues at the moment. These issues matter. They matter more.

We must take care of ourselves at all times, but especially in times of crisis, and, we must be supportive of one another as well. If we’re able, we should continue to train, drill, read, and reflect, because we need to stay sharp, healthy, and in control of ourselves. Physical and mental fitness are vital. It’s crucial that we be able to muster all of our strength, that we be able to think clearly, that we be able to persevere, and thus best prepare ourselves for the trials ahead. They look to be many and serious, and just as in a duel where victory or defeat are in the hazard it will take all of our abilities, focus, and heart to emerge if not unscathed, then at least alive.

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