Sabre a la Scoil Scairte [1]

I had big plans pre-Pandemic.The Hedge School

Several trips, one international, were in the works to teach, share ideas, build bridges, and learn. I had just added an introductory fencing class for adults at my local parks & rec. I was starting to make some progress on two exciting writing projects. And I was trying to find a way to start work toward obtaining certification as a moniteur d’escrime [2]. That all changed in March.

All the trips have been canceled. My P&R classes, which were two weeks in, abruptly stopped, and how the planned August summer camp will materialize remains uncertain. With no classes at the dance studio each Sunday (which closed for quarantine) money for a space lapsed and with it, insurance to cover that specific space. With quarantine I couldn’t teach individuals either, so the small income from lessons which helped fund us dried up too. When school moved online this spring (it likely will be in fall too) my first duty was to assist my children with the switch, and so time to work on certs, never mind affording it, were nixed too. It feels a bit like having a vehicle stall out, only slightly slower. At so slow a stall one also has time to take in the scenery, and it’s been… revealing.

In light of all these rapid changes, it’s probably understandable to wonder how all this will work out, and where one will be if and when it does. Our situation State-side wouldn’t be so dire had my nation been grown up enough to handle it properly. Being leaderless didn’t help, but if my town is any indication few people could hack three weeks let alone three months of quarantine. So, now in July, we have a rise in cases. Florida had a record 10,000 cases confirmed in a single day this past week and the pressure on hospitals in Texas, to name a second example, is so great that administrators won’t share numbers. People are having “Covid Parties” for fuck’s sake. In a place where some see wearing a mask as an attack on their personal liberty (I know, I know, I don’t understand it either) it’s likely that we will, as a nation, wrestle with the pandemic for a long time. No New Zealand experience for us.

Fencing in the Time of Covid, Revisited

Where does that leave fencers? While obviously not an essential part of the workforce, we’re affected too. Some groups with enough momentum have survived the hiatus pretty well. My friend Mike’s group has been sharing videos of solo training and meeting at normal practice times via google-meet since quarantine started. NWFC, a key Olympic school, has had video classes as well. Even smaller groups, like my friend Matthew’s, have met with success meeting online to discuss their topic (Simon de Frias). Patrick Bratton, who runs Sala della Spada in Carlisle, PA, has had a few outdoor practices, but wisely with montante/spadone instead of the more typical sabre, rapier, and spada. No one bouts with montante, so it’s perfect for enforcing social distance. He has made a lot of videos for his students as well.

With sufficient numbers or at least a highly engaged set of students these are good ways to keep people engaged, and what’s more, dive into material they might not look at normally. I’ve had the honor to sit in on some of these meetings and they’ve been great. In my case it made less sense to follow the same path. The students I teach individually are at different levels of development. I’ve assigned some “homework” for them, mostly footwork and drills against a mask or pell, but meeting in real-time is harder to manage with students of vastly different ages and responsibilities.

Some schools and clubs are talking about starting again, but it’s too early to return to “normal,” especially given what we’ve learned about confined spaces, proximity, and the importance of particulate in spreading the virus. There is some evidence to suggest that severity of illness may be linked to length of exposure, so to return to gyms even with face masks and proceed as we used to seems unwise.

Covid-19 answered much of the question for me—with no building, no funding, and sporadic interest there is no “return.” Instead, it’s back to the hedge, to teaching outside. The old hedge schools may be less illustrious, but they are at least venerable.

The Obstacle is the Way

There are a number of ways to look at this change. On the surface, if I’m being honest, it feels like failure. Another one. To have worked so hard to build a small, but viable program only to see it disappear so quickly hurts. All the doubts one has ever had about credibility, likeability, and interest come calling and more loudly than ever. For someone who has been through this before the disappointment can easily feed the narrative declaring that one’s lot in life is failure. Samuel Beckett’s admonition in re failure from “Worstward Ho!” notwithstanding, it sucks. This time, it actually cuts twice as deep, as part of building SdTS was, for lack of a better term, part of a healing process.

What follows is perhaps the most personal I’ve been in a public forum, and yes, it will circle back to fencing. I share it because it will, I hope, illustrate some important points about fencing, growth, and resilience.

Without going into detail, three years ago I was in the darkest period I’ve yet experienced—genetics and trauma are a good recipe for clinical depression, a condition I only officially addressed 14 years ago. Medication, therapy, a patient spouse all help, but I wasn’t sure what would happen or even if I would survive 2017. Some days I still don’t know. Suffice it to say that surviving personal calamities and wrestling with the cascade of consequences in the aftermath either makes or breaks us. I’m unsure what it will do to me down the road, but I made the choice three years ago to recast myself, lose some of the dross, and in the process I’m all the more certain that doing the right thing—despite the costs (and they’ve been considerable)—is the only way.

Part of my goal with SdTS was to do a job I had done before, only better. There were a number of challenges and obstacles, but as in my personal life the way forward seemed to be via those obstacles, and so, I pressed on. Obstacles are opportunities; they’re lessons we need to learn; we can try going around them, but they will appear again if we do.

Fencing and Self-Improvement

I typically refer to fencing, to martial arts as “The Art,” a borrowing from Fiore (fl. 1410), but I believe it is true too. All arts might offer what the Art does, but where many artistic pursuits may lead to insights over time, the crucible of combat can mean sudden breakthroughs hard to get to any other way. Having to test decisions and plans or change them in nanoseconds can be instructive. Not everyone sees it that way, but those who do will likely agree with this notion. It’s not just a modern sentiment either. Castiglione (d. 1529) not much later than Fiore also said the art of arms was the chief profession a gentleman should possess. I believe he meant this in a deeper sense than service to one’s prince.

There is much one can learn from the Art: dedication, persistence, resilience, generosity, patience, attentiveness, and decisiveness are just a few such examples. Acquiring and perfecting the skills necessary to fence is an inherently frustrating endeavor. If one is up for the challenge and navigating occasional frustration then fencing is a great way to exercise these traits and strengthen them. [3]

I’m also aware of the Zen filter I apply to western fencing—if nothing else stuck from a lifetime spent studying martial arts this did. I see martial arts, ANY martial art, as a potential vehicle to self-improvement. For its faults it’s a healthier approach than the over emphasis on winning, making a name for oneself, or (in those arenas where it happens) on profits from commercial endorsements. Fencing, since it brings so few rewards in the form of fame or cash, makes for a cut-throat endeavor. Back-stabbing is normal however gauche—this is true no matter what camp one belongs to (pardon the puns).

Fencing, A Solitary Pursuit

Returning to fencing was, as it has often been for me, an attempt to work on myself, on those areas I knew needed work. In 2017 I had greater worries than what would happen with fencing beyond my own need. I couldn’t proceed as I had before—mitigating circumstances made that unwise, so rather then return to the club I had been with or join another, I tried to create my own. To use a fitting analogy, a friend of mine in Baltimore, a former heroin addict, related that he was only able to get clean because he left his neighborhood, his job, most of his friends, and make a fresh start. I found myself in a similar situation (minus the substance abuse).

There were many outcomes from 2017 in re fencing and community, but chief of which is that I realized there is no community, least not as I had thought of it. My notion of it was, to put it bluntly, a naïve pie-eyed School House Rock fantasy. I focused on similarities, tried to ignore some differences, and realized in the aftermath of a personal crisis just how shallow a pool I had been in. No minnow in the drowning pool helps another. Each minnow is only concerned with itself—few even realize the water is seeping away. It was also clear that goldfish are not welcome, not that I knew I was a goldfish until things went south.

One thing that no one tells you when you’re trying to put your life back together, is that the more honestly you do it, the more sincere you are, and the healthier you become, you will lose people. Your isolation will increase. People don’t know what to do with honesty—this is especially true if that honesty puts any demand on them to consider their own role, choices, or point of view. In the issue that sparked the crisis in 2017 I decided to own my role and took responsibility for my part; I decided not to focus on others or their choices, only mine, and so threw no one under the proverbial bus. Few times have I seen an outwardly correct thing blow up in my face like that did. It ended up serving me well, in some ways, as one, it freed me up to pursue my own path, two, it forced me to face and deal with some of my shortcomings (which gets easier with practice), and three cushioned me when I once again honest with some friends last October and one of the four decided to make it about her somehow. People don’t like honesty; they don’t like having to consider that maybe they got it wrong. I have dwelled on these examples, and honesty, for a reason.

Honesty is the enemy of ego, and ego is the single-greatest stumbling block we face. Ego is the enemy within, the pernicious source for so many of our poor choices, and as a man in India expressed some 2,500 years ago, a major cause of our suffering. Life is suffering, so learning to manage it well is vital, and it’s not something we Americans do well. Too often we foist responsibility onto others, create convenient scapegoats, or ignore what is uncomfortable. A more honest approach is to embrace the discomfort, lean into it, use it as a stepping-stone to whatever is next. It doesn’t mean we ignore reality, but that we don’t let the reality beat us into submission. We suffer, it is our lot, but that doesn’t mean we should wallow in it. See it, note it, learn from it, and move on.

Am Dún Díthogail

It would be easy to quit. Between bad luck, less interest for what I teach, and less support received than given, quitting might even be wise. But this is where viewing the loss of a space and students another way is beneficial. If we’re honest about ourselves, about our goals, if we see our strengths as well as our limitations, then the people who see that and are supposed to be in our lives will remain. Even one such person is enough for a teacher.

After a lifetime of martial arts, of some thirty-three in fencing, what role I have in the Art is as a teacher. Injury and age mean my fighting days are over. Research, writing, and teaching I can do with the limitations on me at this stage. A teacher is first a student, and a good teacher remains a student. To teach is to learn, if we’re doing it right, because we can never know it all. Teaching forces us to learn more. We never conquer the Art; there is always more to learn, more to correct, to relearn. In the process, if we pay attention, if we’re honest, we learn about ourselves.

Fencing has been a source of joy for me, but it has also been one of the primary paths of self-examination and introspection. When I first started this painfully long piece, I devised a long one-to-one analogy between self-awareness and fencing, but decided it was too much. In short, though, there are lessons we can learn from the tactics we often employ. We learn to lie as fencers, to deceive; if we pay attention to that writ a little larger perhaps we appreciate those subtleties in ourselves a little better. Fooling an opponent to make the touch is part of fencing, but it’s generally a poor approach to other aspects of life, particularly in dealing with others. It’s no better deceiving ourselves.

Scoil Scairte

hedge-school1There is a simplicity, something natural about teaching out of doors. It’s not for everyone. Living in the Pacific Northwest means that one needs to be comfortable with months of rain and grey skies—two of my favorite things—but this means that by definition I’ll see fewer students. Rather than view that as another proof of failure, which it may very well be, I instead choose to see it as weeding out those who shouldn’t be working with me. [4]

This is, next to fencing as a path to growth, what I’ve learned: what I teach is not for everyone and that’s okay. Those who wish to take lessons with me will, and I will happily share all I know. That is my role as an instructor. This may mean that very few will see the value in my approach. That’s okay too.

I know it’s value, I live it every day, and while it has not made me a happier person, I think it is making me a kinder, more compassionate one, and that’s still a win.

 

NOTES

[1] Scoil Scairte, Irish, pron. skole skart, lit. thicket or covert school, usually translated “hedge school;” these began appearing in the 18th century when sanctions against Catholic schools were strictly enforced. Schoolmasters, some more legit than others, began teaching out of doors, often secretly, and even when they left the bothy for a building the name “hedge school” stuck.

 

[2] For more information, the USFCA site is one resource (https://www.usfca.org/); see also the works of Walter Green such as The Moniteur Handbook and his The Moniteur d’Escrime Historique Handbook, both available on his Lulu page (http://www.lulu.com/shop/search.ep?contributorId=1099801). My goal in looking at the initial, official ranking was two-fold; first, it would give me more tools as a teacher, and second might open up teaching opportunities that are closed to those outside the official organizations.

 

[3] There are dangers in studying the Art too. For everyone of us looking to the Art for growth, there are ten thickwits who pursue the Art for the wrong reasons, even evil reasons. The ridiculous Deus Vult types, the minority within Germanic heathendom who embrace right-wing ideas, and those out to victimize opponents to feel good about themselves stand out as some of the worst cases.

 

[4] Having worked hard since 2015 to build up the sabre community in the PNW, there are more options than there were. I’ve tried my best to support these colleagues, tout their programs, hang their shingles next to my own, and in every way possible be an ally instead of a rival. I can’t say I’ve convinced any of them that this is the case, but that doesn’t really matter. Students have more options, and since personality and approach matter so much, more instructors who know what they’re doing is good.

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