I was in the basement with my five-year old son the other day, looking for something among the boxes, furniture, and other assorted cruft that accumulates when you have a home. Basements become a repository of discarded or forgotten items.

Items once important, now replaced or upgraded. The dresser you had through college. The box your computer came in. Old clothes for charity you never get around to donating.

My son is helping me look through the boxes. That is, he’s looking for something to play with while I actually look for the thing I need.

Eventually he gets to a corner of the basement and says, “Daddy, daddy! Look what I found!” Behind my old heavy bag, worn and held together with duct tape, is a pile of bokken (木剣) – wooden practice swords. “I found pirate swords!”

Bokken are regularly used for practice in martial arts such as kendo, aikido and kenjutsu. 

“Can I pick one up Daddy?” I smile and nod. He looks over the bokken and eventually finds one he likes. He picks it up and says “Ohh! It’s heavy!”

Pulling the bokken from the corner he steps into an open space in the basement. I stop looking through the boxes and sit down to watch him.

He awkwardly swings it around a few times, making sounds with his mouth. He is a pirate, or a ninja, or a Jedi. After a couple minutes, he gets tired.

“Were these your swords Daddy?”

“Yes they were. A long time ago.”

“I think they might be too big for me right now. Why don’t you use it Daddy?”

The one he picked out was actually my primary practice bokken. I haven’t actually held it in a long time. At least five years. Probably more. He hands it to me.

The proper manner in which to hold it is instinctual. My palms and fingers align themselves just so. I feel every notch and crevice in the wood, put there through thousands of hours of practice.

Holding the bokken brings back the smell of the dojo.

Practicing with a friend behind his apartment building.

Missing a block and being hit by my partner’s bokken in my cracked ribs during a black belt test.

Standing in my backyard late at night, committing to practicing 500 hundred cuts a night for weeks on end.

To my son it is just a heavy piece of wood. But in my hand, it weighs so much more than just the wood.

It holds the weight of thousands of hours of memories. Sweat and pain and frustration. Determination and competition and achievement.

The bokken represents time devoted to practice, time spent away from friends, time devoted to the study of things from the past.

It represents a philosophy, a way of thought. In my hands, the bokken represents a different life.

But of course, it’s really just a piece of wood. It actually weighs the same in my son’s hand as it does in mine.

The Weight Is Not In Your Hand But In Your Mind

It’s not just old things which bring back memories. Other people, certain places, or behaviors can bring back dormant memories or behaviors.

Things you thought you had let go suddenly bubble back to the surface. Cast off items and discarded routines become familiar again – but should you let them?

That’s the question I think most people find themselves facing when confronting objects, places, or people from their past.

  • Do I need to start acting on that behavior again?
  • Do I need to start going back to that place?
  • Do I need to let that person back into my life?

For certain behaviors the answer is obvious.

If you used to be an alcoholic, you don’t start going to bars again.

If you had a horrible job, you don’t go work there again.

But what about positive behaviors, places, or people?

  • If you were once a writer but stopped, shouldn’t you start again?
  • If you enjoyed lifting weights, shouldn’t you start going to the gym again?
  • If there If you have a friend you were once close with, shouldn’t you reach out again?

Heraclitus, a famous Greek philosopher, once said:

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Perhaps you should reach back to old friends or places. But they won’t be the same and neither will you.

Sometimes things fade from our lives due to forces or circumstances outside of our control. A job takes you across the country. A car accident leaves you with a limp.

But often, things fading from our lives are things we cast aside, consciously or not. Priorities change.

I take the bokken outside and make a few practice cuts with it. My form still sharp, body tight, footwork precise.

Not as fluid as I would have been years ago, but still magnitudes better than even someone who picked it up and practiced for a year straight. I crossed the magical 10,000 hour line long ago.

And while the bokken represents an important development in my life, it’s no longer part of my life. It’s just another item collecting dust in my basement.

The bokken reminds me of what once was, but is no longer. A significant part of my life in making me who I am today – but no longer an active part of me.

The river has changed and so have I. As time goes by, I imagine the weight I feel when I hold the bokken will become lighter and lighter.

“Daddy Daddy! You’re really good with the pirate sword!”

“I’m okay at it.”

“Daddy? When I get bigger will you teach me how to use the pirate sword?”

“…sure thing buddy.”

Or maybe it will grow heavier.

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