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Taiji, Me and Joe DiMaggio

Volume 1 Number 2
Summer 2000

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 practice.

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, to rigidity.

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.

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