Blessings, Deep Thoughts, Teachable Moments

The One with All the Karate

I live in a subdivision called Whippoorwill Estates.  It’s a great neighborhood, full of young families. I love that I’m able to raise my son here. Nothing gives me greater joy than looking out my office window onto the front yard, watching my son and his friends play wiffle ball, their laughter echoing along the quiet streets of our neighborhood.

If I had one complaint about living in this neighborhood, it is thus: My neighbors are ridiculously obsessed with fitness. Obsessed. There’s a bit of a Stepford quality to the neighborhood, really. I’d be offering a conservative estimate if I said 90% of my neighbors belong to the RAC, our local gym. And it’s not at all unusual to see any number of them power walking through the neighborhood in their spandex shorts and tankini tops, iPods secured to their hips, Asics sneakers all shiny and white, staring intently ahead, exhaling loudly as they pound the pavement, pedometers counting each step taken, each calorie burned. Being the polite neighbor I am, I will always give a smile and a wave as I sit by the pool, hoisting whatever the frozen adult beverage of the day is. I offer a hearty greeting as they chug past me. I’m all, “Heeeeeeyyyyy, nice day for a run.” And they’re all, Run, Stare, Grunt, Repeat.

Actually, not much of that is true. First, I never rarely tip my elbow during the daylight hours. Second, my neighbors, while most are in pretty remarkable shape and do belong to the local gym, are not the asshats I just described. It makes for a far better anecdote, but really I have the coolest neighbors ever. And honestly? Living here has inspired me to loosen my grip on indolence and embrace movement once again.

The thing about me is this: I’m 39 years old. I have a 5-year-old son. Most of my exercise these days comes in the form of chasing my very active child around during the day. And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, I’ve become dissatisfied with my quasi-sedentary lifestyle. I really do need to get back into some kind of routine. Power-walking around my neighborhood probably not gonna happen though…

I wasn’t always so prone to inertia. I’ve always been quite active. I’ve played various sports, love to ride my bike, enjoy swimming and skating. But the one thing I truly developed a passion for was martial arts. I started studying martial arts when I was a kid. I was 11 when I walked into my first dojo. Over the next few years I went to a few different schools and learned a couple of different styles. I had several surgeries over the years that interrupted my training, but I always went back to it with renewed vigor and intensity.

I never really found the perfect place for me until 3 days after my 23rd birthday when I walked into South Shore Academy of Martial Arts (SSMA). By this time I had really become interested in the philosophy behind it all, but most of the instructors I’d had never really touched on that. Bob Beatrice was the owner of SSMA. I talked with him for a few minutes before I sat to observe a class. He explained that he taught an eclectic mix of arts, but the main style was Uechi Ryu, an Okinawan karate. I’d never heard of it, but as I sat to watch the class I fell in love with the balance between the fluidity and the rigidity. It was a perfect mix of yin and yang. I signed up that day. For the next several years I was at the dojo 5 or 6 days a week. I rose quickly through the ranks and I started teaching kids classes. I loved everything about it. I loved being more confident in my ability to at least protect myself against an attack, but it was more than that. I loved being in the gi (karate uniform). I loved being in bare feet (I’d never wear shoes if I could get away with it). I loved controlling my breathing and my movements. I loved kata, which were so graceful and fluid, but perfectly functional. And I loved sparring. Bob Beatrice was a hard ass. He never let me (or anyone else) get away with anything. He inspired a confidence in his students that defied explanation. If there was anything we claimed we couldn’t do, he’d kick our ass until we did it 50 times in a row.

Eventually I had to stop training with Bob. A career opportunity arose that took me out of state and I was no longer able to continue training at the place and with the person that had changed my life forever. I will always be thankful for what I learned during my time with Bob.

A (not so) brief (not so) non sequitur:

Friday night, hot and muggy in the training hall and there we were: just another workout, any typical sparring situation. We were all lined up according to belt order and the way it worked out, I had a little time to warm up. I could stretch and bounce around somewhat. I didn’t have too much trouble keeping clear of the lower belts’ feints and kicks. It felt good. There was a clean sort of breathlessness in enjoying the give and take of it, the searching, the easy routine of the blocking and the counter-attacks. I was pleasantly fatigued and confident by the time when, in the rotation, I found myself paired with Tony.

Tony had been my regular sparring partner for about 3 years. He and I worked well together and never cut one another slack. We had tested together and always challenged each other to bring our best to the table. It was never an easy workout with him, but it was always an honest one. I felt safe on the floor with him, confident that while we go full contact, he is skilled enough not to hurt me. He had that same confidence in me. A year after I started sparring with Tony, I had a sparring accident with my instructor that left me with a fracture over my left eye and a broken collar bone. It was a freak accident, and completely my fault for panicking in the middle of a routine move. If not for Tony, I may never have sparred again. I came back to class 2 days after it happened because I didn’t want to psych myself out of something I loved so much, but I had a much harder time putting the sparring gloves back on. Tony’s patience helped me over that particular hurdle.

We squared off and bowed to each other, touching gloves to signal our readiness to begin. My being the lower rank dictates the roles we play. I’m supposed to lead the attack against the higher rank. So I moved in, back straight, reaching out with exploratory little feints, hoping to draw him out to exposing himself to a real attack. I guess we were both feeling good that day. We moved faster and faster together, our arms flashing and smacking agreeably into each other in the air, our legs pistoning out into kicks we guided away from ourselves, torquing our torsos deeply, looking for a way to slip inside each other’s guards.

It’s a hell of a lot of fun, you know. Despite this – and I don’t care who you are – if you go long enough it really does tear into your endurance. Your movements become more deliberate as your wind erodes, and you have to put everything into your decisions. It’s the envelope again, it’s raising your limbs when you really don’t think you can anymore. It’s finding a reason to go on.

I don’t remember how it happened, but we finally ended up in a situation where I’d just finished trying something, some combination or other, and I was looking at him to see what he would do. Tony came at me then, sliding in low and smooth and utterly fast, faster than I knew how to handle, too fast for me to do anything other than watch him come at me with that side kick of his that slips out to the side and hooks in at the last moment. It did its thing, unwinding like a crafty tight curve ball and I watched it disappear beneath my guard into my side and I just bent over involuntarily, folding up like a piece of heavy machinery done with its job. I stood outside of myself and observed my body falling, and there was nothing I could do about it. I simply watched as the wind left my lungs with a surprised Unnnngggghhh and felt the floor slam into my knees as I hit the ground.

I have to say, it was interesting. The pain didn’t seep in until just after. And it never went away. It was a sharp pain, complaining in my ribs when I breathed or tried to rise from a reclining position.

I’m telling this story because there are things that slip in and surprise you, and later, you think about whether you really should have been taken by surprise. And sometimes you can even watch these things as they happen. Is it useful to remember them? Is it useful to recall the failure and the loss? Is there any point in turning those memories over in your mind? Is there something useful in reliving how you’ve been hurt, even (or especially) those times you did it to yourself?

The easy answers are either “yes” or “no.” But if I refer back to my personal philosophy of thesis and antithesis yielding a more realistic synthesis, I can see that the answer lies somewhere in between. It depends.

The irony of the timing of my previous journeys into the world of martial arts is not lost on me: Both times I started studying martial arts occurred after I had been physically attacked. At 11, when I walked into my first dojo, creepy neighbor guy had by then already stopped doing creepy things to me. At 23, when I first walked into the dojo that would spark my true passion for martial arts, I had already sustained a vicious sexual assault that would leave emotional scars far deeper than the physical ones I endured. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that had I timed things better I could have avoided the fate that awaited me regarding these experiences. No matter the training, at 8 years old it’s unlikely I could have defended myself against creepy neighbor guy and his unfortunate pedophilic tendencies. And even a decade later, I’m not sure all the training in the world could have defended me against the men who held me down in that squalid basement apartment that night.

No, I don’t think martial arts could have saved me from those things. But what studying and training has given me is a confidence in myself that I’m not sure I would otherwise have. It’s given me solid ground, peace, and contentment. Not to mention the ability to look my neighbors in the eye as they jog past my house on their way to whatever marathon they’re running this week. Heh.

I’ll try to pull this thing together with a timeline: I recently started training again. My husband and I, along with our son, Jack, joined American Cadre Karate several months ago, and once again this journey has changed my life for the better. Physically, of course, I have already begun to feel the effects. My wind and endurance have increased. I feel better physically than I have in a long time. I feel stronger, more confident, more focused. Shihan Scott and Sensei Marco train us hard, and I’m blessed to be able to share this passion with my husband, and especially with  my son.

The training is difficult…physically, to be sure, but also emotionally at times. There was a time when we first started training at American Cadre that one of the instructors came at me quickly and got me in a front choke hold, expecting I would use the technique he had just shown me to extricate myself. I had a moment of panic as a flashback hit me hard and I forgot for a moment where I was. The memory was sharp in my chest, rising, and when I thought about it there was no surprise in the thing at all. But I got through it, and I’m stronger for it. I know I’m safe in the dojo. And I’m so thankful that at this point in my life I’ve found teachers who once again inspire me and stir my passion for an art that I love so much.

Aaron and I tested for our yellow belts last week. Physically it was the most challenging test I’ve ever taken. But that just makes me more grateful. There’s no better feeling in the world than earning that belt, I mean really earning it. I thank Shihan and Sensei after every class. I thank them for pushing us, for challenging us, for teaching us. My gratitude runs deep.

And thanks to my newfound zeal for working out, I’m starting to sag less in all the right places. So I’m pretty thankful for that as well!

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