Content

Every year the facility that hosts my “home” dojo shuts down for a week for maintenance and deep cleaning. That is a smart idea and there is always a visible difference throughout the facility when it re-opens. I don’t mind that I have to find an alternative to going to my Karate class. I simply visit a sister dojo. A couple of weeks ago while the host facility was shut down I visited a sister dojo.

Whenever I visit that dojo I always think back to how I almost started my first journey there, way back in late 1983. After six weeks in a little Parks & Rec Tang Soo Do program, I was hooked. I was completely dissatisfied with meeting only twice per week and with the long, 2-3 week breaks in between sessions. My father did some research that included the club that I now visit when I can. Ultimately he decided that a storefront dojo closer to our house and headed by a lady sensei (instructor) was a better fit for me. It gives me an odd feeling whenever I think that if I’d started at what is now my sister dojo and if I’d kept up with Karate all these years, by now I’d probably be senior to quite a few karateka in our organization.

But then I wouldn’t be having the adventures I’m having now. Worse, maybe I wouldn’t be studying Karate at all. Maybe I’d have sustained a more severe injury than any I’ve had so far. Or perhaps I’d be burned out from juggling too many responsibilities while raising babies and, later, helping my mother care for my grandparents. Of course it’s equally possible that I’d be sitting among the highest ranked karateka of our organization today. I don’t mourn for that lost possibility because I am content with my journey.

I hope the love I have for my art pervades this blog. I’m tickled pink that I, a slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron, who “should be” doing more passive things am enjoying this “strange little hobby of acquiring bruises for funsies” (as fellow blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it).  Every once in awhile I get a little sad when I think, “I don’t have enough decades left in my life to accomplish [fill in the blank] like so-and-so has.” Maybe so. But is that so important?

No. It isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I respect and treasure everyone who has achieved more in Karate than I have. I admire their accomplishments and I emulate my mentors and heroes as best I can. It’s just that there’s an immensely important thing that absolutely everyone, martial artist or not, can achieve starting right now. It’s called making the world a better place. And that, dear readers, is something I can do every single time I enter the dojo. I am touching lives. I am helping to bring about those “Aha!” moments that light up people’s faces. I help sweep the floor before class. I treat a child with respect, and that respect could be like water in the desert for that child’s life. Simple things, yes, but the results are magic.

That is the secret to my contentment. I still push myself to the top of my game. I still try for those tournament medals. I still train for my next belt test. I still do conditioning exercises early in the morning. I don’t mourn for the decades that were lost, the things that never happened, the honors I might never earn. I focus on the here and now. I can make the world a better place one small act of love at a time. It’s a fun benefit to training 🙂

Metablognition

Metacognition is the process of analyzing what goes on in one’s own mind. A few weeks ago I realized I was nearing the fourth anniversary of this blog, and the word “metablognition” popped into my head. Yep – blogging about one’s own blog. At the time, I was in a motel room journaling that day’s experience at Nationals, so I simply jotted the word down and let it percolate throughout the weeks that followed.  I knew by the time I reached my fourth “blogiversary” (yesterday, 9/6/18) I’d have a blog post.

Four years ago when I started this blog I’d been reading and commenting on three other blogs: “Karate by Jesse (The Karate Nerd),” Andrea Harkins’ “The Martial Arts Woman,” and “Happy Life Martial Arts” by Ando Mierzwa. I have to admit my comments were long and autobiographical. Accordingly, Andrea and Ando encouraged me to start my own blog (yes, go ahead and laugh, it is funny). I’d just finished reading an autobiography of a martial artist who had begun her journey as an adult. It was a good read, but it was clear the author was missing details from her early years. She was writing from the perspective of a seasoned yudansha (black belt). I wanted to chronicle my experiences right from the start, with an eye towards writing an autobiography later. I want to see how my perspective shifts over time.

It turns out my blog is a potpourri. I set a breakneck pace at first and explored a number of topics. Then I saw the wisdom of slowing down and settled into biweekly posting.  From time to time I’ve taken inspiration from other martial arts bloggers. At one time I was active in a martial arts forum and saw how people argued, so I wrote a little series on logical fallacies  based on a book I’d used to teach my children. Sometimes I tackle broader topics such as gender and inclusion. I’ve always kept the autobiographical theme running.

The trouble with my original idea of writing an autobiography is that some things are better left unsaid. I must respect the privacy of other people. I absolutely must not blog about things that karateka have told me in confidence! Also, I admit that sometimes my perspective is erroneously skewed towards the extreme end of negative. New to me this year is my responsibility as a judge to remain neutral about the athletes who enter the ring where I’m working. As a sensei-in-training I have to maintain good relationships with everyone from the host facility’s janitor to the highest-ranked yudansha of any organization, not just my own. In this blog, I can’t just spout off about stuff I don’t like. That said, every once in awhile I’ll play with fire and address the broader concepts that are related to whatever negative situation I’m in.  Sometimes I’m scared when I hit the “Schedule” button.

Putting myself “out there” is actually a little scary to me, believe it or not. For about three years I was really shy about sharing my blog with people I actually know in real life. Considering this blog has been up for four years now… Yeah, I was “somewhere between bed-wetting and a near-death experience” (as Rizzo in “Muppet Treasure Island” puts it). I don’t remember clearly, but I think very shortly after I joined Facebook someone quite highly placed in the Karate organization I belong to  discovered my blog. I do remember receiving a commendation and a jump in readership for my post about Gasshuku 2017. Ever since then I’ve been both more confident about my writing and more aware of my responsibilities.

So what’s the future of this blog? Honestly, I don’t think much will change. I’ve settled into a groove. I’ve slowed my initial pace, and have been comfortable with biweekly posts for quite some time now. That said, sometimes I hit writer’s block and slip a post in just under my deadline!  Judicious autobiography seems to be working so I’ll keep that up. I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to cover broader topics without repeating myself – I’m already starting to search my own blog to see if I’ve already written about something. I’d like to figure out how to get people to look to the right of the PC screen (or the bottom of the phone screen) and buy something I’ve created on Zazzle 🙂 But one thing I know – I won’t stop this blog (“A Beginner’s Journey”) if I earn Shodan (first degree black belt). I’m watching karateka make the transition from i-kyu (rank just before black) to Shodan, and I’ve talked to more seasoned yudansha, so I can say confidently that Shodan is not the end of the journey. It is the beginning.

Another Beginner

 

She shudders, grimaces, and hugs herself as her sister spars during a belt test.  She flinches at every punch and kick and does not understand her mother’s assurance that the fighting isn’t real, that most of the techniques are controlled.  She isn’t convinced that her sister is unharmed.

Due to unforeseen circumstances she is dragged to a tournament.  She buries herself in a book and tries to ignore what is going on around her.  But when a parent starts yelling, she feels compelled to look up.  She is frightened by the loud parent and anxious about the girls who are sparring.  She has to step away for a few minutes.  She eventually buries herself in her book again.

She grows and matures.  At the library she finds a book about superheroes.  She gets hooked.  Soon she memorizes which heroes belong to which publishers, she knows every power and every limitation.    Her tastes in movies change from “My Little Pony” to the PG-13 superhero movies (and she learns cuss words from Wolverine).  She learns there are times when one has to use force in order to protect oneself or others.  She learns there are things worth fighting for.

She wants to be a superhero.  Her mother tells her that being a martial artist will be the closest she’ll get to being a superhero.  She’s been listening to her mother’s karate stories at the dinner table.  Sometimes she imitates what she sees when her mother practices at home.

She watches her mother undergo a tough belt test.  Immediately after her mother’s belt test she puts on some fist pads and imitates what she saw.  Her tired, sweaty, hungry mother teaches her a little bit of Karate right then and there under the casual supervision of several yudansha (black belts).  She is warned that she will, from time to time, sustain minor injuries.  She is finally mature enough to realize that most of the time her mother comes home from class unharmed and injuries heal over time.

Her mother asks if she would like to begin Karate lessons.  She says yes.  She graduates from high school – a mix of special ed and mainstream classes.  As a graduation present her mother enrolls her in the new beginner class.  She has fun the first day of class.

This is my daughter.  She is autistic and she is brave.

Long-time readers of this blog will recall that I joined my first daughter after she started training.  My first daughter decided to stop training and I continued.  I never expected my second daughter, who used to be fearful at the merest hint of violence, to develop an interest in Karate.  In the opening paragraphs of this post you can see how autism has affected her perception of Karate.  You can also see that she grew past it.  I waited about a year to see if my daughter really was serious and if she really did understand what training involves.  I discussed my training injuries thoroughly with her and made sure she understood real life consequences versus  movie consequences.  After my ni-kyu test I had no more doubts:  she was ready to begin Karate.  She had a blast her first week.

I have to admit I do have some anxieties about my daughter’s autism getting in the way of her karate.  But according to her high school special-ed teacher, my daughter made some quantum leaps in her personal development.  We saw this at home too.  I have to trust that.  I also trust the sensei (instructor) who teaches the new beginner class.  Not only that, I trust Karate itself.

In general, autistic people crave structure in their activities and they appreciate specific guidelines for social interactions.  Karate has that.  Autistic people, like everyone else, want respect.  The dojo is a place where everyone is expected to treat everyone else with respect.  My daughter loves ceremony and ritual, so she’ll do well with that aspect of Karate.  In the dojo my daughter and I will be adults together – my role as mother will be diminished.  This will help us both, I’m sure.  I know that Karate aids personal growth on several different levels – and yes, autism has delayed my daughter’s development so she needs the boost that karate can give her.  It is likely she will thrive in Karate.  I know she’ll have good guidance from the very people who are helping me on my journey.

I didn’t expect this at all from the girl who used to shudder at violence.  I’m looking forward to seeing my beautiful, special daughter become Wonder Woman.  But even if she decides to stop training at the end of the three months that new beginners commit to, I will be proud of her for trying.

Wonder

“Wow, that was so awesome when those blue belts went like this,” a little white-belt (no rank) boy enthused, imitating the movement in the intermediate kata (form) that had most impressed him.

I chuckled, smiled, and agreed, “Yes, it was. Someday you’ll learn that kata too.”

Of course the blue belts (a low rank in our system) were not performing that movement at black belt level, not by a long shot. I’ve seen that kata performed by patient yudansha (black belts) as they were teaching me and others. It is definitely so awesome when those yudansha go like this… But in that moment when the little boy praised the other kids, I agreed wholeheartedly that it was awesome when those blue belts went like this… Of course there are several reasons for me to agree with the boy, but I really don’t want to go off on a tangent right now. Let’s look at the little boy who loved what he saw.

That little boy’s “Sense of Wonder” (a term coined by Rachel Carson) is fully operational. I’ve seen his sense of wonder kick in at other times too. I have to admit it’s flattering when he’s in awe of what this slightly-lumpy middle-aged matron can do. But it’s even more gratifying when he compels me to take a closer look at something, to see it through his eyes, and to feel my own heart swell with the joy of witnessing something amazing.

Karate, with its endless drills, its plethora of kata to be memorized, and its demands for more and more repetitions of each and every movement, would seem to be a murderer of the sense of wonder. However, Karate’s demands won’t kill anyone’s sense of wonder if the leaders in the dojo (school) are constantly cultivating their own sense of wonder, letting their joy spill out for everyone to see. Nurturing a sense of wonder is the job of everyone in the dojo, of course, but there’s an extra burden on the sensei(s) (instructors) and the senior students. Wonder is a powerful motivator.

The dojo should be a place where people are tuned in to the amazing things that they can do and to the amazing things that everyone around them can do (no matter what their rank). Yes, improving in the art of Karate takes a lot of repetition, gallons of sweat, and a smattering of pain and tears. Students will start to value the tough process of growth if those in leadership are constantly pointing out specific ways in which each person is improving, if the leaders exult in those “aha” moments, and, most importantly, if they are constantly feeding their students’ sense of wonder.

I’m sure there are many teachers – and not just martial arts teachers – who have loads of practical ideas for maintaining that curiosity, that thirst to learn, that constant recognition of everyday miracles. Some of their ideas might work for your dojo and for your teaching style, some may not. Research what’s out there. Bounce ideas off your peers. Experiment on your students (I’ve been a lab rat loads of times).

Most of all, cultivate your own sense of wonder. Watch videos of karateka who you admire. Think back on how far you yourself have come. Remember when your own sensei showed you something and you were amazed. Here’s a hint: you’re not limited to Karate when it comes to nurturing your own sense of wonder! Take the time to do these things and your students will reap the rewards.  We are awesome – all of us – from first-day beginner to seasoned master.

Surprise!

For the last ten months I’ve been cruising along, assuming I’d be testing maybe in October, maybe December, maybe even later.  In our organization, at this stage (brown belt) us students usually “marinate” for awhile.  Out of the blue, I found out my sensei(s) wanted me to test for 2nd kyu (“middle brown” in our system).

Surprise!

But that’s not the surprise I’ll be blogging about.

I reserved a motel room post haste. I go to Oregon a lot for Karate and had promised each of my family members a trip with me. It was my younger daughter’s turn. We spent three hours in the car, ate dinner at a favorite restaurant, relaxed in the motel room, then both of us fell into a deep, long sleep. We had a leisurely morning before I had to report for testing. I parked my daughter in one of the few remaining seats and handed her my camera. Alas, my daughter was too far away and too far back in the audience to get good videos of me. When I reviewed the video, I saw that the audience was not expecting to see what they saw during my sparring matches.

The moms and dads who were there to watch their kiddos test were surprised by what was expected of me and by my ability to meet the challenge. My age is pretty obvious – I have a bit of a tummy, a few silver hairs, and crow’s feet crinkle the skin near my eyes when I smile. I was also being very motherly towards a young adult who looks a lot like me. Yes, it’s reasonable for anyone to conclude I’m in my midlife.

All of us who were testing that day were put through our paces. Jiyu kumite (sparring) is always last. By that time I was quite literally dripping with sweat and I always get beet red during a workout. I was probably a rather alarming sight to those who don’t know that I usually look like that when I work out.

Here’s my observations of the audience’s reactions as seen on the video my daughter took while I was sparring…

There was some surprised chatter as I bowed in. Yes, us old ladies are expected to fight. Yes, I’m old enough to be a young auntie to my first opponent. Yes, my opponent was a yudansha (black belt). The match began and there were murmurs of appreciation for each flurry of fists and feet. My first opponent scored three times before I got my point.

After my opponent exited the ring, hesitant applause began.  The clapping ended abruptly and two or three people drawled astonished “Ohhh-s” when my second opponent stepped onto the mats.

People sat bolt upright. Up until this point, they’d seen their children spar only one opponent, then they were done.

My second opponent was another yudansha who is younger than I. She scored one point then I got my score. The audience wasn’t familiar with the referee’s calls, so they didn’t react.

My first opponent immediately came up for another round with me. The audience murmured, surprised at her return.

The guy sitting in front of my daughter, who was taking video, turned and looked right into the camera when my first opponent came up again. Clearly he was thinking, “What more do they expect of your mom?!?” He’d heard me reassure my special-needs daughter that the match would look scary but more than likely I’d be perfectly OK. He seemed to have his doubts.

First thing that happened in this third match was I went down – probably my opponent swept me but it’s more likely I tripped over my own feet. Oddly, there was not much reaction when I fell and came back up with a rather primal kiai (yell) – a roar of challenge. There was dead silence from the audience. The referee called a halt, I returned to my starting position, my opponent was awarded one point. When the match was resumed, someone in the audience gave an astonished “Ooooooo!” that rose from low to high in pitch, indicating that person couldn’t believe my tenacity and was amazed that I was continuing like nothing happened.

Throughout the rest of the match, only scattered murmuring could occasionally be heard – for the most part, silence reigned.   The match went on, interrupted from time to time by scores (hers), only one flag thrown (there need to be two flags for points to be awarded), and a foul (mine).  The guy sitting in front of my daughter shifted uncomfortably then leaned forward, watching intently.  The rest of the audience appeared to be holding its collective breath.

The audience was unfamiliar with the referee’s calls, so they didn’t applaud immediately when I finally scored a point. After I exchanged a bow with my opponent and backed out of the ring, the members of the audience realized it was over and enthusiastic applause broke out. A woman in the front row was particularly happy for me.

After everyone had sparred, the yudansha (black belts) went to the office to tally scores and confer with one another about the candidates. I put my gear back in my bag, swigged a quick drink of water, and gave my daughter instructions about video-ing the awarding of my new rank.

The guy sitting in front of my daughter asked me, “Why did they make you fight two black belts?” His eyes were open quite wide. I sensed genuine curiosity and just a little concern.

I grinned hugely, grabbed one end of my brown belt, held it up, and said, “This is why,” then explained. For the previous test, this test, and for all future tests I have fought with and will fight with three karateka in succession. Ideally these would be three women roughly my same rank and ability. But June is a busy month for a lot of people, so that day we had only two adult female fighters. It just so happened they outrank me. I told the man that I’m used to competing against yudansha (black belts) in tournaments and assured him that I don’t mind. “It’s all good,” I said. I gave him a huge smile, a thumbs-up, and a nod to emphasize my point, then turned away. Duty called: I had to help a more senior brown belt teach the white belts how to receive their certificates and new belts.

I’ve written about gender and Karate on this blog a few times (click here for posts). We’ve come a long way but there are still some interesting social views about lady martial artists – particularly about slightly-lumpy middle-aged matrons who enjoy “a strange little hobby of acquiring bruises for funsies” (as blogger Jackie Bradbury puts it). I have to wonder how the audience would have reacted had I been a middle-aged man sparring with other men. What if I were a young man sparring with other young men? Ah – trials that push one’s body and spirit are to be expected in tests for men, right?  But not for middle-aged ladies.  Clearly the audience was surprised by my gumption.  Why is it so surprising to them that I can spar three rounds with two yudansha and live to tell the tale?

The answer to that is complex. Part of the audience’s surprise lies in perceptions of what life as a middle-aged matron is “supposed to” look like. Hint – it doesn’t involve getting punched in the nose.  I’m also guessing the audience didn’t really understand what they were seeing. Sparring at my level and above looks a lot different than what one usually sees from lower-ranked children. It was fast and intense – the three of us ladies were ferocious. Even my daughter admitted she was a little scared – and she knows that most days I come home unharmed. It was obvious that my opponents didn’t cut me any breaks, and neither did the judges or referee.  One or two audience members might have been thinking that they didn’t know it was even possible for someone my age, gender, and (yes, I’m going there) body type to do what I did that day.

What I’m hoping is that some of those parents will see what is possible for themselves – Karate, yes, of course (I love adult beginner students), but to be quite honest I’d be over the moon if even one person thought to himself or herself, “Wow – maybe I shouldn’t let my fear get in the way of starting my own business,” or “Maybe I should finish that project and see where it leads me,” or even, “I should get my flute out of the closet and start playing again.” I hope they saw the power of the human spirit and I hope they realize their own power.

You’d be surprised at what you can do when you put your mind to it. Surprise yourself today.