Spring – New Growth, New Beginning

The transitional seasons of Autumn and Spring are my favorite seasons. I’ve already mentioned how in October 2021 the changing leaves of Autumn reminded me of the transition I was about to undergo: namely, my test for Shodan (first degree black belt). In that same blog post (written a couple of months later) I related that I was enjoying “winter mode,” a time of active rest. These days the frenzy of Spring blooms parallels the growth I am discovering in my karate.

Trees change themselves in very deep ways before, during, and after winter. I’ve spent the last few months in process too. I’ve been working on my upper body by using weights and I’m continuing to condition the rest of myself. Of course I’ve tweaked my practice/workout times as I’ve done many times before. I wasn’t too happy with a few things I did during my test so I’m fixing them. In addition I am learning two new kata (forms). But something deeper has changed. I feel more comfortable in seminars (still online for me). Learning new kata is getting easier although directional dyslexia still makes that process interesting. I’m starting to actively develop my kumite (sparring) during my practice time instead of just throwing myself into a “fight” and hoping for the best. From one of my new kata I’m learning about movements that, yes, serve a purpose, but they are also transitions to something else. I’m hoping that will help my sparring. The explosion of flowers on the trees has made me more keenly aware aware of the beginning of this new phase of my karate journey.

Many people both in and outside of the martial arts world think that if one has earned a black belt one is a master and “knows karate.” In other words, learning stops when you tie on that pretty new belt. Balderdash. Shodan, or first degree black belt, literally means “first level.” A friend once told me his sensei said “black belt” means your bags are packed with everything you need for your own journey. Both before and after my test I’ve been told pretty much the same thing by my own sensei, with the addition that I’m now responsible for the pace and direction of my further development as a karateka (one who studies karate). Many of the yudansha (“black belts”) in our organization have made it clear that if I need help with something or want to know more about something all I have to do is ask.

Being able to ask for and receive help is vital. Yes, I am now called “sensei” (teacher) and that means I have all the responsibilities that go along with that. Let me make this clear – “teacher” implies a relationship. I don’t think of “sensei” as a title so much as an expression of my duty. I am responsible for teaching what I know and for the development of any students who are under my care. That could be for a few minutes of a class, an entire hour, or for all the classes during the course of a few weeks.

Due to various reasons the dojo I belong to has only four karateka and now isn’t the ideal time for us to seek expansion. Starting in mid May my sensei will need me to shoulder a good bit of teaching until sometime this coming Fall. I think the world of my two kohai (lower ranked students) and am honored that for a season I will have a significant impact on their development. I hope to see them each advance a rank or two in the coming months. Since we began to meet sometime in mid-July I’ve gotten to know these two students quite well and I’m looking forward to guiding them in their journeys. And who knows – maybe we’ll have a brand new beginner or two just to give me an additional challenge. Bring it. I know I can yell for help if I need advice, an additional instructor, a substitute instructor, or even a guest instructor.

Every once in awhile over the past few months it’s just been me and my sensei in class. I have come to treasure those times. Since early 2020 the focus was push, push, push for my Shodan test and I had an extra year of that. Now I’m seeing the “flowers” of all that effort. There are some really fun things that my sensei can teach me now that I’m at this stage of development. I’m not talking about secret magic woo-woo stuff that only “black belts” get to learn. It’s just that some things are easier for more advanced belts to learn and that’s where I’m at now. Of course there are things I don’t do perfectly and I have some areas that need work. But the ideas and the questions and the exploration of concepts are all coming more easily to me now. And I see that my sensei is enjoying teaching this brand new Shodan.

I hope some day to be in my sensei’s position. I hope some day I’ll see one of my students earn Shodan and beyond. My future students will be the fruit of the early springtime flowers that I’m seeing in myself now.

In Spite of X / Because of X

A few weeks ago I visited “X” in order to reflect on everything that had happened since the last time I had seen X. OK, ok, I didn’t do all that much reflecting. I grumbled and grouched. I even yelled, “I succeeded in spite of everything ‘X’ threw at me!”

Eventually I grew quiet but my heart was still burning with hurt and anger. I went away from X.

Your own “X” could be anything – material or immaterial. X could be an event or a series of events. X could be a person or people who stood in your way. X could be a broken down building with a splintery floor and no air conditioning. X could be an injury or other debilitating condition. X could be a combination of all of the above. X might not even exist anymore except in memory.

Before I go further, I acknowledge that if your “X” is a person or group of people your trauma might run so deep that you might consider this blog post to be “toxic positivity.” If that is the case I apologize and recommend you stop reading. Seriously – I am not qualified to address deep trauma and this blog post is only about stuff that is, at most, aggravating, frustrating, and maybe even stupid.

After visiting “X” I decided to visit “Y.” Y had played a role in my success and still contributes positively. I was hoping visiting Y would get my mind off X. As I “sat with” Y, I relived some very pleasant memories. Yet X still niggled at me. As I left Y, I realized X had given me an appreciation for something else – “Z,” if you will. Z is a good something else. Z has its flaws, yes, but without the experiences with X, I wouldn’t appreciate Z. I’d blow up Z’s flaws, making mountains out of molehills. Perhaps because X made me realize how good Z is, X indirectly contributed to my success.

A few days later I realized that X is a mirror that I can look into to see myself as I was then and as I am now. Was I perfect when X was part of my journey? No. Did I contribute to the negativity? Yes. Did I do the best I could in the face of X? Yes. I dare say I learned and grew because I appreciate “Z” all the more. It’s not pleasant to think about X, I wish X had never intruded on my journey. But X was there and it’s up to me to learn the lessons X had to teach me.

It’s difficult to be in the middle of an “X” and see any benefit. It’s quite likely the next time I encounter an “X” I will again contribute to whatever negativity is present. I’m only human and nobody likes it when their buttons are pushed. I seriously doubt I’ll see any benefit to the new X until maybe years after it’s done slapping me around. Or – maybe I’ll respond better. Who knows?

What I do know is that my success means more because I went through what X threw at me. The adage, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up” implies that the way isn’t easy, it will have obstacles, and one will want to give up. I don’t think that I ever wanted to give up because of X. But that’s me – maybe others would have at least been tempted to give up if they had faced my particular X.

I also know I do not wish to be an “X” to someone else’s karate journey. But I probably will. I might hit too hard while sparring. As a fledgling sensei I am afraid of mishandling situations, frustrating students, and setting the bar too high for someone’s rank. I’m pretty sure I’ll botch a few calls when I get to referee at tournaments, and I know I’ve missed points as a judge. I struggle to keep my ego in check, to not show off. I have been and will be an arrogant jerk and/or just plain stupid on occasion. “Grouchy” is often my middle name. There are so very many ways I could be a hindrance to someone else.

It’s a little reassuring to know that if I find myself being an “X” to a fellow karateka it’s an opportunity for both of us to learn and grow. I wish everything could be smooth sailing all the time, but I’m human. That doesn’t excuse any wrongdoing on my part, it’s just an acknowledgement that perfection is impossible. Fortunately, karate does teach us self discipline. More than that, we learn how to work through our own shortcomings, both mental and physical. We learn what it means to be our best selves.

Maybe time will soften the emotions whenever “X” enters my thoughts. I don’t think I’ll be visiting “X” again anytime soon – I feel those emotions have been released and have more or less run their course (at least for the time being). I can always remind myself of how much I appreciate “Z” because of “X,” and how appreciation of “Z” has contributed to the success of my journey thus far.

For further reading (I stumbled across these books very soon after visiting “X”):

Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee by daughter Shannon Lee

Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

How Does It Feel to be a “Black Belt?”

On hearing the news that I earned my Shodan (1st degree black belt) sometimes someone will ask me how it feels to be a “black belt.” Mostly this comes from friends who are not themselves martial artists. Sometimes a fellow karateka or other martial artist will ask. No matter who is asking this question they all have at least one reason and, at some level they want to show their interest in my experience. Maybe they’re making polite conversation and acknowledging my success. Perhaps it’s curiosity with a tiniest smidgen of envy. Some enjoy comparing their own experiences with mine. Sometimes it’s a kohai (a student who is lower in rank) who is anticipating their own future achievement. A few people challenge me to look deeper and really think about my feelings regarding this milestone.

Let me back up to 10/15/21, the day before the test. I drove out of state with my parents to get to the motel near the hombu dojo (headquarters for the karate organization I belong to). This was a rare treat due to the pandemic and we were very glad to have had our third round of vaccinations against COVID-19. We chose to drive through a rural area to bypass the traffic in a major city. All along the way I noticed the gorgeous fall colors. The sunlight through the autumn leaves was striking. The trees were in transition. Something in me resonated deeply with this. I felt like I was in transition too.

A couple of days after my successful test the trees started letting go of their leaves. I felt like I was letting go of some things too. I let go of the stress of training for a test that might be cancelled again. I had already been disappointed by the cancellation of the 2020 Dan-rank (“black belt”) testing. The uncertainty of whether or not the test would happen in 2021 was one of the first leaves to blow away. I also let go of some of the intensity in my personal practice time and restructured my workouts back to normal (versus training specifically for the test). I feel like just as the trees are preparing to rest, I am too.

That’s not to say I’ll goof off – I most definitely won’t. After the test I allowed myself two days of rest then I was back on the mats for the first class after my test. But it’s very restful to be in “winter mode.” I have time to learn more, to fix the things I need to fix, to take time to learn my new kata(s) (forms) well. This is now my journey, and right now my idea of making the most of this time is to tinker, to recalibrate, to adjust, to delve deeply into bunkai (application of forms), improve my kumite (sparring), and most of all to just enjoy this stage in my training. Now that I’m not training for the test I’m back in “learning mode” and it’s great.

Being in “learning mode” doesn’t mean I won’t be teaching! I have already covered for my sensei since earning my new rank. But that’s nothing new, really – I’ve been substitute teaching and assistant teaching for years. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have plenty of experience teaching karate. So what’s different now that I have a pretty black bit of cloth around my waist? Um, they call me, “Sensei,” (teacher) now, not “Senpai” (more senior rank). That’s pretty much it. Or is it? I admit I feel like I’ve come into my own and I like having the formal credential that acknowledges I know the material well enough to teach it.

There’s a full-length mirror in the locker room and for awhile my reflection with the beautiful new black belt startled me a bit. “Whoa – that’s Sensei Joelle!” I’d think to myself. I’m starting to get used to my reflection. It didn’t take me long to get used to being called, “Sensei Joelle.” I think perhaps my awareness of being in transition helped.

I told my sensei I was super excited to be able to learn and grow for awhile without a test looming around the corner. My sensei told me the soonest I can expect to test for Nidan (2nd degree black belt) is two years. I very nearly said a bad word. It absolutely does NOT feel to me like two years is enough to prepare for Nidan. To be honest I don’t think I would have done as well on my Shodan (1st degree black belt) test if the test had been held in 2020 as planned. I feel the extra time was very beneficial to me. So there is a silver lining to this infernal plague after all.

It all worked out. In spite of COVID-19 I earned that belt. Or maybe because of COVID-19 I earned that belt. Stay tuned for my next blog post, “In Spite of X / Because of X.”

The Menu

As the years have passed I’ve become quite a connoisseur of pain. I’ve learned to recognize what is serious and what is merely annoying. I can often predict how long it’ll take to go away. I have to admit I compare everything to natural childbirth, so I tend to soldier on more than I ought. Here’s a light-hearted look at the different sorts of pain martial artists can experience…

Welcome to the Pain-Fry Restaurant!

Signature Dishes

Ripping Burning Needles – $19.99
Sparks of fire zipping along your choice of muscle or tendon add zing to this meal. Add a side of Boom! – $5.00 extra

The Sting – $14.99
A zesty dish accompanied by swelling and bruising. Add blood – $2.00 extra

Tenderized Meat – $19.99
An ache which intensifies and diminishes with your movements. Definitely a palate pleaser!

The Bruisey Bluesy – $14.99
A steady ache with an occasional twinge. A varied and colorful dish.

Purple Knuckle Sandwich – $14.99
A sharp flash of pain to the fingers followed by swelling, colorful bruising, and bragging rights.

Muscle Cramp – $14.99
Agony and immobility at the same time. Not for the faint of heart. Add a side of Boom! – $5.00 extra

All You Can Eat Sore Muscles – $29.99
A firey meal to reward the hardworking soul.

Stupid Sore Muscles – $5.00 per muscle
For those who work too hard. Intense pain plus complete immobility for two days in the muscles of your choice.

Oh, Snap! – $14.99
A sharp pain accompanied by a snap with an achy chaser. Not that hungry? See our value menu.

Pop Goes the Joint – $29.99
An intense flash of pain with popping and your limb at a grotesque angle. Half the fun is when our waitstaff pops it back into place for you.

The Intercostal – $29.99
A searing pain with a long lasting ache that really sticks to your ribs and makes coughing, laughing, and sneezing an adventure.

Shin Smasher – $19.99 (serves 2)
Recommended for those who are new to this cuisine. Misery loves company.

$9.99 Value Menu

Boom! – An embarrassing fall immediately followed by a surprise percussive treat in a random part of your body.

The Stitch – Pain for no good reason in either side or shoulder. A classic staple.

Pins and Needles – not too spicy, just right for those who don’t exercise much.

Oh, Snap Lite! – Your choice of finger or toe.

More Betterer V – I’m “There” Now…

In January 2016 I created a series of blog posts called “More Betterer” in response to a friend’s challenge to think deeper about who I will be when I am a Shodan (first degree black belt).

On October 16, 2021 I passed my test for Shodan. Yesterday at the time I’m writing this.

Dan-rank testing (1st degree and beyond) is held yearly in October. I was supposed to test in October 2020. That didn’t happen due to COVID-19. Yes, I admit I was bitter from time to time. OK, well, to be honest… I was quite often bitter. But sometime after July 2021 when I was able to be in class again in my dojo I started to realize that the extra year was very beneficial. My performance at my Shodan test confirmed this. Talk about a silver lining! Another nice bonus was that friends and family who would not be able to be there in person were able to watch online. I never foresaw that, and I loved it that they were “there” to root for me.

So. Now I’m Shodan. Did I predict what it would be like accurately?

More Betterer Part I – Introduction

There really aren’t any predictions here. I now have a better idea now of what it takes to run a dojo in different settings: in recreation centers, as a club, and as a business. Of the three, the business model scares me the most. In the last couple of years I’ve learned that leasing space is expensive and you’re locked in for five years. Often the contract says the rent will increase each year. Tuition from teaching children can cover the expenses, but as for myself… I cannot teach children because I am immuno-compromised. So I learned that if I some day start my own dojo the business model probably won’t work for me unless I have at least two other yudansha (“black belts”) in with me.

More Betterer Part II – The Nitty Gritty

Just some short, random comments on this blog post…

I’m very grateful to my online friend not only for being the inspiration behind the “More Betterer” series but also for his continued support throughout my journey. I am honored he took the time to watch my test online.

I have a more clear memory of the black belt oath now that I’ve signed it, but… Memory will fade. I need to ask for a copy so that I can read it from time to time.

I’ve changed my main dojo since 2016 (I’m still within the same organization) so I won’t be helping at the two dojo(s) (schools) I mentioned in the article. I will be doing some substitute teaching at my current dojo – heck, I already have done that from time to time before and after we were closed for COVID-19. I love teaching – in fact, that was a big part of my bitterness when the dojo(s) were closed down and I couldn’t test for Shodan and gain that credential that would grant me the official designation of sensei (“teacher”).

And yes, I anticipate dealing with “stuff” that I mentioned in my article.

More Betterer Part III – Mental

Yes, the “inner demons” are still there. Imposter syndrome hasn’t been much of a problem in the last couple of weeks because my Sensei and others have done a great job of building me up. You know who you are – thank you!!! But I’m sure imposter syndrome will rear its ugly head again sometime. I am better at dealing with all the inner demons I listed in the blog post. I think I have grown bigger and I have learned more about dealing with those dark emotions. They will never go away and there’s no “woo woo” magic about being a yudansha (“black belt”) that will make them go away. It’s what I do about it that counts.

More Betterer Part IV – Physical

Just some random comments…

I still watch those who outrank me but sometime since I wrote this blog post I learned to also watch those who are my peers and those who are lower in rank. My kohai (those who are lower in rank) have their gifts, and I know I have my challenges. For instance a new white belt might ask better questions than I could ever come up with. It’s my job now to bring out my kohais’ gifts and help them to shine.

Physical goals…

1) Lose ten more pounds – I don’t know what I weighed when I wrote this article. I do know that I did a lot of stress-eating in 2020 due to the COVID-19 situation. I did a lot of damage to myself. My knees felt it and I couldn’t fit into one of my gi(s) (uniforms). I was back to my pre-karate weight. When I got word that testing in 2021 might be a possibility I immediately went on a diet. I lost 20 pounds and reached my target weight a month before my test. I stopped dieting so that my body’s resources wouldn’t be strained. I’d like to lose ten more pounds, but if my half-century-old body won’t allow it, I’m at a good place.

2) Be able to do at least 30 pushups – Sometime in the summer of 2020 I tried. I made excellent progress and then tore something in my shoulder while doing push ups. It wasn’t a bad tear, I was still able to judiciously participate in online classes, but it put me off push ups forever. Once my shoulder healed I started doing alternative exercises. Months later I took up bo which has done wonders for my upper body.

3) Nice deep stances (if deep is called for) – I’ve been complimented on my stances lately. That said, in the years since I wrote this article I’ve had to revise my notions about stances. Form is good but not when one sacrifices fluid, balanced movement and smooth transitions. Like anything else in karate there’s a balance. I will continue to improve my stances.

4) Better endurance – well, I’m still working on that one. I’ve learned more about breathing, about not “powering through” with muscle, about kime (when to tighten up), about breathing, and about when to just move. Honestly that’s what got me though my test. I hate jogging. Hate, hate, hate it. Jogging could’ve been a good thing for me to do, but in the end? I think the time I spent just working, working, working on kata taught me more about how to get the most out of my body.

And yes, I’ve had to be very clever about my training. I’ve had to be even more clever than I originally predicted. I trained in my basement, I bought a webcam, I learned how to use videoconferencing technology. For the past year a friend has allowed me to teach an early-morning fitness class in his space and he doesn’t mind one bit if I practice karate after.

In this blog post I was looking at seven years from 2016 “give or take a year or two.” That would’ve put me at 2022-2024. Obviously I was off by two years. It took me five more years – four because originally I was supposed to test in 2020 but couldn’t due to this infernal plague.

Being a little bit better today than I was yesterday is still my goal… Or will be. I took today off to do some shopping and make the three hour drive back home. I’m taking tomorrow off too. But the next day I’ll be back in the dojo. Back to work!

And yes, there are things I was completely clueless about back in 2016, and there are still things I’m completely clueless about. There are still more depths I haven’t even begun to sound. Shodan literally means “first level.” I have taken the first step on a bigger journey.

This is the true beginning of my journey.