Things I Let Go Of & What Remains: My Martial Art

Tie a white-and-black ribbon round the... oh, never mind
Tie a white-and-black ribbon round the… oh, never mind

This is a tough one for me, the slipping away of something I genuinely loved: my martial art.

Perhaps it was an evolution. I outgrew it? I don’t know. What I do know is that when I think about the dojo, the friends I left behind, the joy of exertion, the sense of community – a roomful of karate-ka performing kata together at high intensity is a– I get an ache in my chest and my eyes tear up. I miss my friends. I miss the training. I miss the sense of home I felt when I walked in the dojo. The two hard minutes on the punching bag. The endless discussions about technique, how to generate the most power. Power. Studying a martial art certainly can give you a sense of power, particularly if you grew up as someone who was afraid of taking up too much space.

Karate gave me refuge at a troubled time in my life. My kids were youngsters then, six and eight, my husband was perpetually away from home, travelling for work (if you doubt this, all you need to do is look at my kids artwork from this time: pictures of ‘family’ included me, them and the cat. Their father was sorely absent). I hated my job, or at least I told myself, repeatedly, that I hated my job. I managed the house largely on my own. I felt deeply, deeply alone and very, very angry. The dominant emotion in our marriage, on my part at least, was contempt. You would never have known this to look at us, but the truth was, I came very close to single-handedly up-ending the whole thing.

And then there was karate. It started in 2004, after a series of coincidences. The idea came to me, a friend recommended a particularly strong dojo where his sister had studied, then my daughter saw Daphne pulling a few kung-fu moves in the Scooby Doo move, and that sealed it.

“Mom, I wanna take karate” she said, performing a few experimental chops (note: there is actually no ‘chopping’ in karate, at least not in the style I studied).

“Huh. Yeah. Let’s look into that.”  I made a few calls, then after a month or so of hesitation, we tried a class. I was sold immediately. It reminded me of interval training high school track. And there was the draw hierarchy of belts to scale; white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black. Approval-driven overachiever that I was, nothing appealed to me more at the time than yet another ladder of achievement to scale.

I was there for five years, and for most of that time, I training with seriousness and intensity four to six times a week at the dojo, and many more hours at home. I bought DVDs, books, a punching bag. I took private lessons. I trained, very, very hard. It was exactly what I needed. And the dojo brought me friendship: a diverse group of people from wildly varying walks of life all devoted to this one thing, this martial art. It was miraculous to me. It probably saved my marriage, not to mention my sanity.

In the last two years, though, my interest began to wane. For one thing, many classes were at the dinner hour or early evening, and so conflicted with the chauffeuring duties related to my daughters’ extra-curricular activities. On nights when the girls had no commitments, I just wanted to be home, having a home-cooked meal at the family dinner table with the ones I loved best.

And the philosophical underpinnings began to come loose, too. I began to see my striving and ‘achievement’ as just another prop to bear myself up with, a mirage, and so the belt-system, the hierarchy of karate began to have much less appeal. Then there were personality conflicts between my instructors and my fellow students. The usual things – ego, stubbornness, misunderstanding. Several of my favourite training partners left, and formed their own club, and I was left standing in the middle, not wanting to choose between them. So one December I left for a month-long holiday and I just never went back. I have toyed with the idea of returning off and on ever since, but the truth is, it is not a place that I can be anymore.

But can I give it up? Give it away? Let go? I’m not so sure.  The intensity of that time, the deep change it made in my life, the muscle memory bred of repetition – I’ve internalized those things. Martial art is a part of me. It is not the black belt – in my art, a black belt was just a symbol that you were a certified beginner, someone who had put in enough time and mastered the basics well enough to be taken seriously. I like to joke about it, but the truth is, I’m not sure I fight my way out of a wet paper bag. I haven’t tested this theory. I probably underestimate the value of what I was taught, of what I learned, of the skill and instinct that thousands of repetitions can engender. I am proud of that accomplishment, mostly because, for most of my life, I’ve been a big fat chicken. The black belt is a compensation, of sorts, for that.

And the white belt? I keep it, too.  It reminds me of the value of humility, the great opportunity presented by an open mind that hasn’t yet been ruined by too much information. To be a decent martial artist, you have to be able to go back to that place anyway, a place where you can admit that maybe, just maybe, you don’t know everything. Not about past masters. Not about technique. Not about strategy. The less we ‘know’, the better off we are.

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