Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Learning Place

I have a confession to make: this week marked the first class I've been to (at my learning school) in a few weeks. My absence had a little to do with crazy end-of-summer/back-to-school schedules - but it had more to do with me not really "feeling" class for a minute due to the level of comfort in the dojo as of late. Or, more specifically, the lack of it.

It seemed like a big block of classes before my respite was a blaze of chastizements and corrections. My kata stances - in every kata we did - were consistently either too wide or too narrow. My body allignment wasn't right. My movements were off and my self-defense and kata presentations lacked umph. When I tell you that nothing I did was right, I really mean that nothing I did was right. I even got gigged for not being as sharp after my achilles was all better as I was before the injury sidelined me. It made me wonder if there was anything that I was doing even close to right.

I'm not one who needs lots of phrase and back-patting to feel like I've accomplished something, but hearing "Nope, that's wrong!" all the bloody time is very emotionally draining. It got to the point I was scared to do anything at all because I knew the criticism - as constructively delivered as it was - would fly. Yeah, I know that sounds whiney as all get out, but it's how I felt, and it made me less than enthusiastic about the hour drive to class while eating dinner from my lap on the way there, only to deal with being barked at for two hours before driving another hour home. So I stayed home and worked kihon or kata or technique combos with the heavy bag in my garage.

But then it hit me: I was maintaining - perhaps even sharpening some of the tools in my toolbox - but I wasn't actually learning. And that's not a good thing.

So I made plans to get my body back to class, but I knew if I went back with my head in the same place as it was, frustration would result and I'd be just as uncomfortable as before. That discomfort was affecting my passion for my art - and Sensei told me long ago that if the heart wasn't right, my art wouldn't be either.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I made a pact with myself: I would REALLY try to see the criticism as the earnest attempt that it was to make me the best possible martial artist I could be. When I walked into the building Tuesday I was actually talking to myself, saying "You're going to take whatever is handed to you and use it as a stepping stone to help you get to where you want to be" over and over again and making it my mantra.

Almost soon as we began, I was slammed...err, corrected...while doing a kata I've known for about five years. Sensei went through it with me stance by stance and showed me exactly where my front stance was shorter than it needed to be and what the unbalance would net: ending at lest three feet off from where I needed to be. In my head, I was thinking "But that's where I've ALWAYS ended!" but I focused to try to receive what he was giving me - and I'll be darned! I actually ended where I started for the first time ever when doing the kata. Perhaps his 40 years of training trumps my meager eight after all - imagine that! He really is quite an amazing instructor, but I have to be open to that instruction to be truly teachable learn the lesson.

What I had forgotten in my "He's picking on me!" pity party was that although training is about me, it really isn't at all. Learning to reduce the "you" (so that the underlying thing that is REALLY what it's about can take center stage) is difficult, but very necessary. It's very humbling, too.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I am so far from being the perfect karateka that it isn't even funny and I still have a great many lessons to learn. But I'm cool with that, because that there is always, always something new to learn is the very reason I love karate as much as I do. I'm growing, which is important, I think. But maybe growing down, like the rice stalk that bends low to the ground as approaches maturity, is just as important as growing up. There are no quick fixes here - but that's what I signed up for :-)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In the Name of Realism

For my 23th birthday, my mom bought me a pair of diamond studs. She probably couldn't have given them to me at a more appropriate time in my life either, as I was dealing with a new career that was starting to stall and I'd just ended things with my first, real, long-term boyfriend. Suffice to say that with all that and the fact that I was 150 miles from home, I was feeling less than celebratory when my mom called to wish me a happy birthday that January evening.

"Did you open your gift?" she'd asked, referring to the little box she'd sent me back to my new "home" town with after I visited my old one for Christmas. Stuffed in a bag I hadn't even unpacked yet, she made me open it while we were chatting. My "thank you" must have sounded a bit uninspired, I imagine (I thought they were rhinestones).

"They're real, you know," she told me. I couldn't believe that my mom, a homemaker (or "domestic engineer" as she called it) from a tiny town in the middle of North Nowhere had actually spend so much on such an extravagant gift for me - which is exactly what I said.

"Why?" she asked, completely baffled. "Don't you think you're worth it?" I know there was a very pregnant pause as I thought of how to answer. On that day, I didn't think I was - and it made me cry like a baby.

Since that day all those years ago, I've worn the studs almost every day - whether rocking my work attire, lycra bike tights and a tee-shirt or dressing it up for special occasions (which is easier than you think as I have two holes in each ear. And don't worry - I do clean my studs regularly!) - because, channeling a product slogan I still hear from time to time, I am worth it, but that's another story :-).

My mom passed away 20 years ago, so those studs are, of course, very special to me because they were one of the last things she gave me. I've worn them to every post-colligate track meet I ever competed in, every road race I've ever run and to every trip to the gym I've made in the last two decades. I noticed yesterday - as I was looking for a particular photograph from my son's baby book to send him (after I scanned it) for his birthday - that I even wore them the day he was born! And yes, I wear them to karate class. Never had an issue with them in my sparring gear or anything like that, either. The few times I have taken them off for class (when grappling or working choke escapes for instance), I've been really, REALLY worried that they were going to get lost or left behind somehow, which made it kinda hard to concentrate on practical technique applications.

Some folks train where there are strict dojo "no jewelry" rules. Most of my training partners are smart enough to remove their watches, big rings, necklaces and dangly earrings when we step onto the mat, but wedding rings and small studs have always been allowed where I've trained. Always.

Lately, training partner Ed had been on a tear about the wearing of jewelry at the Salvation Army where we teach. He's become quite insistant about it, too, saying he and I should come to the dojo jewelry-free to "be the example" for the students. Now I'm all for setting the standard, but I'm not sure how I feel about this new "no jewelry" rule - although it has less to do with my studs than you think. (No, really!)

Think about it for a minute - if the crap ever really goes down and I'm not exiting the shower, on the treadmill or in the dojo, I'm probably going to be wearing a watch, a bangle bracelet, a necklace and a belt because I put all of those things on everyday when I get dressed. I don't think any adversary will allow me a few moments to remove my hoops and watch before he or she attacks, right? So, maybe it isn't that horrible a thing to know how to move around with all that stuff on. I'm just sayin'...

But I've said the same thing about shoes and pencil skirts - "girl clothes" if you will - as well. I want to know how to throw a mae geri with a Timberland boot and a heavy parka on just in case a situation has to be handled as I'm trudging to my car in the snow (I do live in a place where that could actually happen as our winter wonderland season lasts from November through March; heck, we've even had snow storms in April). Why should jewelry be any different?

Japanese culture and etiquitte aside, our feet are shoeless and arms/necks unadorned on the mat to keep from hurting our dojo mates and instructors, although keeping from hurting ourselves is part of it, too. But if the three broken and one dislocated toe I've managed to hobble away on in the past few years is any indication, being barefoot can be just as bad, I think.

Trust and believe, I'm not going to class in a big medalion or gargantuan hoops - just like I wouldn't fall in with a pair of Stilettos or a mini-skirt on. But there has to be a happy medium somewhere as far as realism in training goes, right?

Right?