A few days ago, I watched my young children complete their first karate lesson. It was “Buddy Day”. But their buddies were not there. It was 4:15 and the lesson was due to begin at 4:30. The fear in the air was palpable, not just from my family, but from all the children doing this activity for the first time. Our eyes moved back and forth from the clock, to the glass-walled Dojo, to the street. We all wanted their friends to arrive.
At 4:25 the Sensei came to welcome in the new class. Bravely, my kids joined the line. Several of the children waiting to enter were crying, some because their clothing didn’t look like karate clothing, and some simply because they were afraid. They were all, gently, encouraged to enter. Not one gave up.
As I watched them practice, I felt each block, each kick, each punch. Their shouts echoed deep in my belly. I felt enormous pride for their courage, and something else.
It was a remembrance of a time long ago.
In honor of all the children there that night who overcame their fears, I share with you an excerpt from my book, In Pursuit of Joy: Life Lessons from Exhilaration. The events I describe feel like they happened a life-time ago, and at the same time, feel like they happened just yesterday…
Karate Dojo (Melbourne, Australia, 2001)
The long white belt still holds a place of honor, even though hidden away in my bedside table. It is wrapped carefully around the white suit with red and black Japanese letters, holding the “spirit” of my training.
I had sped by the place a hundred times, racing along to my up-market gym. I had seen, almost subliminally, pictures of women kicking hard into bags held by dark looking men. Their eyes stared, focused and intense. I had been jarred several times by the grainy photos of daggers, knives and fighting sticks.
It was next door to a heavy metal music store, in an old desolate tunnel lodged under the train station. A feeling of poverty and drug abuse sat heavy in the air. It was far, far away from the beautiful posh health club I belonged to, where women touched up their makeup before exercising, and shifted their noses a little higher in the air when I laughed too loud, or sweated too much.
I had been trying and trying and trying there, trying to fit in, trying to become a personal trainer, trying to become accepted somewhere I was not. I had been trying without success for so long, that it had become habitual to expect a “maybe next month” answer, to feel this burn in the pit of my stomach, to push it back down. This health club had become my battle ground; the stakes my self-esteem.
This day, I stopped. I stared at the pictures of the women, fighting. I had fears that needed to be faced; I had things I needed to leave behind.
I went beyond the glass door, walking past a vast range of weapons, deep into a mildewy tunnel. No loud dance music, no carpet, no “Natasha” to eye me coldly while smiling daggers at me.
A man stood, alone behind a high counter. About him, this aura of power, this gentleness concealing obvious strength. He smiled a warm welcome at me, spoke softly, explained what I needed to know. His eyes held mine, and I was not afraid.
The first night, I am in my gym clothes. I suddenly notice I am the only one in gym clothes! The rest of these people are in white suits, tied by long belts, and they all seem to know each other. I am in the back row, quietly cringing, wondering what I am doing here. He begins to speak – I do not know it then – but it is Japanese. The room, quietly chaotic, quickly – instantly – assembles into orderly rows. Suddenly I do not fit in, do not know what to do. He shouts “Hajime!” and everyone leaps into a new stance. Their answering shout of “OSU” echoes through the hall, and makes my heart jump.
The words of my Sensei still echo in my ears, after months of training. “We do the best we can.” He would say this after introducing a move I had no hope of following, in the intermediate class. I carry these words with me now, as I move through my life.
We do the best we can. Sometimes the beautiful places hide daggers, and the places full of daggers hide joy. I never became good at karate. But I re-found the belief in myself that I had lost at the “health” club. I found a battle worth fighting, and I found battle partners who respected me, exactly where I stood.
I found that real power is gentle, real strength considerate and kind.
Now, when I kick hard into a person-size red pad, held by another participant, I put my strength into it, and feel this strength flow right back. I feel power flow through my hands when I punch hard, when I spar. And yet, I feel the underlying softness necessary with all such power.
Yes, this white belt holds the spirit of my training. Symbol of a power I had forgotten I had. I hold it, and am grateful.