Struggles and a Sense of Play

I realize that I haven’t been entirely honest. Also, that I’m being too preachy. Mainly, I haven’t been open about my struggles. Among others (Haruki Murakami, Sarah Selecky, Anne Lamott), one of my greatest influences is Ayelet Waldman. What I admire about Waldman is her candour. I wish I had even half her chutzpah. Writing honestly is easy; facing your parents at a family dinner after they’ve read one of your “tell-all” pieces is something else entirely.

So, in the spirit of Waldman and some of her (possible) literary predecessors like Colette and Anaïs Nin, here goes.

The reality is that I struggle every day. Each day, I have to talk myself into doing simple things. Partly this is because I’m often at home, with young children. Most of the time, I feel exhausted, with a mountain of housework to be done (I hate housework almost as much as I hate living in mess. In the interest of full disclosure, I have help, but anyone who’s ever run a household knows that housework is Sisyphean). I have financial business to attend to and children’s activities to organize. In this atmosphere, karate starts to seem like another item to be ticked off, one of many tasks keeping me from curling up on the couch with Real Simple, or watching another rerun of Angel (and when is Game of Thrones starting up again, anyway?).

Some of my other struggles include:

    • Leaving my happily playing children at home while I go to karate class
    • Leaving my whining children and a cranky husband (sorry, husband) at home while I go to karate class
    • Practicing karate at 9:15 am after school drop-off, following a white night (I’ve had many of these lately, mostly due to the Toulouse terrorist attacks. Like the victims of this attack, my children are three and six years old, and go to a Jewish school. You can imagine the sleeplessness these resemblances have prompted)

In other words, these days, I approach most tasks with a feeling akin to making my way through molasses.

But I also think that many of struggles have to do with my relationship to performance.

Lately, I’ve noticed that I’m atypically afraid of doing karate, of, for example, trying certain techniques.

The other day, the instructor prepared us to do flying side kicks. For years I had been studiously avoiding practicing flying side kicks, for the very simple reason that I suck at them. Until Saturday’s class.

The instructor brought out two large, blue mats. Two tall men were instructed to hold them while the rest of us kicked them (the mats, not the men).

“Line up,” said the instructor.

Great, I thought. I’m weak (I’m still recovering from that darn neck injury), I have to do flying side kicks, and I have to do them in front of everyone.

We lined up. My turn arrived. I ran, I leapt, I executed a terribly weak sidekick. The mat barely moved: it gave a weak knee kind of tremble, the type you get when you haven’t eaten lunch and for a split second your legs give out. I went back into the lineup.

Watching the other students, I noticed that the kids had the easiest time with these kicks. Of course, being two decades younger than me, they have flexibility working in their favour. And the young men, especially, have a kind of helpful gusto, a brash confidence. But I think that in addition to these attributes, they have something else. And that is, a closer relationship with playing. Those young girls and boys kicked the mats with joy. They approached the exercise with a sense of play, and not with a feeling of dread.

I kept kicking. My kicks improved slightly, but not much. I’ll keep you posted.

I think that it’s also helpful to approach poetry this way. When I read poetry now, I think of Emily Dickinson’s line, “My business is circumference”. It speaks of measurement and linearity, but also to something circular: doing something with intent but without trying to master it, to hem it in.

I want to approach karate this way, particularly difficult techniques such as rolling, flying side kicks, and reverse crescent kicks. With a kind of circling or, using another analogy, in a kind of darting, humming bird motion. In other words, with a sense of play.

So, in this spirit, I pledge: 1. To be more honest and 2. To play more, in karate and in these entries.


On occasion, I’ll include poetry entries. Here’s the first:

Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.


Sheng-yen (b. 1931)

On Friendship

I’ve written this entry in fits and starts. I’ve started writing about various topics, including mentoring and what it means to be a woman in the dojo. But I scratched out all these beginnings, because what I really want to talk about is friendship.

This week, a good friend of mine left her position as karate instructor. And, although she intends to continue training, the reality is that she will likely be absent for a while: in order to let me and a colleague of mine find our feet as instructors (we’re taking on her class), and also, I suspect, to find her own footing i.e. to discover what it’s like to train again as a student, rather than as a teacher.

We’ve known each other for almost twenty years. We started karate at around the same time. Then, possessed by a kind of youthful restlessness, I left the dojo. I left without telling anyone, even my sensei. Six years later, I returned. My friend, who was still in the dojo, told me that she’d been hurt by my departure. I don’t blame her.

While I was gone, she was promoted to black belt. When I came back, we started training again, together, both inside and outside the dojo. We came early to class to put in some extra practice. Both passionate about the outdoors, we always attended the dojo’s outdoor classes. We trained on our own on the local university’s campus. Because she was already more advanced than me, she would often lead, helping me polish my kata.

Two years ago, we started a routine. I would attend her weekly class. We would then both take the advanced karate class with another instructor. After, I would drive her home. In the car, we would talk about karate. We would tackle the subject of a difficult technique, or sing the praises of a particular kata. We would talk about writing, and the similarities we drew between our writing and karate practice. We would talk about children, and parenting.

The hour would be late. Because we’d trained for three hours, we’d be starving. We would talk about how hungry we were. She would mention the steak she was going to have for dinner. She would tell me about how she had joined with others in the purchase of a cow, and that they had divided up the meat: this was both cheap and, since they used all parts of the animal, environmentally responsible. I mention this fact because it shows something about her personality, and how she is a thoughtful person, and full of integrity.

It was dark outside. Often, it rained, and the rain would pitter patter on the car’s rooftop. Still, we talked.

Eventually, we would say goodbye. I would be reassured by the fact that I would see her the following week, and that our conversation would resume.

I will feel the absence of our talks. Although I’m certain that we’ll see each other outside the dojo, I’m going to miss the particular cast that karate class has lent to our friendship: the regularity of our meetings; the parsing over of kata. I’m especially going to miss that feeling you experience when you’ve been practicing karate for several hours: a sense of well being and of openness, both suited to good conversation. I will miss our Tuesday evenings, my friend.