You Really Don’t Have That Kind of Time

The other day I heard a rumour: an ex-student said that I should never have been asked to teach, and hinted that I didn’t deserve my black belt.

I should say, before going on, that the student in question was never my student. He was a student in my dojo years ago. He may or may not have observed my teaching; I have no idea.

A few years ago, a comment like this would have pained me. And it does. But not much. Since turning fourty (yup), criticism bothers me less than it used to. I worry less about what people think. Maybe it’s because of the proverbial onset of middle-age and its fallout. I can’t help but think that I’m probably halfway through my life (with any luck I’ll live as long as my French grandmother, who at the age of ninety-two continues to live at home, wear heels, and apply orange-red lipstick – but who knows?). Having a sister with special needs has always made me experience a higher-than-average sense of mortality, which has increased as I get older. A passage comes to mind, from one of Anne Lamott’s books, where she asks a friend if her butt looks big in a dress she’s trying on. Her friend (I can’t find the passage, but I seem to recall that she’s ill and that she wears a headscarf to hide the effects of chemotherapy) says: “Annie, you really don’t have that kind of time.”

Right.

I do, however, consider criticism, the way a scientist might consider lab results. In this case, I thought about why someone would make a comment like that. “Jealousy,” my friends told me. “Definitely jealousy.” Maybe. Maybe not.

I considered the merits of the statement. No question that, in our school’s taxonomy, I’m a junior black belt. I’ve been training for about fifteen years (split up into two segments, which were separated by six years) while others have been training for twenty-five. Ten years equals a huge number of practicing hours. There’s no question that I have a long way to go before attaining the kind of skill belonging to senior black belt students. I have a lot to learn. And, frankly, we all have a lot to learn. Plus there are some things that I’m just not good at. I’m terrible at rolling, for example (although recently I’ve been getting better as a result of practicing in the local ravine. Last week a dog thought my rolling was an invitation to play, and came to me wagging his tail, begging to join in).

My co-instructor rolls extremely well. He makes a kind of game out of it: As he walks, he sing-songs to himself: “lalala, I’m just walking along….” (I love this) And then he rolls. A beautiful move. It’s the kind of roll where you barely touch the ground and at the end of it you hop up as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I can’t do this kind of roll. As I said, I have a lot to learn.

Which brings me to a question I’ve pondered for a long time. Should a sensei promote someone based on their abilities or on their potential? My first sensei used to do both. Sometimes, I would watch someone’s promotion test, and I would think, “hunh, that person doesn’t seem ready to receive his blue belt (or purple, brown, or black belt).” A few weeks later, that person would demonstrate a kata and, low and behold, she looked like a blue belt (or purple, brown, or black belt). That sensei seemed to anticipate when a student was nearly ready to acquire the next belt level; it was uncanny. I love this approach. It slots nicely into my philosophy regarding how we should relate to others. For shouldn’t we always perceive people in terms of their best selves?

Which brings me to the question of whether I deserve my black belt. When I first received it, I didn’t think so. Now, after three additional years of practice, I do. And in any case, isn’t a black belt not a state but rather, an attitude—that is, of self-reflection and of dedication to self-improvement?

I consider myself a good teacher. I don’t always have perfect technique, but I’m pretty good at breaking things down for my students. Occasionally, I might even be funny. I like to think of the words of a parent in Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing Up Bébé, that, “overall, I’m good enough.”

And really, when it comes to taking criticism to heart, I just don’t have that kind of time.

***

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been blogging for a while. I’ve been finishing writing my book, a collection of short stories entitled This One Because of the Dead. Yesterday, I finished a substantive revision of my last story! Only some fine-tuning left. You can read some of these stories online:

Siblings

In the Afternoon

Luck

best, Laure

Board Breaking 101

The instructor stood in front of the class. “Today,” he said, “Only brown belts and black belts will break boards.”

The previous week, he had asked the class for a show of interest. My hand shot up: I had always wanted to break a board.

I had been offered the opportunity only once, several years ago. It had happened during a bad week. Two days before that class, an ice-climbing friend of mine had died in an avalanche in Alaska. I had attended the funeral the day before.

That first opportunity, I felt shaky. From the front of the room, the then-Sensei seemed to eye me, as if expecting me to give the board-breaking a try. Feeling that I didn’t have the necessary focus for the task, I chose not to. Afterward, when I mentioned my dilemma to Sensei’s wife, she agreed with my decision. “Times like this,” she said, “karate should take care of you.”

Now, another opportunity presented itself. The instructor greeted me personally at the entrance of the dojo and asked to speak with me. “I’m worried,” he said. “About your reverse punch. I’m not sure you’ll be able to break a board.”

My mouth opened.

“You should use a kick,” he said. “That will work better.”

I thanked him and turned away.

Oh, how I wanted to stomp. Vast were the realms of self-pity. Also: internal grumbling and sulking. How was it possible that my punch wasn’t good enough?

Could it be that the instructor was off the mark? I’m tiny, I thought to myself. One of my punches probably looks more like a hole puncher trying to poke through paper than the heavy-weight, gong-like slams of the gargantuan men. No doubt, the instructor is not able to envision the tremendous power of my awesome punch.

I wanted to cry.

There was something else. I’d often thought about board breaking, and I’d always thought I’d do it with a reverse punch. Since the ability to break boards depends, by and large, on what is happening in the student’s head, I wanted to break this board using the technique I’d always visualized. I didn’t want to imagine a different technique. In my various daydreams, I had been sure of my success, and I wanted to capitalize on my imaginings.

I thought of my good friend and career counsellor, Ayelet, who likes to tell me to find opportunity in every difficult situation. Perfect, I thought. This is good. This is great. What an opportunity for humility! And for learning. Let’s not forget learning.

I left to seek out an experienced master. Pulling aside a senior student, I explained the situation. I sniffled and tried to look calm and not like I was begging him for reassurance. I channelled my inner Anne Lamott.

He looked at me with great compassion. He explained that each instructor has his or her own focus. This instructor focuses on strength, he said. In the end, I had to use my own judgement. “Don’t take it personally,” he said.

I restrained myself from hugging this kind man.

I marched back into class. I was going to break a board. With a reverse punch.

The rest of the class gathered. My daughter sat on the floor with the other children. I didn’t dare look at her. I needed all my powers of concentration. Oh goodness, I thought. Here is where I let my daughter down. Disappointment and years of therapy will follow. For both of us.

One by one, senior belts broke boards. Boards shattered, not with a splintering crack, but rather with a dry “pock” sound. All of the students used a reverse punch. One woman kicked a board, failed, and then broke it with a punch.

My turn came. I punched my board. Once. Twice. Nothing happened. I kicked it. Still nothing. I turned and sat back on the floor. I crossed my legs and didn’t look at anyone. I didn’t weep. If anything, I felt my determination harden.

Another person went up and punched the board. The board did not break. Even from where we were sitting we could see that her fingers were raw and bloody from raking the wood. (I’m sure that it would never occur to any of you to hope that she not break the board on her next try.) She tried again. The board broke.

“Anyone else?” the instructor asked.

My voice seemed to come from somewhere else. “Can I try again?”

“Sure.” The instructor held the board, and I pushed against it a few times, testing my form. “Don’t let me push against you,” he said.

The following thought crossed my mind: I don’t care if I break my hand, I’m going to break this *#$*#*$*# board. 

I punched. “Pock.” The board broke.

My daughter beamed.

Turns out I wasn’t grounding my back foot enough when I punched. This is very instructive. Crucial, when you think about it. What if I were attacked in the street, and I didn’t ground my foot in enough?

And it became an opportunity to talk to my daughter about perseverance. “You see?” I said. “I didn’t succeed the first few times. Only on the fourth.”

Of course, I’ve caught myself miscounting the number of times I failed to break that plank. In some stories I’ve said three; in others, two. And I’m going to frame the two wood pieces. I took these home, of course.

After all, it’s not every day that a person breaks a board.