The Post-Partum Body

Simon_First Smiles_December 2015

Above: The Reason Behind My Six-Month Leave

In January I returned to training after a six-month maternity leave. I was fifteen or so pounds heavier than what I had been pre-partum. I had a poochy stomach, and I had fat where I used to have muscle.

I was afraid that I would neither regain my shape nor my technique. It was my third pregnancy. I was old. I was tired. I might never recover.

On one hand, I want to live with my post-partum body, partly because our society despises it. Conversations following birth revolve on how quickly you return to your pre-partum weight. “When did you fit into your jeans?” we women ask each other. When my newborn was one week old, women (always women) ran their eyes along my midriff as if to assess where I could be slotted on the post-partum weight-loss continuum.

The female body and the maternal body continue to be central topics of gender wars. Some artists are trying to re-value the mother’s form. Jade Beall’s stunning book of photographs of mothers, The Bodies of Mothers, counteracts cultural body shaming and creates a media platform on which mothers can see reflections of themselves. I’m grateful for this and others’ attempts at exhibiting and appreciating the real maternal body.

I’m enjoying my own. I’m proud of what it has done (given birth) and what it’s doing (breast-feeding.) My son is growing from drinking breast milk only—the female body’s ability to nourish another body is a feat that continues to astonish me.

On the other hand, I miss my athlete’s body. My first Sensei used to talk about the pleasure of experiencing a freedom of movement that comes from having a strong, thin body. I worried about the impact of his words on students who were not rail thin or those who had eating disorders. But lately, as I’ve been losing weight and rebuilding muscle, I find myself remembering his words and partly agreeing with him.

In January, I returned to the dojo with my seven-year-old son. Each Saturday, I drag my transition-shy boy out of the house, into the white glare of the winter sunlight and, recently, into air sparkling with silvery snow motes.

Once we’re in the community centre’s gym, my son starts smiling. He loves karate. In the dojo, he doesn’t experience any of the mild behavioural challenges he faces at school. The instructors are strict but not intensely so. He adores them, in particular one of the men, who feigns to come at him with devastating punches. Once again, I’m faced with the gendered nature of experience: My son reacts better to male teachers than female teachers.

As for me, I’m finding the return to being a karate-ka slow. I had a complicated birth and my lower back and pelvis continue to recover. A weakness in my left leg is preventing me from kicking properly. But everything is improving. And I’m re-experiencing the sheer pleasure of being able to move again, the ecstasy of kicking and jumping.

Regaining my past athleticism is necessarily slow. I will continue to breast-feed my infant. Like the philosopher and feminist Lauren Bialystok, I find breast-feeding both instinctive and wonderful and have no intention of sacrificing it on the altar of body image. And I won’t be attending more than one karate class per week this year. I want to spend time with my baby and with my other children. Instead of class, I go to the gym, and supplement my training with yoga classes, which are shorter than karate classes and more suited to my tightly-packed days.

I’ll live with, and sometimes appreciate, my jiggly body. To hell with those who run their eyes along my maternal curves and bite their lips in judgment. I want my relationship to my post-partum body to be a personal one. I want the link between self and body to play out not on the public stage but in the private realm.

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Mama, Again

My lifestyle gradually changed, and I no longer considered running the point of life. In other words, a mental gap began to develop beween me and running. Just like when you lose the initial crazy feeling you have when you fall in love. (Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.)

The above quote somewhat captures what I’ve been feeling, but not quite. I have been experiencing the mental gap Murakami speaks of, and this chasm lies between me and karate. On the other hand, outside circumstances have deepened that breach.

Still, in keeping with Voltaire’s caution that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” I’ve decided to leave Murakami’s quote at the top of today’s entry.

What has happened is that I’ve become pregnant with my third child. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered the third time around:

  1. The first few weeks of a middle-aged pregnancy can be physically horrendous. In the beginning, I start to experience debilitating headaches that force me to go to bed at six p.m. every evening. I experience an unfamiliar nausea. One morning, my nine-year-old comes down to the kitchen in time to hear me retching in the kitchen sink. “What’s wrong?” she asks. Since I don’t want to tell my kids about the baby until the risk of miscarriage has abated, I lie to her. “A bad cough,” I say.
  2. By the sixth month of pregnancy I can no longer do karate spinning back kicks. The execution isn’t bad but once the foot is out there, it refuses to return smoothly. I lose my balance. Besides, I look ridiculous, tilting forward with my enormous belly—which is already a kind of shelf I can rest my tea cup on—then returning like a weeble wobble.
  3. After a karate class, everything hurts. My pelvis feels like someone has beaten it with a stick. My feet ache. My legs go into spasms for the next twelve hours. After a class, I come home, collapse on the couch, and can’t get up for at least an hour. The house starts to fall apart. I neglect my evening tidy-up. In addition, since we’ve emptied the kids’ rooms in order to paint them (what was I thinking?), we spend our time climbing over boxes of books and stepping on Lego toys.
  4. On the other hand, after a class, my mood is excellent. All things considered, I decide to continue my training.

The decision to train until the end of my pregnancy (which I did with my first two pregnancies) is scuttled by month six, during which I start to experience contractions. “It’s too early,” my physician husband says. “You really don’t want to give birth anytime before thirty-two weeks. Twenty-four weeks is bad.”

“How long do I have to wait?”

“Thirty-six weeks is best.”

When I go to my regular medical check-up, my O.B., an always-smiling woman in her mid-forties, asks me to consider “taking it easy.”

I tell her that in order to compromise that morning, I chose to walk rather than bike the three kilometres to her office. She looks at my feet. “At least you have good shoes.” She adds, “none of my patients are doing what you’re doing.”

I tell her that I intend to teach my last karate class the following week. The decision to stop teaching is based somewhat more on an emotional need rather than on practical considerations. I’m starting to feel embarrassed about my failing technique. I mourn the loss of my high side kicks. I have always been proud of my ability to keep my balance, a skill that in the last few weeks I’ve misplaced entirely.

But there are also practical considerations. Because the already-large foetus is constricting my lungs, I can no longer demonstrate a particular move and speak at the same time. I lose my breathe and become dizzy.

I’ve enlisted other advanced belts to help me, and they do. We take turns demonstrating and teaching. In the end, however, I have to concede that teaching is no longer possible. I find a talented and dedicated purple belt to take my place for the next year.

But quitting teaching turns out not to be enough. By the seventh month, I’ve gained 27 pounds, and it’s getting hard to haul myself around the city streets, let alone do karate drills. I’m also much older than I was during the first two pregnancies, and I feel the aches and pains of this pregnancy much more acutely. I experience insomnia, congestion, and a myriad of digestive issues.

On the advice of my O.B., I leave karate and switch to less dynamic sports: walking, swimming, and yoga. These challenge me but don’t knock me out the way karate does. The exception is when I take long hikes with my family. During a visit to relatives in Europe, my family and I hike twelve kilometres through Basque mountains in northern Spain. In the summer heat. In the afternoon. It takes me several hours to recover from the hike, and I concede to myself that I’ve overdone it and promise myself to walk for shorter distances.

I mourn the loss of karate. I miss karate’s dynamism. I miss feeling competent at a sport. I also miss my community of students and teachers.

A fellow instructor points out that this enforced break will encourage me to develop the mental aspect of karate training. He’s right, and I do find myself being able to draw on previously undiscovered mental resources. On the other hand, my general mental state is suffering. I’ve gone from a lifestyle involving rigorous exercise to a relatively quiet lifestyle. I’ve started to lose my patience. I dial up my participation in other sports in the hope that being more active will help me keep my temper. After all, I tell myself, it’s not fair to lose my patience with my existing children for the sake of the unborn child.

I cling to the fact that all this is temporary. The baby will be born, and after a few months, I’ll be able to train again. But I’m frightened: I’m getting older. What if I can no longer regain the type of physical fitness I had in my thirties? I re-read Haruki Murakami ’s memoir, What I talk About When I Talk About Running. His enumeration of his aches and pains, his expression of a sense of time’s passing and of his grief at becoming older—these comfort me.

During my seventh month of pregnancy, my husband and I take our children on a seven-kilometre hike in Northern Ontario. I huff and puff my way up a muddy trail. It’s so challenging that I become grumpy. “I’m not sure this is what Dr. M. had in mind,” I tell my husband. “When she told me to take it easy.” But it is a beautiful hike, through evergreens and birches. There are mushrooms I’ve never seen before: fiery red button ones; large, yellow flat ones in the shape of stingrays; bulbous brown ones that I tell my children are Smurf houses.

I won’t lie: I’m terrified of the first few months after birth. Those months during which you have so little time for yourself, and what little time you do have you experience as though you’re in a fog. How will I train? How will I write?

I am now in my eighth month. This week, I handed in my completed manuscript of short stories to a potential publisher. There’s nothing left for me to do but wait. A few weeks ago, I wrote a draft of a graphic novel. Since I have to wait for my illustrator to complete another project before she illustrates my text, I’ve started writing a novel that has been tugging at me for years.

Now, I’m thinking that blogging, writing a novel, and raising three kids while running a household might be overly ambitious. But who knows? Perhaps those mental resources my fellow karate instructor spoke of will continue to kick in, after all.

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

Our Family Adventure in Japan

 I apologize to my readers for my prolonged absence. I’ve spent most of the fall and winter of 2013 neck deep in a fiction project. Because it’s the school holidays, I’m taking a moment to pause for breath. (Apart from reading Harry Potter with my seven-year old, doing crafts with my four-year-old, and cleaning my half of our home office, I’m taking a break from almost everything). I also made a pledge to myself to return to my blog, and here I am.

Also, an update on the aforementioned, upcoming comic strip. In the fall, my collaborator and illustrator became pregnant. Due to a difficult first term, she was unable to work. She’s feeling better, and we’re back at work! More to follow in the coming months….

Last fall, we flew the whole family to Japan. My youngest being four and a half, my oldest seven and a half, we thought it not a bad time to travel halfway across the world to a foreign country, one with a thirteen hour time zone difference. And while the experience was challenging (my son ate only rice for three weeks), it yielded numerous rewards.

For one, being in a completely foreign culture strengthens family bonds. For another, we had the reward of experiencing a country we’d wanted to go to for a long time, one rich in nature and culture.

I spent a relatively short time there, so I don’t want to pretend I’m an expert on Japan—I’m not. But two things struck me: one, that Japan is parent and child friendly. I also noticed how rooted Karate-Do etiquette is in Japanese society.

Japan appears to be structured around family. Given the relatively low birth rate, I find this curious. Nevertheless, many things seemed to be made with the needs of the family in mind. The bathing culture in particular is family friendly. (Can I rave for a minute about how much I love Japanese baths. For one, I love lounging in water. I also appreciate that young girls witness women’s nude bodies in all their varieties, a healthy counter measure to media images of unrealistic women’s bodies.)

One village bath, in Yakushima (a small island south east of mainland Japan), had a wooden crib in its change room. I watched a young mother leave her baby in the crib while she went to bathe herself and her two other children. Old women gathered around the crib. The baby, who must have been three or four months old, squinted up at them, gurgling as the women cooed and fussed. In my own lonely months as a mother of young children, I would have given everything I owned for that kind of communal support. I found it hard enough to get away for a shower!

The degree to which the Japanese have solved those little everyday problems we encounter in modernized society astounds me. They seem particularly attentive to parental needs.

In many public washrooms in Tokyo and Kyoto, small, hanging booster seats are found not only in cubicles, but also beside the communal sinks. Mothers can seat the toddlers in the boosters while they themselves use the washroom or wash their hands.

Only a parent can fully understand the benefit of these hanging seats. No longer will you have to teeter off the toilet to try to grab a toddler attempting to crawl under the cubicle door, while you simultaneously try not to pee on your feet. No longer will you have to leave the sink prematurely in order to pursue a child, your hands dripping a trail across the floor, under others’ disapproving stares.

Visiting Japan, I understood for the first time where Karate-Do etiquette comes from. Everyone went out of their way to be helpful. We don’t speak a word of Japanese, but Japanese people were willing to work on understanding us.

And people bow, of course. Not only that, though. They are extremely attentive. When you speak to someone, they are fully present. Their bodies are still. They listen. Then they do everything possible to meet your needs. Everyone we met seemed to practice loving kindness, a practice undoubtedly rooted in Zen Buddhism.

I’ve often been told that Japan has a very low crime rate. I have an uncle who works in the police force in Paris. He informs me that Japanese tourists in Paris are often victims of crime, simply because, coming from a somewhat crime-free society, they’re unusually trusting.

On the day we left Tokyo for Kyoto, my husband forgot his wallet beside a subway ticket machine. Our train tickets, credit cards, and the cash we had just retrieved in preparation for our travel day (many places in Japan run on cash only) were in that wallet. Leaving us at the train station, he went back to our point of departure in the hopes that someone had retrieved the wallet. I sat the kids down on their mini suitcases at the side of an underground corridor, where thousands of commuters tripped briskly back and forth between subway and train lines. For the next two hours, we read books and, to the kids’ delight, ate vending machine chips and chocolate.

Two hours later, he was back.

He told me the story. The wallet had not been at the ticket machine, and, desperate, my husband approached the ticket collector. By dint of gestures and the Google Translate feature on his phone, he communicated his predicament. The collector pointed him in the direction of what turned out to be the Lost and Found room. There, my husband found his wallet. Train tickets, credit cards, and several bills were there, all untouched.

 

 

 

Surviving Criticism

Aside

For a certain kind of arty girl, reading Plath was like reading the French existentialists. She let us see that the way we felt—that ache of being alive—was something that other people felt, too.

Meg Wolitzer “My Mademoiselle Summer” (New York Times, Sunday July 21, 2013)

Several weeks back, people noticed something wrong with my technique. When I moved, the upper and lower parts of my body didn’t work together. My punches were driven by my shoulders rather than coming from my core. My techniques were top heavy when they should have emerged from the floor up. They were right. I was ungrounded: my blocks and strikes were weak.

I worked on correcting this problem. I did katas in slow motion. I practiced in front of a mirror. I started each class with a mantra. “Ground yourself, ground yourself, ground yourself,” I whispered.

No-one noticed.

“I’ve spoken about this before,” an instructor said. “You need to work on this.”

“You don’t say,” I thought.

Sometimes, when an instructor gives an instruction, other students raise their hands to give additional feedback. If we’re working on upper blocks, for example, someone will say, “Don’t forget to move your hand diagonally across your chest.” Or, “Remember to breathe.” On occasion, after a student does an excellent kata demonstration, someone will make a comment that focuses on what the student has done wrong.

I’m glad that people care about the quality of technique in our dojo. Rigor is good. In a self-defense situation, my ability to defend myself depends on the precision of my blocks and strikes. Also, karate is an art, and I strive for perfection in all the art forms I practice.

But critique can be hard to take. I started leaving classes feeling discouraged. I considered taking a break from the dojo. Most of all, I wasn’t having fun anymore.

Around the same time, something happened outside the dojo that made me reflect further on the subject of criticism. I was walking my kids to school. My daughter (age seven) had broken her ankle and was hobbling along (at a brisk pace, trying to pretend she was just fine, thank-you) in a walking cast. My son (age four) zipped ahead of me on a scooter.

On the parent monitoring scale, I’m probably smack in the middle of the “helicopter parenting” and the “laissez-faire” poles. On my book shelf, Anthony Wolf’s The Secret of Parenting sits beside Tom Hodgkinson’s (yes, the editor of The Idler) The Idle Parent. On the walk to school, while I let my kids go ahead of me, I also watched them, particularly my son, who has a tendency to forget that I’ve asked him to: “make sure you can see Mama at all times.”

Suddenly, a man in his late twenties who was walking in the opposite direction did a little sidestep and circled around so that he could start walking beside me. I flicked my eyes at him, all the while trying to see my children, who were weaving in and out Bloor Street’s morning commuters.

“You should keep an eye on your children,” he said.

“Pardon?”

“Your children.”

“Right,” I said. By now, my son was at the intersection of Bloor and Spadina. He had stopped a few meters before the street, as I had instructed him to do, and was looking back at me. “I am, thanks.” I hurried forward.

“You don’t want your daughter to break her other leg.”

“Actually,” I said. “She broke it on the playground.” I was distracted, trying to keep an eye on both kids. My daughter was now approaching her brother. Soon, the light would turn green.

“Oh,” he said, still walking beside me. “I can’t blame you for that, then.”

I turned to him. “No,” I said. “You can’t.”

He looked at my face, changed his mind about what he was going to say next, did an about-face and walked quickly in the other direction.

One way to deal with a critic is to confront him, head-on. If you think someone’s wrong, tell them so, as I started to do in the above instance, before the helpful stranger decided that he’d rather not deal with a karate-ka in a bad mood.

As for criticism in the dojo, if you disagree with someone respectfully, things should go well. Either they’ll politely disagree with you or they’ll apologize for being over-zealous in their teaching. (When it comes to dealing with a Sensei, however, you should use your discretion. Never criticize a Sensei in front of others. If you strongly disagree with him, you may want to approach him privately, and always with careful respect. My experience is that in the case of disagreeing with a Sensei, you should first address the matter with other, more senior students.)

In my case, I knew that the criticism was fair. I needed a means of improving my technique while preserving my love of karate. In other words, in my karate practice, I want to keep making room for joy.

I was once in a meditation workshop with Zen teacher and poet Peter Levitt. One of his students, a middle-aged woman, complained about her struggle to run her own business. She was sitting on a mat, her neck curved foreword, her brown hair hanging in separate strands around her shoulders. “I’m working so hard,” she said.

Peter gazed at her. “Try to work soft,” he said.

These days, I’m pursuing the soft core of my karate practice. I practice basic katas. I’ve slowed everything down and use my breath, not only to guide each technique, but to revel in it. Sometimes, I take a break from the dojo. I do other things: I hike, swim, run, play piano. Each time, I return to class refreshed, eager to meet again what attracted me to the art in the first place, and to find new ways to practice.

As for class atmosphere, my co-instructor and I have decided to focus on giving positive feedback to students. After all, educational research shows that positive feedback is more effective than negative critique at motivating students. We want to demand rigor from our students, yes, but we also want to enable them to experience the joy of practice. We want our students to have fun.

A couple of weeks ago, I joined instructors and students at a local pub to mark a colleague’s retirement from the dojo. People ate and chatted. Their stories often surprised me, revealing aspects of their personalities that the dojo’s conventions, which required a certain impersonal interaction, usually hid. These are nice people, I thought. They aren’t criticizing me to be mean, but to be helpful. By the end of the evening, I felt tenderness for everyone: for myself and my imperfect technique, and for my colleagues and their well-meaning criticism.

Clearly, I thought, if one is feeling bogged down by criticism, if previous strategies have failed to stem the flow of self-pity, one should break bread with one’s colleagues.

 I’ve been working on something new. Coming soon:

 

KARATE GIRL (A serial comic strip, in collaboration with talented illustrator Hannah Wachs)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drive

A few weeks back, I received a compliment. I was in karate class, practicing Sanchin kata. The scene went like this:

Fellow colleague and instructor: “Ma’am: beautiful, flowing arm movements on the take-off.”

Me, flushed with pleasure: “Thank-you, sir.”

My energy picked up. I went home feeling newly committed to karate. This was in contrast to the previous weeks, during which I’d been experiencing a sense of lethargy during practice. For months, I’d been receiving mounds of (well-intentioned) criticism, and this had taken a toll in the form of my diminished drive vis-a-vis karate.

I’m not the strongest karate-ka in my school. Far from it. I have much to learn. When I tried to improve my rolls two years ago, I ended up injuring my neck and going through months of physical therapy. And my spinning wheel kicks make me look like a Weeble. You know: those egg-shaped toys that, as the Hasbro commercial says, “wobble but don’t fall down”? My average skills are probably one of the reasons why I have a complicated relationship with karate.

Although it’s not obvious to most people, I’m extremely competitive. I like to be the best at, well, everything. This has obvious drawbacks. For one, I sometimes experience an ugly hatred for those who are better at karate than me. Perhaps hatred is too strong a word. It’s more like powerful resentment. Toward, for example, karate-ka who have some sort of immunity to attacks of nerves, which I experience every time I demonstrate a kata. Those are the ones who go up in front of a tournament audience so that they can show off their moves. Who are these people, I think, upon encountering this bizarre phenomenon. And why can’t they just go away? (Okay, I only think this in my very darkest moments).

In his book, Drive, social scientist Daniel Pink argues that intrinsic motivation keeps us interested in a pursuit longer than extrinsic (reward-based) motivation. Intrinsic drive also purportedly produces the strongest results. That makes certain sense to me. I’m certainly not doing karate because of my enormous talent for it: I don’t garner many compliments these days. I practice karate because I love it. This passion keeps me going back to class, week by week. As to whether my passion has improved my technique, well, I’m reserving judgement in this regard.

This morning, I came across some notes I took of a conversation I had with my son when he was three years old. I wanted him to go with a babysitter and was trying to disengage him from my leg, to which he clung, a koala to a bamboo tree.

“You will go to the park with J—,” I said to him. “We’re going to say goodbye.”

He looked up at me, serious. “Ya,” he said. “And Mama will go to karate and Abba will go to work.”

Yes, indeed. And Mama will keep on going to karate.

 

On Risk

I am not two people, I am one.

Photographer Annie Leibovits, on the confluence of her art and life.

 

I’ve been thinking about risk.

A decade ago my husband and I decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He loves mountain-climbing. He loves the journey itself, the actual climb. I like getting to the top. (Our differences became evident on the slopes of an Ecuadorian volcano, where we had our first, near-break up fight. There is a photo taken of me on the slopes of Mount Tungurahua: my hair is flattened by a downpour, and I’m smiling through gritted teeth at my not-yet-husband. Incidentally, the volcano erupted half a year later).

As to Mt. Kilimanjaro, I wanted to see its ice cap before it melted. On the way up, we suffered from unpleasant mishaps. A torrential downpour destroyed our camera. We experienced extreme nausea caused by altitude sickness (so much so that, on our third day, despite a six-hour climb to the summit, I couldn’t force down a single bite of breakfast). Our guide turned out to be an disagreeable man who, when he deigned to speak to us, did so with a crankiness bordering on dislike. In the end, though, we made it. After three days on the mountain, we summitted and watched a sunrise at an altitude of 19,341 feet.

Over a decade ago, when I started a PhD in Comparative Literature, I decided to learn a language from scratch, while completing my degree. This didn’t work out. I had underestimated both the amount of work required by the degree, and its rigour. Although I learned a new language, I didn’t complete the degree. There were, of course, other factors at work that made it difficult for me to finish the project. But my struggle also had to do with the difference between calculated and reckless risks, and the fact that, in taking on too much work, I’d tackled a reckless risk.

For a while, I risked little. Then, last summer, a karate instructor told me that my side kicks were too careful. “Let your side kicks fly,” he said. “Forget technique.”  On my next side kick, something shifted. My hip spun out, my body followed. My mind emptied, and I lost my sense of self. I embodied one of karate’s principles, “Mu-no-kukoro”, “mind without conscious thought.”

I promised myself to reacquaint myself with risk. A few weeks ago, I decided to start performing kata again. Although I’d been teaching for almost a year, I had not been demonstrating my kata. This was unfair to my students: I wanted to demand as much of myself as I did of them.

But when I went up to the front of the class to demonstrate Kanku Dai, I faltered. I felt like I did twenty years ago, as a white belt learning Tai-Kyo-Ku Shodan, when I forgot which way to turn. I was an octopus trying to dance. (I often tell my kids that Mama cannot meet everyone’s needs all at once and that she is not an octopus, but perhaps, on this front, I’m wrong).

Afterward, the instructor gave me some corrections. I had to implement them while the class looked on. I was mortified. My kids and I had recently watched The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps, I thought, someone will throw a bucket of water over me, and I’ll melt away.

Implicit in risk is failure. If I don’t want to fail, I shouldn’t risk. But this flattens life. And of course success is born of risk, too.  As is learning.

Last week I understood that training is not enough. I must also practice demonstrating kata. I’ve always struggled with performance, in its various permutations. The only instance I didn’t mind performing was during high school theatrical shows. But in that case I was on stage in the guise of someone else. Karate is another matter: when you demonstrate kata, you showcase yourself.

I’m going to keep taking risks, in karate and elsewhere. I could use some practice in failure. Worst case scenario, I’ll learn something.