Beginnings, and Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan

Lately I’ve been jogging to a local city ravine, practicing karate, and jogging home. Yesterday, I had a hard time getting out there. We’re leaving on a trip and I had suitcases to pack and a house to clean. It was hard to justify karate practice. I reminded myself that beginnings are always hard, whether it’s practicing karate or playing with one’s children (don’t get me wrong: I love reading to them and doing sports and music with them, but getting down on the floor and playing dolls/action figures with them does not particularly interest me). I have found, however, that once you get past the starting phase in anything, it gets easier, and you start to have fun.

So I went on my jog, and I did some karate, and I started having fun. I practiced Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan kata, which we’re working on in the dojo. The following is some of what I’ve learned so far:

Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan

  • fully complete each down block. It should extend past the side of your body.
  • Make sure each strike is powerful, even when you speed up the kata
  • The forward-facing punch, which may or may not be called a “reverse fist punch” (there was some discussion in the dojo as to its proper name – comments on this are welcome), should come straight out and aim for one’s nose
  • When you bring your leg up to dodge an attack, make sure to bring it up high enough i.e. Your foot should go up to your knee (you’re avoiding a sword, and you probably want to avoid getting your foot chopped off)

I welcome comments from all your karate-ka out there. All the best, LB


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 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.

Karate Kids

Two Saturdays ago was my daughter’s first day at karate class. I couldn’t believe it when I saw her standing in front of me, wearing the Gi that my old Sensei had given to her at her birth, six years ago. The moment was bittersweet, since my Sensei, who retired last year, wasn’t there to see her wear his gift, or witness her first tentative punches and kicks.

I have mixed feelings about involving my kids in karate. On one hand, I agree with the things people usually say about kids and karate. It’s great for strength and confidence building, spirituality, and discipline. As an adult who started karate in my twenties, I wish I had been able to draw on karate’s resources to cope with childhood bullying. I also think that karate is great for girls in particular, because, like many sports, it lets them experience their bodies in a way that is socially undervalued, encouraging them to be proud of their physical strength.

So karate is great for kids.  On the other hand, I believe that kids should not be pushed into doing extracurriculars they hate. My kids are not an extension of me; just because I love karate, doesn’t mean they should (okay, maybe they should, just a teeny bit).

I decided to aim for simple exposure. If she liked it, great. If she didn’t, I would make a huge effort not to weep with disappointment, and we would try again another time. I told my daughter that we would give karate a try, but that I was okay if she decided she wanted to quit and try again later, when she was older.

When we arrived at the dojo, she bowed at the door and gave the required greeting, “Good Morning Sensei.” This was a relief because back home, when we’d told her to practice the greeting at her bedroom door, my spirited child had stormed off and, stomping her foot, declared that she had “changed her mind,” and that she was “not going to karate.” It had taken us a few minutes to persuade her otherwise.

People in the dojo smiled, and I beamed back at them. I was already imagining my daughter at the front of the class, demonstrating a complicated kata under the approving glances of my fellow karate-ka. In an effort to dampen my expectations, I drew hard on my limited mindfulness practice. She might not get it, I thought. She might not even listen. She might, like other perfectionists in my family with whom I’m intimately acquainted, become easily discouraged. I leaned over and whispered to her, “just do your best.”

She joined a group of beginners. A tall woman with long, grey hair taught them basic punches and kicks. She tried to get the kids to bend their knees before and after each front kick. My daughter kicked, but didn’t bend her leg back properly. The leader, who has grown kids and infinite patience, tried again. Still, my daughter didn’t bend her leg properly. She kicked with gusto, though, and even managed to insert one or two ki-a into the mix.

After one hour, she’d had enough. Glancing around at other people’s kids, who were rigourously training, I shamefacedly sat her down on a bench and set her up to watch some you-tube sesame street episodes on my phone, since I’d forgotten to bring alternate activities. Later, as we walked out the door, she declared to me, “I love karate!”

That night, when we visited my parents, my daughter taught my dad some karate. He stood in front of her, an intellectual in his seventies who’s more comfortable in front of a computer screen than in a gym, and did a few wobbly kicks.

My daughter giggled. “Grandpère!” she said. “Not like that.” She did the kick in slow motion. “You have to bend your leg on the way back.”

Then she executed a series of perfectly formed front kicks.

On Big Biceps

Last week I went to my five-year-old daughter’s first grade-school concert. The concert was held on stage, in a community centre theatre that looks exactly like a real theatre, complete with galleries and spotlights. Kids of all ages sang out of tune and, more surprisingly, in tune. Some of the expressions on these kids’ faces were terrified, others earnest. I made a great effort not to weep.

A twelve-year-old girl stood out. Like her classmates, she wore all-black. What distinguished her from the others was how much skin she showed. She wore clingy leggings and a black tank top, highlighting a hefty musculature. Because although she was skinny, this girl was strong. From halfway up the audience, you could see each arm’s tough little bicep, the swell of each tricep. You couldn’t see, but you could imagine, the sinewy strength of each forearm.

Because the school community is small, I know this girl informally. She’s a gymnast and, at twelve, she trains a minimum of four times a week, after school and on weekends. She’s dedicated. So, on one hand, she wanted to show off her hard work. What was clear from her body language was her lack of self-consciousness. On the other hand, she had that awkward tilt of the head, the small, unevenness of the shoulders typically affected by adolescent girls, which showed that she was still wrestling with her body image.

After thirteen years of practicing karate, running, swimming, and doing yoga, I’m blessed with a pretty strong figure.  And, until a few years ago, I was proud of my musculature. It symbolized my hard work. I considered it half sexy, half tough. (When I was twenty, my favourite film character was Sarah Connor, the Terminator’s toned nemesis in the movies by the same name). Then, two years ago, I started training for my black belt. My quads grew. This was okay: I could hide them under a pair of jeans. I was worried about my arms, though: they swelled until I looked like a mini sumo wrestler in drag. Now, I was more tough than sexy.

I asked my husband, “do you think my arms look big?”

He looked at me. “Are you crazy? They look good.”

I continued to worry. I perused women’s fashion magazines: their arms were matchsticks. If women in the fashion world worked out, they kept it in check. I considered my closet and wondered whether I should replace all tank tops with quarter-length-sleeve shirts.

Then I saw this girl on stage. Clearly she was struggling with uncertainties that were also mine: what to do when one is strong, in a culture that undervalues women’s physical strength and the mark it leaves on our bodies. Her smile, though, showed me that her regard for her body — not for itself, but for what she could do with it as a gymnast — was winning over other doubts.

I still worry about the size of my arms. But seeing this gymnast reminded me of what I like about my body, which is that it practices karate, and a lot of it. It made me happy, seeing that tough young girl on stage, her head up, her face flitting from tentative joy to all-out, radiant, red-cheeked pride.

Pregnant Karate

It was the fall of 2008, and I was five months pregnant with my second child. I was on Bloor Street, running an errand on my bicycle. It was just before three in the afternoon. Cars honked, pedestrians jay-walked, and drivers rushed to find parking so they could run their errands before three p.m., when parking meters expired. I rode carefully, training my eyes on the driver seat of each parked car, wary of car doors that might suddenly open. Without warning, a large, white sedan pulled up in front of me and cut me off. Fortunately, because I rode slowly, I avoided slamming into it, with only a minimal amount of wobbliness.

Still, I was shaken. And when I’m shaken, I tend to speak up. Using my feet, I propelled myself up to the driver’s window. The driver was in his late sixties, with white hair and a mustache, who looked like a kindly, elderly European man, the kind you might find playing Bocce in a local park. I put on my most pleasant expression — what I consider my teacherly expression, left-over from my days as a university instructor, and meant to be stern but informative. I considered removing my helmet so as not to appear threatening, but changed my mind: being on a bike with a large belly, I was precariously balanced. A miscalculation on my part might cause me to topple over.  I gestured for the driver to roll down his car window.  He looked up at me. I smiled encouragingly. He locked the door and gave me the finger.

I have to admit that at that time, I was a poor Karate-Ka i.e. I hadn’t mastered the ability to keep my temper. (Actually, I still haven’t conquered this particular challenge.) “You almost ran into me!” I yelled. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed his crime. A middle-aged woman watched from the sidewalk. “He cut me off!” I said to her.

“No, he didn’t,” she said. She looked at me. “I’m a driver. I know all about you cyclists.”

I stared at her. “I’m a driver too,” I said. “We need to share the road.”

I knocked on the driver’s window. “I’m pregnant!” I said.

The woman pedestrian spoke up. “That’s right,” she said. “You’re completely irresponsible, bicycling while pregnant.”

Flash forward to a karate class taking placed one week later. I was in front of the class,  demonstrating a kata called Ken-Zaki Sho Dan. Like all katas, the kata involves a series of block and attack sequences meant to mimic a real defense situation. This particular kata also requires the martial artist to perform three jumps. I was coming up to the first of three, and had to decide whether to jump. Up until just before the first jump, I was uncertain. Sensei and thirty of my colleagues — men, women, children — watched. As I went through the blocks and punches, they were quiet. All I could hear was the rasping sound my Gi sleeves made when they came into contact with my body.

I thought about people wondering if I was going to jump. I imagined there was something censorious about their thoughts, just as there had been in those of the pedestrian stranger, who had spoken so vehemently against me bicycling while pregnant. I hesitated. As I approached the jump, my intense focus — and sheer momentum — took over. I jumped. High. I landed in a solid kiba datchi stance, my arms crossed in front of me in an X-block. I moved forward, completed the remaining two jumps, and finished the kata with a final flourish of the arms, a double upper block. I bowed. The class clapped. The baby kicked, assuring me that everything was well. As indeed it was: both baby and I were fine. A middle-aged man, a friend, approached me. “I was watching you,” he said. “I wondered whether you were going to jump.”

In her book Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman notes that mothers in particular are prone to being watched by other people. Yes, mothers are often watched; we are all being watched. My bicycling encounter and my dojo demonstration are analogous to many of the activities I engage in regularly, such as karate, parenting, and writing. In each case, you balance your needs and those of others; your perspective and that of everybody else. You encounter other people’s approval or censure. This is what life is about, then: whether raising children or practicing a sport (or, indeed, writing a blog), you’re doing your best to balance your desires and those of others and, almost always, you’re doing this in front of an audience.