Standing on One Foot

Are you a woman, or a mouse? (Annie Dillard The Writing Life)

 

When to practice karate? This is always the question. I’m constantly trying to fit in all the things I enjoy doing, things that define me.

I finally have the time: since September, my children have been enrolled in full-time school. Ah, the joy of experiencing, for the first time in six and a half years, a long stretch of time: the hours between 9:30 and 3:00 (or, more realistically, between 10:00 and 2:00, for I need time to clean the kitchen, shop for groceries, prepare meals. Not to mention the time needed to eat that indispensable second breakfast.) But seriously, I’m convinced that every stay-at-home parent remembers that first day when their children stay away from the house for an extended period. I mean, a WHOLE DAY!

My main problem is that once I start doing something, I don’t want to stop and move on to something else. Do you know “Eureka,” that 1980s TVO cartoon on the Laws of Physics? There was one called Inertia. Inertia: that’s me. I always picture myself as the pebble in the cartoon: once you give me a push, I keep on rolling.

In practice, that means that if I start my morning off by writing, by afternoon I’ll still be writing. On the other hand, if I start my day seasonally categorizing my kids’ clothes, by the afternoon I’ll still be kneeling on my daughter’s purple rug, sorting through an unholy mess of bottoms and tops (my mother-in-law, bless her, is a passionate shopper who raised three boys, and is therefore thrilled to overbuy for her granddaughters), trying to decide if the hole in the bottom of her tights can actually be seen if she’s wearing a skirt over top, and, if so, if she can get away with wearing the tights another season (I’m the opposite of my mother-in-law – I dislike shopping and I hate throwing things out.)

Also, if I start my morning doing karate, hours later I’ll still be doing karate. After finishing last year’s summer day-long karate training, I felt primed to continue training for three more hours.

Because of my innate inertia, I make it a point to begin each morning by writing. Since September (not counting Jewish Holidays – why oh why are there so many darn holidays, and why, again, are we sending our kids to a Jewish school?), this has been my schedule: return home from school drop-off; eat a second breakfast; drink a caffeinated beverage; write for three hours; and eat lunch. The afternoon is a mixed bag of reading, meal prepping, grocery-shopping, tidying our narrow front hallway (ancient Victorian houses, sheesh), and doing anything else that needs to get done. All this to prepare for that moment when my lovely, high-energy children crash through the house, demanding that I fulfill their urgent needs. Yesterday, while I sat by the local pool watching my eldest take her swimming lessons, my three-and-a-half year old tried to get my attention by poking my, umh, chest, a practice I put a stop to immediately.

I am not like the extraordinary Carrie Snyder, an inveterate multi-tasker. Last spring, I read in awe that she was entertaining a sick kid (one of four), meal prepping, and proofing her latest book—simultaneously. (The Juliet Stories is nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award. You can find Carrie at http://carrieannesnyder.blogspot.ca/.) I could never do this kind of multi-tasking. Never. For one, I hate interruptions. For another, there’s that small problem of inertia.

I’ve somewhat come to terms with the fact that I’m a long-distance runner, rather than a sprinter. And I’m embracing my inertia. I’m also starting to think that a much nicer way of talking about my inertia is by referring to it as my aptitude for intense focus.

All this to clarify why I start off each day by writing.

But where does karate fit in? I have three priorities in my life: family, writing, and karate. The order I put these in depends on mood and need, either mine or my loved ones. But how to include all three, more or less on an equal basis?

And how do I fit in all my other passions? I’m an exercise junkie, and I love running, swimming, doing yoga, and muscle training. Above all, I love walking. When I was little, my dad and I used to take long walks through Toronto ravines, and I’ve kept the habit of doing these walks. On these walks, my mind works out all sorts of problems, particularly those related to writing.

So.

At the moment I’m managing to fit in karate practice twice a week, always in the afternoons, on no fixed day (this is in addition to two, formal evening classes). On other days, I go to the Yoga studio. I swim. I walk.

Yesterday, in one of Toronto’s ravines, I stopped walking and let loose some punches, for practice. Just a few moves: I was wearing my long, wool fall coat, probably the most expensive item I own (bought three years ago on Boxing Day), and I was nervous about tearing it. I was also embarrassed, and surreptitiously looked around the ravine to make sure that no one was looking. Would someone, seeing me, assume I was not in my right mind, someone who, in my husband’s words, was “reacting to internal stimuli?”

Then I remembered my old Sensei, Konzak Sensei, speaking about courage. “Are you a man, or a mouse?” he would ask. I’ve always amended this to “are you a woman, or a mouse?” (Yesterday, I was thrilled to come across this same aphorism in Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life.) So I kept throwing out punches. Then, noticing my shoes were caked in mud, I stopped punching and continued walking.

I’d love to hear from all of you—readers, mothers, karate-ka—about how you include exercise in your routine. And how you manage your numerous passions. In the meantime, I’m embracing something my friend and skillful career coach, Ayelet Magen, says. Balancing is like standing on one foot, she notes: you wobble, move from side to side as you struggle to stay upright.

 

 

 

 

 

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Imagining Kata

Theoretically, there is always time for karate. In reality, this isn’t always the case. For the last few weeks, I’ve been sick (I’ve caught every virus the kids bring home from school, and other things on top of this). I decided to take a few days off karate to allow my body to rest.

Some time ago, I asked a wise friend and karate colleague who has a very demanding day job how he keeps up his karate practice. He told me that he doesn’t always have time to physically practice karate, but that he always has time to imagine karate. He suggested that I do the same.

The way to go about this is this: you close your eyes, pick a kata, and imagine each move sequentially. Don’t skip moves. Persevere until you reach the end of the kata. Initially—my friend warned—you’ll find that you get distracted from your task, that you can only complete two or three moves before your mind wanders.

No kidding.

I tried this technique months ago to overcome insomnia. I would pick a kata—for example, Ken Zaki Sho Dan—and I would close my eyes and try to picture the kata’s opening moves. I would get through the first few moves, and then I would start thinking of other things—say, whether I had brought in the stroller from the rain, or whether I was being too strict with my daughter when I made her finish her school lunch at snack time (I started imagining my children wracked by eating disorders—obviously I was being a terribly irresponsible mother).

If I was lucky, I would mentally get through the first five moves of the kata, right up until the last punch in the first series of blocks and punches. In my mind, that punch was strong. It was effective. It was like an exclamation point on the end of a sentence. The only problem was, I couldn’t get past that punch. I couldn’t imagine the turn that follows the punch.

I would try again. Again, my mind would tune out. Then, because I’m pigheaded, which occasionally has its uses, I would give it another shot.

I began to know the beginning moves of several katas extremely well. I could practically do them in my sleep. The problem was that the second half of several katas was missing. It became obvious that droves of imaginary attackers were succeeding in beating me up.

After several months, I’m getting better at my mental practice. Now, I can mentally practice a kata in its entirety. I can also picture increasingly complicated moves. For example, I can envision the double block of Ne Fan Chin Sho Dan. For a long time, I couldn’t do this.

I’ve noticed that being able to do kata mentally is correlated to my success at doing it physically. I’ve become better at effecting the double block of Ni Fan Shin Sho Dan because I’m now able to picture it. The converse is also true: if I can’t imagine a move, there is a strong likelihood that I can’t do it, either.

An interesting by-product of this practice is that I seem to have acquired a better working memory. I retain more stuff than I used to. This has improved both my ability to write (my descriptions are more accurate) and to navigate daily life (I can now retain street addresses, which means that when I’m our family’s designated navigator, I can do my job, which leads to less bickering with my husband, which, in turn, produces a calmer marital relationship—amazing, what mental karate practice can do)! I have no way of proving this correlation, of course, but I think it’s true.

So, here’s to imagining more and more complicated kata.

Harold Brodkey

I am eleven pounds heavier than when I left the hospital in May. Now, in the country, I can stand straighter; my breathing isn’t so noisy. I am not in despair or cracked open. Or drastically humbled. And sometimes when I first wake up I do feel my body as I used to feel it when awake when I was younger, that odd, flexible, long-limbed extent of reliability and all the tubes of sensation flashed a little in a silent fusillade, and, in private, one stretched in a courtship display. That old sense of luck, of at-least-I-have-this-whatever-else-happens, returns but not in that verb tense. I feel myself to be smoke. Or when my eye catches part of the arc of flight of a bird, I feel myself shiver and swiftly break into clusters of flight. Sometimes the wind seems to enter me.

This passage, from Brodkey’s AIDS memoir, This Wild Darkness, which tells the story of his life in the months leading up to his death in 1996, is one of the best descriptions I’ve read on what it feels like to be in good health. I love this passage: Brodkey’s reference to long-limbedness speaks to what I experience when I’m at my best in my karate practice.

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.