Another month, and I am feeling further and further behind, more and more confused by the Japanese terms, constantly wondering whether to turn and block, or turn and punch. But I’m still here, still showing up to almost every class – except the one that was two days after the kids started back to school, and my body (to which I’m listening anew) told me I had no choice but to stay home and sleep, an attempt at catching up from a summer-long deficit.
We have another new student, Brad, but seem to have lost the first one, who only came occasionally anyway. Brad is a good bit older than me and had a green belt in this very dojo fifteen years ago but, because of the long break, he’s back to wearing a white one and must work his way up again. He claims to have forgotten everything, but Sensei tells him he has body memory, too. Brad nods but looks skeptical. We learn new moves and Sensei reminds him that he once knew them. Sometimes I can see that Brad has not forgotten, after all, but understands them faster than I do. Which is not doing much for my self confidence in class..
Also joining us now is Will, who is 29 and has been a student of Sensei’s since he was 10, so he’s been studying for 19 years. That makes him my senior and, though I already know Will as a friend, to be formal in the dojo I’ll need to call him Sempai Will. He’s only one test away from his black belt. When I asked him, and Sensei, why on earth he was coming to a beginner’s class, they both smiled as though I’d asked the easiest question in the world. It’s always good to review, they said simply. And that was the end of it.
I’m glad Will is there, though his presence changes the dynamic and at first threw me (no, no one threw me; threw my sensibilities, I mean). Where Ron and I – and Brad and I – are beginners, or re-beginners, Will knows what he’s doing. He can echo Sensei’s commands, repeat the impenetrable Japanese (or, as I’ve recently learned, the Okinawan dialect of the Japanese) and then move correctly. In that first class with Will, I was embarrassed for him to see that I don’t yet know more than I do. After all, I told myself, I’ve been in class for nearly two months. Why can’t I remember to bow and say, “O nei gai shi masu” (“Please teach me”) when I raise my hand to ask a question? Why don’t I yet know how to move when Sensei says to step out in this stance or that, until he repeats the name in English? By the end of class I realized – duh – that I can follow Will’s example. That his two decades of study are a benefit to me, not a hindrance, and – as Sensei keeps reminding me – I’m doing better than I think. Not too badly, I don’t guess, especially for an un-athletic middle-aged beginner.
Now, at least, I can look the part: my gi has arrived (pronounced like ghee, the Indian butter). The first time I tried it on, the stiff, straight, unbelted jacket made me think I needed a hand towel folded neatly over one arm, so that I could offer hors d’oeuvres, or maybe shaving implements, to a wealthy baron. I said as much, and Will and Sensei indulged me with smiles, but I could see they didn’t find it as funny as I did.
My weak joke was an attempt to cover my embarrassment, of course, because when I looked at myself in the dojo’s gigantic mirrors, I felt like a fraud. What was I thinking?? What was I doing in this get-up, in this place, trying not to laugh at the again-ridiculous notion that I could learn Karate?
Here we go again, I thought, remembering my sparse glimpses of something approaching confidence that I might be actually able to do a little bit of this. I sighed to myself and didn’t tell Sensei or Will what I was thinking. Merely let them instruct me in how to tie the belt – wrap twice around the hips, going backward, twist the ends, loop, even up the ends. And how is the knot supposed to come out looking like a sideways “V” and what, exactly, is that supposed to symbolize? Add the knot to the list of things Sensei says not to worry about, that I will learn with practice, without too much thinking.
Very Buddhist, obviously, all this Not Thinking. (Or Knot Thinking, as the case may be.) Very counter to my hyperconscientious inclinations (a word coined by a college friend, a fellow overachiever whose verbatim notes I used to borrow when I missed a class.) For years I’ve been drawn to Buddhism but until recently have held myself at a distance, having once misunderstood – when I first was curious about it – that following anything Buddhist meant abandoning all sense of self. No, I’ve since learned, that’s not it at all. Buddhism is about letting go. About appreciating the moments of life. About not letting yourself get caught up in what you can achieve, what you can gain, or what you already have done. It’s about enjoying life more, not less. And apparently the philosophy works. Otherwise, why are all those Tibetan monks always smiling so kindly? They look a far sight happier and friendlier than representatives of most other major religions I could name. They advocate peace and acceptance of all beings, all philosophies. What could possibly be negative about that? And the people I’ve known who flirt with or follow Buddhist ways do project a sense of peace, happiness, and justice. (Well, except that one woman who, when I asked in my ignorance whether Buddhism was difficult to practice in this non-Asian, not very populated area, looked at me like I had the head of some animal she wasn’t supposed to harm and said sarcastically, “Do you mean is it difficult to become Enlightened?” Clearly it was, for her.)
So anyway, here I stand now in my gi. Which looks crisp and official, and is as hot as, well, Buddhists don’t believe in a punishing afterlife. Maybe that’s why we are sweating now, on this ultra-warm September day. I haven’t washed the gi yet, which I’m hoping will soften it up, and haven’t tailored it to the proper specifications: pants legs no more than one-third up from the ankle toward the knee, sleeves the same measure from wrist to elbow. For now I’ve rolled them up – and want to roll them higher. By the end of class the folds are sticking out at odd angles and I’ll have to measure again when I get home, in order to tack them up.
Sensei has opened the back door of the dojo for a breeze, but the welcome air also lets in sirens, the rattle of a jackhammer, and the fried smells of lunch at the Chinese restaurant, the back door of which opens onto the same alley. Distracting, yes, but focus and concentration are among the skills we are supposed to be learning.
We line up and Will calls out the command to bow to Sensei to begin class. Today we will begin the first kata. The formal sequences the kata, Sensei explains, will contain most of what we have been learning as separate moves. We still will need to practice the rest, and even focus on the ones giving us trouble, but that’s how the system works: the kata are the heart of the Karate. And each has a name, of course. But at least when I learn names of kata, which contain the steps, punches, blocks, and kicks, I only need to remember one name instead of four or five.
At every class Sensei writes the Japanese names, in transliteration, on the white board in brightly colored markers. He has a system for which color he uses for which sort of word, a system I haven’t yet figured out. I also haven’t yet copied down the words and categories, as I intend. As he suggested to us, I bought a marble notebook to use as a Karate journal, and I dutifully bring it in my bag to each class. He has 40 years’ worth of his journals filed away for reference. Presumably, he still keeps one current because, he always says, he’s still learning. But I never get to the dojo early enough, or have enough time or energy after class to reenter the dojo proper, situate myself on the floor and copy the ever-growing list of words.
Slacker! How can I chastise myself for not remembering the Japanese when I haven’t even tried to learn by my usual methods? I’ll write them down. Then I’ll wrap my mouth and my mind around the unfamiliar sounds and after, say, a few times (or a few hundred, more likely), then if I can’t remember, I can let myself complain about how hard this is.
The funniest thing that happens in this class is when Sensei is teaching us a release. He asks me to come forward because we are equally matched in height and he says that will make the move easier to demonstrate. He first grasps my hand, then instructs me to twist and snap, as he’s taught me, to try to release his hold. When that doesn’t work, he shows us what could happen if an attacker knows what we’re doing – always assume your opponent knows more than you do, then hope he doesn’t. Sensei twists and pulls at my arm until I have to bend my knees to release the pressure before it begins to hurt. Point taken. I smile at what just happened.
After class, Will informs me that I’ll be around for a while, that I’m not in classes only for the temporary experience. He laughs and nudges Sensei.
“What?” I ask. “How do you know that? What’s so funny?”
“Any time Sensei hurts you and you come up smiling,” Will says, “you know you’re going to stick around.”
I am confused and look to Sensei, who smiles himself, and nods.
But I know why I am smiling and it’s not because I almost got hurt. I wasn’t afraid Sensei would hurt me. I’m smiling because I see the potential in this stuff. I see tangible proof – in what he has just shown us and in so many other little pieces that I am beginning to string together – that sweating here in my stiff, hot gi, minimizing my embarrassment and uncertainty by trying not to watch myself in the wall-to-wall mirrors – this has a practical application. That I’m here for exactly the reasons I’d planned. Exercise and self-defense. And that one day, sooner or more probably later, it actually might work.
(c) 2010 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.