Never the joiner, today I jump into something Momalon cooked up: five for ten. I’m quite captivated by the idea of multiple bloggers concentrating on the same theme at the same time, a deliberate attempt to heighten some sort of shared consciousness. Here goes for “courage”:
I was always the very shortest kid in my class growing up. Sadly, Peter Wolf (the second shortest) claimed to be the very shortest one day in 7th grade so that he would get to be a team captain (since the coach said that the tallest and the shortest would be captains that day), and since Peter was more popular than me the other kids agreed that he was shorter once he wanted to be shorter. Hah!
Somewhere around this time I took it upon myself to learn a martial art. The only one available that knew how to get to by bus was Tae Kwan Do, and I became a diligent student for over a year. Several days per week, in the rain, the snow or the sunny spring I rode down to the Dojo, which always smelled strangely sour and exotic, like the thick cotton of your uniform when you first bought it and tied it up with your plain white belt.
My Master was an eighth degree black belt, which was pretty impressive. You could make first-degree black belt in around year if you really tried, but to get to the second degree was much more difficult. Eighth degree was like a mountain peak shrouded in mist. The Master had sleepy eyes and a few thick hairs about his chin that couldn’t really be called a beard—but it was more than I had on my pubescent chin. He had only a few words in English, and those were spoken with such a thick Korean accent that we pretty much never spoke—a sort of worm-hole Shao Lin Temple just blocks from my family’s Jewish Temple on Toughy (looks “tough,” pron. “too-ee”).
We did drills, routines of punches and kicks, and we leapt over bars to send flying kicks into a dense and unyielding bag. And we would spar. For some reason I was the only kid in the class and I would often have to spar with this twenty-seven-year-old guy who towered over the instructor. It all seemed like good stuff to toughen one up.
Months rolled by and belts changed from yellow, to blue and purple… I can’t remember them all, but one snowy Chicago day I got off the bus and trudged through fast-falling sleet, past the White Hen Pantry of the strip mall and into the silent dojo. I changed and we waited, but no one else arrived. The Master then put me through some exercises and drills and then he gestured for me to come at him with a series of kicks. I did as he said, and he batted each kick away like it was a pathetic gnat.
Sleepy-eyed as ever he subtly mocked me and bid me to kick harder. I did, but the harder I kicked the more it hurt my shin as he thwacked each attempt away with blows so deft I couldn’t quite see them. I felt my frustration and determination rising, my shins aching with lightning bolts of pain and then, I’m not quite sure how it happened, I got the kick of a lifetime through the buzzing rotors of his arms. Perhaps because I was a diminutive twelve-year-old, the height of my kick was pretty much testicular. I felt my toes absorbed by something much softer and squishier than the master’s forearms, softer than the tough old bag… and then time stopped.
The Master’s eyes came terribly awake. All eight degrees of his black belt instinct triggered awake and in a flash both instantaneous and almost languidly lyrical I found myself sailing through the air, slammed onto my back with the Master standing over me with fists of fury poised like scorpion tails over my shocked face.
I saw the Master’s sense of time and place return to him, the pain and shock receding from his groin and the realization that I was a little kid who helped pay his modest way in this city so far from his home coming back into focus. As he stepped back, allowing me to get back up uninjured I saw one other expression flit across his face for the briefest flicker, an expression I had never seen and would never see from him again: respect.
Tae Kwan Do had its share of strange experiences, like the grown man I met at an exhibition where you vied for your next belt. While waiting he chose to tell me, in graphic detail, all about his work… as a mortician. That wasn’t right.
I hit my own limit as a brown belt when it came time to break boards. I was certain that I would only break hands and feet, and I guess my dilettante interest had run its course.
Once in New York I tried Aikido, but all I got was vertigo so serious I eventually had to go to the doctor over it—the conclusion was that my inner ears were not the best and I’d lost some hearing in one ear (probably from one particular Boomtown Rats concert). As much as I wanted to be part of those swirling circles, those noble warriors, that path was blocked for me.
Perhaps I write about this as an inkling of what boys and girls without power sometimes experience as they try to make their way into the realms of courage—of power, respect, manhood or womanhood and the need to figure out who they are and who they are not. As much as we want to protect our kids, sometimes they need to taste dirt in order to learn perseverance and find their true paths; and as parents, sometimes we get kicked in the tender spots and we respond, half-animal in our reactions honed over battles of many sorts waged over a longer span of years on this planet than our kids, and something in us also appreciates their fight, their life spirit and their emerging power.
Here’s to hoping that we can honor the courage we all possess, particularly the courage of the group, and here’s to the power that accrues of our courage and hard-won wisdom, carrying the spirit of those we have lost forward with us as fortification, illumination and ensouling vivification… and to developing the restraint to then channel our love-driven power down the paths of right action and right thinking.