Monday, January 21, 2013

10th Kyu Test: Early Evidence of Spirit

“How often do we stand convinced of the truth of our early memories, forgetting that they are assessments made by a child? We can replace the narratives that hold us back by inventing wiser stories, free from childish fears, and, in doing so, disperse long-held psychological stumbling blocks.” 
                         -- Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility
WARNING: This post may be triggering.  But the most essential part of my self-identity as a Useful Human Being in this World is authenticity.  I do my best at all times to present my experience as objectively as I can, and how the reader may interpret that is nothing I can change, nor is it my place/responsibility to do so.  Some may feel I am fishing for sympathy or compliments, some may feel I am not telling the truth.  But I will always do my best to write my reflections as they appear to me.  Please take what you read with a grain of salt.  Forever.  Thanks.

Life is better multi-lingual. I just spent a half-hour studying for my 10-kyu with karateka de Venezuela/R.D. The most important thing they said was that we are all there to help each other, and that I just need to ask. It's so easy to ask when I can ask in whatever language I need to use, to say what I'm trying to say. It also keeps things light, because I make a lot of mistakes, so there is lots of laughing, and learning is better with laughter.
 I got the email last week to prepare for my 10th kyu test.  Since then I haven't been able to think of anything else.  I don't know how I haven't cried yet from being constantly overwhelmed.  

On top of life itself, here's what I'm thinking at all moments of every day:

-I was mostly dead last summer, and now I am doing this wonderful thing?  Does not compute.

-Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is terrifying; I live in constant fear that something horrible and irreparable will happen, whether by a mistake I make or by the nature of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome/Dysautonomia
-Maybe it's not safe to be doing karate.
-Maybe it's not safe to not be doing karate.
-I'm an obvious target to a predator because my splints give me away as low-hanging fruit.
-Enough suffering; if I'm going to spend all my time surviving instead of living, my time on earth is a waste!
-I am furious at EDS.  It hurts physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, economically, etc.
-For the first time in years I have a little hope; I don't want to get sick again, to have my hope taken away, and with no one to blame.  I'd rather it were because I were trying to LIVE.
-Before karate no one had ever taught me that my body was worth defending physically, and that I had the power to defend it.
-My wife supports me doing karate, and as a result, she gets the benefits of my better health.  No one is more deeply deserving of my gratitude, loyalty, and wellness.
-I am starting to believe in myself.
-I am determined to build that elusive "mind-body connection" that everyone is always talking about, and that EDS always rips away from me.
-Growing up we could never have afforded karate for me, let alone adequate medical care.
How far I have come, to be able to do this for myself!

For the first time in years I have a little hope....

Although I speak Japanese, I cannot hear in class because I cannot always see Sensei's face.  That has gotten better and better, so I don't expect that to be a problem as much as it was in the beginning.Japanese is usually easy to hear and understand, but it breaks up a little when spoken in anglicized accents. 

As a white-belt, Japanese culture dictates that I stay at the end of the row until I advance.  That way, when I really do move up, it will have been because I did whatever work I needed to do in order to advance.  But because of my hearing and health, Sensei has decided that I should be near whoever is instructing at all times.  This means switching with otagai (each other/other classmates), and I feel like I am cheating the higher belts out of their hard-earned space.  But because of my disabilities I have to learn humility by letting people help me.  And maybe, for others, it's remembering that we all get to where we are because we have help.  Most importantly, Japanese culture also dictates that what Sensei says, the student does; so ends this deliberation, and not a moment too soon!  Because I have more or less grown up with Japanese culture I take it far too seriously.  I wish to give adequate respect, but being too staunch about the rules gets in the way.

Rafael-san, a karateka who first welcomed me to the dojo, asked me today, "How are you doing with your focus, your mind, body, feelings?"  Loaded, question, Rafael-san!  I am struggling to focus, because I am always afraid I will get sick.  When I feel pain or I feel faint, I wonder if I will die if I don't go to the hospital.  I wonder if I am overreacting.  I wonder if I will ever get over the feeling that it's not effing fair!  I lose track of what I'm doing, and it affects my performance.  It's the worst thing in the world, to get in my own way, to see it, and to not know how to solve it.  This is how people torture themselves out of success, and it is not useful.

Rafael-san's advice: Remember, we are all the same.  It doesn't matter what colour our skin, what language we speak, the health of our bodies, where we're from, what we do, how much money we have.  We are here to help each other be the best we can be.  We are there to maximize what we can do ourselves, with what we have, not to do as well as--or better than--someone else.  (Note: I may not have translated this exactly; the conversation was in Spanish.)

The riches of karate come to me through the people who bless me in their ways: Julie, with her unending support and excitement; Sensei-Tony, with his depth and lightness (go-ju kokoro, hard-soft heart); the dojo where I practice, and all of its people who watch me and root for me as I root for them; the parent-child relationships of my classmates and their ilk which give me hope for the future; the friends with whom I grew up who have made no small deal of celebrating this great life with me; and of course, my EDS friends and doctors who have helped me survive.

My in-laws are a constant source of stability and love, too, which makes me desire ever-more self-improvement.  They have taken care of me in sickness and celebrated my best days.  No moment is wasted in our family, and work is always being done because love is always being given.  The same goes for my "adoptive family" - Mom and Dad G., Diana, Margaret and Bobby.  I am never without reason to keep going.

We practice kata (forms) to gain bunkai (analysis; meaning).  But we do not practice kata with partners.  We practice alone.  It is often a conjecture that we are fighting with an invisible enemy.  But in kata we are fighting with--and learning from--ourselves. 

During kata, it seems I can feel everything.  I feel...

-The air pressure and temperature
-My skin burning from sweat and heat
-The soft floor tearing the skin from the bottom of my feet, ripping from the fascia, muscle, bones
-The friction of my gi, warm and loose, catching and pulling my skin apart from where my muscles are moving my bones
-The activation of muscles that are over-taut
-The sliding of joints and vertebrae
-The ache and stab of pain and pressure
-The pulse of my heart that has run out of blood plasma to keep my brain conscious

 ...and still, above all else, I feel happy.  I feel joy...

-To be moving
-To be alive!
-To be present
-To be trying!
-To be safe and monitored
-To be challenged, but protected
-To feel anything at all
-To know that where I come from is miles away, and who I will be is ever-nearer
-To know that no one's expectations of me are less because I am sick
-To know that everyone has pain somewhere, but that my effort reminds them in some bizarre way that the worst pain is giving up.

During kata I struggle with great loneliness.  Can you believe that, for as popular and loved as I am, that I feel lonely?  How can that be?  Well, here is what I am working on within myself during kata, and always: My family of origin is the great question-mark of my life, my great contemplation on "the turbid ebb and flow of human misery" (see "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold).  We are from a background that fights, judges, avoids.  We so strongly want certain things for one another that rely on an understanding and compassion for each other that we don't have, that it makes us fight at least once per visit, and keeps us from living within several hundred miles of one another by conscious choice.  It's hard on all of us to know that we come from hell; we are all trying not to waste another moment of life!  Too much time was spent on satisfying a miserable legacy of genuflect and appeasement for the insatiable demands of the culture we come from.  It takes so much stress and effort to understand what we all want for ourselves, from of our new lives, that we aren't so good at sharing those lives with one another.  

When I pay my karate dues I hear echoes of my mother's voice: "We just can't afford it: I'm still paying for your last hospital bill.How many times I heard that!  What guilt I carried as a child, to feel that I kept my family poor.  What disgust I lived with in my whole family's judgments that I wanted attention, or to escape from responsibility. What power those words still have over me, and over the stress it puts on my life and marriage to still have sky-high medical bills.   

Do not think elsewise than that we are thick as thieves; but we are conditioned to help one another survive.  Thriving costs extra. I am just as prone to yelling as anyone else in my family.  Yelling used to be used as a weapon.  Now, it is what we use for protection.  Silence is how we protect one another from hurting each other with our fear and anger.  That doesn't make it better, but the distinction must absolutely be made in order for the following passage to have bunkai (meaning).

Every celebration still feels like it could be the same trojan horse that it no longer is.  Every struggle is met with the same raging silence that has always kept us apart.  We have work to do.  Until we are all prepared to do that work with each other, we are learning in our own ways to do that work within ourselves and our own personal lives.  I think it's good, and I think it will take time.  But because my health is so unpredictable, I always fear that I will not have enough time to do that work.  At karate I confront all of this.  In publishing this reflection I expect I will also be confronted with the consequences of my misdeed: airing dirty laundry.  But it's not dirty if it's acknowledged and cared for.  The filth is the silence: although it protects us, it ultimately gets in the way. 
When karateka strike choko-zuki (forward punch) we are supposed to yell, "KIAI!"  But it reminds me of the yelling my father would do when he hit us, and I can't make a sound. I lose my concentration here, and luckily, I don't have to do geki sai dai ichi (the first kata) in order to achieve 10th kyu.  When I try to say Kiai, I choke up.  "Yous don't listen until I start swinging!," my father used to say with his backhand raised.  "Don't talk--just say, 'O.K. Dad!" he'd chant, with fistfuls of my hair pulled back to keep me off-balance while he gnashed his teeth with a raging expression and spit in my face with the foam in his mouth.  It will take many more kyu, and much more spirit, before I am able to transform Kiai into the words, "I'm doing my best!" rather than, "you son-of-a-bitch-and-bastard, rotten, lazy, hard-headed kids!But I will never give up. 
The kata is where I begin the conversation.  I love my family; until we are strong and well enough to truly be open and honest, accepting and supportive, I have faith--and evidence--that we are all doing our own kata, searching our fears and desires for bunkai.  No promise exists that we will find bunkai in practice, but the alternative would be meaningless, and waste the effort of suffering and survival that we're all rather tired of doing. 
My test on Wednesday, 01/23/2013 (6:30pm EST), will measure whether I have spent my first few months in the dojo learning the moves.  But no one is allowed to test until Sensei is convinced unequivocally that we have spirit.  Sensei are trained to look--and to see--deeply, in all directions.  Without confronting what I do not understand, I deserve no advancement.  My dojokun relies on Grace so deeply that it is a part of our name.  Grace is what Sensei relies on to test our spirit, and his expectations of spirit are how we grow.  We have to be committed to advancing in our confrontations.  When we are successful, we grow.  When we are not, we learn.  But just like I switch positions with my fellow karateka (karate practitioners) to hear better, I rely on that same humility to see better. 

The formal physical test is on this material:
A fellow karateka helped me make sure I understand the moves.  I feel more prepared now.  Yay!
Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Rest of Karate

In its own cruel and crooked way my body is telling me to stop. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome has a zillionth-degree black belt in sucking the life out of me. I have to accept on some level that it has the power to drop me to the floor at will. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome doesn't give me as many choices as it does chances to adapt to its demands. Like working with a higher-level senpai I have had to learn to fall gracefully, to minimize the damage. It takes many attempts and today is a marathon practice session.

Saturday morning at 8am is karate class. Getting started in the mornings is very hard, and usually painful. On weeknights I am already exhausted by class time, so there is less trouble. I just go for it and crash when I get home for a good night's sleep. On Saturday morning I usually haven't slept well. There is no time to wait for meds to kick in, no time for the nausea to subside before breakfast. There is no time to rub the swelling out or to let the typical analgesic dry. I do not have several hours before class to wear a splint that will get the pain down by keeping my body positioned properly. My cranial nerves still have their death grip on my jaw from a night out of place and the pressure makes it hard to see straight for about an hour.

Today is a couch day. Even though I rested all evening and night my body will not even allow me to get upstairs for a shower. It took a lot of effort to heat some soup for lunch.

I knew that part of my karate training would be coping with missed classes. I am not in any kind of rush to advance belts, I just like being there.  I had gone another Saturday and learned from the bench, and that was okay. I was included just the same and was even congratulated for showing up! That's all I need because I have done a lot of work to let myself simply be present as a form of being enough. I swallow down guilt, frustration and anger to do it.

I still choke on the idea that I am ruining it for other people by making them feel sorry for me. I get a feeling that I should just stay home and not drag everybody down, like self-imposed isolation is a responsible thing when you're sick.  That's someone else's opinion in my head and it isn't true, but it still cuts deeply because the people who claim that are very close to me. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I believe that by showing up and doing what I can, no matter how little, is more meaningful them my absence. My commitment to being there and the warmth I get in sharing a smile with my senpai tells me that isolation is wrong.

Still, here I am: it's a couch day. I'm alone on the couch with my phone and some picture books. I'm struggling to let go of having missed karate. I am too spur to practice on my own. Even using Swype to write this entry hurts a lot! The pain is everywhere, deep, sharp and hot. But I also have to stay out of my own head on my down days, so a short entry is worth the effort.

I hate feeling trapped. It's a real drag. But I am committed to karate, so I will give my body the time it needs to recover and maybe make it back on Monday.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Karate Kid-ness

Ernie-Sensei stayed two days after Gasshuku 2012. Time is the most precious gift we can give, and he made a difference by staying.

Usually I have pretty severe issues with trust to the end that I fall mute.  But I trust Tony-Sensei so entirely that it freaks me out!  I'm not used to being allowed to not know everything.  He keeps me out of my head, includes me.  No over-thinking neurophysiology, just kick.  Don't stand in the back of the dojo so I can hear, just come up and be with the group, catch up on details later.  Tony-Sensei is teaching me far more than kicks and punches.

At Karate I am completely open and happy, which I haven't been since I was five, before my family situation went south.  Ernie-Sensei said, "We never lose our kid-ness," and I understood for the first time that I was nascent in a new way.  I wrote it down, reflected on it, scribbled it down at work when I was being too serious.

The worst thing one can do to a giving person is not let them give.  I have taken to Tony-Sensei quite fondly, to the point that it makes me nervous how much I care for him.  I want him to be well and happy, I wonder if he's eaten, if he needs help sweeping the dojo floors.  Any gift I can bring to the dojo, I want to give.  But it gets in the way of my training to think about these other things.  The best thing I can do for Tony-Sensei is be a successful karateka.  He's the only one who would give me a chance, and he looks after me so carefully, while not treating me as delicately as I feel treated at all my medical appointments.  But the way to give thanks is to work hard and learn well; Sensei-Tony is giving me knowledge and experience that are brand new to me.

Growing up, teachers and coaches blamed me for getting hurt, and all I wanted was to play.  Swimming, hockey and tennis were my favourite sports, but I couldn't play because I couldn't keep my joints in place, or stave off the exhaustion.  They said I was faking, lazy, wanting attention.  I didn't have a diagnosis or adequate medical care until I was 25, so the experience of mistrust is deeply rooted in every past trial and error.  Tony-Sensei has taken a different approach, keeping an eye out for me in class, pushing me to succeed by accepting my limitations.  Every expression he makes of that acceptance knocks the wind right out of me and I have to fight tears at every class. That's when the practice means the most; it's the first time I've ever been encouraged to push my body in a way that won't cause me physical or psychological injury (save for the wonderful work my physiotherapist has done with me).  I don't think my Sensei has any idea what a gift he is, because maybe he, too, is burdened with the pain of other trial-and-error events of his own.  We all have our burdens to bear, and that's where hope carries us toward better developments of self.

Ernie-Sensei demonstrated ways to pair up parents and their children to encourage play, something my parents gave up on doing because our circumstances had become very stressful.  Last week I did my first roundhouse kicks!  Tony-Sensei held the pillow, and cried out playfully, pretending it hurt.  In a flash I remembered my grandfather, how he used to play with me, pretending he hit his thumb with a hammer, or pretending to startle and putting up his dukes when I'd wake him up (because he'd been pretending to be asleep!).  I finally remembered what it meant to play, and I still haven't sorted out the feelings at work which are trying desperately to reconcile a lifetime of abuse and neglect.  I thought, if my Sensei has been through so much in his life and can still play, then so can I.  With that I let myself be innocent, fun, and in full-force kid-ness mode.  It turns out I have a lot more energy than I thought when I just let it go!

It's so overwhelming how deeply I am affected by my new adventure that I'm in tears as I write this. Here's a peek into the reasons:
-Travesty: Nobody ever played with me the way my grandfather did, and that's a shame.  I miss Papa, who never blamed or hit me, just gave me encouragement in the weird ways he could, taught me life skills that nobody else did.
-Curiosity: Every time I learn something my body can do, all the stuff I can't do comes up in my memory.  The adrenaline of suffering is very frightening!  A little bird told me, though, that right on the other side of that pain is relief.  I want to see what that feels like.
-Safety: No one is going to walk away if I pass out, dislocate, get sick, or anything else beyond my control.  No one is going to hit me if I cry out in pain so that I have "something to cry about."  They're going to help with prevention and response.  And, it's going to be fine.
-Relief: It's been very hard to find community in Maryland.  After eleven years here this dojo is the first place where it's not "every man for himself," but rather, "help your partner be the best they can be."
-Fear: 100% of my day, I am hyper-vigilant and anxious about the next time I will get sick, because I am afraid I will miss my new karate family, and the loss will be terrible.  In reality, that won't happen; they'll stay in touch.
-Joy: Pure, unbridled joy.

6:30am.  It's almost time for karate!  Saturday morning never looked so good.

Be well.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Ahh, it's good to be back!

The goofy smile on my face gives me away: I am astonished by every move I make.

For several reasons I laugh:
-I am overwhelmed with fear that I will become injured and lose everything in the blink of an eye, and if I don't let that ridiculous notion out I will either enable a self-fulfilling prophesy or collapse from the anxiety.
-I have no idea how loudly my bones are cracking, but I know other people can hear them throughout the entire class.
-I have never taken so strongly to a person as I have to Sensei. I cannot believe how easy it is to try anything at all, to allow myself to be fully included. Baffling magic. Or simply love.
-I trust my fellow karateka and I am giddy to be among them, no matter how awkward I feel, no matter how peculiarly my bizarre body is behaving.
-I cannot understand why my body goes in strange ways when I understand and try to enforce the physiology of each move.

I laugh because I feel good in class, no matter how scary, painful, or lofty the work gets. I am safe, no one is going to let anything bad happen to me.

A Senpai noticed that I was backing off and slowing down. She spoke up and asked if I was too hot, because I was dancing around the blasts of heat from the registers overhead. The class waited while the thermostat was adjusted. I was able to complete the class! Thank heaven for the people in my dojo!

Sensei held the pad while I did my very first roundhouse kicks tonight. He played with me, shouting, "Ooh! Ouch!" as I kicked. When I stopped to breathe he encouraged me to keep going: "Let's go! Let's go!" He held the pad high when I was able to kick high, and lowered it when I needed a break. I thought of how my grandfather used to play with me, and let myself feel free to discover what I could do.

Tonight's lesson: it is harder to roundhouse kick with a dislocated hip than it is to stand on it and kick with the better leg. Flinging a loose hip knocked me of balance a number of times. The better thing to do was slow it down and mind my range of motion. That's just a limitation I will have to learn to work with.

All these new discoveries about my body are showing me that I have many more capabilities than limits.

"Get a couple of successes under your belt" was some advice my brother gave me when I got my new job, because I had been struggling to get settled. In karate, every time I give my best effort it is a success, no matter how it plays out. So if I am struggling with a move and am discouraged, I practice the other moves I know very well, and tip the scale a little bit by getting in touch with my strong foundation. Then I go back and give it a try again, and the attitude reset gives me new mettle to work with.

Nobody in the class seems to mind that I go off and do many things differently. On the contrary, they seem to celebrate that I show up. Their inclusion keeps me from allowing myself to stand still and feel bad when they do something it wouldn't be safe for me to do.

The skin on my finger split open on nothing at all tonight, and that was discouraging. I forget that my body is so fragile. I'm just glad it wasn't my feet.

In class I enjoy myself. I like watching myself in the mirror. I watch my body move, I look at how Sensei moves his body and I give it my best shot. I trust myself to continue on my own, rather than staying focused on what Sensei is doing. I have to move slowly and carefully, so my tempo is my own. It seems that when I am most focused, I am keeping up with the class. But it feels like Sensei is aware that I am getting something out of the current exercise, and he is slowing the class down a little bit so I can really get it. I like Sensei. He cares about every student. No one slips under the radar; we learn together, but at our own paces. We all waited for a karateka to finish his practice kicks because he was very focused, and was giving every kick 110% of himself. I don't know whether this sense I get about Sensei is emotional or perceptual, but the sweetness is just as real either way.  In any case, it feels good to have someone wait for me. It makes me feel valued, like I am worth the wait. I know a lot of anxious people who are always in a rush, and I feel badly for their suffering. So for Sensei to be so patient, I enjoy the chance to feel important, and I also like joining in on the wait, so that other people feel valuable, too. Waiting for others is satisfying. When my karateka finished his kicks, I was very happy for him.

The holidays were lovely, but I really missed karate! I wish the dojo would never close!