I dreamt that Higaonna-Sensei visited my dojo on my testing day. He looked so healthy, happy, and energetic that I kept my nervousness about testing in front of him under control because staying calm and collected in times of conflict is his #1 lesson.
In my dream I passed to my 2-kyu, but he had much to say about what improvements I needed to make. He gave me a technical analysis of what to modify so that my disabilities weren't in the way of my efficacy. He a gave me strict feedback about where I was clearly getting in my own way for fear of injury or fainting.
How I wish I could remember anything he'd said! We spoke mostly in Japanese and I was preoccupied with translating, and with not getting overwhelmed by how generous he was in his time with me, when there are so many people who would kill for that kind of time with him. The only way I could focus was to know that the only way to honour those people was for me to focus, work extremely hard, and to do everything I knew to make Higaonna-Sensei happy with his student. I received a glut of his time and attention.
This has got to be, in part, a manifestation of how I felt during MCF2014 in Tampa, Florida, USA. I'd had a number of difficulties and was driven to tears several times from the complications.
On the first morning of training I had accidentally come to black belt training. I arrived late, so I wheeled to the back and parked my chair against the wall, doing gentle juunbi undo (karate warm-ups) and trying not to draw attention as the karateka in the wheelchair with lights on it. Nakamura-Sensei politely informed me that this was the black belt class and I'd read the schedule wrong, but he invited me to sit and watch, which I did, soon finding myself a fish out of water. I was 5-kyu at the time, a blue belt.
The day before I found myself sitting in the dining room of the hotel at the table next to the senior instructors. Higaonna-Sensei and I faced each other from our respective tables and exchanged informal head bows, with smiles throughout our meals. I knew who he was and now I knew he was curious about who I was. At the time the only other wheelchair user I'd ever heard of was John Marrable-Sensei in New Zealand. I'd only seen Marrable-Sensei in pictures, but I knew he was out there in the big world, and from his representation I gained infinite gusto about representing myself in my wheelchair to break barriers and stigma.
Within seconds of Nakamura-Sensei's invitation Higaonna-Sensei walked up to me, cutting right through the lines, all the way from the front of the class. He did not rush, and his face was neutral. He did not look at other students as he walked, but came straight to me. We bowed. With no delay he held out his hands. They were covered in scars, knobs of arthritic and glycated tissue, and dry patches where I presume blood and water could no longer compete with the chronic assaults on the capillaries that carry nutrients to the surfaces of his hands.
"Whatever you do, do it a hundred times," he said, as he rapidly opened and closed his massive paws into fists. "every day. Then you will be strong. Just one hundred times. Okay, good."
Just as quickly as he came he was gone, back to teaching the black belts.
Later, outside in the Florida sun, we were taking photos with him and with students from our respective countries and I passed out from the heat. A fellow karateka happened to be a paramedic and helped me inside to safety. I collapsed on a patch of floor off to the side of the stairs and he helped me start my IV pump. It became apparent that I had worried Higaonna-Sensei because he came to me when he was through with photos, an entourage behind him, to see if I was recovering okay. When he saw that I was in good hands he gave me two thumbs up and went on with his day.
It isn't easy to be "the one in the wheelchair." It can feel like I'm getting extra attention I don't deserve, and like I'm taking away from other students. Someone's I just have to be humble about it, other times I have to fight for it to get my own needs met. It's important for the instructor to be aware of your needs, especially in matters of safety, but also in matters of equally access.
Higaonna-Sensei teaches so many people that he can't possibly get to know all of us. And yet, he took much time to meet with me, to talk with me, and he even asked Nakamura-Sensei to take a picture of us so I would have one. "You look like you are having fun, I see you smiling when you practice," he said.
How I wish I could see him again. I wish he could see how much stronger I am. I wish he could know all that my Sensei has done for me, how Goju Ryu has changed my life, thanks to his proliferation of the practice.
We only get so much time on this earth. May we all use it to change and improve lives.