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Between Hardwood Floors and Sweaty Mats

I just finished reading a book about a man named Chris McCandless who walked off one day into the Alaskan wilderness to "live off the land" and never made it out. If you are interested in his story go here:  or read Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. For the purpose of this blog it will suffice to say that he was an intense person who felt that his true calling was to exist deep within the wilderness with little to sustain him except for his wits and the clothes on his back.

I would never do this. I think trees are pretty but the woods make me very nervous. I do not like to be places where my cellphone does not work. I do not like to be too far from other people. I do not like bears unless they are behind a barricade in the Bronx Zoo. I would barely last 2 days in the wilderness. It is not my thing.

Martial arts is my thing.

But all these blog posts about being evaluated for promotion and going off to watch people fight in tournaments, have got me thinking. Who am I, or more importantly, who am I now?

I too used to be a competitor, first in point fighting and kata and ultimately in contact sparring.  Although I was always nervous before my fights, I lived for the hard training, the adrenaline rush, the sore knuckles and bruised shins. I was never the most strategic fighter but, as my late instructor used to say, I "liked fire." (This was a euphemism for the fact that I used to spar like a puppy straining at her leash, all excitement, not much thought process.)

As I started teaching more, I stopped competing. Then I opened my own dojo. Then I became a mommy. In other words, my focus was now on things other than training for competition. (Also, I am now in the "senior division". In sparring, once you are over 35 you are no longer relevant.) 

Yet I still take karate class twice a week. And jiu-jitsu.  On average, I am training in one martial art or another 5-6 days a week, every week.  Clearly I am still into this. But at what capacity? And why?

For the most part, I still enjoy practicing karate. Also, I do not want to be one of those teachers who is all talk and no action. When I teach my kids how to do a roundhouse kick I want to be able to demonstrate it myself.  So when I am in my own class I try to find specific things to focus on, today I want to do everything fast, today I want to breathe correctly, today I want to not let my mind wander. In sparring class it is different. Even though I am the highest ranked person in the class, the room is full of yellow and green belts who are better fighters than me. Also I have recently realized that while I might make you tired, I doubt you are getting fooled by my creativity. I am not a very smart fighter. (Do you sense a theme here?) While it used to be enough for me to simply survive Friday night class, now it seems I want more. Or perhaps, much less. 

The truth is, when it comes to sparring, I am often of two minds. One part of me wants to start over, to learn how to spar the right way, to become a thinking fighter who reads her opponent and sets him up with techniques like a chess player, from ten moves out. The other part of me just wants to retire. After all, I paid my dues, took my beatings. I am someone's mommy now.

Then, about a year and a half ago I decided it was time to broaden my horizons and started studying jiu-jitsu. What I was looking for was something very different from karate, a style that replaced my katas with scary looking chokes and cool arm locks. It was awkward (some dude I had just met was sitting on top of me), confusing and totally out of my comfort zone. I loved it.

But what I did not realize in the beginning, when I was simply thrilled at learning how to sweep someone, was that I had also signed up for tons and tons of sparring. Ground sparring sure, but sparring nonetheless. That thing that I am not sure I want to do anymore? It is all over jiu-jitsu. In fact, you cannot really train without it.

So who is the martial artist I want to be now? The master, confident in my wisdom, doing tai chi by the ocean? A warrior who punches walls, kicks tree trunks and does pushups until my arms fall off? The tiny BJJ girl who can wrap you up in her guard like a fly in a spiderweb?

To be honest, deep down, I am a fighter. I always have been. I don't like that fire any less now than I did when I was 20. I think I am just more scared now.  I know that bones can break. Concussions are real. I have to teach 4 classes tomorrow. I don't want to be the one at the playground with the black eye. Like I said, I am someone's mommy now.

And yet...I think I am not quite ready to get out of the kitchen.

The me I want to be now lies somewhere between hardwood floors and sweaty mats, between triangle chokes and shrimping drills, between meditative silence and explosive energy.

I haven't found her yet. Maybe she is even on a mountaintop, or lost in the forest somewhere, but I'm not going there. There's no wifi. And besides, I'm too busy trying to figure out how to pass your guard. Preferably without hurting myself. (I am over 35 you know.)


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