After shaking my instructor's hand and apologizing for my laziness, (he understood of course, he always did) I got ready to head home. "Hold on a second," he said. "I have your belt."
A few weeks ago, I had ordered a brand new embroidered black belt. My old one, which I had been wearing for over ten years at that point, was starting to look pretty beat up. It was grey, torn in places and had loose black threads everywhere. In other words, it was pretty bad ass! My instructor himself had one of those belts, faded and worn, knotted together, too cool for words. But it was time for a new one, if only so I could take turns wearing them; new belt for regular class, old belt for sparring when it was useful to remind everyone of the wars I had been through.
I put my new belt into my bag, shook my teacher's hand again and turned to go. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said.
Perhaps Matthew and I went out for dinner. Maybe we went home to Williamsburg and watched a movie together before I fell asleep on the sofa and he played video games until 2am. I don't remember. Whatever we did was not nearly as memorable as everything that would follow.
On Saturday November 20, 2004 we were running late for class. Very late. So late, in fact, that we started to play a little game called "Blame it on the L train." As we walked to the station Matthew said this, "Ok lets leave it up to fate. If the train comes right away we'll go. If not, we will go back home." Williamsburg residents, especially those who like to get to work on time, can attest to the unpredictability of the L line. But that morning it was pulling in when we got to the platform. So we went to the the dojo.
I had my new belt in my bag.
You know how this story ends. The dojo was locked. The phone rang and rang. Eventually, someone climbed through a window.
There were four of us who entered the dojo together that morning, and every time I think of our group I cannot help but picture a Stephen King novel. We are "the ones who found the body." I don't know what demons the other three carry (dreams of creepy clowns come to mind) but I know my own. Panic whenever someone I love does not answer their phone. A completely irrational fear that at any given moment everyone I love might just drop dead.
Yeah, therapy is good.
But here is the real point of this story. Shuseki-Shihan William Oliver passed away in his dojo on November 20, 2004. About a month later, the remaining Kenshikai Association heads asked my husband, and by extension, me, if he wanted to take over the Upper Westside Dojo. He agreed. That was eight years ago, and what began with a simple mission, just to keep a small group of Shihan Oliver's students together, turned into our life.
I never wanted to run a dojo. I mean sure, I taught karate classes sometimes and loved it, but I never thought of having my own place. The current UWS dojo has over 150 active students and this March marks five years of being in its current location. (We were renting a small room inside a yoga studio for the previous 3 years.) We have somehow survived all kinds of struggles and kept a small business alive for five years in Manhattan in the worst economy since the Great Depression.
Of course, we did not do this alone. You helped. All of you. And I don't just mean our students, I mean all of you. Friends, family, everyone. My day job is to teach tiny 3 year olds how to do front snap kicks, and it is the best job in the world. But I did not interview for it. I did not choose it. I run a dojo because on November 20th, eight years ago, an amazing martial artist and teacher, suddenly passed away.
For all intents and purposes, I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. I do not believe in a life that has been predetermined. And yet...
The handshake. The L train. The locked door.
And my belt.
The Tuesday night prior to that terrible weekend was the last time I tied my old black belt around my waist, the last class I took with my teacher. That belt now sits on my dresser at home, loose threads and all. I have not worn it since. The new belt, the one Shihan Oliver handed me that Friday night, has never been worn while he was alive. It, by pure chance, has become a symbol of my new martial arts journey. I wear it to teach class. I wore it when I earned my fourth degree black belt (my first and only promotion without him). I will wear it tonight.
Eight years is a long time. I do not miss him the way I did after one, or two. Sometimes weeks go by without me even thinking of him at all. And that's ok, that is what moving on is.
But today, when I tie on my belt to teach class, I will take a moment to remember. Remember, and give thanks for the unexpected. For the unplanned. And maybe even, for fate.
If there is ever a place where it exists, it is here.