Skip to main content

Empty-Handed

The main character in Matka Danu Miklagarth is a scrappy fighter. She isn't big or strong, but she's tough as a red squirrel, with hard-callused heels and dirt under her nails and an instinct for mayhem.

In a sense, she's an alternate-universe version of myself as a teenager. I was a nice, quiet city girl growing up, but I trained in a hard, intense martial art through my tweens and teens, and I could never resist darting off into the woods and climbing trees and cliffsides when given the opportunity. My own daughter, though she is different from me in many ways, shares those inclinations.

This week, I have introduced a new practice for my family that is inspiring my writing, giving me some uninterrupted time to write one day a week, and healing a break in my heart almost 20 years old. I am sharing with my daughter Karate-Do, the way of the empty hand.

Mama knew her stuff back in the day. As a youth, I knew I'd never be very big, physically powerful, or rugged, but I liked surprising people by proving to be a lot tougher than I looked. The element of surprise was important in my training, which combined Shotokan with US Special Ops, Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, and other techniques. We did a lot of self-defense role-play using realistic scenarios: a kidnapping, a mugging, a schoolyard brawl, street harassment. We learned how to make quick judgments to assess level and type of threat and to respond accordingly with de-escalation, escape, or, if absolutely necessary, the right kind of fight. In every case, we used psychology to throw an attacker off balance with unexpected postures and facial expressions.

And we trained our bodies hard to reduce our fear of pain. Shotokan is known for its drills that harden the body and mind to prepare for the survival of beat-downs--torturous feats of endurance, anaerobic muscle work, callus development, and learning to believe that "pain don't hurt." My Senseis sported mullets and loved to quote Road House. I often came home from class bleeding from split purple and yellow contusions over my long bones. It was basically MMA before MMA went mainstream.

This training made me feel so invincible against physical violence that I almost wished for someone to start something with me so I could demonstrate my secret power.

Of course, nobody did. I was a cute little honors student from a nice family, and I had practiced a casually homicidal stare so off-putting to hecklers that I never got the chance to thumb anyone's eyeball out of its socket, snap an elbow Jiu-Jitsu-style, or break someone's neck with a scissor flip kick (though I did send a burly Sensei to the mat headfirst before they forbade me from ever using that move again).

I did spring into action to protect others a few times, from sexual harassers and thieves. I never had to strike anyone, though. I succeeded repeatedly in scaring away men larger than myself.

I was all in. Karate became an important part of my identity and way of life. And then my primary Sensei retired to take care of his growing family. By that time, I had transitioned into a co-teaching phase leading up to the black belt test. I remember my Sensei's goodbye to me and the two boys who had come up in the ranks with me, his sorrow at leaving us at this critical point and his urgent wish that we go on without him. I was absolutely committed to following through and making him proud.

And then I learned that without him, there was no one left above me at the dojo who wanted to see me succeed. I had another Sensei, a younger one without a mullet, who had helped to train me as well, but we had a rather inappropriate dynamic going on that didn't end well. (That is another story entirely, which I used for a cheesy piece of short fiction in my 20s.)

Although there were a couple other girls in training sometimes and a woman Sensei I saw on occasion, that dojo was a hardcore good ol' boys' club with a twist of Revenge of the Nerds mentality. My retired Sensei had been an excellent teacher and a wonderful man of good character, but after he left, I found myself training with two kinds of guys: the ones who just couldn't hit a girl, and the ones who really liked to hit a girl. I felt alternately neglected and beaten down with undisguised malice.

When I failed at something, I was laughed at. When I succeeded, it was worse. The hyper-macho, competitive culture of the dojo had gone toxic. The owner of the dojo continued to welcome my five bucks and my help in teaching self-defense to traumatized adults, but he joined right in laughing at me when I got injured and dismissing my successes as some kind of female witchery, quick to comfort and shore up the egos of the boys I beat in competitions of sparring or endurance.

There was no shame greater than quitting, but that's what I did. One day, I bowed at the door and walked out through the snow, barefoot and empty-handed, and never came back.

And there was no closure for me. I didn't stay in touch with a single person from the dojo. The next time I drove by the place where the dojo had been, it was gone. Just like that.

And to weirden the mystery, this was in the days before everything was on the internet. To this day, when I Google the name of my former style of karate, all that comes up are the bios of a few teachers and professional fighters describing it simply as "an obscure form" they learned long ago.

Poof.

In high school, just before I walked out of my dojo, I met a classmate whose father manages an international school of dojos around the world. I learned that he is headquartered here in our town and that he is the highest ranked master of Shorin Ryu (the ancestor of Shotokan) in the United States. I've been intrigued and interested for the better part of 20 years, but I visited the dojo for the first time just this week, with my seven-year-old daughter.

Nux Gallica has been interested in the idea of martial arts for a few years now, and I've taken her to try out a few lessons designed for younger children in softer styles like Taekwondo and Sanchin Ryu, but she never really connected with the teachers or the classes, and damned if I'm going to teach my daughter to be ashamed of quitting something that isn't serving her.

Now that she is seven and we've been studying the nation of Japan (including Okinawa) for fun this month, I thought it would be a good time to pay a visit to The Real Deal Dojo. It's a humble little place off a busy thoroughfare, across the street from some noodle shops, where nobody answers the phone and I still don't know how much classes cost, and it is the most wonderful local treasure.

The kids who train there--tweens and teens populating the single youth class--are both disciplined and warm, male and female. They took Nux under their wing right away, as did the head honcho himself, who has been at Nux's first two classes, giving her special attention and welcome.

The grownups who file through the entrance to get ready for the adult class afterward are a friendly mix of men and women, long-haired dudes and gray-haired ladies, dads with daughters, and people from my generation to my parents'. My husband described the feeling of the place as something like the lovely Buddhist temple where we used to meditate with a motley group of English speakers from all walks of life.

The most beautiful part of it all is Nux's enthusiasm. I don't think I've ever seen her so focused and eager to learn something difficult.

When I watch the class go through familiar warm-ups, stretches, drills, and katas, I feel all lit up with muscle memory, and the unfamiliar warmth of this dojo culture fills up that place of loss inside of me.

It's a different kind of strength I see growing already in my little girl, who is too young and too precious to go through the kind of conditioning I enjoyed, until I didn't, as an adolescent.

I am so grateful for this opportunity to share this experience with my daughter--from the sidelines one day a week and at her side when we practice at home--and to let my husband take her off my hands one day a week, so I can spend a couple of hours doing my own thing, writing the story of a girl who runs away and fights and loves and learns when she needs to be hard and when it is right to be soft.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be:
You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")  35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't waste time o…

Happy Spring Awakening of the Rusalki!

The water spirits demand hard-boiled eggs.


According to MagPie's Corner on Facebook, the ancient Slavic holiday week known as "first Rusalii," when the rusalki first awaken in the rivers and streams, is happening now. Apparently, they wake up hangry for bread and hard-boiled eggs.


My family will be baking bread and boiling and decorating eggs, you know, just in case. We do live very close to a river. And traditions are important.

So happy First Rusalii to you! Happy Good Friday! Happy Easter weekend! Happy spring, no matter what or how you celebrate. Where I live, Easter is going to be the first warm, beautiful day we've had in a long time, with many warm days to follow--the perfect weather for a spring awakening.

P.S. Matka Danu Miklagarth, epic historical thriller featuring rusalki-impersonating pirates, is nearly 170,000 words long. If this book ever gets printed, it could be used as a weight to walk across the bottom of a river for real.

The Golden Moments

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone. -George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) 

The only time this is not generally true for me is in the fall. This is the golden moment when I feel most alive, aware, and present with everyone and everything around me. This is when my daughter and I begin most days with a walk in the golden hour of the morning, in this most golden season of the year.

It's also that magical time when my little golden child is still excited about school, from our morning walks to seeing her friends at recess to the Scholastic Book Fair to riding the bus home with more friends. She has already earned another "Golden Warrior of the Week" award (for exceptionally helpful behavior) and received an excellent, glowing report at the first parent-teacher conference of the year.

I've extended my "fallow period" from working on my novel, and I'…

My Alpha

It turns out my husband is a fantastic alpha reader. Who knew? We've been married for 13 years and have known each other for 21. And last weekend was the first time I ever had him alpha read for me. Turns out he's the best creative partner I could ever hope for and that he still has the ability to surprise me with hidden talents and acts of love.

My husband is not really a fiction reader. He probably hasn't read a novel since high school AP lit class. It's not that he doesn't love a good story, it's that he doesn't like sitting still long enough to read a book or watch a movie. He's a very active and extroverted man, and he'd rather have a conversation or a real-life adventure than read a book. He's kind of like Gaston if Gaston weren't an asshole.

So until now, I haven't wanted to bother him with requests to read my writing, because reading novels isn't his jam, and also because I've always harbored guilt at how much time I spen…

My Parents Bought a House in My Neighborhood

Welcome to the West Side, Oma and Opa! My family is among many who have chosen to live closer together as the Boomer generation retires. Whether or not we have children, we want to make sure our parents are within reach so that we can help them stay healthy and free to live in their own homes--and, of course, so they can help us hapless Millennials and Gen Xers with their home renovation skills.
We need each other more than ever now that health care is a nightmare, social supports have been weakened, economic inequality is rising along with sea levels and pollution, and loneliness has become a deadlier epidemic than smoking. I believe that we are also rediscovering, after a few decades of cultural emphasis on independence, the value of family bonds across generations.

Modern science reminds us that humans evolved to live well past our fertile years to give our families the power of grandparents and that close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren are healthy for childr…

We're All Gonna Die, So.

Happy All Saints, All Souls, Samhain, Day of the Dead, Diwali, or other festival of mortality! We're all gonna die, so let's love it up while we're together.

This year, my family kicked off the season of sweet sorrow by dressing as the three best members of the Addams Family to trick-or-treat at a local park. It's a good thing we took that opportunity for a Halloween "dress rehearsal," because it turned out to be the only chance we had to put on our mysterious and spooky drag this year. Our poor little Wednesday caught the public school pukes two Tuesdays in a row, held out through the next one, and succumbed to a third bout on the morning of Halloween. Sometimes, you spend all month grooming your Gomez mustache (pictured above left) or your Morticia nails (one of which I bent backwards but was able to save--oh, the beautiful agony) and then trick-or-treating is canceled anyway. C'est la vie. We shall carve a pumpkin and roast its seeds for our departed …

Ísbíltúr: When It's Too Hot for Hygge

October is here! It's time for sweaters and crackling fires and pumpkin pie and... a climate crisis heat wave. I just got out all my knits and candles and squishy throw blankets, only to endure a couple of swampy, Florida-hot days. In October. In Michigan.

This is the third year in a row we have had a sweltering heat wave in October. It does not make me feel the hygge. I feel... I feel...


...more like death metal Greta Thunberg, yeah.

So I decided that, instead of burning up fossil fuels and warming my house by cooking dinner, my family would explore a different Scandinavian concept: ísbíltúr, the Icelandic national pastime of going out for ice cream.


We ate ice cream for dinner. Outside. In October. In Michigan.

Today, it has finally cooled down outside--for now. I got out the velvet pumpkin basket stuffed with hats and gloves and put it in the foyer, by the mosquito repellent and the flip-flops. You never know what you might need on the walk to school.

No matter the season or th…

I Have Created Something!

I have completed (and rewritten and revised and revised again and edited) an epic historical dark thriller. I have written a subversive Parsival tale in contemporary style, narrated by a a teenage orphan girl of unknown heritage, raised by a hermit of unknown origin, with no particular religion, certain race, or coherent social class, a girl who seeks identity and meaning along her adventures with assorted outcasts, misfits, criminals, and trailblazers. It's a queer, multicultural, interracial, boundary-blurring brick of densely woven subplots and big themes glued together with tears and profanity and bestial love. In other words, I have produced the kind of Byzantine journey saga that only the Millennial alumnus of an urban American public school with both gang violence and a celebrated AP program could have written.

I have no idea whether this work can be packaged and sold as a consumer product (though I sure hope it can), but in this moment, I am riding that high that comes afte…

In a World of Calvins, Be a Hobbes!

My favorite season is here, and I'm taking a short break from working on my book to bask in the joys of fall. Beautiful autumn days are too precious to waste! I'm renewing my vow to be a Hobbes as part of my 2019 mantra to Be Bestial.


I'm taking author Kate Angus's advice to give myself a fallow period, even if it's short. For the next week or so, it's going to be stormy outside, which is both detrimental to outdoor activities and kind of exciting and inspirational, so I'll be back at my writing desk. If all goes well, I will soon be working on my agent submission documents!

BE BESTIAL: A Mantra for 2019

Call it a resolution, a Phrase of the Year, a slogan, a motto, a mantra. Whatever. This is my battle cry, my howl, my declaration of love for the final year of this tempest-tossed decade. This is my medicine, to be taken by myself and offered to anyone else who could use the same antidote to our zeitgeist of vapid soullessness and cynical waste.


I want to get back to nature--my nature, human nature--not in the sense of rejecting vaccines and worshiping crystals pillaged mercilessly from the habitats of endangered beings but in the sense of honoring the depths of every layer of my own mammalian brain and body and those of the people-beasts all around me. I want to get back to trustworthy instincts, back to passion, back to the visceral pleasures of real life.

This year, I'm gonna be a savage, because brutal times call for brutal humor. Ain't no shame in this filthy game. The appreciation of sick jokes is associated with higher levels of education, intelligence, and emotional sta…