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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.

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