Breaking the News

I’m at the dojo an hour early but that’s ok. Hanshi asked me to focus on kata for two weeks straight, working all the forms I know while I was in residency at VCCA. Tonight’s private lesson is to demonstrate how I may have improved and receive critique on how to strengthen specific movements within each form.

But first let me start by saying that I feel as though I am in a new body. Training for the Pine Tree purple belt tests in July took everything to a new level. I was away a lot of August and September, but cross-trained and practiced. I’m home for my final 3 months in North Carolina and my total weight loss is at 24 pounds. The clothes I wore senior year of college are too big for me now, which means that while my weight is the same as it was in 2001, my muscle mass is up and my fat percentage is down.

And so it is that I don’t recognize my arms anymore when I see them in the mirror…and I’m starting to see actual shape to my legs, where before I only saw hints of muscle beneath the heft. And so it is also that after 22 months training with Hanshi, I can walk in the door knowing I’m going to sweat bullets for 2 hours and still walk out with a bounce in my step. What I don’t know is how on Earth to tell him that I am I leaving…

It’s just the two of us so there’s no need to bow in, but I bow to him all the same. I begin with Wunsu Kata, where my timing and actions are on point but my shuto blocks hard and soft at the wrong times. My right palm down block after the kiai is facing the wrong direction and all of my nikodachi’s could be a bit more regal. Next is Anaku, which has always been my strongest form. I need to make my double block bigger but otherwise, just keep working it. Empi-Sho and Bassadai need the same nikodachi and shuto block corrections, which all boils down to refinement. Bassadai also needs stronger, more committed side kicks (better hip rotation with less torso dipping) and correct hand/foot timing with the closing collar grab.

Nate arrives a little before 7pm for adult class and joins me in working Naihanchisho and Gopeisho—my two most challenging forms and the newest in my repertoire. A few other students trickle in, and we begin class. Tonight, a line up of punches, partner drills, and kimenokata. As usual, we go past 8pm and it’s 8:30 by the time I’ve changed and jotted down notes in my book from the board (Example: the parts of zanshin, remaining mind). I’m sitting in the lobby, lacing up my shoes, trying to figure out a way to start the conversation without giving away the ending first.

Nate comes out of the changing room, pulls out a 3-ring binder, sits down next to me, and starts taking my pulses. He’s in a 3-year acupuncture certification program and likes to use his fellow karateka for practice. Scribbling in his notebook, next he asks me to stick out my tongue. Then, more pulses. Finally, Hanshi peaks his head around the corner and seems me scribbling in my notebook with one hand, the other hand tied up with Nate’s inspection.

“Your kata looked good tonight, Katey,” he says.

“Thank you sir, I appreciate the opportunity to come in early and train.”

“I can tell you worked hard while you were away.”

“Yes, sir, I did. I actually wanted to talk to you about that. I was wondering if I could up my training over the next few months and start to come in at 6pm every Tuesday and Thursday, just to sneak an extra hour in.”

“Of course! Yes, sure. Anytime. And if I can help I will, but if you just want to use the space and work the forms or one-steps on your own, you can do that, too. Use the weight room, do whatever.”

“Thank you, sir,” I say.

“Starting in January we’re going to be thinking hard about Shodan [1st degree black belt] for you. You need your brown first, but there’s nothing I want more than to see you through to yudansha [upper ranks] and earn your black belt. You have a strong heart for it and good skill.”

“Thank you, sir…Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that…about January…”

Nate looks at me, his fingers still taking my pulses, which by now must be haywire. Hanshi looks at me too. I stare at the floor.

“That is,” says Hanshi slowly. “That is, assuming you’re still here in January…”

I swore I wouldn’t do this but I choke up and my voice turns all froggy: “I have to move to Michigan,” I say. “I mean, I get to move to Michigan. It’s for a really important, good opportunity…”

We talk about training via distance, sending video footage of my kata and one-steps, emailing once a week, and setting up a training regimen. We talk about weekend seminars and me flying back to NC every few months for 1/2 personal lesson sessions with Hanshi. He congratulates me on the good career news and I can tell he is sincere. Then, he tells me a story about his first dojo that he had to leave. He said his girlfriend broke up with him, he got laid off, and his family didn’t live nearby. The only thing he had going for him anymore was the dojo and he had to move on. He did, but he stayed with the style and kept training wherever and however he could, and look where he is today.

“What we’re going to do is get going on your kumite [sparring],” he says. “We really need to get you up to speed, literally, with that. Your response time and your techniques, all of it.” Hanshi pauses and looks at Nate. “And you can’t do that alone. You need to train with people. We’ll work that as much as we can the next three months.”

Hanshi’s pacing now, hands on his hips, thinking to himself. “Yeah, and then we’ll keep at it with your forms. Because you have all the knowledge for a Shodan right now. It’s just that there’s a difference between knowing and doing. But we’ll get you there.” He keeps pacing, looking up at the lights, looking back at me. “It’s possible. I’ve had this kind of conversation with a dozen people before but I can tell that when you say you want to do something you do it. Where there’s a will there’s a way and I know this will work out.”

“Thank you, Hanshi,” I say. I tell him about my cross-training, about my weight loss, about my desire to still pay membership dues to the dojo while I’m in Michigan. I tell him that I already got permission from Interlochen to train in their dance studios (hardwood floors and good mirrors) after hours. I tell him I’m getting paid well for the job and I’ll be able to afford to fly back for a weekend or a seminar here and there.

“If all goes well,” he says, stopping mid-stride. He looks at me again. “If all goes well, we could test you for Shodon a year from now at PAMAI in Atlanta. We wouldn’t stop the whole conference for it, but we’d just take you aside into a separate room with a few other people,” he looks at Nate…”and we’d test you there. You’d be receiving your first degree as yudansha in front of 40-50 of the might highly trained karateka in our system today.”

He keeps talking, but I’m still stuck on the look he gave to Nate after he said that thing about being taken in “a separate room” with “a few other people.” I won’t know a true black belt test until I see one, but I’ve heard enough to know that it’s more than just a few people. And if I were to test at a conference as renowned as PAMAI, supposedly they’d recruit people for me to spar against from the legions of highly trained yudansha in town for the conference. My mind races. It’d be a stretch. More than a stretch.

I look up and see Hanshi is still talking, his pacing resumed. “I believe you can do this. I believe you can do it. We’re going to see this through,” he says, and with that, he pats me on the shoulders giving them a hard squeeze. Then he gives me a big old hug, simple as that, and another backslap.

I bow and say good night, then walk across the dark driveway to my car. It’s a cloud cover night, stars and moon totally hidden. I can’t see a thing as I walk confidently through the darkness toward the general direction of my car. It’s black as a black belt out, and that’s when it hits me—I’ll find my way to my car just fine, and I’ll find my way through the rest of this training just fine, too. One foot in front of the other, slow and steady. Focused and determined as always.

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