A Blank Canvas: White Belt (Part 1)

My journal of my martial arts training begins on April 3, 2005, shortly after I received my orange belt – so my reflections on the first six months of my training will have to come from memory. The most prominent theme in my own mind when I think of these months was my own desperate obsession with secrecy. I did tell my parents that I was starting Tae Kwon Do, and at some point I confided in some old friends who lived far away, but I was absolutely determined that no one from my current life – meaning no one at the boarding school where I lived and worked – would know what I was doing with my evenings.

Keep in mind that less than four months before I started Tae Kwon Do I had been fired from (oh, all right – not invited back to) my first boarding school job. Losing a job at a boarding school is like being fired, evicted, and divorced all at once. In fact, even leaving a boarding school voluntarily and on good terms is like being fired (because teenagers are automatically programmed to assume that any teacher who leaves a school must have done nothing less dastardly than molest the headmaster’s grandchildren – and when you work and live with teenagers you automatically start to absorb their paranoia and penchant for drama), evicted (because the housekeeping staff stands outside your door tapping their feet and looking at their watches while you pull up in your U-Haul), and divorced all at once – except that in this case the divorce is a no-fault, whereas being fired is like getting one of those 1950’s divorces where you have to admit to adultery, insanity, and attempted murder of the family poodle just to get the right to keep your own clothing.

I got my uniform after my sixth night of class. Martial arts uniforms come in a total of eight sizes, and these eight sizes are expected to fit everyone from three year-olds up to six-foot-four-inch Marine lookalikes like my instructor, who said, when he gave me the uniform, “Koreans make these uniforms. Koreans think all people are square.” My uniform was a size six, which meant that it fit me reasonably well around the waist but that I had to cut about eight inches off the sleeves and cuffs before I could wear it to class. I spent several evenings between my sixth and seventh classes trimming the four limbs of the uniform, pressing flat creases into them, and lovingly hand-stitching the new hems – grateful all the while for the fact that I went to a crazy all-girls elementary school where sewing classes were still mandatory well into the eighties. Even after it was altered, my first thought after I put my uniform on was that my martial arts career may have just ended. I have never been a fan of sweating. When I was little I thought there was something wrong with me when I started sweating. This is a consequence of growing up in a city where it’s never hotter than 70 degrees, I guess. In San Francisco, you really can live without sweating very much, especially if you have a mother who is willing to be liberal in her use of excuse notes for P.E. And anyway, this martial arts uniform was made of polyester – and even after I cut off a total of 32 inches of fabric, we were talking about a LOT of polyester. And polyester makes me sweat. I began to sweat just standing in my bedroom in it, and I caught myself starting to listen to the little voice inside me that had persuaded me to quit every single thing I had ever tried the minute it became uncomfortable or difficult. After six classes, I had already figured out that Tae Kwon Do was going to be embarrassing sometimes: it was going to ask me to do things that I could not do easily side by side with people who could do them easily – and then it was going to provide me with loud, public commentary from instructors about the fact that I was not completing the assigned tasks properly. And now it seemed that I was going to be asked to do these difficult tasks with my entire body draped in white polyester that felt just about as breathable as a cheap dime-store Halloween costume. And, what was more, I would have to do them while sweating.

So the uniform was big. And it was made out of polyester. And to make matters worse, it was also white. Which is not a slimming color. Nor is it a color that helps a person keep her martial arts proclivities private when moving to and from her vehicle on a boarding school campus after dark. Wearing my uniform, I glowed in the dark. I rummaged through my boxes – still packed from my recent move – and found the rain pants I used to wear when I was a crew coach. They were baggy, since I had purchased them to wear over at least one layer of street clothes on cold, wet days on the lake, and they were navy blue. Perfect. So every night I put on my uniform in my bedroom and topped it with the rain pants and a sweatshirt. I made a swishy noise when I walked, but for some reason it never occurred to me that I might have to explain to someone why I was wearing rain pants in the middle of a drought year when it was ninety degrees outside. I wasn’t nervous about having to explain away my false façade – that I could do easily if need be. It was confronting the white polyester truth underneath that terrified me.

I had another reason for keeping my evening activities a secret. My boss that year was a man named Sean, and he had told me during my first weeks on the job – either right before or right after the serendipitous day that I stumbled upon my Tae Kwon Do school in Hemet – that he held a fifth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Now, the fact that one holds a fifth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do is not something that just inserts itself naturally into conversation. He told me because he wanted me to know. Now, there are some people who have devoted decades of their lives to martial arts who would be wonderful sources of support for someone who was just starting training – but I knew by instinct that Sean was not one of those people. Sean was the kind of person who could seem condescending even when he was picking his nose. (Which he did. Often. In the office. But that’s a story for another day.)

At first I went to Tae Kwon Do on Wednesdays and Thursdays – these were the only nights I wasn’t on duty on campus. Around five p.m., I ate dinner (either two peanut butter sandwiches or a bowl of chicken noodle soup and some canned pineapple – don’t ask how these menus became sacrosanct, but somehow I got it into my head that these were the best meals to eat to both fuel myself for class and not end up vomiting or getting stomach cramps) and continued my day-long quest to drown myself internally in water. By six I was in my uniform and rain pants; by six fifteen I was in the car.

Now I need to tell you something about the drive I took to and from Tae Kwon Do each night. This drive is nothing more than a tour of some of the most spectacular vistas in North America. I never got tired of driving up and down that mountain. But like every other part of my life during this period, my feelings about this drive were mired in contradictions. In particular, I was also terrified of it. About four years before I moved to Idyllwild, I had picked up a fear of driving in windy places (windy in the meteorological sense, as in “subject to high wind velocities,” not windy as in tortuous – this mountain was often windy in both senses of the word) and of driving on narrow mountain roads where I could plainly see how high up I was – largely as a result of some bad experiences driving through New Mexico, Arizona, and California during a winter windstorm in December of 1999. And this was the kind of road on which you knew exactly where you stood: you were HIGH UP. You were PROFOUNDLY SMALL in comparison to the scope of creation. I tell my students about these mountain roads when I am trying to explain the meaning of the word sublime. It didn’t help that once, early in my time in Idyllwild, I saw a car take a turn too quickly and simply plunge off the road entirely, landing out of my line of sight at the bottom of a sagebrush-lined gorge. Another time that year I rounded a turn and found myself face to face with a pickup truck that was in FLAMES – totally consumed in orange. I couldn’t tell if the driver and any passengers had escaped or not. I didn’t dare to stop, and the narrow road required me to pass so close to the truck that I could feel the intense heat of the flames and hear their hissing roars even with my windows pulled up. You get the idea. These were roads of death. They were also roads of beauty. I never got tired of them. And in three years of driving on them almost every day, I never stopped being afraid of them either.

I spent a lot of money on gas when I lived in Idyllwild.

I always reached the bottom of the mountain with plenty of time to spare, because, of course, I had to engage in the various acts of subterfuge required to shed my rain pants. And pee – because all that water I drank (usually about 3 liters in the two hours before leaving Idyllwild and another 1.5 liters on the drive) had to end up somewhere. So I made the circuit of several fast food restaurants (generally KFC and Arby’s, sometimes with a third stop at Burger King if I needed one). I chose these particular establishments because it was possible to walk in the door and go directly to the restroom without having to make eye contact with the employees. I didn’t mind tooling around Hemet, California in a full-body outfit of polyester and rain gear, but I was damned if I was going to be known as the girl who shows up at seven p.m. every Wednesday and Thursday and goes IN to the bathroom in rain pants and comes OUT in a karate outfit. That would just be too much.

Usually at this point I had some time left over (before the days of fibromyalgia and insomnia, I was always early everywhere. But to Tae Kwon Do I was pathologically early), and I usually spent it just tooling around Hemet, feeling nervous and excited and getting myself psyched up for class. I parked in front of the school around fifteen minutes before class. The adult classes at my dojo were held at 7:30 and 8:30 pm. On Mondays and Wednesdays the beginner class was first, and on Thursdays the advanced class was first. While I waited for my class to begin I tied my belt and watched the end of the previous class – either the advanced children or the advanced adults. Then that class ended, we bowed on to the mat, lined up, and began.

To be continued…

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2 Responses to A Blank Canvas: White Belt (Part 1)

  1. Tara says:

    Do you miss it?? The martial arts?

    • lfpbe says:

      Terribly. Even with everything that’s happened, I still drool over TKD websites and think of going back. Actually, there is a Tai Chi class near me that I plan to try sometime soon.

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