Survivor humor: Nothing if not dark.
There is a lot I could unpack about the newest leg of my martial arts journey. The joy of finding a new teacher, colleague and friend with whom to learn. The humility of knowing he was seven years old the first time I stepped into a dojo. The insatiable curiosity I have about the art, a curiosity that is not satisfied by questions but by action, by trying again and again each new move until I can understand in a way that is wordless and sightless and deep in the body.
The novelty of wrestling with boys, after twenty three years of training only with women, of choosing only women as intimate partners. The strangeness of their clean hard bodies, of coming home smelling like aftershave. So different from training with earnest separatist women whose bodies are like my own, who speak feminism and smell vaguely of compost.
Not just the fact but the way that these men are bigger than me: not longer or softer as the larger women were, but simply more massive. Their arms and necks and shoulders incomprehensibly bulky with muscle.
When my new teacher says, “Brace your head against my chest,” it is, without exaggeration, exactly like placing my head against a wall.
The exhilaration of training hard: the effort it takes to flip myself and my training partner over and over. The bruises on my shoulders from driving myself into the mat. I won’t find them until the next day when my daughter bumps her bony noggin against me.
The play, the surrender, the feeling of sudden powerlessness when he tackles me, takes me backwards out of my own center of gravity to start the exercise, the giddiness of falling.
And the flare of anger that comes in the middle of the game, in the middle of technique and trust, in the middle of camaraderie and curiosity. The moment I am furious that for girls it can never be only a game. The moment when in the middle of playing I am no longer among friends. I am every woman ever forced backwards out of her center, every woman tackled and powerless and falling.
The moment I need every moment of those twenty-three years of training to pull me back to this room. Afternoon sun slanting on the hardwood, mats of red and blue, aftershave, instructions. Brace, bridge, roll, pin. Breath.
The moment I remember that my body is a safe place for me.
The moment I know that the skill of finding my way back is every bit as much an art and a triumph as the throw I am learning.
So it happened that my teacher gave us, as our final move, a pin that he called “bicep control.” I watched him demonstrate it with my training partner and something in me smirked. I thought about my tiny hands on their mighty arms, of how insubstantial I am as an attacker to any of the men, how they send me flying.
There is an expression of startled gratitude that I know well. I have seen it on the faces of countless women who I have taught to break a board or release a grab. It says with childlike glee, “I did that!” and with astonishment, “I can’t believe that just happened!” and with great and tender emotion, “Thank you.”
I know that was the look on my face when that pin worked.
There are so many ways we help each other in this world. We boost each other up, we carry each other through the rough patches, we are each other’s safe places. But when someone can give us our own power, can see a strength and hand it to us, saying, “I think this is yours,” it is the profoundest kind of help.
It is a gift.
It is a blessing.
It is grace.