“I hate red,” I heard myself saying several years ago. It was a phrase I had parrotted from the adults around me. I didn’t know why I hated red; I just thought I should say it. I think I felt threatened by red, plus a little jealous. In high school I weighed 110 pounds (proud to say I’m still not much more than that) but hid my body in baggy T-shirts and unstylish jeans. I scoffed at women who got manicures and massages but never really understood the reason behind my snarkiness. In college I didn’t wear makeup and floated around in sweatshirts that could double as blankets.
Deep down I was envious of the beauty and vivaciousness around me because I didn’t see it in myself. I didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t develop a sense of style or put some effort into my looks until my late twenties. As an aging athlete with a sedentary job I now view massages as a necessity to wellness. Somewhere along the way I stopped (other than some minor relapses) thinking I was fat, ugly, and worthless.
Red can be a scary place. In taekwondo red means…stuff just got real. You can’t hide when you’re red. It’s time to hunker down and work hard because (1) that black belt test will be here sooner than you know it (2) people are looking up to you from all levels. It’s time to show your instructors what you’re made of and set an example for the lower belts. Red is kind of like being a junior in high school. You don’t face the pressures that the seniors (black belts) do, and you’ve moved beyond the lower awkward stages, which in my world involves being the lone adult in a class full of wobbly little kids. “You’re going to be a good black belt,” Grandmaster said when I turned in my testing form a few days before the test. Wrapped in the compliment was an expectation and serious responsibility.
Red places the spotlight squarely on me. It is bold, confident, and at times complicated. I tend to be introverted, so I’ve learned that I can let my style speak for me when I can’t articulate my words. I like the person in the mirror and I like the mind swimming within that person. These days I wear clothes that hug my hourglass figure. I wear makeup that highlights my piercing blue eyes. I carry myself with the posture of a dancer strutting like a punk. My favorite shoes are patent-leather peep-toe Dolce & Gabanna pumps in bright red. No matter what my day was like I shrug it off and walk into the dojang with a Red Belt Mindset and a smile. My roundhouse kicks are high and my poomsae (form) is graceful. My one-step sparring is precise and my board breaks are clean. Even when I stumble or look awkward I am having fun and looking forward to what’s next. I’ve got this.
A red belt also means your boyfriend buys you an ice cream cone at Dairy Queen. Score!
A year ago today I faced an exciting and unusual challenge. I tested from white to green, skipping three levels and proving that I was ready for the big kids’ arena. I had a few moments of freaking out before that test but in the end trusted my instructors and finally myself that I was ready. I was also taking a big leap in the relationship arena. My boyfriend and I had just started dating, and a few days before the green belt test we both shyly, amidst grins and giggles, said “I love you” for the first time. It was the first time in many years that I had said it and actually meant it. It had been nearly a decade that I had heard it spoken sincerely to me. In fact, the moment I knew I loved him was when he said there wasn’t a question about him going to a long boring belt test. “I’m your boyfriend,’ he said. “That’s my job.” Cue my heart exploding.
Seeing his smiling face in the audience was even better than getting my green belt. That day we were also facing a challenge that would overshadow and shape much of our budding relationship. A year later we’re still going strong, I’m still in the dojang, and he still isn’t able to get out of sitting through a long boring test.
In a month I will be hitting a (minor) milestone birthday. It’s been on my mind for the past few months, not so much as a looming thundercloud but as a nuance, an interesting and shiny oddity. I couldn’t even contemplate this age 10 years ago, when I was a dumb kid fresh out of grad school with her first grown-up job. I had sacrificed my early twenties for a long-term relationship and was learning how to truly be alone. A year ago I was an self-medicating insomniac and resenting being truly alone. The beauty of solitude was overshadowed by the cruelty of loneliness. Even though I was well into adulthood I was still figuring out who I was and whether I could allow myself to become that person with so much potential. I was only a few years into being comfortable in my own skin. My mentor told me I was becoming more “real.” Just like I did as a younger woman I hid my pain from most of the world behind a mask of accomplishments. There was no alternative to being a productive member of society; I couldn’t just shut down, give up, and check myself into a resort somewhere although I probably needed it. If I broke down no one would be there to catch me fall. I had to continue carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders.
Taekwondo was my escape from a nightmarish false world and catapulted me back into technicolor reality. It forced me to grow up. I learned to laugh again, to trust people again, and had something to look forward to every week. Ironically the place where I learn how to brutally harm people is the place where I let go of my tension, worries, and anger. “Take out your aggression on me. Think about someone who made you mad today,” an instructor barked as I kicked the pad he was holding. I couldn’t! I had no aggression to release; my spirit was light and my heart was open. What the heck?TKD helped me take off my mask and realize that the person behind it wasn’t so bad after all.
I’m exactly where I want to be in my career, and beyond where I thought I would be in my love life. Sometimes I can’t believe this is my life.
More often than I’d like, though, I see the world in a wash of grey. I count my losses rather than my blessings. I take for granted just how freaking cool my life is. Red belt is a big deal, and once I let my perfectionist grip lessen just a bit I think I’ll recognize that.