Note: I originally started writing this post on April 9, 2017 and then forgot about it. Now seems like a good time to bring this back. This is a bit of a love letter and a call back to a post I wrote last year when I was in a very different state of mind: Taekwondo Is Always There.
Two years ago I attended the United States Taekwondo Grandmasters Society banquet in Dallas, Texas. The annual event attracted seasoned and honored grandmasters from all over the country, including my grandmaster from my former dojang.
One of the guest speakers was Olympian Jackie Galloway. She talked about how tradition was inextricably intertwined with a martial art that continues to evolve. People change too, but as Jackie said in her heartfelt speech, “Taekwondo never leaves you.”
I left taekwondo when I was twelve. I left it again for a few months in late 2018. Both times I felt lost. With delight I later discovered–twice–that taekwondo had never left me.
The first time I left taekwondo was due to a number of changes my family was going through. Life happened, as it is wont to do. Frankly I hated sparring so much by that point I was a little relieved to quit. As I got into junior high and high school and extra curricular activities it faded to the background as something I’d done as a kid. As an adult I’d remember it occasionally and fondly as the one sport I was good at performing (well…except sparring).
And then it came crashing back into my life when I absolutely NEEDED it. I had tried many other things to ease years of emotional pain and dumb choices. Some remedies worked to a degree, but I still reached a breaking point. I KNEW without external prompting that I had to get back to taekwondo. It was there waiting for me all those years later.
After making the the gut-wrenching and heart-breaking decision to leave my dojang as an adult I wondered if taekwondo would slip quietly into the background and become something I used to do but wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore.
Taekwondo was still there waiting patiently for me when I started classes at a new dojang in December 2018. It was there when I volunteered to referee sparring matches at a black belt test. It was there when I kicked a focus pad again. It was there when I tied on a chest protector and slipped on my fighting gloves for the first time in months (I’m better at sparring now and actually like it…most of the time). It was there when my new master welcomed me to her school with open arms. Taekwondo was there when I realized (with relief) how happy I was again.
I have felt so much more light-hearted and easy-going these past two months than the entirety of 2018 that I wondered with a bit of disappointment that I had an unhealthy addiction to taekwondo, like a dependency on a drug or alcohol. The past few years of training have not been all sunshine and flowers, even when things were awesome at my old dojang. I have had some dark times, and I know that at some points I used taekwondo classes as a band-aid for more deeply lying issues. Was this new happy, productive me the real me or was this just my addicted brain on taekwondo?
I talked to a friend about it, and he told me not to worry too much about it. He didn’t think I was relying on taekwondo to make me happy. His philosophy was that people needed some sense of belonging, whatever that looks like. As introverted and as guarded of my time as I am it does feel good to have a sense of purpose and connection. I think I was missing that more than I realize.
Even though I’m a planner I know life can still have unexpected twists and turns. I may have to leave taekwondo again at some point.
The nice thing is, I know now that it will never leave me.
Last Tuesday my home was struck by lightning. I don’t mean there was a power surge during a thunderstorm. I mean the building was HIT directly by a giant, bright, crackling bolt I saw as I was driving home. Whenever I see distant lightning strikes or smoke from a fire I think, “Gee, I hope that wasn’t my place, hee hee ho ho,” and nonchalantly go back to my day.
This time it was my place.
Thankfully I got home just at the right time to (1) not be electrocuted myself (let’s say I’d been home earlier and had the misfortune of plugging something in at just the wrong time) and (2) call the fire department in time to catch an exterior smoking outlet that sent scorch marks all the way up to my attic. Here I was thinking the main problem was a bathroom outlet that burst into flames after a breaker was flipped. Turns out the damn building was on fire…kinda.
My dishwasher and internet router are dead, but other than that everything is fine. The electrical problems have already been fixed courtesy of my condo HOA.
I knew something messed up like this was going to happen. I’ve been in a constant state of anxiety and anger and resentment and distrust and worry since the beginning of the year. Everything was a crisis, and every action from someone else was a slight against me. I wanted desperately to stop caring so much, to really try hard and keep to my “zero f*cks by forty” mantra. But that proverbial stick was pretty far up there if you catch my drift. A great deal of my stress was relieved when I quit my taekwondo school last month, but apparently I was still in such an emotional tizzy that I needed a literal shock from the universe.
In a real crisis I’m pretty calm. Outlet on fire? Oh, let’s just smash a towel over that. My heart was pounding when I called 911, but panicking and screaming would do no good in this situation. I sat primly on my couch while fire fighters tramped all over my hallway, attic, and back porch.
I will say that experience made me much more relaxed for some personal matters I had to deal with the next few days. Life is pretty good when you’re not homeless.
My problem is that I panic during the pseudo-crises, which we all seem to drum up in our fast-paced, overly connected, in-your-face society. I could do with a bit less of all that right now.
Real life has settled in again although I’m not sure how or to whom to express my deep gratitude for being so lucky. I try not to get pulled into the spiral of “what could have been” thinking because it’s too scary. I’m back at work. I bought tickets to a play. I was a little on edge the first time I ran my dryer and heater in case some little lightning goblin had holed up for a few days and was waiting to wreak havoc at just the right time–everything was fine.
If I’m not careful and mindful the lesson I’ve learned from this will evaporate quickly. Very rarely is anything a true crisis. The house fires, the heart attacks, the all too many mass shootings, the car chases, the financial ruin–the real times of peril are crises. Nothing else is that big of a deal, and I say that just as much for myself as I do for others. Work stuff–not life-threatening and as a bonus they help pay for my nice home that didn’t burn to the ground. All the drama and stress and unhappiness around Taekwondo this year–it’s OVER and I’m free to enjoy my time off and pursue other ventures. Even personal relationships–all the little stuff doesn’t matter.
I said in my last post that I’d have to keep trying to let go and not care as much and just enjoy and be thankful for what I have, and damnit I’m going to keep trying. Hopefully it won’t take another bolt of lightning to keep me on the right path to emotional and mental freedom.
A funny thing happens when I get what I want and am in a happy place in life. Having not yet mastered the practice of true detachment, any success or gain I have comes with a fear of loss. It’s a package deal. I thought I had gotten past that feeling, the one where I get what I think I want but am still unsatisfied and continue to chase that elusive momentary high. I thought I had progressed. I’ve done SO much work on myself in the past six years. As I leave my thirties I’m proud to say I’m a much different person than I was when I entered them, but it looks like I have more work to do.
I’m in a good place in life. No, scratch that, I’m in a VERY good place in life. I’ve made some gains that I would have NEVER thought would happen for me. Sometimes I can’t believe that this is all real. I had a good day today. Like, an Ice Cube song-worthy good day. I woke up feeling relaxed, ran some errands, and chilled out at home for a while. And then….there it was. BAM! Anxiety and sadness rushed in and grabbed me in a bear hug.
My mind wasn’t necessarily racing with erratic thoughts (it was still pretty focused on one or two things), but I know I was freaked out because my physical symptoms of extreme stress and anxiety manifested: my neck felt hot, I had visible tremors, my breathing was shallow, and I felt the telltale sign of when I’m really in it deep: a squeezing sensation in my chest. The telltale heart, so to speak. The pressure around my heart is a rare symptom and only happens when I’m feeling extreme stress, even if I’m denying that feeling to myself.
“I don’t want to feel this feeling again,” I said to myself as I nervously pawed through laundry. It wasn’t the anxiety that bothered me. It was the attachment that got my attention. That pesky act and thought of attachment has messed up my life in more than a few ways. It has caused me to sabotage my life with foolish actions based on foolish thoughts. Nope, I had worked too hard on myself. I was not going to let this happen again.
I tried to go about my afternoon but I burst into tears when I was chopping vegetables, and I hadn’t even tackled the onion yet. I don’t let myself cry in front of people anymore. I can talk to a trusted few people about things that are bothering me, but there are certain things that I have to work through alone. Processing it, mostly through journaling, helps me take an objective look at the situation and offers both some possible reasons and solutions. Sometimes I’m able to resolve my problem without seeking outside help. It has helped me avoid many unnecessary confessions and more importantly, unnecessary confrontations. I have a pretty good system going. It’s a lonely process, but it works.
Or maybe at least I think I have to do this alone. Maybe I’m making it too difficult for myself. I don’t want to share certain thoughts because I feel it will cloud someone’s vision of me and ultimately condemn me. I’ve been wrong on many occasions, but old habits die hard. I hate being vulnerable, and I’m afraid of being rejected and hurt. I’ve weakened my capacity to trust and have faith in either a person or a process.
So there I was, crying in my kitchen, and then…I laughed. I had caught myself red-handed. I hadn’t defeated my nemesis but I’d found that bastard hiding in the shadows.
About a year and a half ago I wrote a post called I Am My Own Nemesis. I discussed some of the ways doubt and self-sabotage can creep up on us. This line caught my eye:
“Fear:Fear of the unknown, fear of being rejected, fear of physical harm, fear of loss (money, relationships, stability, job, etc.), fear of being exposed or “found out,” which goes neatly in hand with self-doubt.” The very first post on this blog is about fear.
And that’s what I’m feeling: good old fashioned fear. Fear of rejection, fear of loss, fear of pain, fear of giving more than I’m receiving (or conversely, taking too much), fear of offering love that evaporates against a brick wall, fear of losing my material comforts, fear of once again having to trudge through all this shit alone. Ha! Here I go again…
The good thing about all the work that I’ve done on myself is that I’m self-aware enough to catch myself when this happens. I’m a big believer in the law of attraction. It has worked too many times for me in my favor not to be real, especially the seemingly serendipitous steps of my (so far) successful career. It’s also worked against me. Like attracts like, and I know damn well if I dwell in anxiety, fear of loss, and fear of rejection I’m going to attract what I dread the most. I have ruined more than a few relationships with actions based on my (sometimes) unfounded fear. And with that fear comes attachment and dependency on something or someone else to make me happy. And with all that, I make choices that cause me to feel more fear and anxiety and pain.
I only allow myself conditional happiness, and that’s the problem. I really want to be in that constant state of contentment and more importantly confidence. I’m getting there one day at a time. When I’m on the other side and have finally overpowered my ultimate nemesis I’ll let you know.
Ah 2016, the year where everybody sat back and said, “WHAT THE F_CK IS GOING ON??” Seriously, what was up with this year? A bunch of cool celebrities died, people were blowing each other up and shooting into crowds, scores of refugees were trying to escape their war-torn countries and many died in the process while the world watched, the US presidential campaign was a nightmare that further divided the country, sexual assault is still a thing that goes unpunished, racial inequality still runs rampant, people were walking into traffic trying to catch a damn Pikachu, and that’s just some of the stuff that was happening publicly.
Privately, I had three deaths in the family, lost a very sweet coworker to cancer, saw illness and death strike several friends and their families (and even a few pets), went through a very upsetting time of uncertainty at work, and to top it all off, a neighbor recently moved, taking her very friendly and affectionate cat with her. What the hell, 2016?
I have never been so happy to welcome in a new year. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the overall shittiness of 2016, so perhaps now is the time for me to be grateful for some good things that happened in my life:
I paid off my car. Now I can put that money into my mortgage and my vacation fund. Santa Fe, here I come!
I got my “Instructor” patch for my taekwondo uniform. Technically I’m an “assistant instructor” if we’re just going by rank, but I guess since I hang around the dojang so much they probably figured they’d better give me something to do.
I got more experience coaching at tournaments. This year we took students to five tournaments. I gained a lot of experience preparing students before the tournaments, coaching them during their fights, and giving little pep talks when they were feeling discouraged. I also discovered the joy of tapping into my inner Bianca del Rio and making fun of cheesy demos. Not today, Satan!
I FINALLY got to do leadership coaching at work! From April to early December I was running from one location to the next having coaching sessions with managers and directors in my company’s hospitals. I seem to have a knack for it, and it has been the highlight of my career. My clients trust me, value my advice and opinions, and on more than one occasion have referred to our sessions as “therapeutic.” Hmm!
I visited my West Texas hometown. I haven’t been back since my parents moved five years ago. In May there was a reunion for the high school theater department, and I had a blast enjoying the wide open landscape, driving around town (cuz “driving around” is a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment in West Texas), running around the old theater with my classmates, meeting the current fresh-faced students and watching their lovely production of “Julius Cesar,” and hanging out with friends I hadn’t seen in twenty years. Plus I got to stay in my old house! (It was purchased by a family friend.) AAAAND, they served really good catered chicken fried steak at the reunion because what else would one eat in a West Texas high school theater?
I didn’t lose my job, and I’ll be working a lot closer to home in 2017. That’s all I’ll say on that topic.
Okay, so maybe 2016 wasn’t ENTIRELY awful, but I’m glad to see it go, as I’m sure just about everyone else is.
So long, 2016! As Christoph Woltz’s character Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained said, “Normally I would say ‘Auf wiedersehen,’ but since what ‘Auf wiedersehen’ actually means is ‘’Till I see you again,’ and since I never wish to see you again, to you, sir, I say goodbye!”
After twenty-five years of disordered eating and a poor body image I think I can finally, ultimately, safely say…I’m over it…for the most part, anyway. I’ve had a few false starts before, but something would trigger me, and I’d go right back to restricting or overeating, obsessively weighing myself, and glaring at my reflection with dismay as I pawed at my flabbier (and much despised) body parts and somehow hoping something had changed overnight.
I got pretty stressed out this year, as did everyone else since we all know 2016 has been a shitstorm. When I get stressed out, I turn inward and become more self-destructive. Anger and anxiety about what was going on around me morphed into self-loathing and hyper-criticism. I turned to comfort foods and would then punish myself with restriction. I hadn’t forgiven myself for putting on a few pounds since my black belt test last fall. I further isolated myself so I could spend more time at the gym but got antsy and depressed when I missed a workout. I told no one. There was no point. No one has ever believed me when I complained about my body, and many have been annoyed and flippant with me on the subject, so I learned long ago to deal with this problem alone.
At one point I was finally so tired I couldn’t take it anymore and willed myself to be grateful instead of hateful. I’m too old to still be dealing with this crap. I’m an adult with a job and a mortgage. I will turn forty in a few short years. Why am I still wasting my time and energy on something that has haunted me since I was thirteen years old? Why am I letting it ruin my life? I turned to sports to help boost my body confidence.
Every time my eyes (or thoughts) drifted to the parts I didn’t like I would remind myself of how badass my body was: Look at you doing box jumps like a ninja! You just swam 1.5 miles and you still aren’t tired! You can do more push-ups than the teenage boys in taekwondo class, Black Belt! You are standing on your toes and doing leg lifts in ballet barre class like a boss, and look at how strong and graceful you are! You. Kick. Ass. If I can do all those things despite my soft middle or cellulite-studded thighs then I must be doing something right.
I realize I may be using my athleticism as a crutch. Taekwondo has helped immensely in improving my confidence and overall happiness level, but it’s not a magic bullet. If I weren’t fit or had sports as an outlet I’m not sure I could just be with my body and accept it. I don’t know if I could love myself in a larger body, and I have thoroughly convinced myself that no one else would either. I try to remind myself that when I am sick or injured or just plain really old I’ll probably give anything to have back the body I have right now. (Whatever, I’mma still be kicking ass at ninety.)
Body acceptance (or lack thereof) aside, there’s nothing wrong with exercise and in fact, in my opinion, exercise is crucial to staying healthy mentally and physically. Bodies are meant to move whether it’s running a marathon or simply walking. Movement keeps the body healthy and functioning. I’m at the point where I don’t exercise to try to lose weight anymore. I just happen to like it, and I really do prefer exercise over shopping, watching TV, or other activities. That endorphin high can’t be beat. I have fun when I work out, and I only do sports that I enjoy. I’d still swim, do taekwondo, and go to my ballet barre class if there were no health benefits. To me exercising is like recess for grownups, whether it comes from a healthy mental motivation or not.
Appreciating my body for its athleticism helped me, but what really gave me the final push was, of all things, a Mario Puzo novel. During the Thanksgiving break I read a copy of “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” a story of a family of Italian immigrants living in New York in the late 1920s. I had picked it up out of curiosity after hearing director Francis Ford Coppola mention it in an interview. Coppola worked with Puzo to adapt his most famous novel “The Godfather” into the movie we know and love today.
I was especially interested in the book because my maternal great-grandparents came to the United States from southern Italy around the turn of the 20th century. I’ve always been curious about their experience and thought Puzo’s novel might give me a little insight into what their daily lives in America might have been like.
“The Fortunate Pilgrim” wasn’t the easiest book to read. It had a good storyline, but the dialogue was very stilted. Chapters were bloated with sentences like, “Today you are not going to your beautiful school!” or “He gave us our bread. He protected us all when no one but Zia Louche would even spit on our doorstep.” Who talks like that? What’s with the formality? Was it because English was their second language? Imagine if the entire “Godfather” movie was filled with stiff lines like, “And you come to me on this, the day of my daughter’s wedding, to ask of me a favor.” No…just…no. And if I had to read one more sentence about a man having to earn his “bread.” Ugh.
Cardboard-y dialogue aside, what really caught my attention was the food. The main characters were poor so they ate simple but hearty fare: homemade pasta, eggs, beans, leafy greens, freshly grated cheese, a cherished piece of fruit, bread slathered with olive oil and vinegar. I wanted that food. I craved it. That’s typically how I cook anyway, meaning, I can make marinara sauce in my sleep but I still don’t know my way around a good stir fry or platter of enchiladas, nor do I care to try. I cook everything in olive oil. I’ve been known to toss an egg or a half can of beans in a bowl of pasta and call it lunch. Hell, I even put olive oil on my SKIN at night. So I decided to eschew peanut butter sandwiches, frozen food, and my weekly pan of boring roasted vegetables for something a little closer to home.
Gnocchi to the Rescue
The Tuesday after Thanksgiving I spent over an hour at home preparing potato gnocchi after I got home from work. I hadn’t made gnocchi in years, and when I had made it I usually took short cuts like substituting a blob of ricotta cheese for the potatoes. This time I went old school. I had peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes a day or two before, and when I was ready to make the dough I plopped an egg into the center of the potatoes, added a cup of flour, and got to work. Eventually I got into a meditative rhythm kneading the dough, rolling it into ropes, and rolling the individual pieces with my finger, just like my grandma (daughter of the aforementioned immigrants) had taught me to do. I didn’t have the TV on for background noise. I didn’t even listen to the radio. I was completely in the moment. Just me and my gnocchi. I was very proud of my work.
After my gnocchi triumph I began to incorporate simple but delicious Italian-inspired food into my daily meals: fettuccine with butter and hot peppers, farfalle with asparagus and olives, fresh fennel and escarole with oil and vinegar for my side salads, small squares of fresh pecorino and mozzarella cheese nestled in my refrigerator. If I was in a hurry to make my lunch for work I would boil a cup of quick-cooking brown rice pasta and toss in sun dried tomatoes, oily roasted red peppers, and artichoke hearts. I excitedly dug into my Mario Battali cookbooks and frequently updated my half-Italian mom on what I was making. After Christmas I plan on making lasagna with homemade marinara sauce, and for New Year’s I’ll make (or attempt to anyway) ravioli al uovo, or ravioli with egg….yuummm.
Something about being away from my daily routine during the Thanksgiving break kick started something in me. I just ate when I was hungry and didn’t put much thought into food other than when I was daydreaming about a recipe I wanted to try. Sometimes I used whole wheat or alternative grain pasta, but much of it has been the good old-fashioned white flour kind. It’s not like I ate big ridiculous Olive Garden-sized bowls of pasta covered in obscene amounts of piping hot cheese. The more love, care, work, and pride I put into my meals made me slow down, appreciate, and feel satiated with the food in front of me, even in smaller portions.
I let myself eat sweets when I felt like it–turns out I didn’t feel like it all the time. I kept a stash of peanut butter crackers in my drawer at work when I needed a snack, and I’m still making my way through the package. I didn’t save up for a “cheat day” that would inevitably morph into a “cheat weekend.” I stopped cringing and feeling resentful when I felt full. I just ate, no strings or meanings attached. I envy people who have always eaten that way.
And what do you know…I stopped glaring at myself or frantically looking for a minuscule change in the mirror every time I passed by. I continued with my fun playtime sports, ate my pasta, and enjoyed them both immensely. To my surprise (and bewilderment) I noticed I was looking leaner, and after a few weeks of hiding the scale in my closet, I discovered I even lost a few pounds. I realized that I just wanted to be happy, and wasting my time obsessing over my body and all its made-up flaws was going to hold me back even further. I don’t care anymore. I can’t care anymore.
I’m not out of the woods yet. The void of body image troubles has been filled by the realization that a sense of contentment and optimism I’d had for a while has been sneakily replaced by an overall sense of unease, emptiness, and unhappiness, as I’ve hinted at in some of my other blog posts. Or maybe my mind is just whirling like an endless roulette wheel, looking for something to criticize or hate, and it’s panicking that the opportunity is dwindling. It’s not quite sure what to do with this newfound freedom.
Either way, I’m glad to have this weight (no pun intended) off my shoulders.
Lately I’ve gotten some positive feedback from people in different areas of my life. They see me as strong, calm, and a perfect fit for a taekwondo instructor. One of my coworkers calls me an “Activator” because I am quick to complete tasks. Another coworker asked me a lot of questions about taekwondo when she found out I practiced it, and said she saw the inner strength and peace within me befitting of a black belt. During a period of job upheaval a coaching client was adamant that I HAD to remain his coach, and he would be “devastated” if I weren’t. A mother of some of our taekwondo students told me her kids love me and appreciate the “gentleness” in my style of teaching.
I’m having a hard time believing them. No, you have to understand, I feel like I’m pulling a fast one on people. I’m not that nice. I avoid socializing. I’m sarcastic and judgmental. My first priority is looking out for Number One. What inner peace I do manage to have is often dashed by worry and doubt. Privately I struggle but I’ll be damned if I share what I’m going through with anyone. I’m lonely but I’m thrown off when people express an interest in spending time with me and actually start to get anxious about sharing my precious free time and scheduled activities with others. And…sigh…sometimes I still think I’m fat and worry I’ll be rejected because of it (as a petite size 4 who kicks ass in the gym–I know, I’m an idiot).
Why doesn’t anyone see the dark, self-serving, angry, mistrusting creature looming just beneath the surface? Can’t they tell?? I don’t think I’m completely hiding my true nature or what I believe my true nature to be. I get along with people easily and feel comfortable interacting with small or large groups so I’m pretty much being myself (well, some of the time). But something feels off when people tell me how awesome they think I am. Half the time I’m counting the minutes until I can get away from them and go hide by myself. It is more comfortable to wear a mask and hide behind my walls than to let relationships flourish. I don’t understand why they like me. I don’t see what they see. If only they knew…
I started to wonder if it wasn’t so much that people didn’t know the real me but instead, I didn’t know the real me. I am the one pulling a fast one on myself with self-deprecating lies. I only see the flaws and magnify them until they crowd out all the other good qualities. I am SO guarded against letting people get close to me that I would rather entomb myself in my own mind with all its biases, exaggerations, false assumptions, and bad habits. I’m so wrapped up in my own self-destructive BS that it’s threatening to drown out all the good qualities I DO have.
Okay. Now that I realize that…now what? Maybe it’s like winning a lottery but at first not realizing you have the money and instead you still choose to live in a cardboard box. Now that you realize you have all that money you can get yourself out of that situation. I can be friendly, funny, and engaging if I let my guard down although right now I still don’t want to. I can be strong and calm if I don’t allow worry to overtake me although right now the habit of worry is so deeply ingrained I have to put all my energy into breaking myself of it. I still kinda want to live in my cardboard box.
I guess I’m not so bad after all. In fact, I’m pretty great. Now I have all these resources to tap into—calm, creativity, connectivity, people who want to be friends and spend time with me, a body I can enjoy and appreciate rather than hate or punish….that’s pretty cool. Once I stop spending so much time ruminating on the darker parts of my personality I’ll have a lot of free time on my hands. Hmm…
So it turns out I am who you think I am…and maybe someday I’ll believe that too.
A few nights ago I was watching a Facebook video of a hometown friend playing guitar and joyfully singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Just as he jumped up and started to dance I suddenly started to cry. It wasn’t the song or feeling nostalgic for my WestTexas hometown that was getting to me, but rather it was a feeling I dreaded would make an appearance sooner or later.
I am profoundly lonely.
My second thought was, “STFU, you’re not lonely. You’re just bored because you got home early and don’t have anything to do tonight. You’ll go to class tomorrow night and forget all about this being lonely and wishing you had someone to talk to nonsense. Don’t you have a dishwasher to empty? A book that needs reading? For that matter, don’t you have a book that needs WRITING? A jigsaw puzzle that needs puzzling?”
Damnit, I was wondering when this was going to happen. Let’s be clear, I am no stranger to being alone and in fact gravitate towards solitude. I grew up in rural, big skied, and most of all QUIET West Texas. I’ve always been shy and preferred to spend most of my time alone, so when true loneliness strikes me it is deeply unsettling and confusing. I don’t particularly like spending a lot of time with people. It makes me uncomfortable, bored, and antsy to escape. The thought of an entire weekend to myself to do whatever I want whenever I want is heaven…And yet here I was feeling mopey and wondering if I should entertain the idea of dating again.
I HATE this feeling–not the feeling of loneliness, but the feeling of longing. I feel weak and undisciplined! After my last serious relationship ended a year and a half ago I committed to embracing a solitary life. Never before had I appreciated being single; I’d always resented it. Now I truly appreciate it and relish in my freedom and self-reliance. I’ve made peace with the fact that I may spend the rest of my fabulous life alone…fine by me, I’m retiring to Marfa, Texas by my own damn self. And I’ll probably be a taekwondo master by then. Bye Felicia!
Being single has been really good for me. No, I’m serious! I’ve made huge strides since I stopped dating. I became more bold and confident, I took more risks at work that paid off for me, and I tested for and received my black belt all on my own with no one backing me up. I am an independent woman. I am a walking Beyonce song. And yet here I was, sitting on my bed crying because I realized I didn’t have anyone to share my pretty spectacular life with. God I hate myself for feeling that way.
Of course after my little Facebook video-watching meltdown I worked a long day and then spent about three hours in the dojang the next evening, and I was fine…Although I had a moment at home afterwards sipping whiskey and working on my jigsaw puzzle when I thought it would be nice…just once…to be able to tell someone about the fun things we did in class. Or to get dressed up and go out to dinner or an arts event. Or to go wandering around the lovely downtown part of my city. But I swallowed that feeling–and another few drops of whiskey–and continued working on my puzzle.
These conflicting emotions have confronted me with a disturbing theory: I am hiding behind taekwondo so I don’t have to interact with people, especially potential romantic partners, and also, it keeps me so busy I don’t have to confront my feelings. I tell myself that interaction with my instructors and classmates is enough interaction for me. I’m afraid any change in my routine, one that might keep me from going to class or make me start slacking off on practice will also keep me from the warm, fuzzy emotional highs I get from taekwondo. I’m not sure any guy is worth that sacrifice. I’m not yet able to believe I can have both.
Crying over a Bob Marley song was what made me first wonder if I was using taekwondo as a crutch to mask darker feelings, which I explored in a previous post. I still stand by my stance that there is nothing wrong, defective, or sad about being single by choice. Being in a relationship is not somehow the human default. I don’t put a “yet” on the question of whether I’m going to be in a relationship or get married. If those things happen, they happen. If they don’t, they don’t. I’m still me either way. I wish everybody had the opportunity to be single for a while so they can truly focus on themselves, who they want to be, and what they want to accomplish.
Taekwondo is incredibly fulfilling, and at this point I think my life would be pretty empty without it. It has taught me to love, which in the past I’d only reserved for blood relatives. It’s graced me with the opportunity to give, serve, and hell, I’ll even throw in the word fellowship with other human beings. I am a better version of myself in the dojang, so why ruin a good thing? (Here’s a fun game: every time I get starry eyed and mention how much taekwondo has changed my life for the better, do a shot!)
I’ve been very open about not wanting to be in a relationship. At first, I needed time to heal. Then I needed time to get used to being independent again. Then I needed time to truly embrace being alone rather than resenting it. Then I needed time to enjoy how far I’d come. What I haven’t admitted is that I’m scared.
Relationships have been nothing but trouble for me. I was not my best self in relationships, and in fact some brought out the worst in me, whereas taekwondo of course brings out the best. (Do another shot!) I stayed too long in abusive situations and tolerated neglect and non-commitment. But the bigger problem was myself. I made mistakes, impulsive decisions, did and said things I regret, and embarrassed myself. I had my moments of being abusive too, and I’m so ashamed.
I was not who I am today when I was someone else’s other half. If the men I dated saw me now they wouldn’t recognize me. I wish some of them could see me now. And as life plays out they’d probably think I’m awesome. Guys always think I’m super cool right at the point when I don’t give a shit about them anymore. Or maybe they’re still glad they dodged a bullet, whatever.
So what am I afraid of? Let’s start with the tired cliches: I’m afraid of getting hurt again, duh. I’m also afraid of being rejected for superficial and not-so superficial things. I’m afraid of being rejected for my pesky demons and skeletons in the closet. Digging deeper: I’m afraid I’ll revert to my old ways and lose myself in seeking approval rather than riding on my own wave of self-respect and confidence.
And honestly, do you know what I’m most afraid of? This is going to sound silly. I’ve convinced myself that my new kick-ass reality (superficial stress and all) is the result of eschewing dating or even the thought of dating. Notice I’m not placing the blame on men. I like men very much and actually prefer their company over other women. I’m saying not being in a relationship has been one of the best things for me. I’m afraid I will lose this life I have now–my freedom, my independence, my past times–if I begin to open up my life to someone else. I keep going back to the fact that I don’t want to admit: Spending my time in class rather than pursuing love protects me from potential heartache and rejection.
I haven’t convinced myself that it’s possible to find someone who is complementary to my life rather than consuming or conflicting. I’m afraid at my age all that’s left are aging, out-of-shape party boys or crabby workaholics. Who out there works out like a monster but also likes to get dressed up and go to an art museum or enjoy a good bottle of wine? Who’s going to be cool with me getting up at 4 am to swim or staying late at the dojang because I want to help a few kids who are testing for their green belt the next day? And more importantly, who is going to be down with drag shows AND country bars? (The drag shows because they’re fun and the country bars for the irony and they’re unintentionally hilarious. Plus I’m Texan and I like to two-step.)
Let’s be clear, I’m not looking for the male version of myself. I don’t want a pet or a puppet. A partner doesn’t have to have the exact same interests as I do, nor should he. Maybe I can learn about something new and interesting, or we can continue to pursue our interests separately. For example, I hate bicycling, and if I were with someone who cycled, I’d politely decline the invitation for a couples ride, hand him a bottle of Gatorade, and wish him luck on the ride. See ya! Fishing trip? Bye! Camping! Enjoy pooping outside by yourself while a bear is watching! NOPE!
Would it be nice to meet someone who is into martial arts? Sure, that’d be great. But if not, hopefully he’d just politely decline the invitation to join me in class, hand me a bottle of Gatorade, and wish me luck in my sparring match. (Showing up for my next black belt test, however, is mandatory). People, single or coupled up, should have time to independently pursue the things they love. If their partner shows an interest or participates with them, then great, that’s more time together. If not, that’s okay too, and hopefully their time together is richer because of their own personal fulfillment and satisfaction…but I’m still not convinced that type of symbiotic partnership is possible for me, and I’m not wiling to sacrifice what I have on a whim.
I’ve come too far and made too many personal changes to let a temporary, fleeting moment of sadness send me spiraling back into codependency and living for a g-ddamn text message from some guy who probably isn’t that into me anyway. I am set in my ways and really like being able to do what I want and when I want. I really can’t comprehend finding someone who could mesh with my lifestyle and who’d be willing to share me with my commitment to my dojang and my taekwondo practice (one more shot!)–although there’s a part of me that hopes that will happen somdeay.
I am going to ride this Single Lady storm out and power through this temporary loneliness. Wanting to be with someone is just a feeble lie my mind is telling me. That has gotten me into trouble too many times before, and I have too many scars. A relationship is a nice-to-have, but I certainly don’t need one. Taekwondo has been too good to me and too good FOR me to let it slide. Relatioships are fleeting. Black belts are forever.
So, the conclusion is..NOPE. I’m going to class tomorrow and will continue to keep myself safe and preoccupied. And probably start a new jigsaw puzzle. And maybe shoot for two-a-day swimming workouts on the weekends. Here’s to vices! (Clink!)
A few years ago I questioned whether taekwondo was something I was going to stick with for the long haul or a hobby I was going to toy with for a while and then set aside. I’ve since proven to myself that taekwondo is most certainly not a “passing fancy.” It’s what I turn to for physical and mental fitness, it has pushed me to and beyond my limits (and many times my patience), and I’ve achieved milestones and goals in the dojang and elsewhere I never would have thought were possible a few years ago. It’s not just a hobby or a sport. It’s a calling and a community. I want to practice taekwondo until I die.
I once told a friend that I get from taekwondo the same feeling I had hoped to get from church–it has nothing to do with my Christian faith, which is very personal and private, but rather it gives me a sense of belonging and a desire to serve with like-minded people I care about. I always felt alone and guarded everywhere else but the dojang. I still do.
These past few weeks I’ve noticed a heavy weight sinking onto my shoulders and an increasing sense of emptiness. I put on a good front when I’m in public, but often when I’m home I deteriorate quickly. I’m struggling. I don’t completely fall apart though. I never allow myself to because I’m all I have–falling apart is not an option, but I know I don’t feel content in my Fortress of Solitude like I used to. Weekends and long nights have been hard. I don’t want anyone’s help though (and if anyone from my real life asks I’m going to give you the same answer). The thought of spending extended periods of time with people annoys me even more than the anxious thoughts that swirl around in my brain when I’m trying to sleep. So what should I do about this uneasy feeling?
Lately the only place where I’ve truly felt good is at the dojang, and this has been an excellent time to “throw myself into work,” as one might say. Last month we prepared students for a tournament and two other students to test for black belt. This past week we’ve been helping a number of lower ranking students prepare for a color belt test. I’ve been busy teaching, coaching, refereeing, fighting, kicking, sweating, and sometimes having a really hard laugh. Guys, I’ve sometimes felt so “high” I probably shouldn’t be allowed to drive after taekwondo class.
And then I go home, and the dark clouds rush back. I’m ready for my next hit and wishing it were time for another class again because it feels so damn good and more importantly, it keeps me distracted from what I don’t want to face. Hell, after the color belt test on Friday I went home feeling what comedian Katt Williams so eloquently described as, “Hungry, Happy, Sleepy,” although he wasn’t attributing those feelings to taekwondo. My problems and worries seemed so insignificant! I was elated, if only for a few hours.
Things started to make sense when I asked myself a tough question I’ve been avoiding for quite some time:
Is taekwondo is just a replacement for other pain-numbing vices?
I can get addicted to things fairly easily–substances, people, exercise, ideas, hopes, feelings, beliefs, thought patterns, activities. I have poured my heart into taekwondo, but perhaps I set myself up for a new addiction right from the beginning. I went back to taekwondo because my life was in shambles, at least beneath the surface. At first it was a solitary activity. Getting a black belt was an afterthought. I went to class, listened intently to instructors, and practiced my techniques. Then I started to open up to my instructors and accept them as friends, and I also realized I had a talent for leading other students. Nothing has ever felt so natural. This little mistrusting, very guarded introvert was making connections.
I fell in love with taekwondo for many reasons, but the largest one was how it made me FEEL. Even on nights when I was frustrated, I still felt that endorphin rush, soul cleanse, mind rinse off awesomeness that I get out of just about every class. That’s why I continue to go. Yes, I definitely want to test for second degree, but I still mainly go to class because it’s FUN and I feel SOOOO GOOD. I love the physicality, practicing the techniques, seeing myself improve, and especially helping my instructors and other students, not to mention hitting stuff with my hands is indescribably, viscerally satisfying. I like to tell myself that the dojang is the one place where I can give selflessly. Or maybe I’ve found myself to be in a one-woman cult of my own trapping.
I think the real cause of this overwhelming, sinking feeling of loneliness and emptiness is a combination of things: illness among family and friends, the death of a young coworker, job insecurity, this ugly and frightening American political landscape, and just within the past few days, a death in the family that has hit me much harder and haunted me more than I thought it would. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. But let’s face it, 2016 has been hard on everyone. It started off with David Bowie’s death and pretty much fell to absolute crap after that. I suppose breaking from the weight of this awful year was inevitable.
I’ve learned the hard way that no one and no thing (not even taekwondo) can save me from this exhaustion but myself. I’m pretty good about reminding myself that when I’m feeling down. I know I sometimes put too much stock into taekwondo to give me those happy feelings. Taekwondo is not magical. It’s just like money, weight loss, or a relationship–feels good in the moment, but at the end of the day I’m stuck with myself, so I’d better be happy with who’s looking out at me from the mirror.
These dark clouds will pass. These painful situations I’ve been in will lessen. As my dad said to me about this time last year when I was feeling low, spring will come. Things always work out for me in some form or another, and like a good black belt, when I fall down seven times, I get up eight. It’s time to get up, Black Belt.
I’m tempted to take some time off from taekwondo to see how well my emotional coping skills work without it, but right now I just can’t. If this is my new vice, then so be it.
One of my coworkers used to work for Keebler. When people would get all bent out of shape over not-so-significant things as people are wont to do in the corporate world, she would remind them, “Guys, we make cookies and crackers. That’s it.” That was her reminder to them that they were not dealing with life or death situations, regardless of how big (or expensive) the problem seemingly was.
Working in healthcare for over a decade has helped me develop somewhat of the same perspective. I’ve always been in a non-clinical supportive role–first as a hospital librarian, then as a consultant in the learning and development department. My years at the hospital reminded me that whatever we were worrying about in my department ultimately wasn’t that big of a deal. We could leave what we were doing at 5pm and forget about it. It wasn’t brain surgery or fighting cancer or running the emergency department. I work with people who do that and leave the life-saving to them. No one ever died because of a so-so team building session…at least I hope not!
Taekwondo has also given me a great perspective too. I had a two-and-a-half hour team meeting yesterday. We are dealing with a number of stressful situations, and emotions are high. We’re trying to stick together, but it’s easy to ruffle feathers when everyone’s a little on edge. I was able to quickly put it out of my mind because I had other things to worry about–namely, filling in for my instructor for three back-to-back taekwondo classes. Luckily I had some good black belt partners to tag-team with me, and I think we did a good job. The best part was how much fun we had. Do you think I really cared about a PowerPoint presentation when I was busy chasing around two teenage boys and yelling directions at them during a sparring match? Nothing else really matters when you’re trying to not fall over or get hit in the face.
“It’s all cookies and crackers” has become one of our favorite catchphrases around the office. We’re doing good things, important things, but ultimately, we’re not doing anything worth losing sleep over. As I said in my more recent and more nihilistic post, nothing really matters–not really, not in the grand scheme of things. “Cookies and crackers” is also a reminder to myself to just enjoy life and not worry about it being perfect or working out to the outcome I expect or demand. It will all work out as soon as I release my vise-like death grip on it. Usually when I let go things work out even better than I could have imagined.
And yet, here I find myself stress-eating gummy bears and drinking hastily chilled Chardonnay over–in the big scheme of things–a really insignificant and dumb work-related issue. It’s not even worth explaining, but it’s left me upset, embarrassed, and worried that someone’s feelings were hurt. Of course no one else thinks it’s a big deal, and I’ve already been reassured as much by a few trusted people. I know it won’t matter in six months. It won’t even matter in six days. It won’t even matter in six hours.
I’m not sure what bothers me more–this tiny, stupid little incident that I’m already starting to forget or the fact that my detached, too-cool-for-school attitude towards work had a weak spot. I don’t mean I’m detached in the sense that I don’t care. I really like my job. It’s fun, fulfilling, and I’m good at it. I’m just less emotionally attached to work than I am to other aspects of my life. I think it’s a healthy outlook to have and one I wish I could apply to things in my personal life that get under my skin (and insecurities) much faster.
But it’s true…it’s all just cookies and crackers, even the things that I think are a big deal. The failed relationships I agonized over–cookies and crackers. The current struggles I’m having around body image and food control and weight–cookies and crackers, no pun intended. Annoying or upsetting things that happen at work–cookies and crackers. I’m sure our upcoming taekwondo tournament will be filled with stressful incidents–cookies and crackers too. None of this bullshit is worth losing sleep over although I will have to remind myself of that every time I obsessively weigh myself or get angry at a referee’s decision or if I ever decide to date again. Cookies and crackers, all of it.
The moral of the story: Just have fun, try to be nice to people, and especially be nice to yourself. At then end of all of this I’m still me, and I’m awesome whether I succeed or fail. So are you.
A few days ago I was meeting with one of my coaching clients, a nurse manager at a mid-size hospital. We were joined by a nursing student who was shadowing my client for a business class. My client mentioned a thought provoking question her student had asked:
“What’s your span of control?” My client’s even more thought-provoking answer made me pause.
“I thought about it,” she said with a chuckle, remembering her conversation, “And I said…Nothing! Nothing is really in my control!” She relies on her employees, her boss, physicians, the budget, the executives, the larger healthcare system. She recognized that she didn’t work in a vacuum. I thought that was a very poignant and self-aware answer to a seemingly innocuous question.
“Isn’t that refreshing?” I said with a smile. “You’re only in control of your emotions, your reactions and actions, your thoughts.”
I thought about her response as I walked through my neighborhood this evening, enjoying the cool autumn air and still-warm Texas sun as I strolled along the winding side streets. Nothing matters, not really, not in the big scheme of life, at least not most of the things we worry about. Nothing is permanent, and as George Harrison said, “All things must pass,” which is a relief and a little heartbreaking too. The more pressure we put on ourselves to control the outcomes and be perfect, the more disappointed we end up being. We must let go.
Nothing mattered to me at the moment but the breeze against my face and the setting sun on my back. I had no worries, no obligations, no regrets, no control except putting one foot in front of the other. And then I got back home…
It’s easy to forget that nothing matters–not really–when worry creeps in. I’m fairly detached from what society would guess would be my larger worries (job insecurity, lack of relationships) and instead am haunted by all those little things: guilt over seemingly insignificant actions, secret regret over what I let go of too quickly and what I held onto for too long, the itching scars of old grudges and deep wounds, angst over things I did and things I didn’t do, the relapse of body image struggles, loneliness I refuse to acknowledge, and a lurking feeling of listlessness and dread. Those are the things that slither into my brain when I have crawled into bed and am no longer protected by all my superficial methods of occupying my mind.
Of course as I’ve said many times before, the best place for me to clear my mind, focus on what’s important, and let go of needless and damaging attachments is in the dojang. Taekwondo gives me a quiet and mindful outlook. Even as I am practicing what has become the most important and fulfilling piece of my life, I feel a sense of lightness I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. The only thing I’m in control of is me: my emotions, my thoughts, my body to an extent although lately it has overridden some of the things my brain wants it to do…and hitting shit seems to make my endorphins soar, so maybe that’s part of it.
When you realize your span of control isn’t as grand as you thought it’s somewhat freeing. You don’t have to shoulder your burdens alone, and when you put them down for a moment you may even realize that you don’t need to put certain burdens on your back anymore. You are simultaneously surrendering and being more powerful than you ever were when you held on (too) tightly to things you thought would make you happy or solve your problems. Things always seem to work out when you back off a bit and when you stop beating yourself up over every misstep.
I really want to get to that point of being one of those old broads with “zero f*cks left to give.”
Nothing matters–not really, not in the grand scheme of things. Everything is impermanent. Our span of control is not what we think it is. We are not responsible for solving everyone’s problems. The worry, guilt, regret, and anger that gnaws at us will pass if we don’t hold onto it as tightly as it tries to hold onto us. The more we worry about everything the more we miss out on the beautiful parts of life. I can’t beat myself up for mistakes I’ve made in the past anymore than I can worry about disappointing my instructors with a crummy jump spin kick or a hesitant self-defense technique. None of it matters–not really, not even taekwondo. And once I recognize that I can actually start to enjoy everything. If I have to remind myself of that every day I will.