The Best Birthday


“Turn. Face Melanie,” my instructor said at the end of class. It was a Friday night and we had practiced my favorite techniques: hand strikes, forms, and breaking. What was coming next? Wait a minute, we’d already done the standard bow-to-the-black-belts part of our closing ritual: master, second degrees, first degrees. What’s going on? Is there something spe—oooohhh, right.

“Start singing,” he added, giving me a smirk as he strolled to the front of the room. The whole class sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I grinned and covered my face.

“Be sure to thank her and wish her a happy birthday,” my instructor continued when the students finished singing. “She helps out a lot getting you ready for tests and tournaments and teaching in class.” My grandmaster added his sentiments, reminding the class that I’d been an assistant instructor for two years and that I was always hanging around to help, making me, in his words, a “special” person. I couldn’t make a sound other than blush and do a little “Namaste” bow to him and my classmates.

Grandmaster and my instructor got to work setting up a table with drinks and cake (a cake! With my name written in blue icing–my favorite color! For my birthday!) and I smiled primly as my classmates shook my hand and wished me a happy birthday. I was truly touched and humbled.

Okay, let’s pause for a minute. A bunch of kids (and a few token adults) singing “Happy Birthday” and a cake doesn’t seem like that extraordinary of a birthday, but for me it meant a lot. No one had ever surprised me like that on my birthday, and the fact that I shared it with my taekwondo family made it especially meaningful.

My birthdays have been pretty quiet as of late. Even though I’m a grown-ass woman I’ve spent the last couple of birthdays either completely alone or with my parents. Now I know they’re reading this so disclaimer: I love my parents and very much enjoy spending time with them….but….They’re supposed hang out with me on occasion; that’s their thing since it’s kinda their fault I have a birthday and all.

Last year I spent my birthday out of town with the parents. It was fun but still a little lonely. The year before I was at home alone; I don’t remember if I even treated myself to fast food. The year before that when I was in a relationship I spent my birthday with a mean-spirited boyfriend who ruined the day with his constant negativity and criticism. Trust me, I was thrilled to spend this year’s birthday with other people’s kids and cake.

My little birthday celebration helped me get past a difficult place I’ve been in for a while with my practice. Over the past few months I’ve had a bit of an existential crisis around taekwondo. At first I wondered if I was using it as a vice like alcohol to avoid internal pain (I was). I wondered if I was using it to avoid maintaining real relationships (I was). I wondered if I even deserved to be there at all or if I was just a disappointment to everyone. Sometimes I even considered quitting.

But this seemingly small gesture of celebrating my birthday reminded me that I touched more lives than I gave myself credit for doing. It reminded me that I was loved and valued. It encouraged me to continue showing up for them, even on the days when I didn’t want to do it for myself. It was, in a sense, a rebirth of my commitment to my taekwondo family and my own practice. I felt reconnected to something I genuinely felt was slipping away.

And you guys, the cake was really good. Chocolate with whipped cream icing, mmmmm, who could walk away from that?


Kicks, Camaraderie, and Cake

dobok cake

This cake is insanely beautiful. I must wear it and I must eat it…not sure which one I’ll do first. Maybe both at the same time.

The best laid plans for playing hooky are often waylaid by the promise of cake. For the last two days I have been EXHAUSTED. It’s not from Monday night’s TKD class or my Tuesday morning swim. It’s not from work. It’s from the little gray blob between my ears.

My brain won’t shut the hell up. Something pushed it past its tipping point into what is either a mild mania or the beginnings of a breakthrough. I simply could not stop thinking. All day I’ve been barraged by thoughts, ideas, insights, micro-epiphanies crackling through the circuits of my mind. After returning from a relaxing weekend I have been sleeping fitfully. My eyes are red and itchy, I’m short of breath, my voice is strained, and my sinuses feel like they’re filled with the vapor of diesel fuel. I’m tired, yo!

Here’s the difference between the past two days and past experiences: They’re not unpleasant or unhappy thoughts. They just won’t stop. Even though I’m sleeping fitfully, I am not overcome with a sense of unease and dread. My normal git-er-done chicken hawk brain has just gone a little further into the Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas mode (minus the cocaine and helicopters, and I bet my marinara sauce is better than his). I knew I had to do something before my annoying brain went into the dreaded little hyperactive kid snorting Pixie Stick dust off a coloring book mode.

So I gave myself a time out. I had just nestled into bed with a book and a small serving of delicate quinoa chips when I got a text from my instructor. He said we were celebrating Grandmaster’s birthday and it’s important that I be there. There was no question about going or not. I jumped out of bed and packed my gym bag.

Since we were using the time during the later class for the birthday party my instructor wore us out with a ten minute intense workout of kicking drills. We dispersed for the birthday party, and I had a riveting discussion with an eight-year-old about the refined motor skills one must use to open the complex yet sublime Capri Sun versus the crude juice box. I conspired with him not to tell his mom if he had a Coke.

After we set up for our little party one of the masters had us all—students, parents, friends, children–stand and bow to Grandmaster. Grandmaster blushed and waved his hand in protest at us. The master then cracked a few jokes and then said something that will stay with me long after the cake is gone: “This is a family. Grandmaster has been our father for all these years. For those of you who are new, welcome to our taekwondo family.”

I don’t take the word “family” lightly. I am very reluctant to share my heart with just anyone. I never found a tight-knit group of friends that I’d consider the “family you choose,” where we haphazardly make Thanksgiving dinner together and spill wine on the coffee table while we swap stories about our dysfunctional childhoods, which in the moment (and with the wine) seem hilarious rather than sad.  Even though I spend most of my waking hours laughing, creating, and commiserating with my coworkers I’m hesitant to consider us a “family.” I wondered in that moment if I had finally found my other family.

Grandmaster padded to the center of the room and thanked everyone for his birthday wishes. Like the other master he smiled, cracked jokes, and then went down an unexpected path of seriousness. He told us about another birthday–his grandfather’s 70th birthday and the party his family was planning that night. The next day Grandmaster would turn 10 years old. That night the North Korean army began its reign of terror and bloodshed on the innocent villagers in the area now known as the DMZ. Grandmaster and his sister were hurriedly whisked away to the safety of South Korea. He never saw his parents or grandparents again.

The room was silent except for the rustling of the breeze in the window blinds and the plods and plops of a tiny child lost in her own little innocent daydream flopping around on the mat. We all had our own backstories and diverse winding paths that somehow all landed us in a little dojang in Texas on a breezy Wednesday night. We were all there because of him. We were all united as a family.

And then we had cake. And then finally my mind went quiet.