Why I Got a Black Belt Tattoo

I did it! I got a tattoo! And of course I wrote a blog post about it!

My tattoo

Tattoo by Crashlee Ink at Ink187 Tattoo Company. Dinosaur shirt and bra strap sticking out is all me in my cool suave glory.

So…THIS happened on Friday. After many years of being fascinated by tattoos, months of gearing up the courage to actually get one, and weeks of planning with my tattoo artist, I am now the proud owner of this beautiful black belt tattoo. My tattoo artist was fabulous: patient, caring, as clean and cautious and precise as a surgeon, and a talented fine artist who brought my concept to life.

It didn’t hurt; at one point I felt pretty sleepy and zoned out like I do when I’m getting my teeth cleaned. Now as it heals it just feels like a minor sunburn. It helped that I psyched myself out with memories of my most painful physical therapy sessions and a recent eyebrow threading (ouch!!) to give myself some perspective on pain. It felt like a flu shot at first and then nothing. Seriously. I credit my tattoo artist with her light touch and the fact that my upper arm had enough muscle and fat to absorb all the stabbing…so much stabbing…so much…

About the tattoo itself: I didn’t want to be one of those white people with Asian lettering tattooed on me, but I suppose one can make an exception here since I study a Korean martial art. I wanted the belt to have some realism and not look like a flat “cause” ribbon (sounds terrible but you know what I mean). If I was going to get a taekwondo black belt embedded in my skin it might as well look like one. The Korean lettering on the left is my name, and the lettering on the right is “tae kwon do”….I hope. The lotus was chosen both to feminize the tattoo (I can’t resist a pretty flower) and serve as a sly shoutout to the symbol of the Jidokwan school of taekwondo, which is what I study.

Jidokwan_logo_red_blue_1

….This guy

The Jidokwan symbol of persistence is encircled by eight petals of what some sources say is a water lily and other sources claim to be a lotus. I’m sticking with the lotus for its connection to Buddhism’s Eight Fold Path (read linked article above for more details), which sounds great to me in theory although wrangling my tightly-wound and also unruly mind around the Path is sometimes very difficult.
One source states that the eight Jidokwan petals represent the “Spirit of Eight Manners of Justice:”
See rightly
Feel rightly
Think rightly
Speak rightly
Command rightly
Serve rightly
Have ability
Conduct with justice

….Church, I’m tryin’. It helps to have the reminder.

I didn’t get this tattoo just because I have a black belt. I could have done that three years ago when I was awarded my first degree black belt. I got this tattoo because I AM a black belt, and I wanted a permanent reminder etched into my skin for a number of reasons:

  1. I don’t want to take for granted what taekwondo has done for me, even if I have to stop training entirely at some point. I can’t take sole credit for the big successes I’ve had in the past few years. I did that with taekwondo. About eight years ago I started on a journey to heal some wounds, change some damaging habits, and make meaningful discoveries about myself. I had things along the way to help me, and I did improve, but when I returned to taekwondo in 2013 my progress SOARED. Taekwondo was the key to making overarching and long-lasting change. It gave me confidence, mental fortitude, strength in the face of adversity, perseverance in the face of challenge, and a really strong jump snap kick.
  2. I want a reminder that I can be a confident and capable badass woman. I have not always let people treat me well. Like most of us unfortunately I’ve been verbally and physically harassed by people close to me, by random strangers, by colleagues….I’ve watched other people I cared about be mistreated and didn’t step in to help. I’ve experienced and allowed this poor treatment as an adult, as a professional, as a taekwondo student, and even as a black belt. I was too quiet. I didn’t speak up or act out. Granted, most people I’ve encountered in life have been nice or at least neutral, but it’s really easy to be pulled down by those memorable assholes. I let the memories haunt me and shame eat at me. No more. The boundary is clearly drawn. Protecting myself emotionally and mentally is even more important to me than physically defending myself. I am making a promise to stand up for myself and for those I care about.
  3. Remember that blog post I wrote about “giving zero f-cks by forty?” I meant it, and damnit it’s HARD!! So hard I had a reminder inked into my skin! I want to be chill and content and let all the BS in life (and there’s a lot) just roll past me. I want to shift my attention away from situations or people that don’t give me joy towards those that do. That adrenaline rush in a sparring match, that cool feeling of resolve as I practice poomsae, the pleasure of watching a student do something well, the high I get and boundless sense of peace I feel from practicing what I love…I want to feel that all the time. I want to flow with life and not get too hung up on the past or the projected outcomes. I’m getting there. I’m making progress every day.

Shortly before my tattoo session I was texting with my mom. I didn’t know whether I was more nervous about the pain or the permanence. She replied:
“I got married to Dad and got pregnant with you and [your brother]. We all make things of permanence. Some are good and easy. But we have to deal with the decisions no matter what.”

I have made choices that have brought me sadness and success. For the most part, my decisions have created a pretty happy life for me.

I am a black belt in name and in spirit. I will never stop being a black belt, and I will never stop benefiting from what taekwondo has given me.

 

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Falling Out of Love Can Be a Slow, Sickening Process

forever over.jpgThe first time I entered the UT Southwestern medical school library for a class in my library science graduate program, I KNEW IN MY BONES that I wanted to be there. I wanted to work in a medical library, and I was on FIRE.

And I did. After an internship at that very library and a year-long stint at an oil company I landed a job in the medical library of one of the largest hospitals in my metropolitan area. It was my dream job…until it wasn’t. After several years I realized that I had to leave. There were a number of reasons beyond my desire to leave that job, and out of respect for the company I’ll keep those reasons private. As much as I KNEW I wanted to work at UT Southwestern I KNEW IN MY BONES that I had to quit this hospital library job.

It was a heartbreaking realization and a yearlong process to find another job. I told no one other than my parents of my deep dissatisfaction and desire to get out. It was difficult to suffer in silence and alternate between the nervousness of changing to a new environment and the dread of staying where I didn’t want to be any longer than I had to. I didn’t love or even like my job, or the library profession itself, any more. I wasn’t progressing, and I knew I would stagnate and regress if I stayed there. But what would I do if I left that job? I got a master’s degree in that field so I could land a job like that. As much as I want to eschew profession as part of one’s identity, that job was a part of who I was.

Luckily I landed a job within the same healthcare company in the training and development department. It wasn’t easy at first. There was a learning curve and poor management (those people are no longer with the company). I wondered more than once if I’d made the wrong decision. I had zero experience in org/leadership development, but I worked hard to learn and carve a space of my own in that department.

Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I don’t regret it at all. I’ve grown up in that job emotionally and professionally. I developed new talents and skills and have flourished. I’ve had more opportunities and more exposure in the organization, and it has proven to be MUCH more lucrative than staying in the library world. (Hint to companies–pay your young librarians more. Maybe they’ll stay longer.)

I tell this story to make my point that falling out of love is sometimes a slow process with aching, ever-growing clarity. I didn’t hate my old career or anyone involved. No one did anything wrong to me. It just wasn’t a fit anymore for who I was at that time or who I knew I had the potential to be.

And that’s how I feel about my taekwondo school. I’m not in love anymore. I continue to go to class out of some lingering, dwindling sense of loyalty, identity, familiarity, and fear of political repercussions if I quit in a public way. I’m afraid to leave because of possible repercussions, but I am not growing. I’m bored. I don’t like the new location. My potential is stunted. I don’t see a “lucrative” future in terms of training and opportunities. There are other reasons for my dissatisfaction, but like my old job, I want to keep those reasons private out of respect for and privacy of the other people involved.

One could argue do we have to be “in love” with everything? No, of course not. A job is a job. We don’t have to all “follow our passions.” I like my job, but my main passion is paying off my mortgage. I don’t have to love taekwondo; it could just be an activity I do once in a while…but that’s not my history with it. I fell hard and fast. I was in deep.

I know this drastic change in my relationship to taekwondo has affected my mood and emotional waves this past year as I have withdrawn from my involvement in the school’s current version of itself. More often than not, I don’t look forward to going to class. I don’t care anymore. As a result (possibly), I get more stressed out and overwhelmed in general more quickly, and I’m on a shorter fuse. I let myself become more emotionally involved at work, which I detest because I’ve always enjoyed a relaxed sense of detachment from the more silly parts of the corporate world. I’ve lost a big part of my identity that has been such a positive force for the last several years.

I do have my moments of excitement and happiness. I enjoyed very much getting to lead a black belt test we held in April. I had a lot of fun with my fellow black belts and students this past week. Taking an old familiar taekwondo class and getting to wear my black belt and uniform is a lot different (and still more emotionally fulfilling) than the Body Combat class at the gym. Maybe I just need an extended break, like I took from work a few weeks ago…but I know that will just be a bandage over a larger, deeper problem.

But it’s just not the same. What we had for the last several years (our camaraderie, our shared goals, our school) is gone, and part of my challenge this year has been accepting that loss and finding the positive in what exists now. But do I have to accept it? Did I have to just accept that library job (and salary) and say, “Okay, this is my career for the next 30 years”? I’d like to think that I’m still a black belt and retain all the mental, physical (although that’s dwindling because my training is minimal), and emotional prowess that comes with it, no matter where I go or what I do in life. I’ll always be a black belt. But I might be a black belt without a home.

The Motto That Keeps Me Motivated (and Annoyed)

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I have a poster in my work office that reads, “A black belt is a white belt who refused to give up.” This is a popular phrase in the martial arts world, and it’s popped up a few times on my blog.

I’m kind of annoyed at myself for buying it. Every day it hangs over my head, reminding me of my power, potential, and the expectations set upon me, even on the days when I just don’t wanna.

I’ve had a lot of days lately where I “just don’t wanna.” I was pretty burned out personally and professionally at the beginning of the year. I feel like I’m finally coming out of that fog, but I’m not out entirely. All the while that stupid poster has been there, glaring down at me and reminding me that I can’t give up. I’m resentful of that. What if I do want to give up? I’m tired of having to be my own savior and champion and foundation…but here I am with my f-cking black belt.

The motto is also a reminder of my roots. As a white belt I was open-minded, eager to learn, and willing to take on challenges. You probably felt the same way as a new student or when you first started a new job. Lately as a black belt I’ve felt overwhelmed, jaded, and secretly toying with the idea of quitting. It’s helpful sometimes in class to revisit taekwondo fundamentals, skills we learned as white belts. Practicing simple blocks, strikes, and kicks has a calming effect.

In some circumstances  quitting, giving up, leaving, letting go are appropriate responses if it means choosing a new and better path. There’s nothing wrong with that. “Refusing to give up” sometimes means making a change or taking a new opportunity that takes one in a different direction. I don’t want to “quit” my current situations, but I am actively seeking a change.

What gets me through taekwondo classes and the work I’m currently doing is reminding myself of why I got involved in the first place and how much I enjoy helping people. What gives me hope is that the same discipline and determination I display in the dojang can help me take control and change other situations in my life.

So I’m going to keep the poster in my office. Every day it’s a reminder of where I came from and who I can be. It’s a reminder that if I’m not happy with my current circumstances I have the power to change them. I can control my responses, just as I do in the dojang.

We were all “white belts” at some point. What makes us black belts in martial arts or in life is the desire to keep learning, improving, making changes, and designing our own destinies.

Little Black Belt is FOUR!

number 4

My blog turns four today! Thank you for reading and commenting on my posts. I’m glad I could reach people all over the world and share my love of the life changing martial art taekwondo. During the past year I went through a major change at work, learned the mystery of  a lingering health problem, and passed my second Dan test. To celebrate my blog’s birthday I’m sharing my favorite posts from the past year. Enjoy!

1. You ARE Something (Other People Believe It, So It’s About Time You Did) (April 2017) A new opportunity at work teaches me about valuing myself as much as others do.

2. The Best Birthday (July 2017) My master and fellow students make my birthday one of the happiest ever.

3. You Are Who You’ve Been Waiting For (August 2017) A speech at a work event teaches all of us about the power of stepping into who we really are and what we can really accomplish.

4. So I’m Eating Meat Again: a Cautionary Tale of the Rules We Place on Ourselves (September 2017) I realize that my foray into vegetarianism triggered a latent eating disorder and I take up hamburgers again.

5. Leadership Toolbox: the Power of Practice (October 2017) I see a lot of parallels between black belt leadership and the leadership skills I encourage people to develop at work. Just like being a good taekwondo student and instructor, being a good leader takes diligence and practice.

6. Saying Goodbye to the Parasites In Our Lives (October 2017) A little microbe I named Plankton and the relationship I had with “him” taught me that sometimes it’s harder than we think to give up things that are ultimately harmful to us.

7. Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan  (November 2017) The day before my second dan test I reflected on what it means to pass the test and the responsibility attached to actually wearing the belt.

8. Being Okay With Where You Are (November 2017) A yoga class and a botched board break teach me that it’s okay to be forgiving of myself and accept where I am and what I’m capable of doing moment to moment. (And you can do that too!)

9. Why I Teach (Even Though I Want Everyone to Leave Me Alone) (February 2018) I have a love/hate relationship with teaching and presenting, a skill I’ve cultivated both in the workplace and in taekwondo. I seem to have a knack for guiding, coaching, and inspiring people, but damnit, sometimes I just want to be quiet and not talk to anyone for a week. My blessing is my curse, sigh.

10. You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned from Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14) (February 2018) This post marked the end of both The Poomsae Series as we know it for now and the end of a treasured student-teacher relationship and the lesson I was able to carry with me.

Thank you for reading. Let’s make it another good year!

Stand Your Ground: What I Learned From Practicing Pyongwon (The Poomsae Series Part 13)

stand sunset

I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?

This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”

The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.

It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.

Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.

The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.

Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about.  That is the true calling of a black belt.

The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again

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I’m officially a second degree black belt now, and that means with a new rank I have a new form and a new addition to the Poomsae Series! Yay! Enjoy!*

“It’s like a recap,” my chief instructor said one day when we were discussing the second dan black belt form Taebaek. “Now you’re second degree,” he continued hypothetically, “So let’s make sure you remember all your old color belt forms.”

“More like a clip show like on TV,” I countered. “They’re too lazy to make new material, so they just put a bunch of random old stuff together.”

I was marveling at the fact that Taebaek, the form we at my dojang learn as a second degree black belt, seemed so much easier to learn and seemingly less complicated than the two first dan forms, Koryo and Keumgang (Some teach Keumgang at second degree, Taebaek at third, etc. We do things a little differently). I’d heard my instructor for a long time claim that Taebaek was a mash up of old Palgwe forms, but it never really resonated until I learned the form myself.

I actually learned this form last summer as a first degree black belt, and it all started as a joke wrapped in a dare. During class one night a second degree black belt, who always seemed to forget that he had to use the bathroom until about 10 seconds before break time was over, was absent from his spot in line.

“Go ahead, Melanie, fill in,” my instructor said, gesturing for me to take my place at the front of the class. “Now you’re second degree!”

“Cool! Does this mean I can learn Taebaek?” I giggled. To my surprise (and utter delight) he took me up on it about two weeks later and taught me and a fellow first dan the form. This was the first form I had ever been able to remember in its entirety the first day of learning it.

If this form is a clip show, it’s also a video game filled with fun “Easter eggs,” at least for certain taekwondo practitioners who still do the old school beautiful and complex Palgwe forms. It truly is a mishmash of a sweet new moves like breaking an arm, which is awesome, and many signature pieces of color belt Palgwe forms, which I know quite well. (I suppose it’s new to Taeguk practitioners. If you’re curious, look up videos of Palgwes Yuk Jang, Sah Jang, Pal Jang, and Oh Jang, and see if you can spot the shout outs.) Like Koryo, it follows the very familiar Palgwe sideways H pattern. Unlike Keumgang, it’s not a directional mindf*ck.

Taebaek starts out with a new move, a crossed knife hand block (I found it a bit drill team-y but went with it) followed by a familiar front snap kick and double punch. Okay, this is interesting. Then as you turn to the front–BAM!–the double knife hand high block/strike from Palgwe Yuk Jang. What!? YAASSSS, the form with flair! Okay, um, that was a pleasant surprise! Let’s keep going. There are a few more new pieces (and in slow motion too!) and then BAM!–the signature “crescent moon” double block of Palwge Sah Jang. Oooh, this is fun to revisit, and it comes with arm break, and a punch! Get it girl, let’s kick some ass in style!

Turning in a 90 degree angle and moving to the back is reminiscent of the block/spear hand combo in both Sah Jang and Pal Jang, and then oh snap, it’s that f*cking scissor block from Oh Jang! Aw, HELL no! I thought we were done with that awkward, needlessly complex blue belt form, but noooo, it just has to get in one more jab. Y’all, I can hardly contain myself. Maybe a nicer way to refer to this form than clip show is homage.

Although Taebaek pulls heavily from lower level forms, it has a freshness and sense of humor to it. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to turn away from your roots when you want to keep growing. What got you to first degree won’t necessarily get you to second or third degree, but you can still draw on your experiences. It’s an opportunity to add black belt understanding to color belt principles. You don’t have to do away with who you are. Continue to draw on your good qualities, and just, well, turn it up a notch.

[*I actually composed this article last summer, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and post it before I got second degree…and then I learned that it’s usually a third dan form at other schools, and I’ve learned that one too already, so the hell with it, I’m writing an article on the third/fourth dan form Pyongwon. Stay tuned…]

Getting a Black Belt vs. Being a Black Belt: Thoughts on Testing for Second Dan

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Tomorrow, after two years of hard work and training, I test for second dan. The obligatory post-test Veuve Cliquot Champagne and cupcakes are chilling in the fridge. The dobok I will wear is clean and folded. For once I don’t feel the twinge of any lingering injuries. I feel prepared and confident in my skills and warmth and joy that my family will be able to witness this next step in my taekwondo journey.

Getting second dan has a more subdued feeling to me than getting first dan did. I can’t explain it right now and probably won’t be able to until I’ve lived in my new rank for a while (that is, if everything goes as planned and my knees don’t decide on sudden mutiny). Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted by a busy month at work, or maybe I’m just more aware of what I’m in for this time around.

Our Grandmaster has said that you’re not really a black belt if you just test, get awarded the belt, and then quit, which is the fate of so many martial artists, especially younger students. Those students have performed color belt techniques, and that’s it. They stop before they even begin the learning process that comes with being a black belt. I am the only one from my “graduating class” who is still attending our school.  When I got my black belt a lot of well-meaning people asked, “Now what?” as if that were the end rather than a spot on a continuum of training. I don’t think I’ll be asked that question this time. Most of the people I know have realized that taekwondo is an inherent part of my life. (How could they not, since I talk about it ad nauseam?)

I was proud to “get” my black belt. I was excited and happy during my test, and I don’t want to take away the importance from that moment. It was a very important point in my life and an accomplishment I’m very proud of. But the first time I put on my belt just meant…it was the first time I was putting on my belt. I wasn’t really living and performing as a black belt yet. I couldn’t wait to show up at the next class and start learning “black belt stuff,” and I’ve been in a learning mode ever since then. 

The learning has only intensified. I feel like I’m testing for my black belt every day in class, meaning, living up to the potential and responsibility of my rank. There are lower ranking techniques I still have yet to master, and every time I do “black belt stuff,” I’m looking for ways to improve my practice. I’ve learned volumes about teaching and by default, have learned more about taekwondo technique by teaching it to other students. Teaching has helped me better understand the “why” behind what we do and ways to make what I do stronger, faster, and more effective.

Being a black belt has taught me so much beyond new forms or advanced self-defense techniques. It’s helped boost my confidence both in the dojang and in the workplace, plus patience, adaptability, leadership, and oddly enough, more compassion, especially since I take responsibility for the students I help guide and coach. When I’m facing a difficult task at work or in the dojang (and sometimes in those tough physical therapy workouts), I think, “Come on, Black Belt, you can do this!” My belt isn’t just something I wear around my waist a few hours each week. It has become a part of my psyche and identity. I’ll be a black belt for the rest of my life.

I’m excited about my test tomorrow and recognize it for the important event it is (and that Champagne tastes really damn good, so I’m equally excited about that)…but it’s just one event in that never-ending continuum. I’ll show up to class on Monday with the same big dumb smile on my face, eager to learn and ready to keep practicing. Eventually I’ll be a second dan, and I look forward to the journey.