The Best Birthday

Happy-Birthday-Cupcake

“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?

Commit, Even if You Look Stupid (I’m Good, I’ll Just Watch From Back Here)

committed sign

“What’s the next part of this form?” my instructor asked, swiveling his head around and looking straight at me.  We had just passed what I call the “jazz hands” portion of Palgwe Sam-jang, the green belt form that we were reviewing that night.

“Ki-yahp and punch!” I shouted back. “No, wait! It’s THIS!!” I crowed triumphantly, whirled around to land in a deep front stance, and slammed down a low block with a sharp satisfied exhale.

“Is she right?” my instructor asked as everyone remained perched in a frozen back stance (except of course for me in all my front stance/low block glory). The other students furrowed their brows, looked down at the floor with embarrassment, and mumbled “Uh…maybe?”

“It’s THIS!” he said, turning to his right, shifting into a front stance, and popping up a high block. We all groaned.

“Oh so close!” I laughed and adjusted my arms.

My instructor trotted to the front of the room and said, “I heard a lot of ‘uh, maybes’ and ‘I don’t knows’ when I asked you if she was right. Commit to something! Don’t do things halfway, at least not in here. Being on the fence means you don’t have an opinion and you’re waiting to see how things work out. That’s OK in the short term, but in the long term it can be dangerous.” He shuffled his feet and straightened his knees into a weak imitation of a back stance.

“You see?” he said, opening his palms and spreading his fingers, “If your stances are halfway now you’ll develop bad habits, and they won’t be effective later.” He shifted back and forth between stances. “You need the strength of front stance,” he said as he sank into his right knee, “and the speed of back stance.” He shifted his weight to his back leg and raised his fists as if ready to spar. “Commit to your stance, even if it’s wrong! I’d rather see you do a wrong stance all the way than the right one halfway!”

I smiled and thought, “At least I was committed to my wrong low block!”

As he continued to weave through the lines of students, correcting stances and fine-tuning blocks I thought about the concept of commitment. Words can carry the weight of the world, but they can also be tossed around casually like pieces of meaningless garbage. I have been hurt both by taking someone’s words too seriously or not taking them seriously enough.  A person’s true character can more often be seen through their actions. Do they follow through on their promises? Do they give and serve? Do they right what was wrong? Committed actions show that we have confidence in our opinions and the choices we’ve made.

The only time I’ve heard an example of how “being on the fence” was the the best choice was an old tale my grandma liked to tell about a distant uncle who was a child during the Civil War. He was leaning up against a fence, chewing on a piece of grass and looking at the clouds, when a posse of soldiers came barreling up the dirt road to his house.
“Boy, what side are you on?” the leader of the gang snarled.

“I’m not on any side” replied my relative slowly, shifting his weight on the wooden post. “I’m on my belly.”