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?

Sparring Multiple Partners

multiple-attackers-ip-man

Ohhh…crap, I didn’t think this through.

“Black belts, get up and make a line in the center of the room.”

During sparring class that’s my chief instructor’s cue for us to line up and let the lower ranking students take a stab–or well, I mean punch–at us. For a while he would assign one student per black belt, but lately he’s been assigning two students to each black belt for two-on-one sparring. If I get the little kids, it’s more funny than anything else, and I spend half my time coaching them on how to get me rather than really fighting them.

It becomes more serious when I’m matched with partners my size (or larger, which is often the case since I’m fairly small) or worse, with other black belts. The larger partners have more brute force, and the black belts fight smarter and know how to work together.

The basic rule of fighting multiple partners is to not let yourself get between them. If they trap you from either side it’s very dangerous unless you’re Liam Neeson, and then it’s just bad for the attackers. What I’ve learned to do is always keep the attackers in more of line so at any point I’m only facing one. I don’t let them corner me on either side, of it they do, I go after the closest one and fight my way out of the tight spot.

Seeing as I’m not Liam Neeson or Uma Thurman’s character from “Kill Bill,” I really don’t do a lot of offensive moves when I’m sparring multiple people. Even in a controlled environment like a taekwondo dojang, sparring multiple attackers takes on a scarier and more primal element. I can’t waste time seriously fighting one person if another one is creeping up on me. I just have to stay on the defensive, block like mad, and run like hell. If it were a real life situation I wouldn’t be doing roundhouse kicks anyway. Hide your eyes, hide your kneecaps, hide your crotches, cause I’ll be gunning for them.

While I’ve gotten used to the concept of sparring multiple people in taekwondo class and always am aware of it as an unfortunate possibility of it happening on “the streets,” I found myself in that situation in a very unexpected place, and it was more unsettling than any physical fight. I won’t say exactly where, but it’s a place where I usually feel safe, respected, and valued.

During a gathering of people I normally got along with well, one person questioned the way I was doing something and suggested that I do something differently. I understood their argument clearly and was ready to respond that I agreed and would be happy to change course as long as I got some suggestions…but I never got that chance. Instead I got a repetitive filibuster directed at me rather than to me.

Then other people joined in, talking about me rather than to me, even though I was in the room looking at them dumbfounded and unwillingly silenced. Granted, it was not personal insults or harsh criticism, but they would not show me the respect of being quiet for two seconds and letting me respond. I actually agreed with them and was ready to say, “Yes, I see your point, and I’ll go along with that if that’s best for everyone. Let me make arrangements to change plans right away,”but apparently that would have been too simple and straightforward.

What could have been a 5 minute conversation turned into a whirlwind of anxiety-ridden arguments and hijacked conversation threads that pushed me further and further away from my opportunity to respond. It was humiliating, demeaning, and has severely damaged my trust with many of the people involved. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I saw a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” last week.

And so I found myself unwittingly having to spar multiple attackers. I silently reminded myself to stay cool (all the while hearing my chief instructor’s voice in my head saying, “Don’t let it escalate”) and look forward to an evening of taekwondo class where all of this nonsense would be forgotten.

I realized after thirty minutes of everyone talking over each other (except for me, to whom the original question was directed at) that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise (or in the TKD world, that would be a punch or a kick) so I’d have to just go on the defense, block as best I could, and run like hell before they started jabbing at me from all sides. I kept my eyes on my “partners” and waited for an opening to say something along the lines of, “Enough. We’re good. Everything’s cool,” just so we could call the match and get out.

What I learned from this incident is that your best strategy for fighting back may not always go as planned. You may be blindsided. There may be multiple attackers. They may have weapons. They may be people you know. You may have to just do what you can to get yourself out of harm’s way, heroics be damned. Don’t get between them. Get out of the way and protect yourself as best you can.

After my harrowing escape I received an online message from my brother. He had watched a video that one of the taekwondo dads posted on social media. In the video I was kicking hard, fighting harder, and smiling with pride and joy in the place where I am happiest with people I look forward to seeing all day.

“It’s very cool,” his message read. “You look like a badass.”

That’s right. I AM a badass. I know who I am and what I value. And I now have a clearer picture of who’s got my back and when I need to be watching out for wolf packs.

When You Know You’ve Found Your Tribe

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I am not, by nature, a loyal person.

Connecting with other people has always been difficult for me. Although I come from a close-knit family and have been a serial monogamist in romantic relationships, when it comes to groups of friends or associates I tend to shy away. I truly enjoy interacting with people, especially those with whom I share similar interests, but I have a little problem with commitment. When things start to move too fast, and it starts getting too close, I bail. Once the fun wears off and things get serious, I don’t want to stick around. To be honest, I’m a bit of a player. I like the flirtatious rush at the beginning, but I don’t want to deal with the long-term time and energy investment.

I’ve been a member of a Catholic Bible study group, a running club, and even a swing dance syndicate. (Hey, swing dance was a thing in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Don’t act like you don’t remember.) I went to their homes, their parties, their events. Eventually, though, I felt cramped by the commitment and began to put more and more distance between myself and my various social groups until I disconnected myself completely.

My longest standing “group” relationship has been with the young professionals crowd at my city’s modern art museum. On paper I seem like a perfect fit. I live in a trendy part of town. I love art. As much as I despise hipsters and yuppies (the major demographic of the young professionals group), I’m a blend of both with just a dash of hippie thrown in. I’m still skimming under the age limit, although I will not be in the “under 40 friends” category for much longer. I’ve been a member of this group for over ten years, but I consider only one of them a friend.

I am a lone wolf, an Ebenezer Scrooge, a ghost.

I knew my relationship with the modern art group was fading fast at an event last Friday. The event, which was held at an offsite gallery downtown, featured the work of a local artist, and more importantly, a donut food truck. I rarely get dressed up and go out, and I had been looking forward to this event for weeks.

Thirty seconds into the event, I wanted to leave. There I was in a cramped room, sipping mediocre wine, looking at mediocre art, and surrounded by people I didn’t know and had no interest in getting to know better. I loathed the thought of being dragged into the false-cheery, superficial, “What do you do? Oh, interesting! Oh, and what do you do?” vicious circle of vacuous conversation. I realized with a sinking feeling that I had absolutely nothing in common with these people other than an appreciation for art.

I missed my dojang, my classmates, and my instructors, and found myself thinking more about the color belt students who were testing that night than the people milling around in front of me in the gallery. I turned on my heel, bought a Cinnamon Toast Crunch donut from the food truck, which made the otherwise dull outing worth it, and rushed home. As I ate my donut in my fortress of solitude (WORTH IT!) I eagerly gazed at Facebook posts from testing students and parents of testing students and looked forward to when I could see everyone in class the following Monday.

donut

WORTH IT!!!!!!!!!!

It’s been said that you “just know” when you’re in love, and I think the same can be said for when you know you’ve finally found your tribe.  It’s taken me over thirty years to find a group of people besides family that I can be loyal to. The funny thing is, I wasn’t really looking for a  “community” when I began taekwondo training. I took up taekwondo because I wanted to put a stop to my self-destructive behaviors and do something good for myself. What I didn’t expect to get was camaraderie, closeness, and a desire to serve. Now I have two families.

Maybe the reason why I feel so at ease in my dojang and am willing to stay late, help out, listen, learn, and finally make a commitment to a group of people I’m not linked to by blood is this: I went into the relationship with no expectations. I wasn’t trying to figure out how I could use anyone to fill some kind of void. I wasn’t vying for anyone’s attention or approval, and perhaps for those reasons, my very high walls began to crumble. They bring out the best in me, which sadly hasn’t been the case with my other relationships.

So maybe that’s the trick to finding your tribe, in whatever form that may be: when you’re willing to give more than you get, you’ve found them. When you don’t hold anyone to the impossible expectation of making you feel better about yourself (because that’s your job, not theirs), you’ve found them. When you find yourself thinking about them often and counting the days until you can see them again, you’ve found them.

Meanwhile, I think it might be time to change my membership level at the modern art museum.