“Are you driving it like you borrowed it or are you driving it like you OWN IT?!”
My Body Combat teacher growled and grinned at us as she threw jabs and pushed her sweaty acolytes to work harder. As I bounced and punched I had to suppress a chuckle and filed her comment away in my brain for a future blog post.
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.
Disclaimer: Okay, let’s get something straight. This is first and foremost a taekwondo blog and will continue to be, but since taekwondo has taught me so many valuable life lessons and has so profoundly shaped the way I think, react, and approach life, I inevitably will address other topics that pop up. Today it’s that question of what to do after you’ve gotten your act together in one area of your life.
Like everyone else in the world, I jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon at the beginning of 2019. Disclaimer #2: To be fair and to give myself back a little street cred, I had been aware of Kondo’s de-cluttering (or “tidying”) method for many years and didn’t learn of the Netflix series until after I’d purchased her book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” on a whim over the holiday break. Whatever, maybe the collective energy of scores of people wanting to clean their lives up at the beginning of the year subconsciously inspired me to make that Amazon purchase. Either way, I read her book in one sitting on New Year’s Day and got to work following her “KonMari” method of tackling one category at a time: clothes, books, paper, miscellaneous, and sentimental items.
The whole process of de-cluttering my two-bedroom/two-bath 1100 square foot condo took about a month. On the surface things don’t look much different, but they FEEL new and refreshing. I didn’t pile all my clothes into one giant mound as Kondo suggests, but I did fill up a donate bag, and I diligently folded all my shirts into those funny little rectangles. The supplies and containers artfully tucked into the nooks and crannies of my tiny kitchen aren’t jumbled into stressful clumps in the cabinets anymore. My financial and medical paperwork is in order and easily accessible to me or to loved ones who may need those records. After organizing my jewelry drawers I feel like I have a new set of treasures to accessorize my outfits with. I have a new skin care and makeup regimen thanks to paring down old stuff and committing to using what I have left before I buy anything new.
The discipline of sticking to one category at a time kept me on track and quelled the urge to get distracted with several mini-projects. I was so thankful that I followed Kondo’s suggestion of saving sentimental items for last during the height of my fevered desire to purge and re-organize, which happened about halfway through. (Luckily, I had a box of industrial-size trash bags in my now very organized storage closet.) That doesn’t mean I still hung on to tons of stuff; I just didn’t get rid of things in a rush to de-clutter only to find myself deeply regretting it later, which is something I’ve done in the past.
Going through the sentimental items felt like a reward after a month of meticulous hard work. I spent about a week methodically assessing, weeding, and placing carefully selected photos, memorabilia, and cards into several scrapbooks and was surprised and delighted at the emotional benefit of this process:
I had fun (and some laughs) revisiting high school band and theater moments, college shananigans, and family gatherings and giving them a new, neatly packaged place to live.
I FINALLY took the time to read a history of my Lithuanian ancestors, which was about a 5-page typed document that had been stuffed in my desk for years. I was tickled to find out that my great-great grandmother liked to make wine from berries that grew wild in the area of Pennsylvania where they lived (“moreso than doing housework,” according to our family historian). I saw the variety of professions covered by my extended clan. I learned the names of the relatives in my treasured photo of my great-grandparents’ wedding.
I was deeply moved by a high school graduation card I had saved from my third grade teacher. She died several years ago, so it was nice to revisit her life in her beautifully penned words.
Through re-examining photos in Christmas cards I was able to appreciate how my little cousins have grown into sweet, funny, and interesting young girls.
I was able to let go of heart-wrenching guilt I heaped on myself a few years ago after I did a major, manic purge of sentimental items and mementos. Those departed things no longer haunted me, and I felt a peaceful sense of emotional distance from the items I chose to keep.
The Verdict: I highly recommend Marie Kondo’s book and method. (The Netflix show, on the other hand, got a little repetitive and seemed like a scaled-down, less interesting version of “Hoarders.”)
Disclaimer #3: I am very fortune to have the time, space, and energy to maintain a high level of organization over my personal and professional life. That’s always been how my mind works. I know many people don’t have those capabilities or think the same way I do, so I’m not going to tell you how to live your life or organize your time. Surprises, emergencies, and last-minute opportunities still happen in my controlled realm. However, I feel like being organized has given me the capacity to shift my attention to quickly deal with these things and keep a sense of calm. Now all I have to do as far as housework is usual maintenance cleaning and upkeep. Everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—has a home.
So Now What?
I feel a little bit of a loss now that my big project is over. I had something productive to do after work and on the weekends for a few weeks.
“So how many months is it between red belt and black tip?” asked a young blonde girl, tilting her head and narrowing her eyes at me. She was sporting a brand new red belt, still stiff and shiny and creased from her Friday night color belt promotion.
“Four,” I said absentmindedly, grabbing my foot and bending my leg at the knee for a quad stretch.
“Four months. It’s four, four, six!” piped up an adult blue belt at the back of the room.
“See, he knows too,” I said, nodding and raising my eyebrows. I wanted to tell the little red belt not to get too wrapped up in rushing from one test to the next. There was a lot to enjoy in simply being a red belt…and black tip…and bo dan. I hoped she would slow down and savor the moments and the little joys that I have since I donned a red belt over a year ago…but sometimes people need to figure things out on their own.
The same blue belt looked up at me as he was doing a butterfly stretch and said in a slightly sarcastic tone, “So…are you going to quit when you get your black belt?”
“No way!” I replied. “If I quit what would I have to write about? I’m in this for life until my body or my money gives out.” And it’s true. I found my niche and I found my second family. They’re stuck with me.
It’s starting to hit me that I will test for black belt in about three and a half months. I didn’t even think about black belt when I first re-entered the taekwondo world. I just wanted to be there. Finally after years of searching I’d found something that quieted and focused my mind and opened my heart. I became more nurturing and loving with the people around me than I ever had during half-hearted friendships that died out or sporadic attempts at connecting with people of my same religious faith. I found acceptance, friendships, and a newfound faith in myself that I’d never had before. As long as I can find a place to practice martial arts with other like-minded people I’m happy.
A black belt is just gravy.
First degree black belt is by no means the pinnacle of the taekwondo student’s journey. It just means you’ve completed basic training and your instructor trusts you not to kill the little kids in sparring class. You keep growing and changing and uncovering more and more layers as the years go by. You get to see taekwondo through the fresh eyes of new white belts and learn nuances you would have never discovered on your own without the guidance of seasoned black belts. You get back what you invest in it a hundred fold.
It’s not that I’m not excited about my black belt test. I think about it often and look forward to it eagerly. But I also don’t want to take these last few months of being a color belt for granted. If I’m just cramming for a test and not appreciating the present then I’m missing the point entirely.