Saturday, August 22, 2009


I made it! I'm both wired and limp with relief right now, so excuse any babbling.

The test went very smoothly. The only kata I blipped on was Wansu, which seems ironic since it's my favorite kata and usually my best. I think because it is my favorite I wasn't worried about it and thereby didn't drill it as obsessively as the rest. Basically I put in double nukite instead of the empi (knife hands instead of an elbow strike), which is a move from Sunsu. I knew I had flubbed, but didn't interrupt the flow of the kata, and when Sensei asked at the end of the kata, I knew right where I had screwed up, so he seemed all right (other than teasing me about my nerves).

Self defense went very well. Rob got some good shots, so I'll put them up if he ever gets around to e-mailing them to me (camera phone). Oddly enough I did several notches better at self defense when paired with Mike (who is substantially bigger than me) than against smaller opponents. I did okay with everyone, but Mike went down clean and hard every time. I think when I'm dealing with somebody big, I don't waste any effort muscling through the technique, which is a definite fault of mine when dealing with smaller people (which is most of the other people in our dojo right now). Poor Mike! At least twice I took him down too fast for him to get his arm around and fall properly, so he was a little battered by the end of the evening. Fortunately he's a good sport.

Afterwards we trooped over to Sensei's for pizza, soda, and caipirinhas (an interesting drink involving lime juice, sugar, and cachacas - a Brazilian liquor Rob brought back from his last trip). We watched videos from the World Tournament - I really have gotten faster with my bo since then! I don't feel faster vs. my memory, but I look really slow to myself now. Watching me and the woman who took 2nd (I was 4th), I was struck that the difference all seemed to be speed and conviction. She did a lot more things wrong than I did, but she was fast and confident doing them, while I was hesitant looking, even as I was doing things correctly. It was interesting watching.

It's late, and I should head off for bed, but I'll leave you with the essay that I turned in last week. Some of it may seem familiar, as I borrowed ideas heavily from the essays I have put up here. Enjoy!

If I have sen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants. – Sir Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton was onto something. All of us, every last one, owe much to the generations that have come before us. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the martial arts, none of which would exist without the masters who came before, who developed their arts, refined them, and passed them on.

Less obviously, we are equally dependent on those who came before who are not giants. For every giant of the past, there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands, who while not great themselves nonetheless learn and transmit, passing the martial arts on to their students who in their turn become teachers again. Not every martial art great began their learning at the feet of another giant – if only the giants taught, martial arts would have died out many times over.

Nor does every martial arts giant start out knowing what they will become (few of us ever do). Some never think of themselves as giants at all, but simply as a sensei, as any martial artist can be a sensei if they have the will to be so, a solid foundation to teach from, and a concern for the learning of those following after them.

I wasn't thinking of any of this when I walked into my first dojo in September of 1996. I had never heard of Isshinryu, or Tatsuo Shimabuku, or even Okinawan karate as distinct from other forms of karate. I barely knew there was a difference between karate, judo, aikido, and "all that other stuff"; it was all just martial arts to me. I went because my neighbor wanted to go and because I was curious, as I am curious about everything. If Trish had wanted to try a local pottery class, or ballroom dancing, or learning Latin, I would probably have gone along just as readily.

The first evening was stunning, in a more literal sense than that phrase is usually meant. Trish and I were given what amounted to a two hour intensive self-defense class. It didn't have a lot to do with the system of Isshinryu, except that like our style it was practical, direct, and occasionally brutal. By the end of the night I was probably two or three times more capable of defending myself against an attack than I had been when I walked in. I was also covered in bruises, and by the next morning so sore I could barely move.

It was when I came back the next night that I began to learn something of Isshinryu – how to chamber a kick, how to make a proper fist – all the minutiae that make up the letters of the Isshinryu alphabet. But over the next year and a half, the most important things I learned at Mr. Gabbard's dojo had to do with what I wasn't.

Firstly, I learned I wasn't a coward. I had always been afraid – not of pain, per se, but of my potential reaction to pain. That I would retreat, collapse, or otherwise behave shamefully in the face of it. At Gabbard's I learned that I could be hit and hit hard, and still come back fighting.

Secondly, I learned I wasn't very good at karate. That the analytical mind and sharp memory that carried me through school and in the work place was helpful, but not sufficient for karate. Regardless of how well my mind understood what I ought to be doing, it didn't mean that my body would follow through. It still took repetition, and drill, and getting it wrong many, many times before I could get it right. Isshinryu was hard. It didn't come naturally, and that wasn't something I was used to. Weirdly enough, this made it all the more interesting to me. Every step of improvement I had to earn and it felt like an accomplishment in a way that academics never had. Not being intrinsically good at karate didn't mean I had to be bad at it forever. It just meant that I had to work that much harder to become good.

Those lessons were the ones that stuck when I left the dojo. I got pregnant; we moved across the country, and I couldn't seem to find the opportunity to start at another dojo. My fitness levels dropped, I slowly forgot my hard-earned sparring skills, eventually I forgot how to do most of the kata, but I remembered what I could do when I put my time, effort and energy into it. Mr. Gabbard had given me my first view of a wider world of martial arts by letting me stand on the shoulders of his experience.

It was six years before I would restart my training in Isshinryu with a teacher quite different from Mr. Gabbard, and in a very different dojo. I started as a white belt again, which was appropriate given how much I had forgotten. Yet the white belt sat a little oddly, because I did still have those lessons from my first go-around that I had never lost.

As I began my karate journey again, the oddly sitting white belt began to teach me something itself. In my first incarnation as a karateka, I had not cared particularly about rank (or at least believed that I did not care). But as I began to dig my skills out of my rusty memory, I noticed something. I wasn't a white belt anymore, even though I wore one. It felt like I was playing pretend to wear it when I came to class, and I began to realize that I wanted my belt to reflect what I could do. That was when I realized that I did, after all, want a black belt. Not because I cared what color I had tied around my waist, but because I coveted the skills and mind-set that would make any other color seem as bad a fit as the white belt was at that moment.

So I began my climb back up, learning karate the same way one gets to Carnegie Hall – practice, practice, practice. But this time, I had a more specific goal. If I wanted to be a black belt, rather than simply have one, what did that mean? What made someone a black belt?

Here, I ran into Mr. Rodeghier's oft repeated maxim "Black belt means sensei." He says it often enough that it clearly resonates with him, yet looking around the larger martial arts world it's easy to find people with black belts who are clearly not sensei. Some of them have formidable skills, far beyond what I have, yet those skills are not transmitted. Others, not always the most skilled themselves, are clearly fabulous sensei with a gift for teaching and transmitting the essence of their art. So, if black belt means sensei, and yet the two categories don't completely overlap, then what is the difference between them?

The difference is in the orientation. A black belt is a symbol of the skills acquired in your journey as a karateka. Not that it's the endpoint - far from it. But it symbolizes that you know the basics of your art; you are a serious student. To use an analogy, it symbolizes that you know your ABC's and have learned your spelling, and now you're ready to start writing. A sensei needs to know these things, but being a sensei has very little to do with what you actually know, and everything to do with who you feel responsible for. If black belt means sensei, it's because a sensei is a black belt who has looked beyond him or her self outwards to the students coming along behind and decided to take responsibility for helping them along the way. They put their students up on their shoulders and let them see further than would be possible otherwise.

I stand where I stand on my Isshinryu journey because of my sensei. Regardless of where my journey takes me from here I want to emulate them, to boost the people who come after me along their own ways. Because even if we are not all giants, it is still a worthy goal to have shoulders strong enough to stand on.


Michele said...


wh44 said...

Congratulations! :-)

Perpetual Beginner said...

Thank you!

Blackbeltmama said...

Congratulations! I don't think I've ever heard of someone NOT making at least one mistake during shodan testing. I know I did. It feels fantastic, doesn't it???

Elizabeth McClung said...

Congrats - that is a great explaination about the black belt and congrats on passing the black belt. I like your honor to those who do the journey because of the love of the journey, the thousands who are not giants, or not recognized as such.

Perpetual Beginner said...

Thanks, Beth. Knowing the power of your writing, a compliment from you means a lot!

BBM - That's good to know! And it does feel very good to be on the other side at last.

Felicia said...

Congratulations! And you only made ONE mistake! I got rocked so hard during Sanchin kata shime that I literally had to take a step back! MAJOR mistake - but it happens...

Thanks for sharing your paper. It was great :-)

Perpetual Beginner said...

Wow, Felicia - I found your blog about two days before you commented here. I'm very glad you found me in return!

I got rocked back on my heels a couple of times during Sanchin, but fortunately the biggest strongest guy was to my rear and I'm most stable to hits from there.

I'm glad you liked the paper. I'm fairly proud of it.