A teensy break from my “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS” series…maybe.
I was hiking in woods above our home a few weeks ago, and lost my house key. Not too big a deal, under ordinary circumstances–our family seems to lose house keys like a six-year-old loses teeth.
But attached to the key chain was one of my most prized possessions–a little tag made from a section of a belt used to denote rank in the martial arts. In my case, green belt.
When I first took up Tae Kwon Do more than fifteen years ago, it was a struggle for me. I was over forty, I was out of shape, and I was never an athlete to begin with. But I fell in love with my practice and slowly worked my way up through the ranks. I had good instruction, and although I wasn’t fast or especially talented, my techniques were sound.
Green belt level always seemed ideal. It meant you were at that hugely desirable third stage of learning, able to competently demonstrate good technique with some thought. But training is not as rigorous as the next level (red belt). Maybe halfway to black belt–still a long way to go, but with hope it can be achieved.
It’s a good place to be.
Soon after I tested for green belt, I received two presents, one treasured, the other one I wish I could forget.
I was given a key chain with the aforementioned green belt, which I treasured.
And one of my black belt instructors severely damaged my knee while sparring with me.
And no, it wasn’t an accident, it was something a fifth-degree black belt should never have done to anyone outside of a life-or-death situation, let alone a student.
I call it that incident a “present” because my husband calls it “the gift that keeps on giving”. It totally screwed up my leg, and as a consequence, my lower back, my hip and my posture. I’ve had multiple surgeries to repair the damage, including an ACL replacement, months of physical therapy and other complications. I still struggle with compromised range of motion, swelling and discomfort.
The positive outcome? I left the martial arts, for good, I thought. But a decade later, I came back. First to Thai kickboxing and five years later, a new Tae Kwon Do school.
I’m even older, achy, ouchy, and even more out of shape. But I know now that, though my practice will always be a challenge, I will continue until I simply can’t.
I’ve learned to show up, even when I didn’t want to. I’ve learned to work through frustration and self-doubt. I’ve learned not to measure my progress against others, but to simply try to do a little bit better each time. And sometimes, I’ve learned to just stick it out “just five more minutes.” And another five minutes. And another. Until, miracle of miracles, the two hours is over, and I realize I’ve made it through another whole class.
And that has been a gift. Because I have applied these principles of practice to many other areas of my life, including my art.
The school I’m in now has a more aggressive, sparring-oriented approach, and my progress is even slower. I may never see green belt again.
So my little key chain was my constant reminder of how far I was able to go, once upon a time. A time where I could hold a little personal dream that I might at least achieve that level again, someday.
And now it’s gone.
I remember how upset I was when, trying to provide provenance for my past placement at this new school, I was told that “anyone could buy one of those key chains”, it didn’t prove anything. They’re right, I get that. Even now, I could simply buy another one. But anyone who knows me, knows I would never in a million years do something like that. It would feel like cheating.
I realized my little green belt tag represented something of value to me–of a time when it was physically possible for me to dream of being a black belt someday. Not as a goal, but as a culmination of a process, of dedication to my practice.
And now I have no such dream.
What I do have is the realization that black belt would be wonderful (after the training and the testing–it’s a brutal process.) But the dream of black belt is no longer my goal.
My goal is to simply keep going, and to keep on practicing, and to hope for incremental refinement and improvement. And hopefully, to continue my practice far, far, into my life.
So as painful as losing that memento is, maybe it’s just as well. Maybe it was actually holding me back. Keeping me in the past. Maybe it’s just time to let go of the need to remember stronger, younger days.
Or maybe I just don’t need a reminder anymore. Maybe just being me, and being grateful I can practice at all, is all the blessing I need.