Brown Belt

kempoLast week was intense; I finished the first draft of Right of Rule on Monday night and earned my brown belt in kempo on Saturday! Writing the novel took a lot longer, but those five-and-half-hours of martial-arts endurance test were the most intense physical challenge I’ve faced in my life.

I was pretty anxious about the test. Even though, intellectually, I knew that (a) my sensei wouldn’t have sent me to take it if he didn’t think I knew the material well enough to pass, and (b) worrying would do me no good at all, I still couldn’t help fretting over that week before the test, as I refilled my plate with protein and drank yet one more bottle of Gatorade. I practiced my forms and techniques every day, until I was starting to fear that the practice was doing me more harm than good.

And then, the test! Every time I messed up I cringed, then tried to hide it, knowing that the black belts were circling our little test group like tigers looking for weaknesses. Around hour four I was grimly telling myself to just keep putting one foot ahead of the other each time we had to run from one part of the park to another. All I have to do, I thought, is keep moving. It was about then that I started getting loud. I’m normally a quiet person and a quiet fighter; my kiai is more a hiss than a shout. But exhaustion and desperation had dropped my inhibitions, and I was shouting to encourage my friends and myself and to prove to the masters that I was still in the game.

Then, when we finally headed back into the dojo for the final part of the test — sparring — I had gotten my second wind. I had to spar twice, and I was able to stay aggressive and mobile both times (although the next day I discovered that somewhere along the line one of my opponents had landed a good one on my ribs — grooaann!), doing a lot of loud and, for me, atypical kiai-ing in the process.

And of course, as the photo proves, in the end I earned my belt (I’m the one on the left).

Let’s be honest: I don’t enjoy endurance testing, and I roll my eyes whenever the rhetoric in my martial arts system gets too macho. I’m a 47-year-old, female, introverted professor; I practice martial arts for fitness and as a little personal “travel insurance” during my trips abroad. (Although, as a writer, I do enjoy the graphic descriptions of mayhem that my sensei delights in providing whenever he demonstrates the street application of a technique!) Nevertheless, I will reluctantly concede that this brown-belt test taught me exactly what I’m sure it was intended to teach me: that I can face a challenge that mentally and physically intimidates me and that I can keep moving and fighting even after I’m exhausted. And I confess that knowing that gives me a particular type of confidence that I didn’t have before I took the test.

But I’m still very grateful that my next rank test will be a long time from now!

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