Saturday, September 17, 2016

Month 18: The Foundation

Eighteen months ago, I walked out of my first kung fu class feeling like I’d just spent an hour trying to calculate pi to the last digit while composing a symphony in a sauna. Everything was new and weird and really hard to do and also I was sweaty.

But I went back for a second class because … well, for a lot of reasons that I could wax all poetical about for a few thousand words and paint myself and the school in all the noblest of lights, but if I’m being honest with myself and the internet, there was really only one reason: for a few blessed hours after I left the school, for the first time in years, my hands didn’t hurt.

One of the hallmark symptoms of my systemic lupus has always been painful inflammation of the knuckles and wrists. Turns out, if I do enough huen saus I can clear that up right quick. At least for a little while. For someone who despaired to find any non-pharmaceutical solutions to a hellscape cornucopia of ailments, being able to do this one thing to help myself was a game changer. Give anyone with chronic pain an “off” button for their hurting that doesn’t involve addiction or creepy side effects, and they’ll happily keep pushing it.

So I kept going to class. Kept chasing that temporary relief from my forever illness because instant gratification is kind of my thing. And somewhere along the line, almost accidentally, I built up my kung fu.

And that’s the thing. The kung fu. When I first started training, I heard folks talk about kung fu like it was some kind of quantifiable substance. Someone could have a lot of it, or not enough. It made no sense to me. They were using the wrong kind of noun. Kung fu is a martial art, a philosophy, not an object. They might as well be talking about trading handfuls of impressionism or pieces of epiphany.

Which is, of course, exactly what we do.

Pictured: a staggeringly wide range of kung fu quantities.
(hint: I'm the sweaty, tired, disheveled one. ... no, the other one ... no, the other other one...)

Kung fu is a thing. Everyone has their own kung fu that they make for themselves. Nobody else can make it for you. Students can exchange it back and forth. Sifu can give bits of it that seem like pebbles when they leave his hands but grow to boulders by the time they reach mine. I don’t know how to explain it better than that without touching hands with you.

Over the past year and a half, without really meaning to, I’ve developed my kung fu. I’m not sure what anyone else’s kung fu looks like to them, but mine looks like less pain in my life.
... Like hands that can grip a coffee cup.
... Like getting knocked flat on my ass by injuries or setbacks, and having not only the desire to overcome them, but (finally) also having the physical ability.
... Like not being forced to take a nap every single day.
... Like slowly digging, inch by hard-earned inch, a well of stamina that can handle a weekend’s intense training workshop or a serious bout of illness without running dry.
... Like walking without a limp.
... Like not starting half of my days wondering if I’ll plummet through a Series Of Unfortunate Medical Events and find myself in a hospital by bedtime.
... Like a patient friend, on those days when I’m too sick to train, waiting quietly nearby with no judgement in its steady presence, just a readiness to get back to work as soon as I’m able.

Whatever else my kung fu may be - self confidence, personal safety, strength - it is, above all of that, the thing that has allowed me to regain some control over my health.

Not complete control, of course. Never that. No lupus patient dares to dream quite that big. But ...

After eighteen months of training, my kung fu is the solid foundation that I’ve built beneath my feet, layer upon layer of effort and focus and sweat, that makes sure that when my house of cards does inevitably come tumbling down … it doesn’t tumble quite so far.

Monday, June 6, 2016

2016 Women's Workshop: A Mighty Family

3:30am - Scramble to shush my alarm before it wakes anyone else. My husband and kids aren’t crazy enough to be getting up this early; that’s all me. I have this morning planned down to the minute. Hell, I’ve been preparing for this morning for weeks, resting and eating right and generally pouring on as much self-care as I possibly can to ensure that my madcap illness will let me do all the things I want to do for the next three days. This is my first time ever travelling out of state for a Kung Fu workshop, y’see, and I’m determined to make sure everything goes right. I jump into the world’s fastest shower, scoop up my pre-packed bags, and slip out the door.

4:15am - Pull up to Simo’s house. I don’t even have time to wonder if I should knock or text to let her know I’m there before she’s opening the passenger door and climbing in. Good, no precious seconds lost. We cruise through the sparse traffic of a barely conscious city, on our way to the airport to meet the other ladies with whom we’ll be traveling. I’m all over my phone, navigation and clock, are we where we should be at this moment? Are we ahead of schedule? I get a little smug about how well it’s all going.

4:45am - Score a princess parking spot in the airport’s long-term lot and hustle to catch the little bus that’ll take us to the terminal. I check that I’ve got all my bags as the bus trundles away from the parking lot. Pretty sure we’re exactly on schedule to catch our flight, but probably I should double check the time.

4:55am - Realize that I left my stupid phone in my stupid car.

Looking back, I can pinpoint this as the first of many (many, many) kung fu lessons of the weekend. I could either pitch a hissyfit and burn a bunch of energy that my sickly self really couldn’t spare on something that would achieve nothing more than making everyone’s life difficult, OR ... I could just take a breath, laugh, and go with the flow of fate. Honestly, I was about to fly 1400 miles away from home to learn Ving Tsun from Grandmaster Moy Tung … what on Earth did I need my phone for? Was I gonna live-tweet about the workshop? Scroll through some Tumblr memes in between rounds of tsui mah? Pffft.

So I caught Simo’s eye. Told her about my phone. We got some dirty looks from the other travellers on the bus - apparently nobody laughs in a pre-dawn airport. Some folks just don’t appreciate irony.

Hours blended together and the passage of minutes became meaningless. For the next three days, we drifted on the tides of kung fu in a strange new world where training, learning, working together, laughing, more training, basically everything … is more important than such mundane details as sleep or the concept of time.

Even the weather seemed uncommitted to any particularly rigid schedule. The wind that howled in over the Atlantic brought everything from glorious sunshine to angry slate-colored clouds and swirls of this mysterious white substance that I would later be assured was, in fact, snow. In April. In a place with “Beach” in its name.

Luckily, the extended kung fu family that gathered for the workshop all banded together to get done whatever needed doing. We fell into an easy rhythm of training, working together, gathering groceries and securing lodging and, yes, making an urgent run to Target for some extra layers of clothes for those of us (me) who were too Texas to handle the weather (I am a delicate flower).

And … look, I don’t like many people. I’m a curmudgeonly sort by nature, though mostly it’s bluster to cover introversion and a sometimes-crippling shyness, so meeting new folks stresses me out and makes me cranky. But there was something about this place, something about all of these women coming together from all over the country, that bypassed my attitude problems completely. We were all there with the same goal in mind: to train, and train hard. To listen and learn and sweat and pass out and get up to do it all over again without even once complaining because we had all moved our own personal mountains to be there.

It’s impossible not to like people under those circumstances. Or, at least, it was for me.

The family that plays forms together, spends time together without talking to each other, is totally my kind of family.
This was a workshop just for women - the only menfolk on that beach were Sigung Moy Tung and his baby boy (I heard that a few of Sigung’s male students were around, helping from behind the scenes like magical elves to keep things flowing smoothly, but I never saw them) - so the entire weekend had its own unique energy. Maybe it’s the same with any all-ladies athletic type thing. Maybe any large group of combat-trained women would gather together this harmoniously. I wouldn’t know; I avoid the hell out of crowds and my most athletic pursuits in the past couple of decades have been marathons of the Doctor Who variety.

What I do know … what I learned from my brain all the way down to my bones over the course of the weekend … is that the women of this Ving Tsun Kung Fu family are a force to be reckoned with.

It's not every day you get to watch a very nice lady put her fist through your Simo's chest.
Ving Tsun women are strong and they know it. But not once in the hours upon hours of training did I encounter so much as a flicker of competitiveness. We tested each other, pushed each other’s limits, but it was never about winning or proving who was stronger. The only person I felt the need to compete with was myself, and I kicked my carcass all over that floor. So yeah, I won, but I also lost. Which is what learning feels like.

Ving Tsun women can fuss and laugh and holler and sing as much as they like, each to her own desires, but when it comes down to violence we all fall silent. Focused. For hours on end, the only sounds in a room full of women was the shuffling of kung fu slippers across slate floors, the rustling of cloth, and the occasional dull thump of impact.

In those long stretches of kinetic silence, I found myself imagining how eerie it would be for an attacker to find themselves dealing with a victim who, instead of screaming or flailing, steps forward with all the quiet inevitable aggression of gravity and every intention to, as Sigung put it, “do everything you can to make them swallow blood”.

Ving Tsun women can drive through five hours of blizzard, in the middle of the night, in solid flurries of silver-dollar-sized snowflakes, at 20 mph in darkest rural Ohio to get to a VT workshop. Some of the ladies at this workshop did exactly that, and stepped right into training the moment they arrived. Luggage still in the car, a long night’s horrible road behind them, and they were doing forms with the rest of us.

Because to a Ving Tsun student fatigue is not an obstacle, it’s a training tool. The more exhausted the muscles, the more solid the structure had to be. All of us survived for days on single-digit hours of sleep grabbed in bits and pieces on whatever horizontal surface happened to be available. We trained until we were tired and then we kept training until tired was a distant unlamented memory.

When midnight rolled around on the last night, Simo, the other Texas ladies, and I looked at the handful of hours stretching between us and when our flight was scheduled to leave and had a decision to make. We could either take a tiny, unsatisfying nap followed by the epic struggle to be awake enough to travel, OR … we could just keep training through the night until it was time to leave. So we trained. Because duh.

A single day in the life of this workshop consisted of …
... absorbing every ounce of education from Sigung Moy Tung that we could,
... dozens of siu nim tao played in slow, deliberate unison like some kind of epic performance poetry,
... chasing giggling babies,
... hours of clashing in rows of chi sao like the world’s quietest mosh pit,
... throwing literally thousands of punches,
... cooking vats of pasta and from-scratch marinara sauce, chopping piles of fresh salad, enough to feed the entire small ravenous army of us,
... taking brutal powerwalks on a beach relentlessly sandblasted with frigid gale-force winds,
... comparing notes on our training experiences,
... laughing together,
... clocking enough hours of touching hands to equal at least month of regular training,
... taking care of each other so that we can wollop the breath out of each other all over again,
... and maybe a nap. Maybe.

The women of this Ving Tsun Kung Fu family are a mighty tribe. And I’m honored to be counted as one of them.

Been there, done that, proudly wear the t-shirt.

A brief word about training with Grandmaster Moy Tung:

There is nothing else like it. Because there is no one else like Sigung Moy Tung. Over the course of this weekend, I started to understand why the term is “martial artist”. Because that level of interpretation, of dedicating one’s life fully to the study, of never losing the joy of discovering new applications of technique, of becoming so brimming-over full of knowledge that it has to spill over and be shared with students who will know its value … that is Art.

This workshop was an immersive experience. Jump into the kung fu pool and start swimming. Lessons were everywhere, in everything we did, around every corner. That’s why we only slept when we absolutely had to - when those lessons are being taught by Grandmaster Moy Tung, you really don’t want to be caught napping. You’ll miss something awesome.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Month 12: Halfway There

I’ve completed a full year of Ving Tsun Kung Fu training. Me. The chronically ill suburban mother of two whose favorite activities include cupcakes and not running.

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this, notions that have been tumbling around in my head like drunken june bugs for weeks, cheerfully mocking all of my efforts to wrassle them into cohesive narrative for a blog post because I’d rather poke my eyeballs out than go all Buzzfeed and write a damn listicle.

But ya know what?

- Ving Tsun has taught me how to pick my battles. Don’t try to force something to work that’s not supposed to work, whether it be a palmstrike that can’t get through or a blog post. So fine. Fine. Listicle it is, and I’ll just try to find a way to sleep at night.

- They’re not fat rolls, they’re Muscle Bumpers. Kung Fu training has done a lot to deprogram a lifetime of internalized body-shame. I’m a big ol’ gal, always have been, and while my training has added pounds of muscle it hasn’t subtracted much fat. Probably I could lose some of the extra curves if I liked ice cream a little less, but that’s not even an argument worth making because it involves less ice cream. And, also, because who cares? My body is a gloriously mighty machine capable of doing just about anything I ask of it. Which is mind-blowing to someone who, just a year ago, spent more days limping than not.

I’m healthier today than I have ever been. Not just healthier compared to a year ago, but compared to the entirety of my adult life. Speaking as someone with a chronic illness, who will be some kind of sick every day for the rest of forever, that’s pretty freaking awesome.

So if this amazing collection of muscle and bone and blood that I get the privilege of driving around this world has some lumpy bits that aren’t conventionally pleasing to the eye, that’s the viewer’s problem. Not mine.

- I’m tougher than I ever thought I could be. If I look back over the past twelve months and squint a little, I can see the early days when every single class sent me home with sore forearms that would be all the colors of the bruise rainbow by morning. Nowadays, I typically don’t bruise unless I’ve been handing out bruises, too.

But it’s not just the physical. I’m tougher on the inside, too. Everyday crap that used to make my head pop clean off is now more likely to get a raised eyebrow, a deep breath, and Dealt With. Because, honestly, if it’s not trying to hit me, how bad can it be? And if it is trying to hit me, well, probably I can hit it back.

- I’m stronger than I know. Not like in a badass kung fu warrior way, so much as in an oversized puppy way. I’ve had multiple fellow students comment on my strength. Some have asked me to go easier during drills. One even used the word “brutal”, in a breathy-laughing please-stop-hurting-me kind of way. I’d like to take these moments as compliments to my training, but there’s this voice in the back of my head that worries VERY LOUDLY about accidentally hurting people.

I grew up a girl, so I’ve heard it all my life. Don’t play too rough, it’s not ladylike. Don’t show off how strong you are, you’ll scare off all the boys. Don’t be too pushy. Don’t be bossy. Don’t take up so much space. Don’t don’t don’t be anything but small and quiet and non-confrontational. It’s always gone against my nature (my body is built big, my voice is a natural megaphone, and I’m contrary as hell), but it’s what I heard, so it's what I hear. Now, it tells me to go easy during kung fu drills. To not play so rough. I can grind my teeth and ignore it, but the teeth, they are a-grindin’.

Luckily, there’s always some iron-armed sihing available to knock me around and remind me that A) I’m nowhere near the strongest beast in the room, and B) never, not once in the past year, have they ever gone easy on me. They may have taken a drill slow for the sake of getting the technique right, but they always kept their hands solid. There is patience in their strength; I try to remember that.

I’m stronger than I think I am, which means that my thinking needs to catch up with my muscles. Then, hopefully, I’ll develop the sensitivity to be able to trust myself not to accidentally hulk out on some poor unsuspecting sidai.

Just a few of the folks who have to listen to my teeth grind. They're the true heroes of this tale.

- Competence is a fickle mistress. I’m starting to understand the idea of my kung fu, my application of the techniques and how my body translates the movements. I’m developing expectations of my own performance. And getting frustrated when I don’t meet my own arbitrary expectations.

At this point, I’ve learned a lot of the pieces of the kung fu puzzle. Enough to get the notion that I’ll be shuffling them around and finding new ways to fit them together for the rest of forever. When it comes to the basic stuff, the drills that I learned in my first few months of training, I have a half-baked idea of what I’m doing. I’m competent.

Competent enough to have a little bit of pride in it. Competent enough that, on the rare occasions when a training partner looks at me in all my mom-shaped glory and assumes that I don’t know what I’m doing or that I can’t handle a drill, I can feel the sharp edges of my slow-spreading smile and know that I’m about to set somebody’s wrong head on straight. Few things in life give me more joy.

Naturally, it is in these moments that my disease may choose to demonstrate its fine sense of ironic timing. Sometimes, I measure off with Assumey McPreconceivedNotions, fully prepared to hold my own and show them that behind this maternal facade beats the heart of a badass, when that badass heart will skip a beat. Or my lungs will gasp and my hands will shake. Or maybe the lupus fog will ambush me and all I can do is watch (from the bench) as all of my hard-won competence drains away in a whirlpool of sudden fatigue and clumsy limbs and I seriously could chew nails and SPIT BULLETS in those moments.

This is why it’s good to have just a little pride. Makes it easier to swallow.

- Time doesn’t mean what it used to mean. If you had asked me twelve months ago if I’d still be training in Kung Fu right now, not just training but geeking out about it, signing up for seminars, tumbling down rabbitholes of kung fu videos, well … I would’ve tried to distract you with a cookie, because the answer would’ve been “no” and I wasn’t as good at saying that word a year ago as I am now.

Every second of training has the potential to go on for eternity, like cold molasses made of fire ants that march endlessly over you searing skin as your face contorts into a rictus of grim death and let’s just say conditioning is my least favorite part of class, okay? And yet somehow I blinked my sweat-stung eyes and BOOM! A year is behind me. This phenomenon isn’t new to me; I’ve got two kids who are all weird smells and bony knees now, but I swear that just yesterday they were drooling lumps of cuddly screaming biscuit dough. I know from time warps. It’s just that it never occurred to me that they could apply to physical training. Which tells you something about my level of athleticism twelve months ago.

Whether I believe it or not, a year of training has passed. According to the school’s 2-Year Program, I am halfway to being a “basic expert” in Ving Tsun. Which is kinda like saying I’m halfway to the moon because in no way do I feel like my road is half-traveled. I have so much more to learn.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Month 11: Living The Montage

It’s a randomly gorgeous morning in the middle of February, and we’ve interrupted start-of-class forms to stand outside the school and talk quietly in the cool breeze. I have no idea why, but he’ll tell me soon enough.

“Mommy …” he asks me, voice thick with the tears shining in his big brown eyes. The ones that look just like mine, if my eyes still had all that sweetness in them, “...  when do I get to do the wooden dummy?”

Ah, there it is. He’d been playing siu nim tao and watching an older student play a form on the jong when he’d suddenly turned to me with that unmistakable I’m Overwhelmed face. Hence: outside.

I don’t have a good answer, so I give him the only one I know, “You’ll learn the jong when your Sifu says you’re ready.”

“But when will that be?” his face crumbles.

So I hug him and ignore the snot he’s smearing all over my shirt because that’s what moms of eight year old boys do, and I tell him, “Just keep training hard, buddy. Keep listening and trying. You’ll get there,” because that’s what sihings of frustrated sidais do. Or at least what this sihing does.

He sniffles, “So … when do I get a white shirt?”

That one I know. “When you’ve trained for a year, dude. You’re almost there; just a few more months to go.”

He looks at me like I’m very nice, but I’m also very crazy. A few months to a third grader is a few eternities. But at least it’s a more recognizable timeline to a tangible milestone than “when your Sifu says you’re ready”. He nods acceptance and giggles when I tickle him (that’s a mom thing, not a sihing thing). When he trots off to class a little sniffly, but ready to work, all I can do is sigh.

Because, oh wow, do I know that feeling. That feeling of wanting to be good at a thing, so you start learning how to do the thing, and you work really hard for what feels like a long time, only to find yourself not so much good as slightly less terrible.

It’s a complicated feeling. A frustrating, complicated feeling. I blame Hollywood.

See, my boy and I both grew up on a steady diet of movie training montages. I learned from a young age that all you need to go from Know-Nothing Chump to Total Badass is a quirky teacher, a few minutes of clever editing, and some inspirational powerchords.

It’s the same every time ...

PROTAGONIST: I want to learn how to do The Thing.
TEACHER: I will not teach you because you are too old or too angry, or maybe that’s me.
PROTAGONIST: But if you don’t teach me then there’s no movie.
TEACHER: Well, when you put it that way ...
MONTAGE: montagemoji.PNG
PROTAGONIST: I have learned so much! I am now The Best Around at doing The Thing!

… and yet somehow I never questioned this process. But I really, really should have. Because now that I’m actually training to do a Thing, I have no realistic concept of time. Kung fu training is measured in years, not minutes, and there’s no music. I want to gnash my teeth and claw at the movie screen and demand to know: what, Protagonist? WHAT DID YOU LEARN? What epic skills could you have POSSIBLY ABSORBED during two-and-a-half minutes of HUNGRY FREAKING EYES?!

Where are your bruises? Your callouses? Your subtlely altered physique that makes all of your clothes fit just a little bit wrong?

Did you ever have to drag yourself to class by the scruff of your own stubborn neck and make yourself do the damn training?

Was it a shock the first time you got so sweaty during a workout that you woke up the next morning with cramps in every major muscle? Did you have to re-think everything you thought you knew about how to hydrate your body and how to wash salt stains out of cotton shirts?

Did you ever glare at your hands for refusing to do two different things at the same time? The hands that are perfectly capable of steering of a half-ton machine at highway speeds while simultaneously selecting and implementing the correct gear to keep that machine’s engine running, but somehow can’t pull off a tan dar without trying to double-punch? Those ridiculous, traitorous hands?

Was there ever a point where you did one part of the Thing so many times that it got boring, until someone suggested that you think of the motion as starting from the elbow instead of the wrist, and suddenly it was fascinating all over again?

How many times did you stand there, all sweat and no breath, avoiding your training partner’s gaze in the hopes of getting just a few more seconds to recover before you dove right back into the drill?

What about setbacks? Did you ever get injured? Were you never knocked so flat by illness that you were forced to skip training until you were well enough to stand upright again? And then when you finally got back to training did you gasp and twinge and limp through it because when you dipped into your internal well of stamina you found it had been drained bone fricking dry?

Did you stand awkwardly in the world’s clumsiest horse until your knees screamed and you finally realized OH, maybe I should fix my feet? And then did you think you had horse All Figured Out until one day an older student came along and very patiently dragged you all over the floor until you realized what you were doing wrong?

Speaking of other students, do you have any? Are they just off-camera and we don’t see them? Being a movie protagonist seems lonely. How are you learning every aspect of The Thing if you’re never getting anyone else’s perspective?

Have you ever relied on your own clumsy instincts to withstand a flurry of limbs wielded by a much more senior student? Did that sihing slip past your woefully insufficient guard to tap you on the chest not once, not twice, but three times before the screaming in your muscles finally forced you to call a halt during which you stood there, all baffled and breathless? Did you look at your sihing and gasp “One of these days, I’m gonna feel like I know what’s going on, right?”, and then she laughed and shook her head and said “When you do, let me know, because I still have no clue”?

Because that’s the thing about the movie montage: IT ENDS. Real training doesn’t.

Movie protagonists get to tie up their training in a neat little narrative bow; the music fades and the hero has achieved all the perfection that they need to triumph. If my montage ever ends, it’ll be because I ended it, not because I ran out of things to learn. In a month, in a year, in ten years, I’ll still be finding new things to work on.

Sometimes I, like my boy, face that never-ending road of learning that stretches out past the horizon and it all seems so incredibly daunting. I look at all the ground not yet covered and it feels like I’ll just never get there, like every step I’ve already taken, no matter how many, won’t ever be enough. It’s a bummer. A big, heavy, smothering, make-you-wanna-stand-outside-the-school-and-cry bummer.

Screw that.

Trying to train under the weight of all that self-inflicted discouragement is like trying to brush your teeth while eating oreos. Messy and gross and counterproductive as hell.

So I’m working on tearing my gaze away from that horizon and focusing on the patch of road that’s under my feet. Less worrying about when the hell I’m ever gonna get good at kung fu and more enjoying the drill that’s happening right now. Turns out, all the good stuff is in the montage. All the ups and downs, the thousand little triumphs for every thousand little hurts, the layer upon layer of fatigue and effort that eventually add up to real skill, all of it. The best things happen while Eye Of The Tiger is playing.

Hopefully, my boy will follow my lead - just knowing that he’s watching helps keep me on track. Because kids are always watching, and listening, and repeating what they’ve learned. Which can be awesome or it can land you in a parent-teacher conference. Or both!

Ultimately, I kinda feel bad for Protagonist. Once the montage is over, their journey ends. Maybe not until after a number of increasingly gawd-awful sequels, but eventually. Me, I get to keep going. And going. And going some more. All the going. For as long as I want or until my Sifu gets sick of me, whichever comes first.

Until then, I’ll do my best to forget all this montage crap and just train. I can’t promise there won’t be the occasional one of these, though:

If you think I don’t have my very own Rocky Balboa grey sweats and Chucks, then we have not met.