You could call me an accidental black belt. Three times a week, for the last 10 years, I've escaped my full-time identity as mom, editor, and chief folder of underwear. I put on my gi -- the crisp, white, pj-like karate uniform -- tie my belt around my waist, and spend 60 minutes surrounded by kicks, punches, sweat, and a mentality unlike anything else I've ever known.
I took my first class in February 1992. My baby was 6 months old, and I was still wrestling with post-baby weight and exhaustion. My then-husband, bless his soul, who had packed on weight too, found Seido Karate school, took a trial class, and fell in love with it. "You have to try it," he said. "The school is so amazing -- it's like walking into another world."
He was right: Heavy bags swung from the ceiling, and beautifully hand-painted Japanese characters hung over boxes of smelly old fight gear. Each person bowed deeply as he or she entered the school, and each called, "Osu!" ("I'll try my best") -- very loudly. In fact, they bowed and shouted "Osu" constantly -- every time the teacher called out an instruction.
One afternoon, I watched a woman black belt do a kata -- a series of choreographed fighting moves, almost like a dance. Her movements were strong and fierce and beautiful and angry at the same time -- something I wouldn't have thought possible. Later that week, as I was trying to learn the four basic parts of a roundhouse kick, one of the teachers touched my shoulder. "You don't have to smile here," he said. Don't have to smile? I thought. Anger, grace, strength, freedom from smiling...everything about my lifelong training as a Norwegian-American nice girl was under attack. I was hooked.
Though it was the physical escape of karate that I loved, each class brought me closer to something else. I began to be really touched by the way the school's founder, Tadashi Nakamura, or "Kaicho," talked about karate. Nothing matters more than having a strong spirit, he would say, and inner strength is what wins every fight. I'm sure I rolled my eyes the first time I heard him say this. But I learned. I watched -- almost always through tears -- incredible examples of spirit as I saw blind students, for example, learn how to break boards using their hands and feet.
After two years of training, I earned a green belt and began to take sparring classes. As I strapped myself into foam safety gear for my first fight class, I was terrified. I decided Kaicho was right: Inner strength was everything, and I had none. The mouthpiece made me drool. The awkward chest protector strapped around me kept bumping me in the chin. And it dawned on me that after two years and probably 300 classes, people were actually going to hit me. Hard. Kick me. Maybe even knock me down. Sure enough, they did.
The miracle was that I always stood right back up. I loved that part: I might not be good, but I -- more or less -- learned how to take a punch. (Look into your opponent's eyes, protect your face, and stay light on your feet.) I figured out how to throw a few, too. By the time I earned my black belt, in 1997, I had stopped apologizing every time I connected and feeling sorry for myself every time I got belted.
Along the way, I found a kind of confidence most women never get. Once, shortly after I had begun sparring, I was in a meeting with a boss who was, I'll be blunt, a little twit. As he lectured, I thought, My God, I could take him. Not that I would have, or even wanted to. But if it ever came to a fight, I'd have bet his whole Ivy League tuition on...me. I would like to bottle that feeling.
I fight less than I used to, but I still try to take three classes a week. I've gone from getting kicked in the head a lot to mostly remembering to keep my hands up. From thinking that everyone in the room is wondering, Ha, who is she kidding, to realizing that what anyone else thinks is not the point. From thinking that I was fighting with the student in front of me to recognizing that the real opponent, as Kaicho would say, is always inside.
So is there power in being a black belt? Yes and no. Not like the power, say, of editing a magazine and reaching 4.1 million people every month. Not like the power of guiding two children along their own paths, helping them navigate the tricky terrain of fifth and third grades or of being a good daughter. But unlike anything else I have -- even though so many people helped me earn it -- that belt is the only thing that is all mine.