Four Challenges, Five Fingers

This is one of the requirements for an upcoming test in my martial art, Seido Juku, which I’ve practiced since 2015. Longer than my usual post, the essay is written for that particular international community and for my local dojo but it’s accessible enough to put on my site, as an anchor and reminder of what all the things are all about. If you are interested in learning about Seido, visit here and if you’d like a dojo in Chicago, Thousand Waves here is the place to come.

In earlier rank promotion essays, I wrote about how I came to Thousand Waves in order to connect with the spiritual elements of martial arts without disconnecting the physical work of karate. Not entirely unlike Kaicho Nakamura, who walked by and found Kendo and Kyokushin dojos in his boyhood, I drove down Belmont going to work and told myself how I always wanted to study karate. I wanted “to take karate”. That’s how I said it in my head: “I want to take karate.” I was going to work at a church then, an obvious place of spirituality and I passed by here regularly, holding a desire to take what would eventually offer me so much.

Both the physical and the spiritual come together when I think of my life, training, and striving. In this essay, I hope to show my martial arts practice in relation to the challenges in my work as a minister, in my life as a father, in my efforts to sustain my health, and in my dating life as a once-married man. I will write to these four areas – challenges and gifts, with all the associated synonyms. I live them as questions with and without answers and Seido has provided me with ways to incorporate embodiment with spirituality as I study and live.

Work – “Taking the Wide View”

I am a chaplain educator in a hospital. I am also a pastor, though I haven’t served in a congregation since 2017. Rather than two work sites like I did for a while, I have one. Only working in the hospital and as a pastoral educator gives me many opportunities to focus upon patient needs, family needs, and staff or student concerns. One of things I like about me is that I know how to focus. I can sit with a person and be consistently (not perfectly) alert to them. I know how to stay with a person or an issue. I can attend. However, I don’t always relax my jaw, I’m impatient, I sometimes raise my shoulders without knowing it, I don’t move my feet and leave when I should, and I don’t widen my feet so that they’re placed in the best position for me to stand strong. Sometimes, I focus upon the small detail, the small view, and it is karate that helps me focus on more. It helps me remember that there is more. There are more moves.

I paused my training during a major part of the pandemic. I attended outdoor black belt tests, went to a few classes outdoors, and tried to establish a rhythm with zoom attendance. But I didn’t keep a good, stable rhythm. At work, I interfaced daily with the sickest patients. Though I came home where my children lived, I was so afraid every day that I would expose them or that I wouldn’t survive. More words can be said about that but I was also afraid to expose my karate community.

Between my long days and strange weeks, I don’t think I lived with so much conscious fear in my life. Going into rooms, being permitted to be where relatives couldn’t be, and going home had a transforming way with me. Even as a Black man, most of my fears are relatively unconscious now. I’m forty-five so I know most of them and we’re good enough friends, me and those fears. But with that first half of all-things-virus, I didn’t find a way to coordinate consistently my upturned rhythms at the hospital with the physical work of karate classes. While I know and remember what I was doing in that year and a half, I still wish I was able to invest in the physical journey of my martial practice. I missed training with my first and second karate cohort/people. I missed them. I felt my practice lag.

I was learning though and the practice was reaching downward. I was digesting how to take the wider view of this art, learning to accept with gentleness and patience how absolutely necessary I found karate in the medical intensive care unit even when I couldn’t be in Thousand Waves. I needed every yoga class I had with Shuseki Shihan Nancy to remember to breathe and stretch, every reminder from Kyoshi Tom to widen my stance, relax my shoulders, or turn my thumb, every precisely placed teaching from Senpai Mattie about generating power, slipping, and pivoting. I needed the emotional memory of standing in front of Kyoshi Katherine, Kyoshi Wai, and Kyoshi Akinwande and all the fear and joy I always feel from them when we partner. I needed the background contact in sparring with Sensei Richard and Senpais Jeff, Mark, and Scott, knowing the work ahead in our meeting one another. I needed Sensei Ryan’s entire manner when he checked in with me about a very hard problem. They were how I took wider views. It is not an exaggeration to say that I maintained my ministry when I couldn’t maintain my attendance. I sustained my martial arts practice by sustaining my chaplaincy.

Parenting – “I’m here to be watched”

Kaicho writes about “taking the mountains too easily” as a boy. When I read of he and his friends spending a rainy night on the side of a mountain, sharing and savoring insufficient rice and wine as evidence of their childish thoughtlessness, impulsivity, and freedom, I cannot help but think of my own sons. I think of their qualities and quirks, their natures, their beauty.

I’ve nicknamed my boys with at least two names. Early on, I offered names that emerged from a specific act that I saw from each of them. They laugh at that personal name, roll their eyes, and I hardly use those names. Those are known by me and them, perhaps by their mother, but no one else. After I was at Thousand Waves, I was trying to intentionally integrate my art with my parenting. My oldest was at a different dojo then. I gave both boys additional nicknames: Pinan for the oldest and Seido for the youngest. First, it tells you everything that they, including the 7th grader, don’t know what the names mean. They know how to search for things and they still ask me, “what does it mean?” Urgh.

I gave them these names for a couple reasons. First, every time I call them, I’m naming them again. Second, every time I call them, I’m reminding myself to be the way I’ve called upon them to be. Third, every time I call them, I’m seeing and walking the path of martial arts again as a father. I’m reminding them, known to them or not, that as their father, I am here to be watched as we pursue peace, love, sincerity, and respect. Being there to be watched is what Senpai Jordan said during my first months at the dojo. We were in the basement then and I – having been trained religiously to not look upon women with a steady, uncaring gaze – didn’t know how to see my Senpai. She, like all my teachers, would say, “I’m here to be watched. I’m here so you can see me.”

Her teaching and modeling began to reshape my vision and readiness to learn. They also became a way for me to understand who I am to my sons. I’m here to be seen and watched by them. They see my form, my stance, my face (like moon or not). They’re on their own path. I want to play my role well in their lives.

Health – “This is the body I have”

In some ways this is a separate challenge and in other ways, it can be a summary of all of them. I am proud of how hard it is for me to answer someone’s question about self-care. At one time, I’d slice an answer in order to talk about faith or spirituality. At other times, I’d talk about physical practices that were obviously physiological or body-centered. As I’ve read and studied in my doctoral work and prepared chapters on this dissertation about the experiences of Black patients and faith, it’s gotten more involved. My life with karate has mixed in and I’ve found myself thinking in ways that remember the body. My challenge is to remember this body.

I think to Shuseki Shihan’s words about this being in the body I have and Senpai Mattie’s words about being thankful for the bodies we have. Their leadership in gratitude and training anchor how I want to be in, with, and for my body. Technique and gratitude join. I want both. I want to stay thankful that I am in my body, that Seido is very much about the body. I feel it every time I wake up the day after a class where we’ve practiced falls, rolls, and intermediate self-defenses. Finally, I do think of expressly Christian language when I hear my teachers. There is a phrase where Jesus speaks to his students and, during a meal, conceptualizes the bread as his body. It has a way of producing within me a theological motivation for living in this body, presenting it in the best way I can, and in preserving it as long as I am blessed to relate to it.

Dating – “The Five Fingers Meets Harmonious Sparring”

I separated from the woman I was with in April of 2017 and divorced in September of 2018. As committed as I am to disturbing the trend for anchoring my relational life by those dates, I name them as a way to speak to how karate enabled me to face love changes with strength. I remember speaking to Shuseki Shihan after a Sunday yoga class – ah, I miss those classes! – and I told her that I had used all my fingers, that I was cycling through them again, and that I had to fight. She listened so care-fully and told me things still blossoming “like a plum” in my heart. Since then, I have held to the ways those fingers have enabled me to retreat with strength, to exercise perfect control, to respond with continued movement until threats have ceased, and to, at times, spar and not fight. I have lived through unnecessary litigation and necessary litigation, encroachment upon my person and space in ways requiring my martial reflexes in deeply surprising ways. A friend commented recently on how moved she was by my handling of adversity, and my first thought was Seido, the way of love, respect, and sincerity and how naturally intermingled it is with my Christian aspirations.

This is a long introduction to dating. I began dating in 2019, felt the stings of it, got ghosted in 2020 (which I didn’t know was a thing), and met someone who I connected with for a few years until that joyous connection retreated into friendship last fall. I am dating, something that is both an act and a status. Perhaps, it is correct to just say I am open to dating. If you’re a karateka and if you’ve been in the dynamic world of gesturing toward connections and being open them, you already see the possibilities between martial arts and the connecting stuff of relating. My practice of karate feels in my body like the five fingers meeting harmonious sparring. Of course, it is not entirely fair to draw the safety framework we use at Thousand Waves into what is a loving discussion. But go with me here: love and safety belong together. Looking for love and being open to it are exercises in consideration, assertion, coming and going, conflict engagement, and communication. In my life, dating and love move like meditations with thinking, yelling, running, fighting, and telling. There is nuance but they’re together like sparring partners who, rather than “fighting” per se, are learning together. Open to contact, dating or attempting to connect is a kind of harmonious martial work. Those partners – I am trying to be one of them since this is my life we’re talking about – are discussing levels of contact, keeping appropriate distance for the task, and learning and how to protect each other.

As I close this essay, I want to reassert my appreciation for the leadership of Shuseki Shihan Nancy, for her continued striving with patience in her life project that became Thousand Waves. Her living work at her martial arts practice introduced me to Kaicho, to Seido, to Sei Shihan Sarah, and to all my many splendid teachers. Though I’m not passing by on a Belmont bus or parking to actually enter this place, I am very much at another beginning stage, parts of which I’ve sketched in this essay, parts of which you’ll always see when I’m on the floor. You’ve seen me and you’ve known me. You know where my injuries are, where my growth has been. The essay can’t capture what the floor and community know. Still, I look forward into the broad and wide view ahead with confidence, a little less tension in my shoulders, and a smile because I’m surrounded by waves of love, respect, and sincerity. Osu!

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