One year ago I sat in sweatpants on the edge of a mat watching a jiu jitsu class for the first time. I had driven by the BJJ academy hundreds of times without ever noticing it was there.
I was 34 years old, with five children and two jobs. Christmas was coming and I had no money and no time. I knew less than nothing about martial arts; I had never even watched a YouTube video. I felt an immediate connection to what I was watching. At the end of the hour, I committed to a monthly membership and ordered a gi that was too large. I had no idea how I was going to pay for this.
However, I left feeling calm and peaceful; something felt so right in a way it hadn’t for a long time. Here I am 1 year later.
A year of experience isn’t enough time to be able to make a quick “What I’ve Learned” hit list. But I can tell you, listening to my gut over my head, and responding to that feeling of connection was one of the best decisions of my life. Here’s why.
I have remembered a part of me that was lost.
I was, by all accounts, an ornery child. Stubborn, feisty, and without a care what other people thought. Sometime after the age of ten, I developed massive guilt about my behavior and changed my ways. I did my chores and my homework, went to church and spoke quietly, and deferred to others. I was highly successful at this. I had a lot more approval from adults and peers, and laid my head on the pillow at night relieved that I’d put so much distance between me and the girl who was too loud, too unruly.
You can only travel so long with an unruly child trapped inside of you, though. The fissures were showing as I sat on the edge of the mat that first night. I heard her voice inside saying, I could do this. I can do this.
That voice was right. She is me, and this year I have slowly let myself become the grown-up, stubborn girl. Letting her tumble onto the mat and lead with that stubbornness and lack of concern about being ladylike has let me take on that part of myself again, and realize there is room for my too-bigness, too-loudness, too-unruliness. Jiu-Jitsu is all about making room.
I have been forced to look at my weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
That same self of that leads with intensity, the one that stubbornly insisted on trying jiu jitsu when common sense would have said no, has led me to tap about ten thousand times, too.
There is nothing to expose you to yourself like jiu jitsu: the same mistakes over and over again. Over and over again, you fall into the same traps and have to tap.
Maybe for you it’s impetuousness that doesn’t wait for the right moment to come that gets in your way. For me it’s a hedge-your-bets hesitation that makes me fail to seize the right time. These patterns of ours are all there, and they’re all completely unfixable.
Surely, I hope, I can learn to stare down these weaknesses, see where they come from, physically and mentally drill myself to new habits. But it’s my guess that jiu jitsu – with every opponent and every match a brand new fight – will always show a brand new face to my weaknesses, and force me to dig deeper yet again.
I can do hard things.
This year has been a catalyst for change for me in a lot of areas of my life. The unifying thread is that I don’t want to live afraid. Whether that is physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually – I no longer want to dread what’s around the corner, and I don’t want to live in the clutch of that great fear that is beneath all other fears – the fear of being hurt.
Repeatedly being suffocated, choked, and having your limbs put in positions to be broken tells a lot about hurt. The gulping survival of jiu jitsu teaches the physicality of suffering and enduring in a way that a life of working 9-5, drinking beer, and watching sitcoms doesn’t.
Rolling makes you uncomfortable. You’re in pain. You experience panic. I can’t breathe. I’m being crushed. My ankle is going to break if this doesn’t stop NOW! Those moments don’t feel brave, and I still haven’t learned how to keep breathing when I think I’m going to die. But when you stand up, and you haven’t died, your body slowly learns (almost in spite of you) that you can do hard things.
I have thought differently about what I teach my daughters.
My ten year old daughter has been training now for three months. She is not an unruly, wild child like I was. She is, on the contrary, genuinely kind and authentic. This has been something we have praised her for many times, and I hope she continues to grow into her full, generous, whole-hearted self.
However, with this natural generosity comes a natural tendency to put herself last, to want to please others, to not speak up. My year of jiu jitsu has made me re-examine this. What will that look like for her as an adult woman? What fear holds her back from standing her ground? What part of her needs permission to fight?
After big tears her first day, she now shows up in her quiet, kind manner, ready to fight. I see her struggle at the beginning of class to get out of the headspace where she doesn’t want to hurt others or get hurt, the space where she wants to fly under the radar and not be seen, when she leaves that space, she accesses something a little more primal. It means re-engaging with an opponent who has just tapped her four times in two minutes. She shows up again, and shows herself she can do hard things.
It’s only been three months, but I see the change in the way she carries herself. She stands a little taller when her brothers tease her and she talks about what she would do if she was being bullied on the playground. She feels like she has tools, options. When her little sisters are old enough, I will do everything that I can to help them feel this way too.
I am content with becoming, and never arriving.
I may look back on what I’ve just written in ten years and laugh for all that I did not know yet, for the sorrows and victories ahead. The one I’ve heard repeatedly from those further ahead on the journey is this: You never reach a destination. Black belt is not a stopping point. This is not a rocky hike to a glorious mountaintop. This is a spiraling path that syncs and weaves with the rest of our lives. And I am content with this, this constant growth becoming more of who I am, this constant journeying, this daily death and rebirth.
Kate Madore is trying to shake off her spazzy white belt ways in preparation for her upcoming blue belt test. She is grateful to train with the incredible crew at Brunswick Martial Arts Academy in Topsham Maine. Off the mats, Kate works, writes, and lives the wild adventures that come with five children, which include jamming on the piano, walks in the woods, and everyone always asking for a snack. IG: @starry_kate_