I have a little journal that surfs around my gym bag. I’m a messy, inconsistent person, so I don’t always write in it, but in the weeks leading up to my blue belt test, (aside from techniques I was trying to make pretty,) I wrote down some in-the-moment feelings from test prep and shark tank as I tried to make sense of them.
Tuesday, 9:45 pm. My head isn’t made for this. I’ve crammed it so full of techniques; I’ll never be able to do them all…open mat tonight. I went through the curriculum again. Everyone helped me smooth things over. They gave up their own time to help me drill… what a humbling sport this is, where people must give of their own bodies to help you progress. And they do, without complaint I’ve never seen the like.
My test is tomorrow, I’ve laced together my escapes and attacks in sequences I can remember…I think? But I know myself, I know that I miss the small things, the details. And that’s what this whole art is made of. Girl, who even are you? You’re so old for this…you have five kids. Why do you think you can do this? Is this the best thing you’ve ever done? Or the stupidest –
Wednesday, 5:01pm. I’m about to change up. Technique test in a few minutes, and I guess it’ll be what it is. My shoulder completely locked up. I know why, too – those shoulder rolls I did all weekend. I’m so bad at them, and I don’t even know if practice helped. I feel like fat-fifth-grade-me again, the only kid who couldn’t do a cartwheel.
Wednesday, 10pm. I’m flooded. Like my whole body is released inside. It’s over! The shoulder rolls are over. I executed them well.. I forgot to hook the leg on one of my mount escapes, but when Professor said, what are you forgetting, I knew it was that. Because it’s always that.
Everyone watched; I wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t care though. It was like I just trusted my body to follow through with what I had taught it. That feels good. I don’t think I’ve ever trusted my body like this before.
Saturday, 5:35 am. This morning is my blue belt shark tank. I’m not very nervous, though a jolt has caught me unawares and sent a spray of adrenaline through my body a few times this last week.
You can’t cram for this; you prepare just by showing up, and what you have is what you have.
Months ago, when there were first teasings of a blue belt, I imagined when that day arrived I’d be coming off a month of running, Whole 30 eating, abstaining from alcohol. I thought I’d have a new gi, have figured out a cute way to do my hair, a bag packed with extra contacts and fresh finger tape, this journal, and that water bottle with a straw I’ve been wanting.
But now it’s time, and it’s just the same old me with my same old gi and my messy bag, and the whiskey I had last night, and my hair (what’s left of it) broken in flyaways around my face. And I’m glad.
Because what I really want, what this whole journey has been about is this: becoming me, unafraid-withnothing but my own bare hands and my bare feet, my mind, my heart. Let me carry nothing other than what I have learned through enduring.
I don’t want to emerge from this the same.
Saturday, 9:35 pm I feel a contentment, a stillness inside of me. It is over; it was wonderful. I fought too hard – conserve your energy, everyone said, and I tried, but when the spark comes and I feel the muscle against me, challenging me, I push harder. It was an absolute blur though; my eyes stung as sweat filled them and I had no time to wipe it: roll after roll, and they started everywhere it seemed – on my back, on my side, mounted, hooks in, chokes in, fight after fight– I just went to that deep place where the only one who could make me ok was me, and I knew I could endure.
So many things I worried about didn’t happen. I didn’t throw up; I didn’t forget one of the principles and embarrass myself; I didn’t have a moment where I thought I couldn’t go on.
What did happen:
- I did get dehydrated. The skin of my lips stuck to each other; I couldn’t swallow.
- I did have my daughter watch the whole thing. She sat on the edge with an extra elastic around her wrist. When she saw my hair completely pull out of its bun, she snuck over and gave me a new one to get it off my face in the half-second between rolls. She was quiet and solemn. She hugged me so tight at the end, I don’t know if she has ever hugged me so hard or so long.
- I did have so many great rolls with the amazing people I have met at this place.
- And finally this, this happened: It did matter.
Rank never mattered to me as much as growth; I could be a white belt forever if I just kept having the privilege of learning. So I didn’t want to make too much of ranking up.
Except I realized today, that’s exactly what this new belt means – growth. It is a quantifiable way of showing: You are not the same person who began this journey. You are changed. You cannot go back to who you were before.
Where your strength ends is the beginning of your technique. Where your ego ends is the beginning of your knowledge. Where your fear of being hurt ends is the beginning of your freedom.
Where it all ends is where it all begins. More than anything, jiu-jitsu keeps teaching me this.
And to change – this is the only way to stay alive. Change, (as I always steal from Evelyn Waugh) – change is the only evidence of life.
Kate Madore is fighting mega imposter syndrome as a new blue belt and hoping some day to sweep at least half as much as she is swept. 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_