First told at Writers Read at BREWD in Tucson. Have to share it here.
The year I turned fifty was a milestone in more ways than one. Together, my twin sister and I had racked up 100 years. See, as a twin you don’t have to wait as long for those big numbers. I retired from teaching and started my own life coaching business. And I started Tai Kwon Do. Korean martial arts. I dismissed the naysayers. “You’re too old.” “You’ll hurt yourself.” “Do you have medical coverage for that?” Ha! I can do this.
The dojo (school) was just down the street from my house; I could walk there. My schedule was open; I could take day classes.
My sensei was a young, very fit, and very patient teacher. A flicker of “Oh man, what am I going to do with this?” flashed across his face as I walked in and told him, no, I was not there to pick up my child, but to take classes. He recovered quickly. A broad smile. “You will be my oldest student.”
“Yeah, “ I said, “think of the marketing angle for that.”
I was in. I went to classes three times a week, did warm-ups, jumping jacks, sit-ups, stretches, kicks, punches. Took part in sparring. Broke boards. I learned the katas, the memorized patterns of martial arts movements, which are almost like a dance.
I had taken karate before, but in my twenties. So yes, this was different. Vastly different. After training for a while, my roundhouse kick and punches were still fast and effective. My sidekick was more of a shin kick. And my back kick? Well… “We’ll work on that,” my compassionate sensei said.
I loved the yin and yang of Tae Kwon Do. Slow/fast movements, aggression–hard/defensive–soft. The Eastern philosophy came back, karate as a way of life. Accepting and using the duality of nature/commonsense. Avoid violence, but be able to turn away aggression.
And this along the wall of the dojo: “Harmony is achieved when opposite forces are distributed equally, resulting in balance.” To me this was epitomized in the kata forms. Slow precise movements, concentrated, and designed to aid training.
I loved it and the school. Students, young and old(er) were devoted to a sensei who, though young in years was knowledgeable and earnest.
When the notice went up about a local tournament there was no question in my mind that I would sign up. It was billed as the Olympics of Karate in our area. Sensei Metzger was jazzed. “Let’s bring home those medals.” He lined us up, youngest to oldest (you know where I was). His question of each of us was, “What will you do for yourself and the dojo?”
“I’ll try to remember the form, Mr. Melting Man.” This from the pint-size six-year-old.
“Win the sparring, sir,” from the hormone-infused teenager.
“My best, sir,” from the earnest college student.
Then he stood in front of me, his eldest student. “What will you do for the dojo and yourself at the tournament?”
“Bring home the gold in kata, sir.” I can do this. Show these whippersnappers.
“OK,” was his brisk acknowledgment.
The Day of the Tournament. I’m ready. My gi (uniform) is clean, pressed, obi (belt) tied just right. The Olympics are held in a huge school gym filled with students, parents, friends, and very fit instructors and judges.
Brown and black belt students directed us to our competition area.
“Sparring entries, over there.”
“Board breaking? By the back wall.”
“Kata? By the bleachers.” That’s me. That’s me. Where? I followed the pointing finger of a husky solemn brown belt. The children’s group performed. They were precious. Teens were fast, uniforms snapping with each kick. Lots of adults, performing five at a time. They were good. And no one called my name.
The inner critic in me seized the opportunity. See? They eliminated you. You’re too old.
“Hey, what about Lee-Miller?”
Ms. Solemn looked down her list. “Next group.”
A tall black belt with a clipboard strode over to me. I was quivering with excitement. Yes, yes. Now? Now?
“ You will perform in the Kata area in two minutes.” He paused. “Actually you signed up for the 50 & Over age category and… we have no other contestants signed up so… you’ll get the gold. But you must still perform the kata.” Victory?
My fellow students cheered me on along with a smattering of curious watchers. “She’s fifty. OMG. She’s old.”
“She doesn’t look that old.”
I performed a great kata. Not a competitive kata. But a great kata. In my mind I did an utterly magnificent victory lap, legs pumping as I ran, arms raised. Bringing home the gold.
Lessons learned? Be specific about the things you say you can do. Then do it! And do your absolute best. Even in writing. Whether for a hundred people at a workshop, for five in a writing group, for one-on-one coaching or in that weekly promise to yourself sitting at your laptop. Bring home the gold!