“Really?!?” She turns to me in incredulity.
I have just said that I am afraid of sparring.
I am an interloper. A yellow belt among black.
“But it’s a game,” the 6th-degree black belt assures me, “it’s like a game.”
“Okay. It’s a game that scares me,” I smile at her.
From across the table my Sensei informs me that from his experience, I have a better chance being injured playing little league baseball than in the dojo. I refrain from telling him I am equally scared of playing baseball, little league or otherwise.
We are around his dining table after “winter training,” an hour of optional karate outdoors on a Sunday morning. My feet are only just regaining full feeling after an hour barefoot on the cold March earth. I tuck one up onto the chair, hugging my now-denim-clad knee close to my belly and chest.
I am the youngest of the group, but not by much. It is not my age that sets me apart. I have been training for a year and a half. These four have been training for decades. They are completely at home in their bodies. They move with ease and precision. I feel clumsy and awkward and slow in their company.
Truth be told, that is what terrifies me about the prospect of sparring. I do not fear injury, as my Sensei surmises (not that I welcome being hurt). Rather, I know that outside of my way with words, there is little quick about me. I was at odds with my body for so long that she and I are still figuring out how to work together. I know I get in her way in the dojo. The more I endeavor not to, the worse it gets. She can’t even trust me to follow a rhythm when it counts. In effect, that I am quick of wit has ensured I am not quick of fist or foot. Sparring requires all three.
My fear is that when I face off against a sparring opponent, I will prove so bad at it that my interloper status will no longer be tolerated. I will lose my spot among these strong and beautiful people. Still, I do not disabuse them of the idea I fear injury. It is too much to admit I fear being found out; that I can’t bear the vision of their disappointed faces when they see I cannot listen on my feet, let alone think on them.
And thankfully, for now, the 6th-degree black belt has forgotten my ridiculous fear of sparring. She has moved on to more interesting topics, and is holding court over our informal brunch. Brilliant and powerful, she commands our attention with charming stories of karateka and her beloved horses. My casual one-knee-up pose is a power play in the face of her charismatic presence. It says “I feel at home,” though I decidedly do not.
She is beautiful and funny and wise, and during her storytelling, when she searches for a word, I offer it effortlessly. Later she sets me up for a clever quip, which I deploy with what I hope is an endearing smile. The others chuckle at my witty line, but she looks at me more closely. “You’re good with words,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “What do you do when you’re not training?” In response I try out my new, for-strangers version of “I’m still figuring that out,” only to realize as I finish speaking that she hasn’t exactly waited for my answer.
I feel (more) awkward. I decide it’s time to make my goodbyes, and it seems the others likewise are ready to go. We leave Sensei’s home with dojo greetings. I turn toward my car and walk away. Everyone else turns the other way, smiling and hugging as they do.