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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > June, 2004 - Damage
by "The Mirror"

Damage by The Mirror

This column was written by Emily Dolan Gordon

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How do we negotiate the damage we incur in trying to grow? How do we continue to grow, in spite of the mental and physical price we pay as we train?

Do we know, in the beginning, where we are headed? Some of us have a vision when we are very young, and come to the realization of our visions and ambitions quickly. Others give it up, or only make their way around to it gradually. I was sure I was headed for a long spinsterhood with paints and many cats. As it is, I've been married twice, live in Europe, and have a rich and fulfilling social life in a single cat household. Fortunately, I like surprises.

I never understood that I would be a martial artist. I wanted to be Audubon or Thoreau, but when I was growing up, such a non-profit-oriented and, seemingly vague, goal of interpreting and preserving the natural world was greeted with gentle chuckles and gestures towards sciences which only grasped a fragment of what those scholars of many sciences knew. Heinlein said something about specialization being for insects, and I agree.

I knew there was something I needed to be doing, which was beyond the reach of anyone I knew, or at least out of their conception. My first boyfriend (egad, I was in my early teens!) was a taekwondoka. We are still good friends, and I remember seeing something in him which lived also in me. Asking my parents for martial arts lessons only made them laugh. Nonetheless, when my 13-year-old brother asked for same, he got it, at the same school my (then-ex) boyfriend had trained in. I had moved out, by that time, and gotten into aikido at a local community college (under protest from my dad, who was paying). I find the gender injustice a bitter reminder, even now.

The beginning was full of strength and tears and struggle. I refused to cry on the mat, but saved it until after, for many years. The frustration did not break me, but it did change me. Every paradigm I had been taught in my strength and "linear thought oriented" world was false. I was glad, but the dreadful part was coming to terms with the legacy of those paradigms in my own body. I am still overcoming them with the help of structural bodywork, and am uncovering deep feelings leading to a greater completion of my Self and a craving for new shoes.

In the beginning, I rammed myself full strength against Budo until something broke. My shoulder separation was the first major injury. Without health insurance, I consulted a trusted chiropractor and kept my game arm in a sling made of a soft leather belt. My dear friends dragged me from moping on the sidelines of my aikido classes to dinner out and social life, activities I had forgotten in my haste to be the best budoka I could be. I got to be a better person, for a little while.

As I healed, I hurled myself back into training, until I sustained an ankle sprain (2nd degree, deltoid ligament) from another botched throw. It was much less traumatic. I zipped around on my crutches; I gardened gently and happily from my knees and caught up with my family. I read books and saw movies I had wanted to see. I ate lots of Jell-O and green salads and got to know an interesting listserv full of people who love aikido.

Two and a half months later, much sooner than my doctor recommended, I attended a seminar with those listserv people who intrigued me so. I had to pace myself, as I had been leaning on a cane two weeks previously, and visit my handy ice pack frequently.

I met many there who would deeply influence my life at that seminar, and I will never regret the risks I took to go. I had, previously, pushed myself too far, learned how far I could go, where my breaking point is, and how to avoid it. If this is all I ever learn from Budo (and it isn't) then it is all worthwhile. I learned that fighting my Self is not what I need to do. I learned that if you can't be a good example, at least be a terrible warning (author unknown, to me!).

I had learned to trust myself to take care of ME, to set my limits and listen to them. Without this process, I could have never taken the risks I needed to take to grow.

As I age into a more seasoned budoka, I learn what I cannot stand in terms of damage, and what I can. Sometimes my back or my knees act up, and I have to set limits. As a bodyworker, I cannot risk my hands or forearms. While it is a good thing to be pushed past many limits, physical ones should be respected, and pushed only from inside. Only the person living in that body knows how much it can take. Only she can make the decision to take it further. If she isn't ready, there's no way to go there, without injury.

I have learned that my body is, yes, powerful. Strength comes quickly. Flexibility disappears in the blink of an eye. From my early phases of compaction, strengthening and conditioning for hardness, I have come to a phase of expansion, softening and opening. The curious thing is that I am practicing a slightly old-fashioned form of jujutsu which is more focussed on surviving the technique of being smashed and crumpled, than being gleefully tossed for distance. I find that the opening, the softening and the sensitivity give me a greater distance and perspective from the severity of the technique than simple strength ever did.

To illustrate, I offer the story of the willow and the oak: A great summer storm erupted, and the oak was torn asunder, while her neighbor the willow moaned but stood softly fast. The oak pled with the willow for her secret, and the willow said "I let it happen, while you resisted".

I cannot change time, but I can manage its effects on my body. I practice yoga as often as possible, I am undergoing Rolfing (which has sent my body back ten good years in terms of flexibility, a great blessing) and I am exploring flaxseed oils and other EFAs for reducing inflammation and increasing fluidity of tissue movement. The change from Texas weight-training, chop wood, carry water hard-ass to power though softness proponent has been difficult but necessary. I understand now that while the hard may be the only way in, soft is the only way out. I had to get there the hard way. Sometimes, it's the only way.

I have to remember and forgive where I came from, and realize that to be both strong and feminine is no conflict, as a magnolia tree can be so powerful, so enormous, so delicate, and so beautiful. I have to accept the limitations of my own body, that I bruise easily and like to play hard. I have to understand that I will break myself to achieve, and manage my ambition with minimum injury. I understand that I can charge the enemy head-on and win, but it hurts less if I just change his mind about the fight. These gifts came with the price of injury and loss, but they more than pay for themselves in all ways.

I am grateful to be involved with bodywork, so that I have access to an understanding of the aspects of my being which keep me training, evolving, and negotiating the damage. I hope that many of you will also learn to negotiate the damage, and survive to have tea with myself and illustrious others in the Seasoned Budo Babe's Spa and Shoe Shoppe.

Emily Dolan Gordon
Katsu Therapeutic Massage
© 2004 Emily Gordon

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