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The first time I seriously looked at the test requirements for 1st-kyu, I had a mini panic attack. Blends, attacks, and techniques came together in a dyslexic blur of words on the page—why were there so many? There were those requirements that touched upon my weaknesses: koshinage and high falls and all these ushiro-waza that I was certain to brain-freeze on. More henka-waza with three technique requirements from different attacks, and I couldn't even think of a single way to make it work. All those things that I was forgiven for at a lower rank, and all those I avoided practicing because I thought I had time to push them aside. The mere thought of what I couldn't do won over all that I had already accomplished, stripping away my courage like a coat of old paint, exposing the ugly fear underneath. How could I have gone so far and feel like I know so little? Why does every step toward Shodan from this point on feel like a backtracked step away? Confused and discouraged, I tucked away the test sheet, ratty and worn from my notes and studies for previous ranks. I always carried it with me but opted not to think about it much as life took me on its customary ebb and sway of social events and busy schedules. But the time to test is upon me; Sensei doesn't remind you three times without expecting some progress.
Recently, there was a health fair at my company, and I opted to take the usual assessment tests such as BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol-screening, and lung-capacity measurements. I was the picture of good health, even after over five years of being sedentary at a computer for 8-10 hours a day, and I realized it's because I took time after work to practice aikido and keep my body running strong. I must not give up and deviate from this path that has proven to be so good for me. At the health fair, they also raffled off some fun prizes such as first-aid kits, car-emergency road kits, and—among the grand prizes—a Kindle e-reader. It was the only prize I wanted. The Kindle I bought for myself had been stolen not too long ago, and as I dropped my raffle ticket into the fishbowl, I had the feeling that it would be the prize I would win. It was there just to be claimed by me, one out of the hundreds of other employees who entered. Funny how intuition works, because at the end of the work day when they sent out the list of winners, my name showed up next to the Amazon Kindle.
As winter approaches, the days grow shorter, and it feels like you have less time. When I step out of the dojo after the hour of regular training, the moon shines brightly, and the sky is peppered with stars. I spent a summer forgetting, neglecting, enjoying the warm rays of the sun without thinking ahead, without preparing. The long journey lies ahead with me working through techniques on the test sheet, sweating through the night long past regular class, shivering through the cold months as the dojo loses its noontime heat, getting ready. Even now, writing about it is hard; it makes me commit for it to happen, making it real. But sometimes, despite the odds, you throw in your ticket, and you enter. Sometimes, the test is not about the knowledge of techniques, but the ability for you to surpass your insecurities, conquer your fears, and better yourself in the process. Sometimes, you've just plain got to want it badly enough. So I make myself look at all my Sempai, the ones who wear the brown belt with the black stripe. And I know that it will soon be mine.