When I was a kid, I moved around with frequency. Leapfrogging across a few states, I ended up in the East, and at some point, my parents decided that integrating me into social activities was the order of the day. I think, in their defense, they might not have known what to do with me. I was quiet, I was introspective, and self-possessed; I guarded my privacy with the fierce jealousy reserved for spooks, psychopaths, and mad scientists. As such, I never realized that they probably didn’t know what sort of things I liked or enjoyed, what interests or what hobbies would hold my attention. I didn’t know either.
This led me to sitting in an uncomfortable room with several sensei at a Kenpo Karate school when I was ten. My parents were divorced, and being the new kid for the umpteenth time in an area without friends or connection, this was going to be my new routine.
A few days a week, after a trudging myself through fierce round after round of unrelenting bullying (because after all, I was the new kid), I was dropped off at the Kenpo school and they taught me the basics. I got down the forms. To this day I look back and realize I wasn’t having very much fun. I floated in a fog of deep-set depression. There was no reason to continue. Yet, I did. Somewhere along the way, people decided they didn’t like my ugly mug, so braces were strapped on my teeth in a form of medieval torture for people with the money to afford only the finest in pain.
After a small eternity of training with my sensei, they threw me into a sparring ring. All of us stood there, awkward and unsure of how to start hitting one another. We’d watched the older kids before, but never expected to be there ourselves. You could taste the tension in the air alongside the rank odor of sweat and feet.
I took punches. I took punches and kicks and side kicks. No one’s desire was to maliciously hurt a sparring partner, but accidents happen. I drooled around a set of mouth guards and stared down a series of stretched out, grim faces drooling around their mouth guards, fists up. All of us ugly. I’d get knocked down. I’d get back up. I discovered I was good at sparring, but I was dragging my feet because I didn’t want to knock the shit out of my opponents. But there’s only so long you can hold on to the burning ember within you before it starts burning you up from the inside, so after I’d mastered the art of Human Punching bag, I started moving. Dancing. Weaving. Making moves of my own design to sweep out the feet of my partners, tag them from impossible angles. The mouth guard would end up on the floor and I’d end up on my back, staring at the ceiling. Everything was blood.
“Two!” the sensei shouted.
What the fuck does that mean, I thought.
Turns out, it’s secret code for send in two of the biggest kids with the black belts into the ring to rough me up. Me, dumb fuck kid with the yellow belt gets thrown in with the tigers, with a set of braces and mouth full of blood. It’s like getting punched in the face with a cheese grater on the inside of your lips. You’ll be spitting blood for a week.
I fought. I got knocked down. I got up again. Pain became a new religion. You get on the inside of it and it teaches you things. Like your limitless capacity to bear the indifferent universe and all of life’s vagaries. In only a few short years, I’d drop out of those classes just shy of a black belt myself, and start sending out short stories to fiction markets in 1994, when I was thirteen.
In essence, I traded one sparring ring for another.
This isn’t a meant to be a feel-good anecdote about the triumph of the human spirit, and it isn’t. The greatest opponent, then, as it is now, is always overwhelmingly you. It’s that split second when you’re flat on your back with every muscle burning like a brand, when getting up is insurmountable, and unimaginable. Sometimes, you just don’t get up. Sometimes, you lay blame on the external world for why you can’t get into the ring. You point at the sensei and blame them. They didn’t train you well enough. You point at your opponents. They are too strong, too healthy, too fortunate. They were born with a happy family, many friends. Complications do not dog them. They aren’t new kids, they aren’t wearing braces that pulverize the inside of their mouth every time they take a knock to the face. You blame the cold hard ground, the gravity, the unrelenting despair of your day to day existence. And sometimes, you just give up. Sometimes, the ring isn’t where you’re meant to be. Defeat and retreat is your best option.
For me, writing is a different animal. Forces corral me, without permission. The fatigue of my limbs, the exhaustion of one’s spirit, the appeals of rationality and reason cannot stop this call. We’re conjured up from the killing room floor, seemingly against our will.
All these years later, I get knocked down. I haul up. Spit out the blood, swallow some, start again. There’s figures moving all around. Hushed voices and some numinous, invisible Sensei watching it all from afar, arms crossed, nodding. Go on, then.
Pick up the pen, spit out the blood, and I do.