When my siblings and I were young, my mom went back to school for nursing after she and my dad divorced. Early in her career, she had to work the graveyard shift at a local hospital, at a time when women were being targeted and attacked in the attached parking ramp.
|One of my classes at meditation.
I’m the one with the longest ponytail.
Meanwhile, my brother and I were being badly bullied in school. We both have invisible disabilities, but he was also born with a cleft lip and palate, which made talking, eating and breathing through his nose difficult. I was physically tiny, and incredibly awkward. Kids predisposed to cruelty loved ripping us both down every chance they got.
Our two sisters spent most of the year with our dad in Minnesota, facing their own unique challenges, while my brother and I lived in New York, where the schools were better suited to our needs. We saw each other every summer.
As a way to cope with all of the pain and potential violence we faced every day, my mom found a Karate class through our local community center. I earned my green belt before we moved to a wonderful Aikido dojo (school) run by a local school teacher. We stuck with that place for around seven years.
Although we had started studying for self defense, we learned so much more.
Our sensei (teacher), a black Muslim gentleman, taught us through example how little skin color and religion mattered when it came to friendship and making the world a better place. What truly counts is the effort to understand one another and stand up against the unfairness the shoveled on us.
Another sensei joined the dojo several years into our time there. He had immigrated from Japan long before he met us, but kept close ties with his culture. He taught us about how we have power over our lives, and the straightforward path isn’t always the best one.
The experience as a whole taught us to find the strength we have within and reinforced the idea there’s always room for growth.
Most importantly, we learned that we could fight without filling our hearts with hate or willfully hurting anyone. The idea is to diffuse the situation before it becomes violent. If someone does attack you, end the altercation as quickly as possible. The techniques we learned could break bone and tear soft tissue if used inappropriately, but the art is one of love.
In fact, the name Aikido translates into “Way of Love” or “Art of Love”.
It’s not the weak, nagging love that our culture likes to stick on women and girls, but a strong love; the kind we use to care for those who will never fully recover, and the kind we use to cause hard won change.
While the physical lessons have served us all well, like when my mom had to defend herself from a patient in the midst of a violent brain event and when I had to fall properly after being hit by a car to spare myself a broken neck or worse, the psychological strength has helped us in every facet of our lives.
My brother and I learned to stand up to our bullies. My mom is still a nurse, though in a different capacity. None of us practice anymore, though I’d love to find another dojo like the one we had attended, but we’ll always carry the lessons those years gave us.