How to Live Beyond Time

A rooftop in Seoul with a cityscape and mountains in the distance. It's sunset, with purple clouds and a yellow horizon.

The coffeeshops in this new neighborhood are full of students knee-deep into the fall semester. I peak at the textbooks the couple next to me are studying: calculus. The guy to my right, programming. The girls across the way are discussing grammar in Korean, English and Spanish, cycling though the languages every few sentences.

I’m south of the Han now, close to one of the major universities in Seoul. The energy of the cafes these days crackles with excitement- not yet the frantic stress of the weeks approaching midterms. Me, though? I’m sinking deep into the dreamtime of fall, contemplating October’s mysteries, missing the deep reds and oranges of the woods of my New England hometown, thinking about how I’ll be spending Samhain on a plane instead of calling on dangerous restless spirits- or at least engaged in masked shenanigans 😉

In a book I’m reading (I’ll keep the book a secret since I’m giving away a spoiler), twenty years pass suddenly and I’m angry that I’m expected to just accept such a large passage of time slipping away before the characters are able to act once again on behalf of what they love and believe in. But then if I look back on twenty years ago, it feels as if no time has passed at all, and I’m still a fourteen-year old, just beginning high school. There are certainly things I’ve dropped for twenty years- martial arts is one of them.

And the richness of the fabric of time just astounds me these days- how real memories feel, textured and complex and full. But the future- which is not even real!- feels just as much so to me. I confess I’m a schemer and a dreamer, and I’m guilty of spending a great deal of time unnecessarily plotting my next steps, searching like a lost soul for my destiny.

Here are some thoughts, therefore, on time and its meaning:

-My dorm-style accommodations give me access to a rooftop, so I’ve been going up morning and night to practice taekwondo. A week into this habit, I remembered a story I wrote as a twelve-year old, about a warrioress protecting her best friend, who was a princess. In one scene, she practices on the castle roof in the moonlight. And I remember thinking, that would be the epitome of cool, to spend your days on a rooftop practicing martial arts. Ha! And here I am.

-Putting aside comments that could be made about my definitions of cool, this memory brings up another thought- the idea of how we age mentally. Some of us are natural 50-year olds; others never seem to leave high school. Am I mentally a twelve-year old? When I posed this question to my coworker, she said, “Well, moving to China to study kung-fu is something a twelve-year old would do.” She herself is probably mentally somewhere in her twenties, still clubbing and staying out all night (I seem to have missed that stage altogether- except of course, on Halloween :P). I think in her heart, she’s still a DJ, something she set aside to have a more practical job.

Why is it that we drop ourselves, sometimes, when we age? We’re not allowed to dream crazy dreams once we turn 14, as in my case, or 35, as in hers. How can we get good at recognizing this when it’s happening, so we can do something about it?

-A similar idea to mental age- I’ve heard it considered in terms of seasons– there are Spring people, who flower most beautifully in their youth, and later on tend to look back with great nostalgia, feeling those were the best years of their lives. Then there are Summer people, who blossom in their twenties and thirties, working hard with great energy and enthusiasm, strong of body and mind. And then there are Autumn people, who are shy in their youth and take time to come into their confidence, or pull their energies together into accomplishments and develop strength of character.

What about winter? There was no description of winter people, in the book that I read (sadly, I no longer remember the book where I heard this idea)- perhaps they were the wise elders, a role tragically lost these days. Perhaps they were always rare, since people for so long, didn’t live past “autumn.” But I like to think there are winter people. They’re the people who share a closeness or a kinship with death. Perhaps they lost someone beloved early in life, and so for them, death is real- death informs their every move, reminds them often of its presence- never far, unforgettable.

These Winter people, they have an extra pair of eyes, always seeing the end of things. They remember the preciousness of each breath, the suddenness with which everything can be taken away. They remember: we own nothing, in this life. It’s all borrowed.

-Bringing that back to my dilemma, where the past and future are so alive- my task, then, must be to be here, in the present, and use the present to create the future that I daydream about so much. Use the present to honor the past I was gifted: both horrors and triumphs, pain and beauty. In this way I can pull the aliveness of both the past and the future into this moment- ground them in the here and now, express their realness not with daydreams but with action.


 

Friends, what are your thoughts on these ideas? On time and timelessness, on the realness of the future and the past, on pulling them into the present? Do any of you relate to the idea of mentally or spiritually being a different age? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below 🙂

Finding the Words for Love, Part One

A view of the rooftops of the city of Seoul, from the window of the taekwondojang where I study, at sunset.

We trained together for eight months before I finally worked up the nerve to invite him out. It’s not that I was afraid- but I was asleep to men, still untying the knots in my heart from recent heartbreaks. Taekwondo was my boyfriend, now, and the perfect offering to the gods of rage that seemed to loom over me these days. In the spring I stopped training for a while, and those gods punished me with all sorts of bad luck- another story for another time. But Henri’s black belt test was coming up, and I would not miss that for anything.

I showed up at the dojang at 8am in a dress and blazer- the Grandmaster always wore a suit and tie outside of teaching, so I was following his lead. Henri showed up a little later, and we- him, me, the Grandmaster and his wife, Master Ko- headed to Kukkiwon, the Taekwondo world headquarters where Korean martial artists (and those studying in Korea) went to test for black belt- first degree and beyond. Henri had more than earned it, studying in France for years in competitive sparring. His muscles were hard as rocks- I knew because simple blocks hurt like hell and left black and blue welts on my arms and legs.

But Henri was incredibly humble, always gentle towards me and restrained, and his grace and control meant I could trust him. There were never ego games, there was never an arrogant comment, there was never a word directed at me as a lower-rank, or as woman- always as a human, and even his superior. He always bowed when he saw me, and whenever we said goodbye.

And that attitude slowly started to haunt me- and the slow change over the months, as gaze and touch became more prolonged, but more importantly, as it became clear: the consistency, the discipline, the devotion he showed towards martial arts. His complete singularity of focus. I admired that, I wanted that for myself. He walked me to my bus stop every night after practice and we talked more and more. He was a traveler, too. He’d spend a year here, in Korea- then a year in Japan, then Taiwan, then Hong Kong, then mainland China. Working odd jobs and studying Taekwondo, Karate, Shaolin, Jeet Kune Do. The idea thrilled me. Could do something like that? I didn’t know people could do that. I thought that was a fantasy I wasn’t allowed to have anymore once I turned fourteen.

At some point, I noticed the line of his brow, the little wrinkles on his cheeks when he smiled. Hazel eyes.

At the black belt test, we paced and agonized. Sweat drenched my clothes from heat and anxiousness. It was late June. The Grandmaster sat in a section for Grandmaster judges only. He sat there alone on that early Sunday morning. Parents and photographers shuffled for the best views as candidates came to the mats in groups of nine and ten to perform the complicated forms and techniques they had practiced for months. My heart was in my throat, watching him when it was finally his turn.

Later, we ate cold noodles, watched the videos Master Ko took, laughed at the awkward sparring between him and a ill-matched partner. Dissected the forms, responded encouragingly to small mistakes, admired kicks, stances. Long into the afternoon, we decompressed together, over dessert, over coffee.

Only on the subway, right before we were all about to part ways, did I finally have the courage to invite him out.

“Let’s go to the river,” I said, a little embarrassed to ask in front of the Grandmaster and his wife, but he said yes, and it was simple as that.

There’s a place on the Han under a bridge where the concrete slopes down in a square tile pattern and the sound of the water lapping up at it seems to wash away the traffic noise and the talk of passersby. The Han is wide and deep, too wide for its length from the headwaters. It dominates the city; it looks like if it catches the mood, it might one of these days just reach out at all sides and swallow the city with a yawn. We arrived late in the afternoon, when the sky and the river competed for more stunning shades of blue.

And we talked for hours, about travel, about why we travel- about martial arts, the different styles and our different experiences, which is our favorite (we both agree: taekwondo, although for different reasons). Where we’ve been, where we’re going. We talked about France, where he is from and where I lived years ago. And we talked about China, at which point I found out how, for way cheaper and more possible than I ever imagined, I could study Shaolin full-time.

I wrote in an earlier post about how this one new piece of information caused a complete paradigm shift for me. Perhaps I would have found out about this at some point, but I hadn’t been looking, because I thought it was a fantasy. And the timing of this information was perfect. In just a few months, my contract was up, and by then I would have just enough money saved to do it.

I went home that evening and looked at everything around my little apartment that I had accumulated in the past two years, and started to make give-away piles. Once again, I’d have to pare down my life to two suitcases.

Among my childhood things I found an old necklace- a yin yang, red and black, that a teacher at my martial arts dojo had given me over twenty years ago. He said, “I understand that you need to quit, for the time being, but Laurie, life is long. Don’t quit forever.”

Henri’s black belt test was on a Sunday and the day after, I came back to the dojang, ready to start again.

***

The thing about falling in love with your sparring partner is that it’s tricky. Are my feelings returned? A smile, a gaze, a lingering touch- are these signs of deep feeling? Am I seeing this accurately? Is there something between us, or is it just our shared passion for martial arts?

And there were more practical matters: I was working overtime, and Henri worked weekends, so the only time that either of us had to spare that overlapped was, of course, taekwondo. And why go out on a date when you could be practicing taekwondo? And most importantly, I knew it was doomed anyway. He was leaving in two months for Japan. And though we were both bumming around Asia studying martial arts, it’d be years before we might see each other again, if ever.

But if there was one thing I learned about love, it’s this: never let your feelings go unsaid. Maybe that was the wrong thing to learn- maybe it had never done me any good at all- but I knew if I wasn’t honest with him about how I felt, I’d regret it. Not because anything could happen, but because people should know these things. People should know, when they’re loved- when they’ve inspired someone, when they’ve changed someone

The opportunity came during a national holiday in August. My work was closed, the dojang was closed. It was a Wednesday. On Tuesday during training, I said to Henri, “There’s no taekwondo tomorrow! Let’s hang out.” And he said, sure. And because we would meet at sunset, and because I lack  imagination, I took him back to the river.

And what happened next, I’ll never, ever, ever forget, because I’ve learned to sniff out death and so these days, when death is hiding near, it can never hide long.

***

Part Two coming tomorrow <3

When You Don’t Believe in Yourself Anymore

When you're afraid, just train! When something doesn't feel right, just train! When you don't believe in yourself anymore, just train! The only thing that will never betray you is your training.
When you’re afraid, just train! When something doesn’t feel right, just train! When you don’t believe in yourself anymore, just train! The only thing that will never betray you is your training.

I probably lose belief in myself at least twice a day.

Why am I doing this. This is crazy.

This is absurd. Impractical. I’m losing money. I should be saving money.

I’m going to run out of money and be poor and get into credit card debt buying a ticket back to the US and I’ll be stuck bagging groceries or cleaning houses again and I’ll be sucked back into the vortex of poverty, unable to get out.

Or, at least, I’ll take quite a hit before I’m on my feet again financially.

I’m an adult– and not some sprightly young twenty-something. I’m 34 years old. I should be pursuing my career, not chasing dreams I had as a twelve-year old.

Worse- it’s dangerous. I could get injured. Seriously injured.

I’m moving to China for a year to study Shaolin.

I’ll be training for six hours a day, starting at dawn. I’ll learn self-defense and acrobatics. I’ll be fighting my fellow students regularly.

Most of the time I’m not worried about it- but at least once a day, my heart sinks.

I’m unequal to the task. I’m not worthy.

But that’s why we do anything, right? Not because we are worthy- but to become worthy.

When we confront overwhelming challenges, we change who we are. To the very level of our DNA, we re-write ourselves- “you turn on new genes in your nervous system and body that code for new proteins and you build new structures inside of you.”

If our present actions become our future selves, what am I coding for? In this action, am I coding courage, bravery, persistence in the face of challenges? Or am I coding irresponsibility, negligence of my family and society, and future poverty?

The thing is, I can’t really know, can I? I’m probably coding for both.

Maybe the level of discipline I achieve during my time in China will translate into the focus and consistency needed to build wealth. Maybe instead of neglecting society, I’ll connect to like-minded people and find my tribe, in a way that I never have before.

The thing about studying martial arts is, it’s what I put into it- can I bring to it the full force of my being? Can I be fully present with the pain, the grit, the challenge?

Four times a week, after working a nine or ten hour day, I hop on a bus and commute an hour and fifteen minutes one way, to study taekwondo under a brilliant Grandmaster. Then I get back on the bus, exhausted, and get home at 11pm. Throughout my workday leading up to the minute I’m off, when I have to rush to the bus stop and eat snacks for dinner, I think to myself at least once: this is insane. I’m not going today. Today is too stressful. My kids are crazy. I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep well. I’m starving, how/when will I eat? I have no energy for taekwondo. I need to just go home and relax.

It’s amazing, however, the utter consistency with which my body, my brain, by the time I need to leave for class, is ready and willing to get on that bus, and hungry to train. I never miss a day (those four times a week when I don’t have to work late).

When we turn toward what we want, something changes inside of us- we attune ourselves to that thing, and we become more. Taekwondo is literally in my unconscious now.

On days when it’s really hard, these words come to mind-

“I made a promise to myself.”

What promises have you made to yourself, that you cannot bear to leave unfulfilled?

When you’re afraid, just train! When something doesn’t feel right, just train! When you don’t believe in yourself anymore, just train! The only thing that will never betray you is your training.                                                                                        -Sakaki

 

With Love,

Laurie