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Impossible Things

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –Doris Lessing.

This quote from the British novelist sums up how I feel about the martial arts. Except, I don’t know if karate is what I am meant to do. It’s just something I started, and have kept close to my heart since the beginning. I am not the best, and don’t bring to it any special talent or physical advantages.

I was really meant to be a famous Canadian poet. Except I’m not. But I probably have some special talents and abilities in that direction. Writing is for me, at times, an act that satisfies a deep need to communicate about essential things, like love and art. But it also carries with it the heavy baggage of expectations, since I was groomed from a young age to succeed as a writer. (For example, there are all kinds of awards I should have won by now, like the National Magazine Award, the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Archibald Lampman Award, the CBC poetry contest, etc., etc.) Writing’s a good and essential thing, but despite being a great gift, writing is my job.

Karate, on the other hand, is a gift that I received unexpectedly. My husband and son had been doing it, and I finally decided to try it out, because I liked the atmosphere of the dojo, and the attitude of the teachers. So one day I found myself kneeling on the dojo floor, reciting the student creed.

When I first started doing karate, I had no expectations at all, and therefore no baggage. When I was a white belt, I felt that if I managed to get a yellow belt that would be awesome.

I liked doing it, so I kept going, and since I was mostly working contract, I was able to attend a lot of daytime classes, which made it easier to continue. And so I kept on learning, becoming more fit and getting new belts, until I arrived at the brown belt, with three stripes.

Karate is a gift to me because it’s offered me a space to unfold and transform without pressure. I have worked mostly with Sensei Fortunato who teaches the daytime classes, and his gentle, non-judgmental approach to his students has helped to create this positive atmosphere. And every chance he gets, Sensei Dom reminds us that we are trying to achieve our own personal best, and not to compare ourselves to others. Neither of these outstanding sparring athletes is ever judgmental or impatient with their students. Their approach has helped create a special environment where renewal and self-discovery are possible.

In this place, I’ve been inspired, as I watch people with serious medical conditions become some of the best karateka, and even saw my teacher recover from a potentially career-ending injury with grace and patience. And I know almost everyone who comes to the dojo has their own difficulties, worries and stresses, even if they’re not necessarily obvious.

I suppose I was meant to do karate, because I have done it, and continue to do it, against all my expectations and preconceived notions. And I’m glad I didn’t wait until I was fitter, or weighed less, or had more money. The conditions do seem impossible at times, so it’s important to just show up, however you are feeling, and join all the other miracle workers on the dojo floor.

 

 

 

 

 

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Keep calm and wear a red suit

I just read an article about how Facebook can cause depression – at the very least, it tends to make people feel they are missing out. And it’s true – as I take in the sometimes carefully-curated FB profiles of my connections, I will inevitably feel I am less: less interesting, less connected, less successful.

ImageI quit Facebook a while ago, but set up camp there once more, this time with a completely open profile, with no security settings. I did this in part because I wanted to use the FB feed to follow news and features – I find the feed easier to use that Twitter – and because FB is the only way I stay in touch with certain friends and family who live overseas or across the country. The lack of security settings is to ensure that I don’t forget that there isn’t really any privacy to be had online, and there is no point in posting a bunch of photos of your kids in the bath and then fiddling with the security settings, thinking they provide any real protection. Better not to post those images at all.
Red Gi

However, recently I was feeling really excited about my progress in Karate, which I study at Douvris Martial Arts, in the west end of Ottawa with my senseis Fortunato and Domenic Aversa. I took a couple of photos of me in my gi and with Fortunato and posted them on FB. But doing so did not give me the chance to write the narrative that goes with those images: the story of how, after many years of “one step forward, two steps back,” I have finally started to get back into real physical shape – ten years of struggling to raise a child, and deal with asthma, weight gain, and stressful work schedules. This real story might reassure Facebookers seeing the images that I don’t have a perfect life, and I don’t sail through my days wearing a red suit and smiling.

Most people in my country and in western countries in general live with hectic, sometimes crushing schedules and stress related to work, family and finances.

And after the years of freedom I spent as a university student, I really expected better, and I was disappointed! It has not been an easy lesson, learning that as an adult, you always have to choose – will it be a house with a mortgage in town, or an apartment, which is more affordable? Will it be a house in the suburbs and a long commute, but you don’t have to work as much? Regardless of the choice it’s not really easy. Who knew that when I was a student and travelling around the country becoming a writer and an activist, I was really just preparing myself to get a job sitting all day in a cubicle with no windows? I mean some of the work in those grey-walled cubes has been interesting, but still. But I could do an activist job, or freelance…and then we could sell our centrally-located house near my son’s school, five minutes from transit! Ah well, such is life. Not much likelihood of finding a job as a feature writer making good coin. Not these days. Not unless you’re a well-established yuppie like Margaret Wente. But I’m not bitter.

But Karate makes it so worthwhile – having the chance to learn something beautiful, difficult and challenging with the two most humble teachers in the world, with a bunch of fascinating people ranging in age from 10 to 70, with professions as diverse as rocket scientist, doctor, boxing coach, programmer, patent researcher, violist, writer.

quappelle_valley_saskatchewan_WV04599
The Qu’appelle Valley: one of the stunningly beautiful places I visited in my youth, the better to disappoint me during endless hours in cubicles.
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A litte progress on a long road

I rode 18 k yesterday and 17.5 k today. Finally my knee, which has been bothering me for a couple of months, has stopped hurting. I didn’t road ride for a couple of weeks, and only did one off-road ride that involved a lot of crashing, walking through rocks, and getting stuck (!) in mud.

So I was surprised to get on my bike yesterday and go faster and farther than I have any other time this year. It felt so great! It seems kind of strange that by not cycling I seem to have gotten better. Of course in the meantime I was walking 1 to 2 hours a day and doing yoga.

I still have not lost much weight, but I am back in the weight loss program that I was in before, weighing and measuring everything; logging all my food. I seem to have my calories back to the right level and I am never hungry, so hopefully things will start to move now.

Before I had my son, I was super-fit. I never expected that I would ever be that fit, but I actually achieved something I had only dreamed of. I really miss how I felt then – like I could do anything I wanted – try a new sport, run top speed for the bus, do a century on my bike, x-c ski with my super-fit friends (one is even a retired pro cyclist).  I hope to get back there again. I do realize that I’m older and it will be different, but just the same.

Other than when I’m writing – poetry, an article, or something else that really means a lot to me, exercise is pretty much the only time when I feel completely alive, as if I am in the right place at the right time and couldn’t be doing anything else. Of course, I don’t necessarily feel that way when it is 35 degrees outside and I am coughing up a lung on my bike and my knee is aching. But I did feel that way today.

I wonder if I will regain that feeling of so many possibilities – that  I could do so many things physically – I really miss it.

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Bicycle Love

At Bridgehead in Westboro – I biked here from home, and the round trip will be about 14 kms. After a long time without much regular biking, I am getting back into commuting everywhere on my bike. Learning how Tyler Hamilton rode for weeks with broken bones (his shoulder or his collarbone, depending on the race) has made me realize that I can do FAR more than I realize. I do long to be in shape again like I was before my son was born – at that time I was working out at the gym and biking between 50 and 140 kms per week, including commuting, mountain biking and touring. And I could ski for hours in the Gatineaus in winter.

Even though I have never been thin, and have struggled with my weight off and on, I didn’t really have a serious weight problem until I developed asthma a few years ago. Apparently it is the kind of asthma that medical residents (at the clinic where I am a patient) have a very hard time diagnosing. I must have seen about 4 of them over the course of a year, and even though I complained of wheezing and exhaustion, they all insisted I did not have asthma. To be fair, I did have severe sinusitis, which probably tricked them into thinking that was the problem. Finally, on my fifth try, I got a really experienced doctor who, after listening very carefully to my lungs, said I had asthma – or “reactive airway disease.”

Whatever! The Advair worked like a charm and in a few days the exhaustion lifted and I had energy again. Unfortunately, I was a good 40 pounds heavier than I had been six months before. At the weight loss clinic that I eventually attended, the doctor pronounced my sudden weight gain “unusual,” but nobody really knows why it happened, other than maybe a new medication I started, or the asthma. Or maybe all the Thai Express, but the question is why I wanted all those Thai Express curries in the first place (I later learned that each individual serving has 1000 calories – horrors). And nobody knows what caused the asthma either.

So anyway, I lost 20 pounds, but stupidly (or not), I took a really high-stress job with sometimes odd hours. It was exciting and I learned a lot, including how stress causes weight gain, since I am now almost back to where I started, give or take a few pounds.

This is where Tyler Hamilton comes in. Surely the task of losing the weight again and getting back into really good shape (like I used to be) will not be as daunting as his crazy journeys with broken bones, and teeth that wore down from clenching against all the pain.

Tyler crashing
Tyler crashing during the 2002 Giro d’Italia, where he broke his shoulder.

Unfortunately, what might be as daunting as Tyler’s journeys is contending with the self-consciousness and revulsion that I feel because I am fat. I have tried to like myself as I am, but I just don’t, no matter how I try. I feel that part of the reason is tied up with the pressure that is placed on women to conform with the images of young, thin women and girls that are used in advertising everywhere.

What a world we live in – everywhere, beauty is linked to thinness and youth, and everywhere, there are advertisings and offerings of food – junk food, gourmet food, pastries, chocolates, candies – and always, the people depicted enjoying these foods in ads are young and thin.

But it is not just the crazy beauty images combined with the crazy food world that leads me to feel this…intense dislike for my appearance sometimes. I think it also has to do with the kind of person I am. I am at my best when I can go mountain biking or x-c skiing for hours at a time, and I love being able to suddenly run for a bus without feeling like a sack of potatoes.

I think being fit and active is part of being fully human for me. Even though I am a writer and spend my working life in a sedentary occupation, I probably have never experienced as much joy as I have hurtling downhill on skis when the sky is the colour of the mediterranean sea, and the snow sparkles with millions of diamonds. I think this latter reason for disliking being fat is a legitimate one, and something worthy of acting on.

The former reason, that the world is a mess and corporations are lying to us about what beauty is, and what good food is, does not strike me as a good reason at all to whip myself back into shape. In fact, it almost makes me want to stay fat, or become even fatter, as a way of saying “fuck you” to these stupid structures.

I suspect that this beauty-as-thinness-junk-food complex might be behind the phenomenon of young women purposely making themselves ugly, or at least un-beautiful, with piercings in weird places, extra fat, shaved heads and lots of black stretchy clothing. I admire this response, because it defies the pressures to conform to everything we are taught, as women, about beauty and how to be attractive.

However, in the end, I think I would like to get back to being the super-fit mountain biker / pilates fanatic, since it is such a positive part of who I am and have been. And besides, I really enjoyed riding my bike today. Since dear Tyler inspired me with his broken bones and flying through the Alps, I have not reset the odometer on my bike.

By the time I get home today, I will have biked 80 kms in about a week and a half. I have enough experience to know I have to ease back into cycling slowly, and weather has also intervened. I am curious to see how many kms I will have on the odometer by the end of the season, in October.

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A way to temper isolation

I thought I would start this blog as a way to talk about the process of researching and writing my articles on Aboriginal art and artists. Right now I’m working on a really ambitious piece – I’m researching a piece on the late Mohawk artist Joe David, from Kanehsatake.

Joe David - Eastern Door web site

It’s been slow going. I got the idea from Diane Pugen, a prof at the Ontario College of Art and Design. We met at the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective’s annual conference, which took place in Ottawa last fall.

I thought it would be a good idea to write about Joe’s art, because this year marks 20 years since the Oka Crisis, and Joe, who was behind the barricades, was written about a lot, but mostly because of his “warrior” role, and not because of his art.

At first, I got just about nowhere, emailing and calling people who might have something to say about Joe David as an artist, or images of Joe’s art that I could look at. But during those six months I managed to locate six images of art, several books and articles written by, or about Joe.

Now I’m finally making progress, thanks in part to another conversation with Diane.  She suggested a number of people who will be very helpful to talk to. My first interview is tomorrow night with my friend Arthur Renwick, a Toronto-based Haisla artist and musician who used to hang out with Joe in Montreal back in the nineties.

I am relatively new to writing about art, and just getting to know the First Nations art community, so I feel pretty isolated most of the time as I work on these articles. I am not really sure of their value, and don’t have a master plan in terms of what I want to do, or where I want to go with them.

It just seems that my personality drives me to make things happen, either by creating something in writing, or by organizing events – as a student I was an activist and organized countless panel discussions and demonstrations. Now, I sometimes help put on house concerts with my husband and friends! Great fun.

When I first decided to write a series of articles I had planned to write profiles of successful Native people who are doing interesting things, and offer the pieces to a non-Native audience, in the hopes of making a small chink in the armour of ignorance that characterizes the mainstream attitude to Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Instead, I seem to be beginning to take part in the conversation about First Nations art from within that community, which is a very unexpected outcome.

I didn’t now I had anything to contribute in that way. But I guess when you love something, you usually have a unique perspective to bring to it.  Let me know what you think – how you feel when it comes to writing about something that requires a lot of time spent alone.

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