I am a martial artist. I always have been one. My daydreams have always been about fighting, since I was old enough to know that meant. My nights are spent dreaming of different opponents, my waking moments are stolen moments of thinking about the art, theory and science of combat. Those moments, when I’m not actually training, are stolen from the dreary other thoughts that are required of me in life…things like working and trying to be responsible.
Well, not really. I’m older now. I turned forty five a few hours ago. My down time is now spent enjoying life for what it is, more than living in a fantasy. It’s easy to think my younger years were wasted. All that focus and attention on preparing myself for the ultimate confrontation, and it never happened. Sure, the skills have come in handy…but dammit, where was my triumphant last stand against a horde of evil mutated bad guys? Too old for that crap now.
I am a martial artist. That doesn’t mean what it used to. I don’t have fantasies anymore. I have a real and full life. My life is not only free of violence, but I can confidently admit that I have the skills it takes to keep it that way for some time yet. And if the time comes when I am no longer able to keep my life free of violence, I have the mental skill to accept that and die with a free mind. Rather not, but so far my life has shown a powerful resilience to my desires.
But my hand still aches for the sword. I get up to pour myself one more cup of coffee, and work that jab-cross-uppercut combo. Bereft of violence, bereft of even the desire for it, I am still a martial artist. What does that even mean anymore? It used to be simple. It meant I did Kung Fu. And then it meant I did Karate. And then it meant a list of styles with an array of meanings and nuances. It meant being a tough guy, making money by physically intimidating people into obeying the law, or behaving decently while drunk.
But all that was really just a veneer over the real thing. The reality of martial arts is not in the fantasy of it’s usefulness. The reality is ourselves. It’s what we are everyday. What we do, what we think. It’s in our breeding, our genetic lineage…a twisted freak recessive allele that has spoiled our batch. Instead of being colour blind or blue eyed or six-fingered, we lean towards a different relationship. We speak a language shared only amongst the other freaks. We see a pattern others don’t.
We speak a conversation that involves challenge and response. Meaning is conveyed with impact, with clever dodges and blocks. We talk about the meaning of life, existence and purpose with a savage bolt of pain that shoots up our shin when we block a kick just a little bit wrong. We bond and form our secret community when we look at each other with a grimace through drops of sweat that blind us as we try to squeeze out one more pushup or kick, hours after our bodies scream…enough. No more. But we don’t stop. We don’t stop because to stop would mean walking away from the fascinating conversation with our fellow martial artists.
The conversation is why the sword is the supreme expression of martial arts. When we talk with fists and feet, the language feels rich and satisfying. You learn about your own toughness, you understand your own armour, the places you can shrug off any blow, the places you can never let be touched. You learn the magic of your own skills. The speed and power of your limbs, the crushing impacts they can deliver. Your language is one of understanding mutual limits, and reaching beyond them to explore perception. I speak a subtle fugue to my opponent, and they respond in kind. The first of us to discern the truth wins, but it’s only the opening phrase.
In that world you can find mastery. You can achieve a deep understanding and make a rock out of that mastery. From that rock you can see the whole world. It’s comfortable and safe. And the sword takes all that away. The symbols you spoke with before are now seen as letters to build words and sentences, not glyphs of magic power. Art becomes science. Science makes the world so much bigger, so much more complex and wonderful.
Hands and feet seem like such muted tools. So slow, so simple. A conversation with blades is so fast, so complex. Each quantum of movement brings a fat load of data with it, and processing that information is almost more than the mind can handle. With years of work you learn to start to understand the words, and it’s years more before you can respond with more than a halting, awkward phrase. When you finally learn to speak the language, it’s a liquid flow, a quicksilver flash that bridges a huge gap in understanding.
Being a martial artist now means that I build the skill to converse. Sometimes I talk with others, but mostly I use the language to talk to myself, to understand and appreciate what I see in the world. It makes me more alive. I become more whole, and as I become more whole I am more able to be a part of the hidden community. My world becomes bigger. I teach martial arts to help others speak that language, so they can see that hidden world as well…and become a part of it.
I live a wasted life, in a world where almost no one speaks my language. But if I did not speak this language, I would not be able to understand how wonderful it is to be alive. There is so much wonder in the grip of my sword, the ring of steel, the shiver down the blade from the parry. It’s a wasted life, but it’s a whole life.