Monday, November 20, 2017

The Leap of Faith; The art of believing in yourself

What we need to do to allow magic to get ahold of us is to banish doubts from our minds. 
Once doubts are banished anything is possible. 
- Carlos Castaneda (Juan Matus)

Banish the doubts

Last weekend I drove to North Carolina to attend a Robson Moura seminar.

Although I've definitely covered some distances to train with Master Robson since I met him, this was the farthest I've ever driven and along the way, I found myself asking: What am I doing? What am I trying to accomplish? Is it worth it?

As I watched the road flash by, the trees and the mountains, the golden dome in Charleston, the fading autumn colors, the overambitious trucks trying to pass uphill, the cops hiding in the shrubbery, as I stopped for gas and cider and mysterious Southern pork products, stumbling out of the car bent over like an old woman, driving through the rising sun and the setting sun, getting stuck in rush hour traffic in Raleigh and driving through pitch black on the final stretch to Greenville and pushing, pushing, pushing to arrive at last in time to watch the rank review, it was as if I were reliving all the ups and downs of my purple belt journey.

It was long - longer than I had expected - and exhausting, and just when I thought I was getting close, I hit a snag. Just like purple belt.  And I thought about giving up, but when I imagined what it would feel like to quit, it felt awful. It felt empty. And emptiness is worse than discomfort. So I kept going.

Friday evening traffic outside Raleigh

My stepfather, who was a minister, used to tell couples who came to him to get married that the best way to get to know a person is to take a long road trip together.

If you want to get to know someone, go on a road trip together.

"If you still want to get married when you come back," he would say, "give me a call."

And it occurred to me that his advice works pretty well for getting to know yourself. Whether it's a road trip to an actual place, or a road trip into jiu-jitsu, both provide plenty of time for soul-searching.

I just got my brown belt. Not to change the subject, but the point is, I met Master Robson when I was still a blue belt, back in 2011, and I started to really follow him in earnest in 2012, which was the year I got my purple belt.

2011: My first Robson Moura seminar

I trained with a lot of different people at purple, because I realized I had a choice: I could either just affiliate with somebody local (since my instructors had disappeared) and work towards my brown belt, or I could look around and figure out where it was I wanted to go with my jiu-jitsu. Who it was I wanted to be. What kind of jiu-jitsu I wanted to have.

Because if at white belt, I just thought jiu-jitsu was a stable, static thing you learned, like, I don't know, memorizing the times table or something, and at blue belt I discovered the top game and thought I had achieved bjj enlightenment, by purple I realized that jiu-jitsu is language. 

And you never stop learning a language, just like you never stop learning jiu-jitsu.

Do you speak jitsu?

It took me a long time, as I knew it would, although I didn't fully realize how long. I was a purple belt for five years and four months. And during that time, I was constantly on the road. I was like the little bird in the book looking for its mother, and I got to train with a lot of amazing people while I tried to figure out where I was going. 

Are you my jiu-jitsu mother?

Saulo Ribeiro called me "Ronin." Which was nice.

When the student is ready the teacher will come

And I love Saulo's jiu-jitsu, except when his students beat me with it. I love Ricardo Pires's side control. I love Pedro Sauer's finesse and tenacity. But over time, I found myself focusing more and more on one person, and that was Master Robson.

And that's because, first of all, I really and truly feel that his jiu-jitsu is just on a completely different level. As an irrepressible white belt (now a blue belt) put it: Robson moves better than a hypothetical Jesus.

He moves better than Jesus

But while Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fishes to feed the thousands, Robson has turned four limbs and one neck into thousands of submissions - sometimes, all at once. More often than not, his subs are what I call "BOGO" (buy one get one) because the shoulder lock is also a wrist lock and an armbar and a choke and a toehold. On the rare occasions that an armbar is just an armbar, I admit to feeling - just a little - cheated.

He's the master of transformation. But rather than changing himself to work within the existing framework of reality, Robson Moura has perfected the art of transforming reality. And besides his jiu-jitsu itself, which you could absolutely just copy and paste and not go wrong, I wanted to learn that art - the art of creating your own reality.

I wanted to know how he does that. I wanted to know how his mind works. Spoiler alert: I failed.  I still don't know how Master Robson's mind works. But, as one of his black belts told me with a shrug, "Nobody knows. It's not just you."

But what I realized, at the end of the day, is that it's not so much about getting a window into Master Robson's mind. It's about opening a window in my own mind, to allow this process of osmosis to take place, to allow the jiu-jitsu to flow in and myself to flow out.

Which means giving myself permission to be myself. It means, as Master Robson advised me before Master Worlds, "Believe in yourself."

Which is not really as easy as it sounds. In fact, it's really hard. It takes what my stepfather Tom used to call a "leap of faith." What Tom meant was that reason and logic will not get you to God. There has to be a point where you make a conscious decision to believe, to take that leap into the unknown.

In the same way, reason and logic will not make you believe in yourself, when you're standing there with your DIY jiu-jitsu and a body that has seen better days, looking at Robson Moura and a million people who are younger and faster and more athletic and more graceful and more technical than you could ever be even in your dreams (and yes I do dream about jiu-jitsu and Robson still beats me every time).

Believing is not a mathematical equation, but a choice - a choice to have faith, not despite the lack of evidence, but because of it. To embrace the mystery and the contradictions of life, love and jiu-jitsu and to understand that jiu-jitsu is not the point - believing is the point. Not just believing in God, but believing in yourself, whether you're training jiu-jitsu or falling in love or applying for a job or doing something completely unrelated and possibly even crazy. Believing that whoever you are, with whatever strengths and weaknesses you may have, you have something unique and beautiful to offer to life, love and BJJ.

When I was in the airport chapel on my way to Master Worlds praying, not to win, but just to feel less alone, a voice in my head said, "It's not about winning. It's about learning to fly. That's what I gave you wings for."

It's not about winning - it's about learning to fly.

This leap of faith, the leap that we make into ourselves and into our own perfectly imperfect jiu-jitsu, is when we test those wings. We may soar like eagles or flap like petrodactyls but that's not the point. The point is becoming aware that those wings are there, and they're there for a reason, and that reason is not achieving perfection. The reason we have wings is to enable us to fly into the great unknown of life, love and BJJ and transform it according to our desire and our will. The wings are our belief in ourselves, and the stronger our belief is, the farther our wings will take us.

The leap of faith is knowing, on some deep level that has nothing to do with logic and reason, that your wings are the wings you need to get you where you're going. It's not about getting better wings. It's about trusting the wings you have.

Trust your wings

At some point, which must have been very early on and possibly the first time he ever stepped on a mat, Master Robson must have realized that the get-on-top-and-smash game was not going to work for him. Since he couldn't fit himself to fit the game, he changed the game.

And when he changed the game, he changed the world. He created his world in his own image. And so can I. So can you.

And that's the big take-away, at least for me, in all these years following Master Robson. If the game doesn't fit you, don't change yourself - change the game. Change your world.

And transform yourself. Don't change - transform. With the difference being that change means becoming other than you are. Transforming means becoming even more who you are.

As iron becomes steel, as Pinocchio became a real boy, as the ugly duckling becomes a swan, jiu-jitsu gives us the opportunity to become bigger and better versions of who we are.

But you have to stay on your toes. As my teacher Ricardo Pires said, "You can't just take a nap." You have to be ready for the opportunity, the open door, the brass ring. 

But to do that, you have to believe that the opportunity will come for you, too.

The opportunities, the strokes of luck, the happy endings, those aren't just for other people - they are for you. There is a rainbow with your name on it, with your own personal pot of gold just waiting for you to jump on it.

Believe in your happy ending

And when you see that pot of gold, that brass ring, that opportunity that is waiting just for you, don't just jump on it - leap.

Take the leap of faith.

Believe in yourself.

Believe in yourself

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Owning your monsters: Growing up in BJJ

Where the  Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak

Be careful when you cast out your demons lest you cast out the best part of yourself. - Friedrich Nietzsche

A few years back I wrote a post called Fighting Monsters with BJJ. You can check out the post here, but it was about how the monsters come out, at least for some of us, during the holidays.  I think a big part of that is that the holidays are, at least in theory, a No Fly Zone for Monsters. I mean the holidays are supposed to be about love and good cheer and reconnecting with loved ones and not sitting there thinking about possible replies to your aunt's passive-aggressive comment or wondering if your mom will be offended if you throw the entire plate of dry/burnt food in the garbage. Or whatever. The problem being that the monsters are like everybody else and the minute you tell them not to do something they immediately want to do that thing and no other.

The futility of arguing with monsters

Which is maybe why Halloween is my second-favorite holiday, right after Groundhog's Day, and it just right this very second occurred to me that what both these holidays have in common is that they both involve letting the shadows out of the closet. Halloween, All Hallows' Eve, is traditionally considered the day the veil opens between the world of the living and the world of the dead. February 2 is the date the groundhog looks at his shadow and prognosticates how much longer winter is going to last. 

But whether it's spirits emerging from the Underworld or a rodent emerging from his den, both holidays are about looking at the shadows we normally prefer to ignore. But even before I woke up and it was suddenly Halloween, I had been thinking a lot about the monsters.

I had been thinking about assholes. Assholes I have met, and assholes I have been, or have been accused of being, on and off the mat.

I have never intentionally been an asshole. I have never intentionally hurt anyone. All I've tried to do is tap people. I thought that was the point.

But apparently tapping people is "ego," at least that's how a woman I know recently described it. Apparently tapping people, or trying to tap people, makes me an asshole.

And I think we need to talk about this.

I know I'm not the only one who is confused because other people - particularly women - have told me that they just don't know how to be. Specifically, they don't know how big of an asshole it's ok to be on a jiu-jitsu mat. The problem being that everybody defines the word asshole differently.

As hard as I've tried to not be an asshole, I still have people treating me like I'm an asshole. And at this point, I don't know what I am supposed to do. I have suppressed my bloodthirsty instincts for years. I have tried to play this girlie "are you ok" game and I have sucked at it, mostly because I don't care. I mean I don't want you to die, I don't want to send you to the hospital, but if your arm hurts because you didn't tap in time, I don't care, just like I don't care if my own arm hurts because I didn't tap in time. 

Pain is part of life, love, and BJJ. You don't have to like it - I don't - but you have to accept it, because it's an essential part of growing up. 

Growing up is about accepting responsibility for who you are and what you're doing and trying to do on this big beautiful lifelovebjj mat. I don't know what you're trying to do, but I know what I'm trying to do: win. 

If you're here for something else, good for you. It's not my business. All I ask is that you be honest with yourself and others. Don't say you don't care about winning and then choke me across the nose because you can't get the tap any other way. Don't say you don't care about titles and then spend all your time hating on the people with the titles and the medals. Don't act like you're so healthy and evolved and holistic-er than thou when you have a face like Spongebob Squarepants because of all the steroids you're on. Don't act like you're Professor Cool Guy when you're hitting on all the females you know in FB messenger.

Your face on steroids

Whoever you are, whatever you want, just own it. Own your goals, own your monsters, and grow the fuck up. And maybe I'll grow the fuck up, too. 

Growing up doesn't necessarily mean winning all the time, or succeeding in any conventional sense of the term. Sometimes growing up means falling flat on your face, losing a match, losing your business, losing a loved one, losing whatever is most dear to you, and picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting again. 

Growing up isn't about achieving enlightenment, on or off the mat. It doesn't mean we have eliminated our monsters. In Italian they call the little imperfections "moles," meaning the skin condition and the not the little animals my Aunt Bert reputedly used to slay with a butcher knife.

Growing up means owning our moles and our monsters and letting them work for us so we can achieve our goals. And when your monsters have achieved your goals for you, maybe you can learn to love them - and in so doing, maybe you can learn to love yourself.

Which is the hardest thing you can possibly do. At least sometimes.

I was born with what we can euphemistically call an hourglass figure. Nowadays, curves are back in, and nobody believes that in the 80's, having a butt was seen as a kind of moral failing. In short, to have an ass was the equivalent of being an asshole. And I'm really not joking.

Every day, in my crappy Midwestern high school, on my way from the bus to the locker I got treated to a chorus of "moo moo" and "oink oink," which was the delicate means the boys chose to let me know I was too heavy.

And I hated my body for a long time. I used to fantasize about chopping my thighs off with a butcher knife, the family weapon, and it's a fortunate thing that liposuction did not exist in those days. I went through all the eating disorders known to humankind and I think I even came up with a few new ones but none of it did any good because I'm just built this way.

One day, after a nasty binge-purge episode, I looked in the bathroom mirror, with tears and snot and vomit running down my face, and I said, "Doomsday, you need to make a choice. You can live in this body or you can die with your head in a toilet."

And if this is too raw for you, Happy Halloween, but the point is, I chose to live. I didn't like my body. It's not like I discovered self-love with my head in the toilet. But I decided to make the best of a bad situation and live in what I saw as a disgusting lump of way too much flesh in the wrong places.

At some point, I discovered weight-lifting, and I realized I could work on my upper body and thereby detract attention from the lumps, and that worked for quite a while.

And it wasn't until I started dating a Brazilian, who was far from being an ideal boyfriend, and after about eight months of dating he made the comment that Gisele Bundchen was "egly," because she was skinny, and, when pressed, he told me that "in Brazil we like the womans with the big legs and the big ass," that I realized that, somewhere in the world, there was a population that saw my body type, not as something to be tolerated, but as something actually desirable, that I started to make my first baby steps towards loving myself.

And the fact that he was an asshole, and I'm sure that, wherever he is and whatever he's doing, he's still an asshole, just made the compliment more real. He wasn't a nice guy saying something to make me feel better, because every comment he made was intended to make me feel worse so that I wouldn't accidentally get self-esteem and leave, taking my lumps and my Gold Mastercard with me.

He was an asshole who had an accidental backhanded compliment wrung out of him because he let his guard down for a second while saying something offensive about a supermodel. And thanks in part to that accidental, unwilling admission that somewhere in the world, I had value, even in an objectified way, I started to value myself, just a little.

He didn't help me by being nice. He helped me, a lot, by being an asshole. 

We're all going to meet assholes in life, love and BJJ. We're all going to be assholes. As much as we try to not be assholes, the shadow side is going to eventually come out. 

And that's when we become whole. Ass-whole.

We try so hard to avoid the shadows, those raw emotions, the conflict, the drama. But jiu-jitsu wasn't invented to avoid monsters. Jiu-jitsu was invented to help us beat the monsters. Jiu-jitsu was invented so we can be the monsters.

At some point, like Puxatawney Phil, we all have to turn and face our shadows and then we can ask our shadows:  What  do you want from me? What gifts do you bring? When will this winter - "the winter," as Shakespeare's asshole extraordinaire Richard III put it, "of our discontent"  - be over?

Maybe your shadows want to rule the Universe and kill Luke Skywalker and all the little bunny rabbits and plunge the Earth into nuclear winter and throw recyclable items in the regular garbage dumpsters. And if so, that would be bad.

But maybe your shadows just want to be loved, with all their quirks and their moles and their weirdnesses and their dark sides and their light sides - just like you. Maybe the monsters come bringing you a superpower - asshole power. And maybe asshole power can finally get you what you want out of this life, whatever it is you were too shy, too nice, too afraid of being labelled an asshole to get before.

The dark and the light are not separate, but one

Maybe your inner asshole ain't so bad. Maybe the monsters ain't so bad. Maybe I'm not so bad. Maybe you're not so bad.  Maybe we're not so bad.

And maybe we are. And maybe that's just tough shit. Maybe the world will survive.

Because as long as you're not out there with an assault rifle blowing away innocent strangers, how much of an asshole can you really be? As long as you're out there giving your all, and submitting people, and getting submitted, and living and loving and training as hard as you can, and taking your knocks, and dishing them out, maybe you're just doing your job on this Earth.

Maybe your monsters aren't the enemy. Maybe your monsters are just real. Maybe the monsters are your truest friends, your bloodiest blood family, your most loyal team: Team You.

Maybe your monsters are the best part of you.

When monsters get stripes

My interest has been to convince you that you must assume responsibility for being here, in this marvelous world, in this marvelous desert, in this marvelous time.
― Don Juan Matus, Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan 

Shadows 'R' Us
photo courtesy of Lucila Espedido

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Breaking the curse

You have no time, my friend, no time. None of us have time. 
Don't just agree with me. Act upon it. 
What I recommend you to do is to notice that we do not have any assurance that our lives will go on indefinitely. 
Change comes suddenly and unexpectedly, and so does death. 
There are some people who are very careful about the nature of their acts. 
Their happiness is to act with the full knowledge that they don't have time; therefore, their acts have a peculiar power.
- Don Juan Matus (Castaneda)

I believe this, that fairy tales are true...

I'm getting to the end of this blog. I never meant for it to be about me, or maybe I did, I don't know. At the end of the day, we all experience the world - and jiu-jitsu -  through the filter of our own being.

It has been my hope that maybe somebody can relate to some of the things I have talked about. Jiu-jitsu is a way to connect to other people, and talking about jiu-jitsu is another way to connect, and disagreeing with people is yet another way to connect. Just like kissing is a way to connect and fighting is a way to connect, and maybe fighting is an even more intimate way of connecting than kissing, if you think about it. Not that I have anything but a very vague recollection of what kissing is like, but I hear it's fun, although not as fun as jiu-jitsu. So if you agree, or if you disagree, in some way, we are connecting, and in this crazy isolated world, I think that's a good thing.

But I have one last thing to say before I go.

I started training jiu-jitsu almost 9 years ago. At that time my life was in turmoil. My health had come crashing down, and I left everything in California, my apartment, my car, what passed as my life, and came slinking back to Ohio with my tail between my legs.

I had been diagnosed with chronic Lyme and a few other tick borne diseases. During the time I was sick, somebody cloned my ATM and cleaned out my account. The money went in daily withdrawals of 600 euro, i.e. about 1000 USD, in Vegas. It was all the money I got from the sale of my house in Rome, and I never got it back.

Got bugs? Welcome to Lyme Disease

It took me a long time to heal. Years, in fact, and I still don't feel the same as before.

Jiu-jitsu has been a huge part of my healing adventure. It's customary to call jiu-jitsu a "journey," and we call healing by the same name, along with other names, like process, for one. But if the word "journey" has a sort of sedate, well-planned ring to it, and process just sounds like a lab experiment, I think adventure expresses it better. At least for me.

Because with a journey, you pretty much know where you're going and when you're coming back. With an adventure, it's whatever. And that's pretty much how it's been - in my health, my life, and my jiu-jitsu.

And I get that this is where you and I differ. I look around me and I see people who have gone from white to black in the same academy, with the same instructor, people who have been married to the same person for decades, who have had the same job for eons, people to whom weird and crazy shit doesn't happen.

And I think, Why them? Why not me? What have I done, or not done, to have such a crazy ride?

I'm sure some of the stuff that has happened to me in my life is my fault, or at least, under my control to some extent. But a lot of it has just been batshit out of the blue when you didn't even know there were any bats.

I mean, the thing with Lyme Disease, I was living in California. Who gets Lyme in California? But my doctor said she thinks you can get it young and it can lie dormant, and I do remember getting bullseye rashes when I was 11, but nobody knew they were bullseye rashes. They were just these huge infected things. Parents at the time said, "Wow, that's weird, have some more flat ginger ale and go play in the woods." Because we spent a lot of time in the woods and our parents used to regularly check our heads for ticks and burn them off with a spent match. That was just normal.

And the thing with the ATM, once again, it was a fluke. Granted, it didn't help that I was a technophobe, but you know, if it hadn't happened right when I got sick, things would have been different. I realized later how it happened. It was at JFK airport on the way back from Italy. I went to use the ATM and there was a guy standing there, and I asked him if he was in line, and he said No, go ahead. And now I know that it was him, but it doesn't do me any good to know that now.

And other things too, I mean, they weren't really my fault. I met this guy who I really thought was the love of my life, and he thought so too, and three weeks after we met he texted me that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and I texted back that we could start with a week's vacation in the summer, and he didn't text me back and I thought he was mad, but actually he was dead. I still don't really know why. His relatives told me it was a heart attack, but I still don't really know, and I didn't go to the funeral, because honestly, we hadn't known each other that long, and what's the point of going to the funeral of the love of your life? I mean who does that kind of shit happen to? Me.


But anyway this isn't a poor me post. If it sounds like it, I apologize, because that's not what I'm trying to say.

What I'm trying to say is:  Life is epic.

Life is a fairy tale, or actually a zillion fairy tales all jumbled up, it's a spider's web of intertwined fairy tales, and your task, your mission, whether or not you decide to accept it, is to figure out which fairy tale you happen to be in and get to the happy ending, and make it snappy. Because there's another fairy tale waiting for you just around the corner.

Because one thing I learned last weekend at Master Worlds is that time matters. You can't go around acting like you have all the time in the world because you don't. This girl I ended up beating, basically by smooshing her, which I'm not particularly proud of but welcome to the Thunderdome, I was in a Brabo position, and just thinking about whether I wanted to finish with the hand or the foot, when the buzzer sounded. And the fact that I won by points didn't take away the sting of not having gotten to the submission, which her little remarks about how "You really wanted to submit me but you couldn't" didn't alleviate. And I don't know why women have such a hard time with the concept of sportsmanship but evidently they do.

My favorite submission

But back to life, once you realize that it is a fairy tale, that you are the hero, that all the crap that is being thrown at you is just dragons to kill, and curses to break, and evil to defeat, and handsome princes wandering around all willy-nilly looking for YOU and only you (for some unknown reason), then it gets easier. Because everything is easier when you know what you're dealing with.

Every challenge is just another dragon to kill

At the same time, the buzzer will sound, for you and for me and for everybody. Ask not for whom the buzzer sounds. It sounds for thee.

Anyway, competing in Master Worlds was not something I wanted to do, just like, if I had lived in the time when dragons roamed the earth, killing dragons would have been pretty low on my list. And there are a lot of reasons for that. First of all, it's really hard. You have to leave your comfort zone. You can't kill a dragon in your ivory tower, and I'm very fond of my ivory tower.

My ivory tower

I've had people ask me what the ivory tower is a reference to, and that's a fair question. The ivory tower is the tower the princess lives in. It's the tower where life can't get at her, in good or in bad. She is safe from evil but also safe from any handsome princes that may happen to be wandering around. She is safe from life.

Safe in the ivory tower

But you're not supposed to be safe from life. That's the point. Life begins where your ivory tower ends. On the other hand, life can be pretty uncomfortable. Love can be pretty uncomfortable. Jiu-jitsu can be pretty uncomfortable. And so you have to make this conscious decision to be uncomfortable, to come down from your ivory tower and to come off your high horse, and that is very hard.

Shortly before Master Worlds I had an epiphany, which was:

I don't have to do this.

Nobody had a gun to my head. I realized that competing in the Worlds was just a waste, of time, of money, and of energy. Among other things, I was alone in my division, and I didn't know if anybody would even show up for the absolute. Also I hate Vegas.

So I emailed Master Robson, and I told him that, unless he had any very strong objection, I had decided to withdraw from Worlds.  I did this knowing that Robson has a lot on his plate right now and that, in general, he's not a Do-this-Do-that kind of instructor. He'll tell you, once, quietly, what he thinks, about a particular position or whatever, but he's not going to yell and he's not going to nag. And I think that that is one of the things that I really treasure the most about Robson. He lets me make my own mistakes. He lets me do it my way.

He doesn't nag

We're all here for a different reason. I like to win as much as the next guy, but I don't want to win by being a puppet on a string. I don't want to win because my coach is better than your coach. I want to win because I figured it out myself. I want to win because I willed it.

And I figured that Master Robson would not have strong feelings either way, especially at this point in his life, and I was kind of right and kind of wrong because he eventually emailed me back and said, in the gentlest way possible: Go and have fun.

In reality, by the time I got the email back from Robson, I had already decided I was going to go through with it, not because I wanted to, but because I didn't want to. 

If that makes sense.

Fast forward to the day I flew to Vegas. I stopped in the airport chapel as I always do, and I prayed. I didn't pray to win the fight, or anything like that. I didn't pray for anything in particular. But I was feeling so lousy, so down, so hopeless, because it hasn't been an easy year, even compared to the last years which weren't easy either. And I just kind of closed my eyes and tried to open my heart.

Usually when I pray, I get an answer, and this time was no different. The answer I got was: It's not about winning. It's about learning to fly. That's what I gave you wings for. You came here to learn about limitations. Now it's time to transcend them.

After that, I felt immensely better. All the people who really meant well, who were telling me I was going to kill it, who were telling me I had to win, they were trying to help but they weren't helping. And I say this with love and with immense gratitude, because they really wanted to help.

But they don't know, nobody knows what the last ten years have been like. Up until then, I had always been a successful person. If I wanted something, I found a way to get it. But ever since my health crashed, my experience of life has been different. I had to learn about loss, and failure. I learned about victimhood. I learned about weakness. I learned, in a very conscious way, about fear, and depression, and despair. At a time in my life when I thought I had nothing anybody could possibly envy, I learned about the destructive power of envy and jealousy and gossip and hate. I had to learn to be ugly. I learned to be middle-aged. I started out life as the ugly duckling and I became a swan, just as the fairy tale promised. But the fairy tale never said I would have to go back to being an ugly duckling again. I didn't know how to deal with that and it hurt.

Back to ugly sucks

It still hurts. But what I learned is that nobody said it wouldn't hurt. Nobody said pain is a good reason to quit. Nobody said failure is a good reason to quit.

But it started to seem that everything I wanted would be permanently out of my reach. Bruno Bastos said, before last year's No Gi Worlds, Don't get used to losing. And he was right, in a way, but in another way, I have spent the last ten years getting used to losing. I had to.

Part of that has to do with my life and part of it has to do with jiu-jitsu. But the unfortunate thing, for me, was that all this losing, on and off the mat, had seeped into my soul, and I stopped thinking of winning as an option. I felt like I was under some kind of curse and I didn't know how to lift it.

But, since life is epic, it so happened that there was a huge solar eclipse the Monday before the Worlds, and I decided to rent Ladyhawke, which is my favorite eclipse-centric movie. And, spoiler alert, there was a curse, and the curse may or may not have been broken at the eclipse, I'm not telling, but anyway, as I sat in the airport chapel, it came to me: The curse is lifted.

And it was.

Ladyhawke eclipse scene

I didn't win the Worlds. I got silver. In a movie, or a fairy tale, I would have won double gold. I would have learned to fly.

But in my fairy tale, I didn't learn to fly. In my fairy tale, like Ladyhawke in the movie, I finally shook the jesses off my feet and I left them there, on the mat, in Vegas. In my fairy tale, which is the same as my life which is the same as my jiu-jitsu, I became finally free.

Take this job and shove it: Ladyhawke is free of the curse

In my fairy tale, the curse was broken. What's more, I broke it. I broke it with my will and with my faith.

The power of faith

I went to Vegas to claim the treasure that had been stolen and to lift the curse. In place of my bank account, Vegas gave me a gold for showing up and a silver for smooshing. In place of the curse, Vegas gave me mat burn.

It isn't enough. I didn't get my life back, or my health back, or my face back. I didn't get the submission. I didn't learn to fly.

On the other hand, I have all the time in the world to learn to fly, now that the curse is lifted. Or at least, until the buzzer sounds.

Next up on the to-do list

And she lived happily ever after....
Jiu-jitsu has no

Monday, July 3, 2017

The meaning of a patch

“If I were to be made a knight," said the Wart, staring dreamily into the fire, "I should insist on doing my vigil by myself, as Hob does with his hawks, and I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, and, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it."

from The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Shield of King Arthur Pendragon

When I first started training jiu-jitsu, I didn't know about patches. I didn't even know about teams. I didn't know about anything, actually, but that's kind of the white belt thing.

I just thought of Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a business, a service that was offered in exchange for money, like any other service.  I noticed my teammates had patches but I figured it was just for decoration.

You could say I should have known about patches and teams but the point is, I didn't. 

And nobody told me.

Part of it is about what we call "culture,"  which is simply the assumptions we make without knowing we're making them. 

It's about what's done and what's not done, what's ok and what's not ok in any given environment.

In jiu-jitsu academies, every gym has its own culture. In some gyms, you can only wear certain color gis. In some gyms they train hard and in some gyms they go light. In some gyms the guys go hard but the women are expected to go light. In some gyms, when you run up against another pair, lower belt rank moves. In other gyms, it's whatever. And it's all good until you step outside your home gym and you meet up with another culture, because chances are, you're going to get something wrong.

And nobody ever explains, just like nobody explained the patch to me, and I had to figure it out on my own.

Now, eight and a half years later, seeing people without a patch or with the wrong patch bothers me. I was present when somebody got promoted by Master Robson wearing a Gracie patch and it bugged me. On the other hand, I guarantee that guy had nothing but respect and admiration for Master Robson and if you asked that guy he would tell you that respect is not something you show, it's something you feel.

It's exactly what I would have said eight years ago. To be honest, that's probably what bothered me. Because I used to be that guy. But what I've learned, in the meantime, is that respect is also something you show. That's just the way it is. If Master Robson went to the trouble of becoming a legend, and founding an association, and creating a patch, then the least I can do is wear it.

But like so many other things in life, love and BJJ, I had to learn that lesson the hard way. I learned it by getting it wrong, by inadvertently offending a lot of people with my "Kumbayah let's all just love each other" attitude. I mean I still believe that's the ideal. Let's all just love one another and train.

I had to learn the hard way

But in life, love, and BJJ you will come to a time where you will have to make a choice. You can't have it all. You can't get married and also have total freedom. You can't eat crappy food and also look good in a bikini. And you can't get anywhere in Brazilian jiu-jitsu without a team, and what's more, it has to be the right team.

It took me a long time to figure out which team was right for me. When my first instructor quit, I was cast adrift on a sea of jiu-jitsu. I knew that in any direction I went, I would find land, but I wanted to find the right land. But while I was studying maps and saying eenie-meenie-minie-moe, my heart was steadily paddling in one direction and in one direction only, and that's how I washed up on the shores of RMNU. It wasn't my brain that got me here. It was my heart.

I don't know which way to go...

My heart was following a star and it still is. And that's what the patch means to me. It's my heart, and the star, and it's where hearts and stars come together to train jiu-jitsu. And I don't mean star like rockstar, even though Master Robson is obviously that, I mean the light that guides us in a particular direction, if not a destination. Because to have a destination it means that you will eventually stop. But if you have a direction you will never stop.

Direction vs. destination

And the patch, to me, is a person, and a place, and a direction, and a beating heart, and a guiding light. All those things.

But the patch also represents something else.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu attracts all kinds of people, and some of them, a lot of them, are awesome. They're your friends, your family, your support system. Even the people you barely know treat you like royalty when you visit their gym.  

On the other hand, Brazilian jiu-jitsu also attracts another kind of people, the insecure kind, and the way insecure people react when they feel something or someone threatening their egos is to attack. It can be a physical attack, an emotional attack, an attack to your reputation, or any other kind of attack. It can be a knee in the ear or a knife in the back, a nasty post on Facebook or a choke across your nose. And the attacks are always justified, in the minds of the insecure people, because you accidentally bumped into their egos and left a bruise.

I got to the point where I stopped wearing the patch because I was afraid it provided a target for these people to attack Master Robson through me, and maybe it does, but what I didn't realize was that Master Robson doesn't care about those people.

He said one time, with that little Mona Lisa smile of his, "We need the haters," and I think he really believes that.

He could give two fucks about the haters

The haters give him energy which he burns as if it were Biodiesel, which it kind of is. It's energy made out of other people's garbage.

All the time I was worrying about protecting Master Robson, Master Robson was protecting me. I just didn't know it. That patch isn't just a flimsy piece of yellow and black cloth. It's a shield against all the evil in the world. That's the deal.

Does it mean Master Robson is going to kill my dragons for me? Not necessarily. But I also haven't spent eight years on the mats so that somebody else can fight my battles, not even Master Robson. What RMNU gives me is the tools I need to fight my own battles and a shield against all the evil in the world; or at least, all the evil in jiu-jitsu.

A shield against all the evil in the world

But it's not just a shield against the evil outside. It's a shield against the evil inside.

The most dangerous attacker, the one who can hurt you the most, is yourself. For me, it has always been my own self-doubt, my belief that anybody who saw something bad in me must be smart and anyone who saw something good in me must be dumb - or blind. That's my enemy. And that's how the haters get to me. My heart is the leaker - the spy that tells the haters how to attack and when and where.

I thought if I didn't wear the patches I could fly under the radar, but it didn't work out that way. Because you can take the patch off your gi but you can't take the patch off your jiu-jitsu or your heart. I'm not saying I'm so awesome, by any means, but training with Robson Moura is inevitably going to take your jiu-jitsu to another level.

And because of that, the haters have multiplied like roaches in the dark.

But what I realized, what Master Robson told me, is that the haters don't count. Those people are all around us and they don't matter. Their only purpose is to teach you to protect yourself, at all times. To not indulge in a false sense of security. Their purpose, oddly enough, is to help you learn jiu-jtsu, because jiu-jitsu isn't just technique, it's defending yourself, at all times, from all kinds of attack, including attacks from the people you thought were your friends, and including the most dangerous attacks of all which are the ones that come from yourself.

And the patch is, quite simply, the shield that protects you from attack: attack from without and attack from within. The shield on your back is Master Robson's way of saying that he has your back. And mine too.

The roaches are always going to be there. They have existed for at least 300 million years and they're not going anywhere anytime soon. They thrive and multiply in the darkness of insecurity and mediocrity and entitlement.

You can't destroy the roaches and I can't destroy them and Jesus couldn't destroy them and Master Robson can't destroy them. On the other hand, you can't let the roaches take control of your heart. The way to keep the roaches away is to keep the lights burning, in your mind and in your heart and in your jiu-jitsu. Roaches don't like the light.

You can't fight all the evil in the world. All you can do is be the best you can possibly be, to live with honor and integrity, and train. Train light, train hard, but keep training and don't stop. You can't destroy the darkness, but you can shine your light into it, as bright as you can, and thereby keep the darkness, and the haters, at bay.

The patch doesn't mean that I think I'm Robson Moura just because it says Robson Moura on my back, and it also doesn't mean that I can't be friends with people from other associations, because I am. It means that I fight, literally and figuratively, behind the protection of Robson Moura's shield.

That's a pretty strong shield.

People have always told me that I'm tough, and maybe they're right, but not because of jiu-jitsu. I think God just made me tough so I could survive all the stuff life was going to throw at me. My ex-husband Tommaso said to me once: Yes, you are strong. But your strength is not in your body. It's in your mind.

I had a dream when I was very little that I was trying to climb out of a steep ravine. The walls were sheer and I didn't know how I was going to get out. But then I noticed that there were statues of Minnie and Mickey and Donald Duck on the ravine walls and I figured, in the dream, that I could drag myself up on the statues, like I did with the trees in the ravine by my house. But when I got to the statues they came alive and started to pinch me and I still remember the pain I felt in the dream. And that dream is pretty much how my life has been. The people I looked to for help have been the ones who hurt me the most. And maybe it's my fault, and maybe everybody feels that way. I don't know.

Trying to climb out of the ravine

The point is, I stopped hoping for anyone to help me. I stopped trying to be part of anything, because the pain of isolation is less than the pain of betrayal.

And then I found RMNU, or RMNU found me, whichever, anyway God hooked it up somehow, and I'm not alone anymore. And as tough as I am or think I am, Master Robson is tougher. As strong as I've had to be, the team is stronger. It's stronger than me, stronger than the fear, stronger than the haters, stronger than all the evil in the world.

And that's what the patch means. At least to me.

The power of the patch