Monday, September 17, 2018

Getting there! The Art and Science of Being Human



When I first started training jiu-jitsu ten years ago, I thought I was learning to fight. Then, as I got closer to blue belt and met my teacher, whom I affectionately call in my mind "Side Control Freak" Ricardo Pires, I realized that I was learning about control. As time went on, I came to the conclusion that control has no meaning without power. In other words, if there were no power, there would be no need for control. We need control when we meet something that is stronger than us and our choices are, as Lance Armstrong said some years ago when talking about disease:  Give up - or fight like hell.

Over the years, my ideas about what jiu-jitsu is, what jiu-jitsu is supposed to be, have evolved. Most recently, I was struck by what my teacher, Robson Moura, said:  If you fight strength with strength, you're probably gonna lose.  Stop fighting and start feeling.

Robson's words had a magical effect on my psyche, a kind of "Open Sesame" of the soul, and the floodgates opened and I began to feel. 

What I felt, mostly, was pain.

Physical pain, emotional pain, every kind of pain you can think of and some you can't. Pain in my back, my arms, my legs, my knees, my feet, my bones. I felt pain in places that I'm pretty sure have no nerve sensors.

And I thought: "What the hell am I doing here?"

At the same time, I was awed by all of these feelings, all of the emotion, that had been hidden inside me, crouching in the shadows like a wolf that has spotted a rabbit but is afraid to come out in the open to make the kill. And even if I wasn't madly in love with those feelings, I recognized their right to exist.

Because, as Kurt Osiander put it: If you're comfortable in jiu-jitsu, you're doing the wrong fucking thing.


Lessons from a legend

But recently, a post popped up on Facebook by some acquaintances of mine who just got married. They are both young, and beautiful, and hard-working, and crazy about each other. They both say the same thing: I married my best friend.

That post made me experience another kind of pain.

I didn't understand it, so I looked inside myself and I asked:  What's wrong?

To make a long story short, I realized that I was jealous. Jealous of their happiness, of their love, of their youth, of their beauty - they're both gorgeous and they look gorgeous together. I was jealous because they have something that I never had. I mean I had it for a few weeks until the guy died. I was jealous because they won, in the Russian Roulette of Life, Love and BJJ, and I lost.

And so I prayed. I prayed for God to take away the jealousy from my heart, but as I was praying, or trying to pray, I stopped, and I said, "Forget it."

Because either God gave me a gentle nudge in the kidneys, or I was actually lucid enough to realize, in that moment, that I was asking God for the wrong thing.

I was asking God to give me a kind of spiritual anesthetic, a vaccine against being human. Instead of asking God not to feel things, I should have been asking for the humility to accept that I was human, just like everybody else, not better, not worse, just human.

I feel, therefore I am.

I didn't want that. I wanted to be special. Most of all, I wanted to be safe. I wanted God to calm my feelings like Jesus calmed the waters to allow me to walk safely and serenely across my life, just like Jesus.

But that's not what life, love or jiu-jitsu are about. I was just reading a Facebook post by a teacher about "Lawnmover parents," the parents who mow down all adversity so that their children don't experience it until they're like, 40. I wanted God to be a lawnmower parent for me but that's not how it seems to work.

How it seems to work is that life, love, and jiu-jitsu are not about not feeling things. Life, love and jiu-jitsu are about feeling things, especially the politically incorrect things, and doing things, and trying things, and fucking up, and making an ass of yourself, and having people be mad at you for no good reason, and in love with you for even less reason.

That doesn't mean you should just go hog wild and do whatever. It means that you have weaknesses like everybody else.

As Mestre Ricardo says: Know your weakness and block it.

But what if your weakness is being human? What if your weakness is really a strength? What then?

When Robson told us to stop fighting and start feeling, I felt like I had made a huge discovery, and I had, but only in part. Because Robson didn't really say that and I know enough about Robson, after years of observation, to know that he will never, ever, ever stop fighting, nor would he ever tell anyone else to stop fighting.

What I believe he meant to say was that you have to fight and feel; not either/or, but both. And the more uncomfortable you feel - whether you ended up in somebody's side or were born in a favela with bullets whizzing by your head or simply felt pangs of jealousy reading a Facebook post (note to self: why are we even still on Facebook?) - the harder you have to fight.

And when I was praying, I realized that what I was praying for was to not be human. I was praying to be above the rest of the common mortals, those pathetic creatures so obsessed with those tiny little things they call lives. I wanted to be among the humans but not of them, free to observe their ant-like scurrying with a compassionate eye from the safety of my ivory tower, up above the world so high.

I was praying, in short, to be a ghost. The Ghost of RMNU.

The problem being that I already am. When I got sick ten years ago, actually almost 11 years now, it wasn't like I got sick. It was like I died. I abandoned everything, my furniture, my car, everything, in California, and I came to Ohio to die, and I did die. Not physically, although the disease attacked every system of my body until I became a kind of human gelatin - in other words, ectoplasm - but the Deborah that I was, the Deborah who believed in a good God, the Deborah who believed in love, and life, and herself, died, and left nothing but a ghost behind, and that ghost is writing this post.

I am here but not here. I can see but not feel, and you can't see me or feel me. You can only hear me, faintly, in this blog.


I can see you, can you see me?


And I was ok with it. This isn't the story of how I fought my way back from ectoplasm into real girl. I thought I was safe on the mat, in this blog, safe in that twilight space between life and real life, free to feel jiu-jitsu emotions in pleasant pastel shades without ever really having to go back into that messy arena called Real Life, and then one day Robson said Feel.

It was like when Jesus said to Lazarus, Get up and walk.

Maybe Lazarus didn't want to get up. Maybe Lazarus was just as happy being dead at that point but Jesus made him an offer he couldn't refuse. He gave Lazarus his life back, and commanded him to take it. And that's how it was when Robson told us to feel. I didn't expect it, I didn't want it, and I mostly didn't want to look inside myself and see a whole petrie dish of feelings and emotions that I would rather not own up to, but I am so programmed now to respond to Robson's voice that I obeyed without thinking about it and yes, Mom, since you ask, if he told me to jump off a bridge I would do it in a heartbeat.

But the even bigger problem with feeling things than the pain is that you kind of have to do something about those feelings. I mean, if you feel pain, you have to move away from the pain. If you love somebody, you kind of sort of should move closer to that person. With the caveat being that maybe that person doesn't love you, or maybe they do love you but they're the wrong person, the wrong age, the wrong size, whatever you ordered out of the life, love, and bjj catalogue, they're definitely not it but you love them anyway, and then we're right back to pain again, in stark contrast to life in the ectoplasm which is nice and anesthetized.

But the point is, when you start feeling, you have to start moving. The two are inextricably interconnected. And when you start moving, you are inevitably going to move yourself into danger.

Whereas we were all taught - and those of us who were blessed to have Ricardo Pires for our teacher were taught with some force, charmingly applied - that the cardinal rule of jiu-jitsu is: Don't get there.

How do I get out of side control? Don't get there.

How do I get out of a ridiculous, nonsensical, undignified, age-inappropriate and doomed love story? Don't get there.

But I am beginning to suspect that life is not about not getting there. Life, love, and even - I venture to say - jiu-jitsu, are about getting there (or at least, taking the risk of getting there) and being secure in the knowledge that you will be ok.

Life, love and jiu-jitsu are not about the IBJJF rulebook, or whatever rulebook you've been using. Life, love and jiu-jitsu are about making your own rulebook, about doing all those things you're not supposed to do. I mean, first you have to learn the things you're supposed to do, and then you let all that go and just do whatever feels good, and you make it work.

As Bruce Lee said: You have to know the rules before you know which ones you can break.

And even though at first glance it may appear that I am contradicting Mestre Ricardo, I don't think I really am. Don't get there is what he says but in reality, Ricardo himself is a man who has always been the first to get there, and to enjoy fighting his way out again, sometimes by the skin of his teeth.


I'll contradict Ricardo as long as he's not actually in the room


It's not that Mestre Ricardo doesn't believe his own words. Don't get there will keep you safe, and every good instructor's first task is to give his students the tools to stay safe. But as Mestre Ricardo will tell you, if you ask, and maybe prod him a little, staying safe isn't fun.

I thought jiu-jitsu was giving me the tools to triumph over life, love, and jiu-jitsu, but not so. Jiu-jitsu has been working for ten years to give me the courage, not just to fight, but to feel.

I thought jiu-jitsu was helping me get tougher when all the time, jiu-jitsu was helping me get tough enough to be vulnerable. I thought jiu-jitsu was teaching me to win, but anybody can win. Jiu-jitsu's greatest gift to me has been to give me the courage to experience defeat and hold my head up and know for a fact that losing doesn't make me a loser. I can lose every match and still win because I had the courage to try and you didn't.

I don't mean that defeat is the goal - it's not. The goal is still, and will always be, winning.

But somebody smarter than me once said: You can't win unless you're willing to lose. Granted, that person had not yet read the new IBJJF rulebook. Much of modern jiu-jitsu could be categorized under the heading "Whimper not a bang: how to win without really winning and lose without really losing." 

But we don't care about that.  At least in the IBJJF if you stall for ten minutes and win by one advantage, you take home a medal, and if it's a medal you really, really want, then good for you. But in life, if you stall for 80 years, waiting for a safe moment to gain one lousy advantage point, you don't get a medal. You lost at life, game over, sucks to be you.

You didn't get there. Congrats. Bye.

In life, in love, and maybe even in jiu-jitsu, you have to get there. You have to take the risk. You have to be willing to look ridiculous. You have to be the asshole, the one who reaches out and grabs the forbidden fruit and then posts about it on social media.

We all want to be the hero, but it takes even more courage to wear the mask of the villain. I don't mean become a serial killer. Please don't. I mean stop making little boxes to put your soul in. You're not a perfect person and neither am I, but your imperfections are not your weaknesses, they're your strengths. It's like you have a dogsled and no dogs and you have to get across the arctic tundra, and you have an army of ravening monsters with a lot of energy who would be only to happy to pull your monstersled for you and you're like "Nah, I'll wait for my A-Team."

And you spend your whole life waiting for your A team when the truth is, your B team is your A team. Your imperfections, those flaws you've stuffed deep into a cardboard box in the basement of your soul, those pesky, embarrassing, loud, smelly monsters, that's your team. They're not afraid of anything and they don't care about results or little details like right and wrong. They just want to fight, and they can win, if you let them, but not the way you wanted. It's not going to be pretty and it might smell weird.

It's your choice. My choice. Sweaty, stinky monsters and the chance (but no guarantee) of winning the money or Febreze-scented ectoplasm and a guaranteed third place medal for showing up in a three-woman division?

What I'm thinking, at least right now, is let the monsters out. Let them pull you into places you never consciously wanted to go. I don't mean let the monsters destroy you - I mean let them work with you, let them fight for you.

Life, love and jiu-jitsu are long, and the truth is, you can never stop fighting. If you stop fighting, you're dead, and if you stop feeling, you lose.

But it's not really about winning or losing. As Saulo Ribeiro said years ago in an interview: "What means winning? If you go out there and give 110%, for me you already won."


Quintessential badass Saulo Ribeiro

At the time, I thought he was being politically correct. Now, I know that he was just stating one of the great truths of life, love and jiu-jitsu.

It's not about winning.

It's about getting there.



Friday, July 20, 2018

Matter over mind

The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.
Juan Matus (Castaneda)






Don't fight. Feel.
- Robson Moura

When Robson told us to stop fighting and start feeling, it turned my world upside-down. On the other hand, that's kind of his thing. Robson turns everything upside-down, including his opponent, and just when you think you've found a way to survive in his upside-down world, he turns everything right side up again. 

It's like being sucked through a wormhole into another universe and then being sucked back out again.

Jiu-jitsu, for me, is Narnia. It's what the Irish call stepping on a stray sod. It takes you from your normal life to a magical place where none of the rules you have previously lived by apply, where none of your power is powerful.


Jiu-jitsu is Narnia

Whoever you are in your real life - a doctor, a lawyer, a janitor or a queen - when you step onto the magic carpet of jiu-jitsu, you're just a white belt like every other white belt.

And you have to find a way to live in this magical world where everybody can do magic but you, while you desperately try to find some kind of spell to get home again - or at least, escape from side control. The path from white to black is a sort of sorcerer's apprenticeship. It's a long road, and it's not easy. If you are reading this, you know that.

It's not easy to learn magic because it's not easy to believe in magic. 

According to somewhat creepy magic guy Aleister Crowley: Magick is the Science and Art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.

In other words, jiu-jitsu. 

The fundamental rule of any kind of change, magical or otherwise, is Mind over Matter. You set a goal and bend the Universe to your will, and the body is simply part of that Universe.

We don't really ask the body how it feels. In fact, when the body ventures an opinion, usually something along the lines of "I want" or "I hurt," our usual response is "Shut up."

If we listened to the body, we would probably never get off the couch except to find that bag of jalapeno kettle chips we know must be somewhere, possibly in the car. We would never achieve any goals and we would weigh at least 400 lbs. And that would be bad.

So we get into the habit of ignoring the body and its messages, which can pretty much be summed up in one word: "Ouch." If the usual expression is "No pain, no gain," in jiu-jitsu we could go as far as to say "No pain, no game."

When I recently tried to explain to awesome black belt Neto Gomes that I use the pistol grip because the hook grip hurts too much, he responded:  Forget the pain. You're a brown belt.


Neto Gomes

As Mario Sperry said: In jiu-jitsu, you're gonna feel pain. If you can't deal with that, then maybe you should do something else. Like, I don't know,  play cards or something.


With Mario Sperry, you're gonna feel pain.
Awesome pic courtesy of Jay Nance

The same can be said of life and love. You are guaranteed to feel pain, on whatever path or paths you are on. The difference being that jiu-jitsu is a conscious choice - a choice for pain.

But it's a choice to feel a certain specific kind of pain. The weird thing about pain is that pain itself is an anesthetic. The pain from jiu-jitsu is so intense that it can numb the other kinds of pain you may have in your life, along with the rest of your feelings. 

I came to jiu-jitsu from a diagnosis of chronic disease, which in turn came just a year after I met this guy who I thought was the guy for me, and he thought so too, and he asked me to marry him, and I didn't really answer, because I was trying to play hard to get, which isn't really my thing, and then he died two days later. I've never really known why. I didn't go to the funeral. I barely knew his family. Everything happened so fast.


It went fast

I met him in the aftermath of a bad relationship which had plumbed the depths of my self-esteem, with my first black belt, if you really want to know. But as painful as that relationship was, it taught me to trust my feelings. I had a bad feeling about it from the start but I didn't trust my feelings, I trusted words. Which happened to be lies. But according to this guy: In Brazil, lying and cheating aren't sin. They're culture.

I learned about Brazilian culture and I learned about the dark side of love and I even learned a little jiu-jitsu, so it wasn't a complete waste.

But what I'm trying to say is that jiu-jitsu, for me, was a safe haven from the pain of life and love. 

I didn't come to jiu-jitsu to feel. I came to jiu-jitsu not to feel. Which is probably why Robson's words upset me.

On the other hand, he's probably said the same thing a million times and it didn't affect me in the slightest. Why now?

I'm guessing - because if I knew for sure we wouldn't be having this conversation - that Robson's words touched me because I was finally ready to hear them. After 10 years of fighting and losing, I'm ready to try winning. After 10 years of numbness, I'm ready to feel. 

I never realized before that real life, for me, is the world of feelings and jiu-jitsu is the world of no feelings. I didn't figure that out until I came back to the real world, back to my body, back to life, sucked back through the wormhole unexpectedly by Robson's words as if he were a magician casting a spell (I wouldn't be the first to describe him that way), or maybe reversing a spell would be a better word to describe it.

Because here I am again. Me.

Someone told me I look like a new person, and I told her that I feel, not like a new self, but like my old self. I feel the way I felt before I got sick, before I found jiu-jitsu, or jiu-jitsu found me.

I feel like a person. I feel like a woman. For ten years, I've felt invisible, but now I look around me and I realize that I wasn't invisible, I just had my eyes closed.


You can't see me

In jiu-jitsu Narnia, I'm just a mortal with no superpowers, but in real life, I've always had the power.

I just didn't know it. When those tough things happened to me, loss, disease, heartbreak, it was like going into a very dark tunnel and I didn't see any way out. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was just darkness. No feeling, just fighting, not so much to win, or to get out of the tunnel, but because fighting kept the fear quiet. 

Jiu-jitsu didn't give me light. It gave me pain, and I followed the pain like a trail of familiar breadcrumbs until suddenly the light appeared, just when I wasn't looking for it, just when I had gotten used to living without it, just when I didn't really know what to do with it.

I don't know if it's the same for other people, or whether jiu-jitsu chose pain as a guide for me because pain is something familiar to me, something I trust, in a strange way, because with pain, you know the worst from the get go. Unlike love, pain is out of the closet - it won't stab you in the back because it's too busy stabbing you in the front.

Pain was my safe space, and jiu-jitsu gave me that, until Robson took it away again. He took away the anesthetic and he said:  Don't fight. Feel. 

Robson was just talking about jiu-jitsu. But his words showed me what's wrong with my jiu-jitsu and my life, and there is no going back.

Jiu-jitsu took me in and held me like a baby until I was well enough to crawl and then to walk and finally to fly. And then, as a final parting gift, jiu-jitsu gave me my feelings back.

When I say parting gift, I don't mean I'm done with jiu-jitsu. I don't think I am. I feel like I felt when I got a divorce and I was free to love my ex without roles or obligations or expectations. I don't want jiu-jitsu to be an obligation. I don't want it to be a chore. I want to love jiu-jitsu on my terms. 


Love on my own terms

Mind over matter is a great way to achieve your goals in this life, but if you want to feel, it's matter over mind.

Matter over mind means turning off the brain and turning on the body. 

Matter over mind means trusting your feelings, not because your feelings can never be wrong, but because even if your feelings lead you astray, they will eventually lead you back to your path.

I think Robson follows a feeling like a wolf follows a scent, with exactly the same intensity, the same self-confidence, and the same trust that whatever the scent/feeling is leading him to, he will know how to deal with it. He's not sitting there paralyzed worrying about whether there is a rabbit or an elk at the end of the path, an armbar or a choke, a hunter or a trap.


Follow the feeling

A friend of mine who used to play hockey in school said that hockey players have a thing they say: Just go. I'm not sure if that's the precise moment they start to whack each other with hockey sticks but the point is, I think that's what's in Robson's mind and body as he pursues a submission or any other goal, and I think it's a lesson we can all live by, in every area of our lives.


Just go.


Just go.

Trust your body. Follow the feeling.

It's matter over mind.


I've always had the power.


What we need to do to allow magic to get hold of us is to banish doubts from our minds. Once doubts are banished, anything is possible. 
- The Power of Silence (Castaneda)

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

When jiu-jitsu says "Fly"

People come to jiu-jitsu for different reasons. That's a cliché , but as my brother says, cliches get to be cliches for a reason: they're usually true.

I like to fight. When people used to ask me out, back before technology made dating obsolete, I would respond, "I'm a fighter, not a lover," which I thought was pretty clever and seemed to have no damping effect on the man in question whatsoever. A snappy comeback is no match for hormones.


When dating was still a thing

But even though I like to fight, that's not really what brought me to jiu-jitsu. I came to jiu-jitsu because I had become severely ill with chronic Lyme disease and I wanted to feel human again in some way. I actually would have preferred to do something that seemed more fun, or something I had a chance of understanding, like muay thai or tae kwon do (kick kick punch punch), but I needed something I could do lying down.

That's why I came to jiu-jitsu.

I had no idea what I was getting into, what jiu-jitsu was, what jiu-jitsu was capable of being.

Jiu-jitsu took me in and embraced me like a mother, like the mother everybody should have, not the mother who hits you until you're 33 years old like mine did, and only stops because you threaten to hit her back. Jiu-jitsu was my safe space, my happy childhood, my healer, my teacher, my lover, my best (and only) friend.

Everything and everyone jiu-jitsu has given me was given to me at exactly the right time. My first gym was just so much fun. My instructor, Dudu, had been a child prodigy back in Brazil, and there was always a feeling of recess time in his jiu-jitsu class. Sometimes the warmups were real warmups, and sometimes the warmups were sitting around pretending to stretch and talking about favorite menu items at Wally Waffle. But the jiu-jitsu was mindblowing. I didn't necessarily learn a lot of jiu-jitsu just because I suck at sports and I was far from well, but nobody expected me to. Everything I did, everything I was, was awesome, according to my instructor and my teammates. From Dudu I learned about freedom, and that laughter really is the best medicine.

Dudu Barros team
At a certain point, I started becoming aware of my jiu-jitsu deficiencies, and that's when I met my second instructor, Ricardo. I met Ricardo the same week my father died, and Ricardo represented, to me, the father I would have liked to have, or thought I would have liked to have, and didn't. While my own father was remote and hands-off, an intellectual who believed that you can't really teach anybody anything, Ricardo was, by his own admission, a control freak - or, more accurately, a side control freak. He taught me about control - good control, self-control, the kind of control you can use to achieve a goal rather than the control I had known up to then, the control people use to trap you and hurt you. Ricardo taught me the beauty of simplicity, the old-school game of pass the guard, take side, and submit. And he also taught me that the father I had was the father I was meant to have, the father I needed, the father who was my soulmate. Ricardo gave me something my father didn't have to give, but he wasn't my father, and he didn't try to be. He was, and will always be, my teacher.

My teacher Ricardo Pires

And then, just as I had jiu-jitsu all figured out, like all blue belts have jiu-jitsu all figured out, I met Robson Moura, and I walked through the wardrobe into Narnia. If Ricardo had made me see the beauty in simplicity, Robson made me see the simplicity in complexity. If Ricardo taught me the art of controlling a situation by controlling myself, Robson taught me the art of controlling a situation by not controlling it. Robson has always said that jiu-jitsu has no end and in observing him and his jiu-jitsu, I realized that they weren't just pretty words. Most jiu-jitsu is, whether we like to admit it or not, based to some degree on size, strength, speed and athleticism. Robson Moura jiu-jitsu is the opposite of that. It is a 130 lb. man against the world - a kind of Rube Goldberg invention, just as the Universe is a Rube Goldberg invention, of infinite solutions to finite problems. And Robson Moura jiu-jitsu has style. It has class. It's elegant and sneaky and fierce and graceful and all boy. From Robson I learned that my alibis were bullshit.

i.e. how the Universe and Robson Moura jiu-jitsu work


All boy

I met many instructors along the way, many of them excellent, some of them not so excellent, all of whom contributed a piece to my jiu-jitsu puzzle. From Saulo Ribeiro I learned the value of will, from Pedro Sauer I learned about finesse, from Mario Sperry I learned about tenacity, from Bruno Bastos I learned to savor the smash.

And all along the way, my body and my mind continued to heal, slowly, inexorably, following the lessons I learned on the mat and applying them within. At first I simply survived, on and off the mat, which, as Saulo says in his book, is the role of the white belt. Gradually, I learned to take control and to prevail, until nine years into the game, I was a healthy person, in defiance of all the prognostications that told me a diagnosis of chronic Lyme was the equivalent of a life sentence, or, more accurately, death in life.

Jiu-jitsu gave me everything. It was a family when my own family sucked, a friend when I had none, a place to be myself, while simultaneously showing me glimpses of that self, that self that was even more mysterious to me than jiu-jitsu itself.

Jiu-jitsu made me rethink my priorities. Up to when I got sick, my life had been pretty much on a standard track of work, dating, and hanging out with friends. Jiu-jitsu made me see the futility of wasting time on losery guys when I could be on a mat with some of the finest men I have ever known. If much of my energy in my pre-bjj life had gone into looking good, jiu-jitsu made me accept looking like a hot mess as normal.

For the first time, I had the courage to look at myself, and inside myself, and see who and what was there, not who and what I pretended to be to make the world like me or pretend to like me. I accepted myself and my bad hair and my sweatiness and my really terrible looking toenails.

I realized that life is overrated and love is overrated and jiu-jitsu is underrated and I was, if not happy, at least content in that knowledge.

But last weekend, when Robson advised us to stop fighting and start feeling, it was as if a giant comet hit my safe little jiu-jitsu nest, the world I had built for myself, twig by twig, armbar by armbar, in these last 10 years on the mats.

I don't think Robson meant to say anything profound. He was just talking about jiu-jitsu.

But genius gonna be genius, and the truth is always true. Truth can't be true on the mat and false in your life. 

And when Robson talked, very briefly, last weekend, about how fighting is a losing strategy, it was as if the past ten years of my life had been rolled out for me to see, without judging, but without sugarcoating it, and I realized that I had come to jiu-jitsu to fight because fighting is safe. Life is dangerous. Love is dangerous.

Jiu-jitsu is safe. At least, when you're fighting. 

Fighting means keeping something or someone at arm's length. It also means not thinking. Fighting, by definition, inhibits thought, because the fight-or-flight reflex was given to human beings so they wouldn't approach peril and say "Hell no" as any sensible person would.

All hormones inhibit thought. That's how babies are born.

Feeling, on the other hand, is not safe at all.

But when Robson told us to stop fighting and feel, it clicked, and I did exactly what he said, right that very second, and I actually passed some really tough guards in King of the Mat, although my guard retention still sucks. The point is, I had immediate proof that Robson was right, not that anybody really needs proof of that anymore.

But although I didn't know it right then, Robson's words touched something much deeper in me.

I realized that jiu-jitsu itself has become the fight for me. Yes, it has been a fight against illness, a fight against injustice, a fight against the monsters left by abuse, but it had also - and perhaps primarily - become a fight against love, a fight against life itself. I had become entrenched in my jiu-jitsu like a soldier in a battle who has dug herself in so deep she doesn't realize that the war ended a long time ago.

The war was over a long time ago

Jiu-jitsu had become a fight against myself.

I had begun to sense that, dimly, before the Toronto Camp, when my whole body was in pain, but not the normal everything hurts jiu-jitsu pain we all feel all the time. My bones hurt. My muscles hurt. It felt like a fever, like fire in my bones and in my spine. My nervous system has been on fire for months and sleepless nights were the new normal. So I knew my body wasn't happy.

Jiu-jitsu showed me, with Robson's help, that the pain is coming from my body's war on itself. I believe that jiu-jitsu is a thing, a consciousness, like God. Maybe jiu-jitsu is God, or God is jiu-jitsu. If jiu-jitsu has no end, and God has no end, then it only makes sense. The only other thing that has no end is love (and, according to Einstein, human stupidity, but that's another post).



Jiu-jitsu took me in, it healed me, it gave me all the tools I need to be healthy and possibly even happy, and now it has taken me to the edge of the nest, given me a gentle nudge in the kidneys, and said "Fly."

Last year was such a tough year just in terms of dealing with crazy, batshit, insecure people. There is evil in the world. There is evil in jiu-jitsu. It was also an amazing year, with Robson surprising me and giving me 4 stripes on my purple belt - when I had already given up hope of ever being on the team -  in my own personal promotion ceremony that I had all to myself, just me, and saying really nice things about me that unfortunately I can't remember because I was so numb.

Sometimes dreams do come true

Because those things don't happen. Fairy tales are just words, and dreams don't come true - at least, not for me.

And Robson, as usual, turned everything upside-down, which is his specialty. He took my alibi and he made it into a rainbow, as if it were easy, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, as if I deserved it.

And when I went to Master Worlds I went to the airport chapel at CLE and I prayed, not to win, but just not to feel so alone. And I did get an answer and the answer was: It's not about winning. It's about learning to fly. That's what I gave you wings for.

I didn't exactly fly at Master Worlds but I did win one match, my first competition win - I mean it was only like my fourth tournament ever - but the main thing was, it broke the long losing streak that had begun in November 2007 when I got so sick that I left an entire life in California and came home to Ohio broken and terrified, that losing streak that continued as I halfheartedly tried to find a way to exist under the radar.

I healed, not because I believed I could heal, just like I didn't ever believe I could get to brown belt.  I'm a realist.  I healed - and I got to brown belt - because I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I didn't give up, and even that wasn't because I was so tenacious, it was because staying in the same place was so unbearable that it forced me to keep moving. 

As Robson says: People ask me what's the secret to getting good. There's no secret. Just train.

I believe that the same can be said of every other important thing in life. There's no secret. Just keep going and don't stop. You don't have to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you don't have to sprint, it doesn't matter if you crawl on your belly like a reptile. Just don't stop.

But while I was healing, crawling stealthily under the radar, it wasn't the same as being alive. It was like a medically induced coma, a dream place where the patient's body has time to heal without having to deal with anything or anyone else.

It was like the story of Sleeping Beauty. It was like I was supposed to die but I got chronic Lyme disease instead. And if I seem a little old to be Sleeping Beauty, it's also true that the Sleeping Beauty in the story was asleep for 100 years. So she definitely had her AARP card.

Asleep for 100 years

I didn't know it, I didn't realize it, and I wasn't supposed to. I was in a jiu-jitsu induced coma for my own good. Jiu-jitsu didn't want me to start second-guessing myself and beating myself up for all the time that was passing and all the life that I wasn't living. Jiu-jitsu put me in that safe place, jiu-jitsu kept me in my happy childhood, so subtly and so cleverly that I didn't know jiu-jitsu was doing it. I thought it was me.

And even when something happened to wake me up, something nice, something very Fairy Tale-esque, and it occurred to me that maybe there was something out there for me that didn't necessarily involve a gi, I still saw myself in a jiu-jitsu centric life.

I still saw life and love as being fundamentally inferior to jiu-jitsu. And maybe they are.

But what I've realized, what I am slowly awakening to, is that it doesn't matter. Maybe jiu-jitsu is more fun than real life, or real love, and makes more sense, and the guys are better looking, and the pain, no matter how excruciating, is still less than the pain of a broken heart, or abuse, or disease.

Jiu-jitsu is the kind teacher, the loving mother, the wise father that prepare us for life. Of course it's not as painful. Of course it's more fun. But nobody said life, or love, were supposed to be fun. I don't really know what they are supposed to be. At a guess, I'd say life, love and jiu-jitsu are about growth.

And part of growth is knowing when it's time to step up your game.


At war with the body
Pic courtesy of Leeann Morris

Whatever else life is or isn't, it's meant to be lived. Whatever else love is, or isn't, it's meant to be experienced. Not guessed at. Not avoided. Not blogged about.

Will it hurt? Yes. But one of the many, many things jiu-jitsu teaches us is that pain is not a reason not to do something. If it were, nobody would train. Pain, illness, injury, they change your game, they don't end it. Jiu-jitsu has no end. 


"Jiu-jitsu has no end." - Robson Moura
pic courtesy of Leeann Morris

It takes courage. The root word of courage is cor, i.e. "heart." And the thing about courage is, it's not just for the brave. In fact, I believe that cowards can be the most courageous of all, because we're terrified and yet we do it - whatever "it" is - anyway.

For some, like Robson, courage is innate. For others, like me, courage is simply the last resort of a heart that has run out of alibis.

Does that mean I'm leaving jiu-jitsu? Absolutely not. I still love jiu-jitsu, and I have no doubt that jiu-jitsu will continue to be my guide, my friend, my mentor, and my teacher for many, many years to come. I still plan to train just as much (or as little) as before, and I don't plan to half-ass it any more than I've half-assed it in the last ten years.

But jiu-jitsu has become - or possibly, has always been for me - a substitute for life. A substitute for love, for friends, for family, for everything this beautiful world has to offer. And that's not how it's supposed to go.

How it's supposed to go is that jiu-jitsu, for me, is a means to an end. It's a path, not journey's end. On the other hand, it has been said (and I may have been the one who said it) that life is not about the pot of gold, it's about the rainbow. Jiu-jitsu has been, and still is, a rainbow path to many other rainbows for me. It has been a rite of passage but the point of passage is that you eventually have to pass, whether you want to or not. You eventually have to grow up.


Jiu-jitsu is a rainbow path to a million other rainbows

And that's where I am right now.

Back in 2010 when I was a blue belt training under Ricardo Pires, he had us do an open guard passing drill as a group. It was a new gym, with mostly white and blue belt guys, and I kept taking elbows and knees to the face, until Ricardo got that tight look in his jaw that tells you he's pissed and stopped the drill.

"She's tough," he said, "but she's still a woman. Control yourselves."

I thought about Ricardo's words as I drove back from Toronto. It feels like 2010 was the last time anybody even noticed I was a woman, including me. To tell the truth, maybe I didn't want them to. If being a person feels vulnerable, being a woman feels even more so. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be vulnerable, so much more than it takes to fight, but I think, I hope, that jiu-jitsu has given me that courage. I love jiu-jitsu as much or more than I always have, but I can't hide behind it anymore like a child hiding behind her mommy until the monsters go away, or hiding behind her monsters until her mommy goes away.

It's time for me to grow up. It's time for me to live.

It's time for me to fly.

When jiu-jitsu says: Fly