by Meg Barnhouse
“Do you ever feel like smashing things?” I was taking a battery of psychological tests at a career counseling center in Atlanta; this was question 554. I answered yes. The purpose of the test was to indicate how sane I was. I had already answered hundreds of questions, from “Has someone been following you?” (No) to “Have your stools been black and tarry lately?” (No again). I know I’m sane. I don’t worry about it. I told the truth on all the questions because it’s important to me to be honest. Also, I’m very bad at lying.
“I take karate,” I said.
“Ah,” he said.
I love karate class. I get to hit big pads and little pads and hanging bags. It makes me feel happy. I’m easy to live with after karate class. I have no road rage. I have patience with my children. Some people get inner peace through meditation. I get it by hitting things. Hard.
I have been in karate class for nearly six years now. I have a second-degree black belt. I don’t think I could quit if I wanted to. When I have to sit out for a month because of an injury I get restless. I miss the smell of effort, the sounds of impact. I miss the loud breath, the yells that energize my arms and my legs.
There is a bond between the adult students, especially those of us over thirty-five. We tease and gossip and cheer. Four of us got each other through the black belt test. It lasted five hours. We had to demonstrate everything we had ever learned. We punched and kicked and spun and jumped. After two hours I was exhausted. Four hours in, I started thinking about how I would explain to my friends why I had to quit. My friend Joanna was drawing on her last reserves. She looked at me and said, “We’re all right.” I said, “Yeah, we’re all right.” I couldn’t quit because I couldn’t leave her. Maybe she was thinking the same about me. Ten more minutes passed. “We’re all right,” I said to her. “Yeah,” she panted.
After four and a half hours the teacher said it was time to do a hundred sit-ups, then a hundred push-ups. A hundred kicks while balancing on one leg. Then a hundred while balancing on the other leg. My body was crying. I tried to explain to my body why we were doing this. My brain wouldn’t hold a thought. I wanted not to throw up. That became my biggest thought. All that was left was not wanting to have to tell the story of how I threw up and quit.
After the punches and the kicks, the sparring and the katas, the gasping and sweating and reeling, the sit-ups and the push-ups, came the weapons. I have a long, slender wooden staff called a bo. In the weapons katas I get to whoosh it around my head and jab with it, I get to twirl it and spin with it. It is satisfyingly loud and impressive. Energy came from somewhere, and I did my kata with focus and power. When I finished, the moms and dads in the gallery burst into applause. I had forgotten they were there. It was a great moment. I managed to stay standing up while the belts were presented. I got to my car and shut the door before I started to sob. It was two weeks before I could talk about any of it without crying.
Yeah, I like smashing things. I smashed my ideas about what this forty-something body could do. I smashed my resistance to practicing. I smashed my self-hater who kept asking how I could stand up in front of those full-length mirrors week after week, surrounded by whip-thin fourteen-year-olds when my body was so large. Some things I love to smash.