Started training: August 2005
Tested for red belt: October 8, 2010 at age 39
All of our searches and ambitions, whether they be for material, physical, or emotional success or perfection – all of them are veiled searches for enlightenment. For it is this that will truly quench the thirst inside us.
Happy Birthday – Lyle and Andrea"
I’ve composed so many drafts of this essay, it seems strange to sit down yet again five days before my test and put in the final touches. My first draft was composed over six months ago, edited and redrafted again, and re-edited just shortly after Kristina’s red belt test. Even in that short period, my experiences have yet again reshaped my martial arts spirit. I originally wanted to invite as many close family and friends to my red belt test as I could. It was my last test in the dojo, after all. I wanted as many folks as possible to experience it with me. Now, I’d almost prefer it to be a closed test. I relish the cheering section and the support during tests and will be thankful to hear each and every one. Yet, my heart and soul will be somewhere very different - focused on me, my sensei, and my mountain.
Amazing. Evolution. The transformation from one form to another. I sit here today in a different form than I was 5 years ago on so many different levels. It amazes me how some other Martial arts schools can pass students from white belt to red belt in just 18 months. To me, that says a lot about the evolution of western influence over martial arts. Thankfully, a man named Stuart Quan chose not to have a school whose sole purpose was to push students through, teach them a quasi-form of martial arts. Instead, he chose the path of love, discipline, hard work, and honor. Stuart’s school produced true black belts, whose foundation was build on the bushido code – justice, honor, honesty, courtesy, compassion, duty, and courage. And from that school came one of the most gifted teachers I have ever known.
In 2005 I was the acting branch manager of my former investment firm. We were the Ribbon Cutting sponsors for the Bend Chamber of Commerce. One of our responsibilities was to introduce new business leaders to the community during a ribbon cutting ceremony. One of our advisors took the lead that day because I could not be in attendance. The business was Sortor Bushido Kai Karate. The next day, the advisor who did the ribbon cutting could not stop talking about this cool new karate school and its teacher. “A young guy,” he said. “And someone that should be in the movies. The weapons he used, man. Unbelieveable. Wendie, you have to go meet this guy.”
I did. And that’s when the changes began. My intent was to re-learn some self defense techniques I had learned years ago and maybe get in some regular exercise. I truly had no idea how much of an impact training at this school would have on my life. Most of it very positive changes, but along the way a sometimes very difficult, fearful, and painful journey.
My very first gi proudly bears the patch of Stuart Quan’s Bushido Kai Karate. Our dojo was so new we didn’t yet have our own patches and the curriculum was still being worked on by Sensei Brian and his sensei, Sensei Stuart. Tragically, only 5 months later, Stuart died unexpectedly of a heart defect at the age of 44. The events following are nothing anyone should have to go through in their lifetime. I watched my Sensei, my friend, courageously make it through a day’s worth of teaching classes until finally, he couldn’t hold in the pain any longer and he finally let the flood of tears find their way down his face. Everything had changed and Kristina and Brian had to reinvent a dojo, all the while dealing with their grief. What you see when you walk through the dojo doors today is a result of that change and strength and one I know Stuart would have been incredibly proud of. The world lost an amazing light, but we are all lucky enough to experience some of Stuart’s glory through our own Sensei. Every now and then we’ll experience something together - the Las Vegas Tournament, being at Randy Couture’s UFC after party, watching Kung Fu Hustle and eating popcorn….and I can see Brian’s mind wander to a different place, one where Stuart is in the room with us, celebrating, experiencing this together with all of us. Sensei Brian created the Stuart Quan Memorial Workout on January 8th of each year. I encourage all students to never miss it. Not even once.
Kristina and I started as white belts together, along with 6 other adult students. Now, only she and I remain from the original 8. An arduous, tearful, and jubilant journey it has been. The demands we put ourselves through border on masochistic – all for a reward that ends in a black cloth around your waist. It is not the belt, you know. Maybe it was in the beginning. It certainly wasn’t so my husband and I could spend thousands of dollars for me to exercise. It wasn’t so I could learn how to use weapons; I own guns. It wasn’t so I could have a hope chest full of trophies and medals. A large part of it was for self preservation and protection. Living in the world we live in today warranted my exposure to self defense. But, it’s also turned into the discovery. It’s the wonder of what is waiting for me on the mountain and what will be there waiting for me after. Will I be different? Will I give up? Do I have what it takes to meet that challenge, to climb that mountain, face my Sensei, face my weaknesses, thrive on my strengths, do the work, and come down together? What’s that saying – ‘Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.’
The journey to red belt for me has been like sailing the open sea – days of calm, mesmerizing waters, days of frustration because of lack of wind in my sails to carry me along to my destination, and days of the pure perfect storm when I’d just as soon throw myself overboard. Then the clouds part, I find myself exhausted, but thankful to see the sun yet again. I made it this far. Bring it on, I say. Bring it on.
It’s been a journey from self doubt to self awareness. Evolving from the “awkward white belt knife hand to having a reverse punch with striking power of 300 lbs.” kind of self discovery. What do I have inside of me to make that transition? I cannot put it into words.
I remember Kristina saying at a test once, “We all need to learn to be ok with failure.” For some, it’s learning to be ok with success as well. I didn’t earn one of my patches at a patch workshop. “It’s waiting for you,” Sensei said. “Super,” I thought. “While everyone else progresses, I sit here like a dope trying to figure out the problem.” My problem was – the mirror image of Bossai Sho. My arch nemises. Still, to this day whenever I hear Bossai Sho Mirror Image, my stomach begins to turn. The failures…
We attended a tournament in Portland where the under belts had the opportunity to compete for an under belt Grand Champion trophy. Kristina won first place in traditional forms that day, and I won first place in Open forms. So, we’d have to compete against one another. There I was, twisted up inside having to compete again against one of my very best friends, my training partner, and my Sensei’s wife, but still driven to give it my all. I won the Grand Champion trophy that day. Brian and Kristina drove back to Bend and I stayed in Portland overnight. Sitting at dinner by myself, in a public restaurant, the events of the day began to unfold again, and the tears began to fall into my lap. Tears of joy, sadness…fear. Mostly, I wanted to fade away, walk into the dojo each day and just be Wendie, not Grand Champion Wendie, not Scary Wendie, not Bully Wendie, not Princess of Pain Wendie, but just Wendie. But, the spirit abounds and I can’t help but be all of those things. The successes…
And that includes, Sensei Wendie. Experiencing all of those things, all of those feelings, all of the successes and failures, all of the bruises, all of the a laughter, all of the crushing blows, both physically and emotionally – cannot do anything but help one be a better teacher. It helps me be real, compassionate, honest. It also helps me push the students harder and farther than they think they can go. My Sensei did it for me, and I intend to do it as well. Not only with the students, but with myself and do it to my training partners as well.
And one day, I can’t really say when, I realized a bond began. Maybe it was the day we met, maybe it was our first training session together, I can’t really say. But I realized training wasn’t about just me, it was about US. An entity had formed that had so much momentum, so much power and energy, it exploded into one of the most powerful and wonderful relationships I’ve ever had. I remember during one of our classes, maybe blue belt, but I actually think it might have been yellow belt, Kristina and I were the only two students taking the class. We struggled through our kihon drills, we struggled through self defenses, and finally, Sensei Brian sat us both down and asked, “Why do you take karate?” We just kind of sat there, looking at each other. The answers that came out made it clear to me – she was the yin to my yang. She was the perfect balance as a training partner, and of course, as a friend. At Purple II, it all began to sink in – we’re almost brown belts. Being the first to test for each belt level made the physical demands at this level hard to get the mind around. We didn’t know what to expect. We knew we had to demonstrate competence in over 28 kata, kihon drills that took on a life of their own, random attacks and with multiple attackers – and since blue belt – we had Sensei Evan. Only a few in our dojo have had the pleasure to test with not just one black belt, but two. The anticipation of dual sensei tests gave my summers a whole new meaning. Then, BROWN belt…this was IT. We had to seize the opportunity to get ready…not just technically, but physically. That’s when we began our weekly independent training sessions together. We each had a day by day, month by month, play by play, step by step road map from Brown, to Brown II to Red.
Then my biggestchallenges began. Accepting that I had progressed to such a level in karate was very difficult for me to accept. Yet, I was here. My sense of self started to change and I almost didn’t feel deserving to be a brown belt. I suffered multiple injuries (mostly from dirt biking) and my body was starting to show the signs of age. My body aches or hurts in one form or another daily. I began my search for balance, peace, and some sense of self acceptance. I read some incredible mind, body, and spirit books as I trained from brown to brown II. I got sick right before my brown II test and was not well enough to make the date. Sensei Evan was here and everything was set. I even made my brown II pedicure. Then, I had to face the realization that I could not perform at my peak being sick, or even recovering. We pushed back the test and it was just Kristina and I, again, taking that next step together. Another test behind us, our brown belts were beginning to wear, now becoming discolored and pliable from years of sweat. The next training year was the most difficult yet. I had set a goal to win my class in the spring opener of my favorite motorcycle race. My motorcycle racing and training demand commitments and focus of their own, and add to my struggle for balance between two very real and strong passions. If I was to get hurt, that could potentially delay my red belt test. A chance I had to take. My professional career had always been demanding, and then my partner and I made a decision to take our business to a new level, which meant switching firms. The time and commitment this would take would be all consuming for us both and we both had to make some sacrifices. Mine was testing for my red belt at the same time as Kristina. The decision I did not take lightly, and it weighed on my soul so heavily, it was almost suffocating at times. Kristina and I talked and talked about it, and she asked me, “Is it more important to test with me or to really nail this test.” I said, “This is our last one in the dojo. I want to nail it.” We both knew what this meant.
It was agonizing not sitting in seiza with Kristina for her test. We both made conscious choices in the best interest of each other, our training, and out of respect for all we had gone through together. I learned so many incredible lessons from that one experience. And now, my time has come.
Many lessons still lie ahead for me, to black belt and beyond. The martial arts journey is one of humility and strength. Never give up. Never believe there is nothing more to learn. Never tell yourself you’ve mastered a form. Train to take that hit. Train to make that hit. Believe in yourself. Get off the couch when you don’t want to. Train hard. Then train harder.
“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting so be on your way!”