The following originally appeared nearly one year ago as a guest post at Cheerio Road that garnered more comments than my usual handful. As I ran this morning in the cold rain wearing a heavy gray sweatshirt, I suddenly wanted to revisit it.
Also, I only have one picture of myself boxing in the driveway thirteen years ago. There’s no way at the moment I’d ever be able to find it, nor do I have a scanner even if I could.
Hilary Swank will have to do.
In the summer of 1997, I was living back at home, working at Starbucks, and trying to figure out my life. I was also taking private boxing lessons with a trainer named Djata Bumpus. Djata came to the house once a week. I learned to wrap my hands and protect my face, to keep my feet moving, to tuck my chin, to drop my smile, to focus my attention.
I loved the simplicity of our sessions. There was little gear, and wrapping my hands and dancing small circles around Djata constituted the only real rituals. Despite my petite stature – 5’0” and maybe 100 pounds at the time – he perceived my fierceness and encouraged me to throw real punches, which I did. He also expected me to take up room – but not with my intellect, not with my smarts, not with my words. No, Djata understood that to really take up room, I had to use my whole body, something I had spent a decade decidedly not doing.
Our lessons lasted only a couple of months; at the end of that summer, I moved to Somerville and started grad school. I scoped out a boxing gym a few blocks from my apartment, but it felt foreign to me and I just couldn’t bring myself to walk through the door. Or maybe I did once, inquiring politely about lessons and classes. Regardless, it wasn’t me and Djata Bumpus in my parents’ old barn, with an arrangement so informal it would’ve been simply a friendship had I not been paying him to teach me how to box.
Since 1997, I’ve been busy doing what it sometimes seems everyone has been busy doing: Making a Life in a Place. I’ve poured myself into marriage, motherhood, livelihood, and community. Movies like When We Were Kings and Million Dollar Baby have nudged that fighter in me awake, but it has been a dozen years since I wrapped my hands or punched a heavy bag.
And herein lies the real left hook, the straight right, the one-two punch: Somewhere along the way, I started cultivating awareness, or mindfulness, or whatever you choose to call it, instead of cultivating my focused gaze, my fierce presence, my anger, my power, my voice, my ability to experience and express these things with other people. Somewhere along the way, I began telling myself – and believing – that rage doesn’t go with gratitude. Despite my best intentions and moments of profound evidence to the contrary, I’ve perpetuated a myth that the body and the mind are somehow separate.
A recent session with an intuitive massage therapist helped me open the locked doors at my throat that keep the fire inside of my body from roaring out. At one point, as I lay there on her table crying and making noises I haven’t made since I was in active labor, she said to me: “It’s like you live in a castle but you’ve confined yourself to the pantry, and you spend all of your time trying to get the pantry perfect.”
How right she was. I’ve locked myself in the pantry in so many ways: by apologizing for nothing; by being a good student trolling for approval; by being afraid of offending someone or not being thoughtful, considerate, or nice enough; by living in fear of anger – his or mine or yours; by anticipating and preparing; by complaining, controlling, and comparing; by blaming; by avoiding; by thinking. Sorry to mix metaphors, but it’s like death by a thousand cuts.
The week of the massage, my horoscope from the brilliant Rob Brezsny quoted Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run with the Wolves: “There is a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. The teacher comes when the soul, not the ego, is ready. The teacher comes when the soul calls, and thank goodness – for the ego is never fully ready.” Djata showed up right on time, and so did that massage therapist.
As my Grammy always said, “Everything unfolds in time.” You cannot force the process. When you’re ready, the teacher appears. And if that teacher is really there to serve, you’ll reach within yourself and remember what it feels like to be you, to be alive, to be fierce in exactly what you know to be true, even if you’ve spent a lifetime convincing yourself that you’re stuck or lost or small or scared or confused.
I am ready to wrap my hands again, ready to inhabit more of my rooms, to take responsibility for my life, for what’s not working – and for what is. I’m ready to step into the fire and not away from it. And you? You know exactly what you’re ready for. This broken world needs us to put on our gloves and bust our way out of our perfect pantries.
If not now, when?