“This is what I call a clean break,” Kyosa said. Behind him, members of the taekwondo club were setting up cinderblock stanchions in preparation. “Meditate on the things you want to clean out of your life and put them into the concrete. When it shatters, you clean all that away and you go forward lighter.”
Rachel and Kevin and I, the testing candidates, were sitting in folding chairs at one edge of the dojang. Two rows of spectators sat against the wall by the door, and facing us across the floor was the testing board, all 4th degree masters or higher, seated behind a low table. We were three hours into the test already, our white uniforms streaked with sweat from demonstrating kicks, blocks, strikes, and coordinated sets of movements.
Kyosa stepped back to the middle of the floor and set a cement block on the stanchions. I closed my eyes and focused on all the things I would like to leave behind—fear, self-doubt, the memory of those years that I still cannot entirely reconcile with the rest of my life—and I imagined rolling them into a tight mass that I could smash into harmless fragments and sweep out of my life.
I heard the fierce kihap (yell) and looked up in time to see Kevin’ fist smash through his block of cement. The two halves clattered to the floor and the echoes died away and it was my turn. Time seemed to slow until I could hear the space between my heartbeats, and my world narrowed down to the two cinderblock stanchions and the block balanced between them. I had rehearsed this motion endlessly, the way gravity and acceleration and strength move together into one focused center of destruction. I imagined the rolled-up shreds of all that I wanted to leave behind, there in the block of concrete, and the future stretching forward, clean and empty of all that.
Earlier on the test, Grand Master Brown had asked me how a martial artist maintains focus and technique when practicing without an opponent. “There is always an opponent,” I said. “When I do a kick or a strike I imagine someone my own size, so I can perfect the placement of the technique. I’m aware of the target. I imagine… my dark side. The parts of me that I would rather vanquish.” And that was what was in the concrete, too.
I raised my fist and focused all my energy into making a clean break. And I failed. I had been practicing on a lower surface than the stanchions, and so I came down at the wrong angle, all my weight and power, and I hit the edge of the block with my wrist instead of shattering the center. I stepped back into ready stance and looked down at my wrist, where a massive goose egg was forming. I could tell right away that it wasn’t broken; it wasn’t the sharp and persistent pain of a fracture, just the pressure of a broken blood vessel rapidly emptying itself.
Kyosa led me back to the chair and I strapped an ice pack on my wrist, after feeling it gingerly with the other hand to make sure there were no bright spots of pain that would indicate bone chips. All my fingers worked. It was just a soft tissue injury—a nasty one, to be sure, but not dangerous.
“Do you want to go to the emergency room?” he said.
“No. I want to go on with the test.” And we did, and I passed: second degree black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan with international instructor certification. My performance was not as clean and perfect as I would have liked, but it was enough. After three days, the swelling has gone down enough that I can see my knuckles again and the bones moving in the back of my hand. It’s not painful anymore, though it will take a while for the bruising to disappear.
Someday I will make this clean break. I will figure out how to reconcile who I am with who I would like to be, and how to move forward. I will not let my past continue to shape my future. In Latin America there is a lot of superstition about the age 33: la edad de Cristo, the age at which Christ died. According to superstition, this is the age where you either figure things out and your life comes together, or everything goes to shit. Well, I have a lot of things figured out, and in many ways I am doing better than I would have thought possible a few years ago. I have a job that I love, good friends who support me, an appreciation of the absurd and wonderful things that life offers. I own my home. And yet… I wish I had someone to share this all with. I wish I could find someone who was a true match for me—smart, compassionate, funny, grateful for the amazing gift of being alive; ideally tall, vegetarian, and gainfully employed. I wish I could trust myself enough to fall in love again.