I recently joined a mixed martial arts gym where jiu jitsu black belts and UFC champions train five feet from where I self-consciously stretch, fancying myself an incarnation of trainer Brock from Pokemon (a thought that makes me laugh, hence attracting more attention to my terrible hand wraps). In need of some fighter mojo, I took the opportunity to rent an eighties classic I’m ashamed to say I had never seen til last night: The Karate Kid.
Armed with a Starbucks hot chocolate and glass of mediocre Chenin Blanc I bought on sale at Tesco, I ventured into the “wax on, wax off” training camp of Mr. Miyagi. When I told my best friend about my decision to forego the yoga studio for the boxing ring, she quipped that she knew a girl once who went to Thailand a lady and came back a cage fighter. We fantasized about what it’d be like as I got carried into the Octagon on a palanquin, or how the only place my family would be able to find me is a Pay-Per-View channel.
If you had spoken with me last month sometime, I would never have been able to name a UFC Champion. I also could not have explained the difference between boxing and muay thai, capoeira and BJJ. It only took three days alone in a new city to ignite a sudden interest in self defense; I’ve watched more fights on YouTube than episodes of The Nanny, which if you knew me, would be jaw-dropping information. Last month, I went on 5Ks because I wanted to look good in a bikini. This month, I want to be able to throw a mean-ass left hook to defend the honor of my dojo. [Okay I'm getting carried away, I don't have a dojo. But I am looking for a sensei.]
I’ve come to realize that this sudden preoccupation with power has everything to do with the stomach-churning silence of my one person apartment. I never understood its consequences until I physically landed, and no one was there to help carry fifty-pound suitcases up three flights of stairs. Have you ever truly been alone in your life? Woke up on your own terms, walked the streets with no one to ask when you’ll be back, spent an entire day without a substantial conversation? Take it from me — it’s fucking frightening. And liberating. And eye-opening. Living with a roommate doesn’t count; they may not be your best friend, but they are human beings with the possibility of interaction (mm well, most of the time).
I find myself hungrily searching for methods of empowerment in those hours that I am pacing the floors alone. I feel a desperate need to prove to myself that I can navigate a city, take out my own trash & keep safe at night. When I felt tears prickling behind my eyes as I watched the fireworks of the Paralympics Closing Ceremonies from my bedroom, I quickly splashed cold water on my face and closed the blinds. When the sound of the wind at 3 am frightened me, I reproached myself for being weak. When that fickle friend, loneliness, crept into view, I dismissed him with a Skype call to home and a swig (or six) of wine.
Then came Mr. Miyagi. Expecting The Karate Kid to distract me from the truth of the situation–that I was alone, 5,000 miles from home, and wearing a t-shirt that said “What’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?”–it instead proffered a spotlight onto my inner turmoil. What was the main lesson Daniel had to learn in his fight training, aside from painting the fence & sanding the floor? Balance. What was the game-winning move that brought down despicable Johnny Lawrence? Balance. What is the one thing living alone threw off for me faster than I could padlock my front door? You get the picture.
When you’re alone, it’s too easy to force yourself to run toward or away from something. It’s in those moments that you’re floundering with no purpose that you meet yourself — a person you may not know too well, and may not even like. That vulnerable, impressionable, cringing-at-every-sound kid who might as well be Daniel LaRusso. I don’t like that part of me…but she’s there. Even the trainers at my new gym are not prize fighters all of the time, in fact, they’re rather big sweethearts (hence why I can’t name names for fear of ruining their next MSG special).
I learned a valuable lesson watching that movie. You’re not a fool if you’re afraid. And you’re not bipolar if you’re only afraid some of the time. When I sat down at the Barbican Centre to watch Anna Karenina tonight, I felt a poignant mix of lonely and excited. Looking around, no one else seemed to be at the movies alone. On the flipside, a couple clearly passive-aggressively ignoring each other was having a hard time controlling their squirms during the film. Sucks to be them. I’ve learned to appreciate the highs and lows of ‘getting to know me’, and am rolling with the punches as best as I can.
Living alone, like MMA, is all about balance. It’s about forgiving yourself for your moments of quibbling childhood insecurity and celebrating those ballsy dates you take yourself on when no one else is on speed dial. Most of my friends will be arriving in London over the coming two weeks, and I am certain I’ll come to revere those quiet moments spent just with me, in all of my frightened/brave/lonely/fulfilled glory.
The next time you find yourself hating the sounds your heater makes, or silently panicking over the fact that you’re at a table for one…remember the wisdom of The Karate Kid. Your power does not come from suppressing your vulnerabilities, it comes from balancing them with your boldness. You need both to stay afloat, so stop denying one in favor of the other.
This morning, one of Britain’s well-known boxers wrapped my hands before placing them into my first set of boxing gloves. The feeling was one I’ll never forget–pride in myself for trying something new, butterflies over being taught by one of the world’s best–and I smiled as my first punch hit far left of the mark. ”You can pack a good hit,” he said with a wink. ”I wouldn’t want to find myself in the ring against you.”
After a week of fighting with myself–Advil PMs, hair pulling, and hangovers galore– I can honestly say, neither would I.