Take The Leap

“You are never too old to set a new goal or to dream a new dream.” – C.S. Lewis

I looked like a kindergartner on their first day of school, or so I was told later. Standing at the back of the room for my first Tae Kwon Do class, sweaty palms, butterflies chaotically crashing in my stomach. I imagined I had been more excited on my own first day of school, less terrified.

I sat for months on the often-sweaty fabric-covered bench outside the floor to ceiling window with a view to the martial arts studio, watching my young daughter. The rhythmic movements, the staccato forms, a choreographed dance of long-ago war movements, I felt a pull within me to join in. I’d felt that same draw decades earlier as a teenager watching “Billy Jack” movies or the TV series “Kung Fu” with David Carradine.

After watching the focus and the flow of movement through that window, the determination and participation to advance from one belt level to another, I gave my child the chance to advance and shine before I stepped into that room as a student. Six months or so after she began, I entered that first class one late spring evening. Standing there in the back of that room, white Gi, white belt, bare feet, sweaty palms, white face reflecting in the mirror at the front of the room.

A home exercise program called Tae-Bo was popular then, combining martial arts with boxing and a bit of dance. The muscle memory of the kicks, the punches, from hours of doing those workouts were lodged in me when I started martial arts. Also imbedded in my brain was an annoying little voice, the script running repeatedly, echoing in my head: “What are you doing? You’re not an athlete. You’re in your 40’s. Are you nuts?”

The forms with the Korean names weren’t resonating with me, didn’t make sense, until someone pointed out that they were choreographed battle sequences. To master them, martial arts students imagine that they are fighting an imaginary opponent, allowing them to practice offensive and defensive techniques. Knowing the purpose, imagining I was protecting myself or a loved one, created a visualization that made sense.

I was punching pads held in a classmate’s hands until my knuckles were bloody, doing jumping jacks, push-ups, front kicks, roundhouses, forward rolls with a leap to the air and a side kick to a target. Still, the little voice, the unease, the unsettled questioning of my purpose in doing this.

I was 42. My career had been put on hold for a few years while raising my daughter. My world focused on Girl Scout meetings, dance classes and home room mother duties. Whether I admitted it to myself or not, part of the independent woman I had always been felt a little diminished, my spirit a little shadowed.

Until one evening, about a year after my beginning, in that same studio with its wall of windows to the outside glistening as the summer sun hit the beads of moisture snaking their way down. The air conditioning often didn’t counteract the heat of the students inside those walls. (One day, in fact, from the intensity of the activity, the fire alarm was set off. When the door opened, a tsunami of sweaty air entered the chilly hallway.) Classes were usually 10 or 20 people. This night, it was just two of us and the instructor.

Stacks of rectangular block padded targets usually held by one student while another kicked into it, now lay stacked on the blue matted floor. About thigh high for me. The churning began deep in my abdomen.

“What in the world?” I wondered. “Are we making a running leap to get over those?”

Words of the black-clad, black-belted instructor said it all: “Jump over them from a standing position.”

Two students in class. No place to run or hide. The little voice in my head rambling and muttering and yelling as I determined just how I was going to accomplish this.

“Don’t think. Just do it,” the instructor said.

I did.

Nothing really had happened, yet everything just did. If this had been a movie, there would have been a ceremonial drum roll, a choir of angelic voices singing, a sudden beam of light illuminating the room.

A quiet “Congratulations” was the harbinger for the “AHA” moment. The little voice in my head quieted. The “I’m not sures” metamorphosed into the “I can do anything I put my mind to,” reminding me of who I truly was – more than a wife, a mother, a business owner, an athlete. More. In that seemingly meaningless, inconsequential moment, riddled with meaning and consequences, everything changed.

I would, over time, become a Tae Kwon Do coach, partially at the insistence of my child, qualify as a national judge for competitions, teach as an assistant instructor, retire as a Red Belt, just before my Black Belt training would begin, after the impact on a body heading into middle age became a tipping point. To paraphrase an old saying – the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. That annoying little voice in my head would never be completely gone, but became much quieter over the years and more willing to listen to the voice of wisdom residing alongside it.

The lesson learned in that epiphany would lead to a Master’s degree and a career in holistic wellness.

We are never “too old.” Grandma Moses did not start painting until she was seventy-seven years old and looking for something to do “to keep busy and out of mischief” after her husband died. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Richard Adams and even Bram Stoker published their first works in their 50’s and 60’s.

You’ll never know until you try.

Take the leap.

susan schirl smith
Susan Schirl Smith is a writer, photographer and holistic nurse based in New Hampshire. Her essays have been published in Cognoscenti, Pangyrus, Silver Birch Press and The Journal of Holistic Nursing. Her photography has been featured in Barren Magazine and L’Ephemere Review. Smith’s current manuscript is Desperado, a memoir of her brother. You can follow Susan on her website or Facebook.

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