Shanghai, PRC 1998
Far in the distance a small chime repeats its cry. Darkness gives way to familiarity as I stir from sleep. I tap my watch to stop the alarm. 5:00 am, time to get up for practice. I slip out of bed so as to not awaken my wife. A slice of bread with jelly, a banana, and a cup of tea, then down to the street to get a cab.
Practice with Master Wang Shi Ren was from 6am to 8am every morning. When he agreed to teach me, he stressed this, mumbling (in Chinese) something about how it is the Americans that always quit. I never let him down. Despite an obvious lack of skill, I was carrying the pride of a nation here, so late was not an option. Ten to fifteen minutes of practicing my Chinese with the cab driver and I was at the old stadium in Western Shanghai. Here in the shadow of this old structure, I studied long fist and the nine section steel whip. Rain, shine and even snow would find me swinging either the chain or my body through the moves of the day. There was both great fatigue and great joy in those mornings. Outdoor practice can be great, but this parking lot offered more challenges than just the weather. One day, while doing a series of sweeps, I planted my hand directly on a piece of broken glass (a common feature on our practice terrain). As I shook my hand and voiced my displeasure (it is sometimes nice to not be understood), one of my classmates looked at my hand and in broken English said, “Don’t do that, that’s not good.” No sympathy, no empathy, just the obvious… “Don’t do that, that’s not good.” The clarity of that thought must have stuck with me for I never again repeated that mistake.
This asphalt parking lot soon began to take its toll on my shoes and after several months I had worn through the sole and inside front of my right shoe. Each morning as I put on that worn shoe, I took pride in that what I was losing in shoe, I was gaining in knowledge. The fact that it is difficult to find a size 11 1/2 shoe in China also helped me to accept this new hole. Then one morning, after a particularly strong, cold rain, the hole began to lose its romance. Each step I took, a new cold rush of water poured into my shoe, re-soaking my foot and sending a chill through my already cold body. Like an open door, this hole let in cinders and water that irritated me and distracted me from my practice. “There is a hole in my sole!” I left practice that day resolved to heed the previous words of my classmate, “That’s not good, don’t do that.” Before next practice, I had new shoes. I fixed that hole, “that’s good.”
I tell you of such a simple and silly thing as a hole in my shoe because sometimes life is teaching us, making us ready for what we can never foresee. Last spring I began to notice an occasional pain in my hips. I stretched more and laid off of certain skills in my practicing. At 49 years old, the iron broom sweeps and the jump double kicks lack a certain, shall we say, flare. Life rolled along interrupted by the occasional feeling that an ice pick had just been jabbed into my hip. I could deny it, I could ignore it, I could laugh it off, I could even accept it but I could not make it go away. Like the hole in my shoe, it really didn’t matter too much until the first “rainy day.” I left practice one evening knowing “that’s not good, don’t do that.” I resolved to go to the doctor and find out what’s up (not as obvious to me as the shoe was). After X-rays, the physician’s assistant returned to the examination room with a disconcerted look but said nothing. The doctor looked at the X-rays and opened with “Did you have a disease as a child?”
I immediately added this to my list of things you don’t want to hear your doctor say. I said no, nothing that I was aware of. In one breath he said, “Well, your femur is oval and your hip socket is round and they have just worn each other out. You have some rather bad osteoarthritis in both hips.”
Okay, cool, now we know the deal. I have been hurt before. I just need to stretch, stand, yoga pose or Chi Gung my way out of this and it’s back to normal.
However, when I asked what to do, the doctor frowned and said, “ Take aspirin/Advil until you can’t take the pain, then we will give you something stronger. When you are 70 or so, we will replace them.”
Okay, that’s option 1, let’s have option 2. He wrote me a quick referral for two weeks of physical therapy and left me sitting alone on the examination table.
I sat in silence trying to sort this out. What does this mean? Then it started to hit me, what about my kung fu? This art, this friend with whom I have shared much of my life, this part of my very existence seemed to be moving away from me. Like the alarm in China, chiming in the distance, only now it seemed to get farther away. Now, I did not seem to be waking up. Further consultation with my family physician produced advice like, “I know you won’t listen to me, but you should probably stop doing kung fu.” At least we agreed on half of his advice. Like most of the world, which is not involved in the Chinese martial arts, he could have no idea what he was asking me to do. How does a person take something that has permeated into every aspect of who they are and rip it from themselves.
“There is a hole in my Soul.” Through this hole, the cold, the wet, the gravel of life drifts into me. I think of that day in China and my shoe and know that this hole I feel is not good. I can not buy a new pair of shoes for this. There is no patch for a hole of this type, only the cold that enters. My mind cast about for things to blame, raging at the injustice, tearing at the hole. “Don’t do that, that’s not good.” This had been simple, clear advice. Now it was advice for the soul. The hole in my shoe grew from my practice. Practice may have even accelerated a fate I was born with. However, unlike the hole in my shoe, practice helps me to keep the hole in my soul from growing. It’s been about a year since that day when I feared that part of me would cease to be. Yet, here I am, still practicing (although differently), still teaching and this summer I will take a group of 10 students to train in China. There are good days and days when I think of that shoe. I have found center, from which even holes can look like doorways to something new.