But Still. I’m So Sorry.

I read something the other day about anticipatory grief, and how globally we are all mourning present and future loss. Not just the lost lives, the covid dead, but things, and events, and traditions.

This Grown and Flown article encompasses the pain us parents are feeling all around the world. There is so much we are sorry to see – the missed graduations, matric dances, and big matches. At least my son is little and hopefully won’t be too affected by everything we are going through. All he has had to endure so far is a birthday in lockdown, and frazzled parents who are trying their best but can’t get it right or together every day.

Dojo life has been put on hold, for who knows how long. In South Africa, we are unlikely to be allowed to operate until maybe level 1, and even then, only under very stringent conditions. And I respect this, and applaud the efforts made by our government to try keep us all safe. The dojo, unfortunately, is the kind of place the ‘Rona would love. Lots of communal surfaces, physical interaction, shouting and hugs after class. Keeping students safe, and alive, comes before any grading or kata.

But still. I am sorry.

I am sorry, for the gradings that will have to be changed and taken online, all the thrill and pressure gone. I am sorry for the students hoping to grade to black belt, who were hoping to make this coveted grade after so, so many years.

I am sorry that you can’t be with your dojo mates, with the friends you’ve made over the years and shared memories and snacks and gradings with. For adults, the friends you’ve made at the dojo are ones you’ve bonded with in sweat and self-conscious laughter and shared gashuku adventures. They’re people that you might only see in the dojo, but damn if you don’t miss them when they’re not there.

I’m sorry, for all the cancelled events. The tournaments, the trials, the gashukus. The Olympic dream, that so many have dreamed of, karate’s one shot at gold medal glory, has been deferred. It doesn’t matter, in this moment, whether sport karate is the same as traditional; what matters is that so many athletes have been training for so long, and they have been robbed of their time to shine.

I am sorry for all the instructors who will have to close their dojo doors. I am sorry for all those lost pockets of martial arts, regardless of style. It is heartbreaking to see instructors lose their day jobs, and/or their dojo too. I am sorry for the students who will lose access to the benefits of martial arts, to the mentorship of a good instructor and the proving ground that is the mat.

There is so much we have already lost, and it has been less than six months. With more than 200,000 dead and waves of trauma rippling across the planet as economies tank and livelihoods are lost, we are all living through collective turbulence with no frame of reference for how we should handle it.

What gives me hope, though, is that the men who gave us karate lived through the horror of world war, and Okinawa was an especially brutal theatre of war.

Because of the Battle of Okinawa, a great number of very talented karate instructors and students were killed. Miyagi Sensei himself lost three children (his third and fourth daughters, and his third son). The neighbourhood had been reduced to scorched earth, and all the valuable Karate and Kenpo equipment and literature that had been collected over the years was lost in the fires. It was a time of overwhelming grief and mourning.

Okinawan Den Goju Ryu Karate-Do, Eii’chi Miyazato, 1978

Miyagi buried his children and his most promising student, Jinan Shinzato. He lost his home, his dojo, his collected works. And yet. He returned to the work of karate, continued to teach and realised that for karate to survive and be of use, it had to be shared. And now, more than 60 years since his passing, his style still continues, all over the world, across dozens of countries and languages.

There will be losses. There have already been losses. But I also have seen a wellspring of hope, and a resilience shining through. We can get through this, but not alone. Instructors must now rely on more than just good karate knowledge – we need to be creative, resilient, humble and patient. We need to find new ways to teach, and flex our different skill sets, and hold on with our entire spirit, even if it’s just by our fingernails, we must hold on.

Karate has survived two world wars, Spanish flu, numerous recessions and the worst McDojos in the world. It will survive this. I’m not worried about karate – I am worried about you. The student. The instructor. The dojo parent. Wherever you land in the constellation of people that make up a dojo, I worry. I hope you are okay. I hope you have your health and your livelihood.

We will do everything we can to make sure we are still here when this blows over. From hardcore social distancing to extra work to online classes, we will do our best to make sure that Goju Ryu Karate Centre does not close its doors after 42 years.

We are sorry that so much is going on, and we can’t fix it. But we will do everything we can to still be here when it is over, and try pick up again where we all left off, ready to welcome our students back to the tatami.

When your body gets tired, fight with your heart, and remember who you are.

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