Last night was a perfect night. After a week of stressing and obsessing over all the things in my regular life and my work life, I needed to chill out. I hate that right now I’m one of those people that “live for the weekend,” but that’s where I’m at. Yesterday, I left the office at five o’clock, felt guilty for leaving on time at five o’clock, then annoyed at myself for feeling guilty for leaving work on time. I peddled home, got ready to go to open mat at the dojo, and then peddled on down to South Philly.
Admittedly, I don’t do a ton at open mat. Like a lot of clubs, our open mat is self-directed free practice for the judo and jiu jitsu students to drill techniques, trouble shoot problems in their game, and get in some extra sparring. It’s useful time to have. I’ve been lifting Friday morning before work, so I don’t have much to give by the time I get to open mat. I’ll work on a technique or two, roll for a couple sets, but that’s about it. Mostly, I go Friday nights because I want to see my friends. On Friday nights, no one has to rush right home afterwards since the weekend is here.
Last night, my friend Joy had her heart set on tacos and outdoor seating. I always have my heart set on tacos, so I was ready to help make her dream reach fruition. Joy, her BF who also trains, me, and our buddy and his GF headed over to my neighborhood in West Philly to this little taco spot. We got some cold beers from the little bottle shop around the corner, sat outside with our tacos and burritos, and chilled out. Since the night was so nice, we headed over to Clark Park, and sat outside, drinking beers and loitering like a lot of teenage hooligans. It was great. We talked about serious stuff, like our families, and dumb stuff, like the Renaissance Fair. After a while, it was time to head home. I felt so relaxed and content. I had this little flicker run across me signaling that my life is pretty good. Things are hard right now, but if I can eat a bunch of tacos and sit in a park on a Friday night, talking and laughing with friends, I’m doing alright.
I sit with spring time
and wait for summer to come
with promise of change.
About five years ago, I flew down from Philadelphia to Miami for my cousin’s wedding. He and his now-wife/then-girlfriend asked me to be a bridesmaid. I’d never been a bridesmaid before, but I was pumped to accept the role because I love those guys. I arrived in Miami the day of the rehearsal dinner, the night before the wedding. I don’t remember how or why, but I missed the rehearsal. Don’t worry, I was reassured by my cousin and his mom. Apparently, two of the groomsmen were still en route from Philadelphia. They, too, missed the rehearsal. When they finally arrived, we learned they didn’t have tuxes. This was all just the start of the folly leading up to the actual wedding, which was fun and gorgeous and unforgettable. Getting there was rough though. I remember cuddling on the couch with my cousin’s mom the day of the wedding, asking her how her poor son was managing. She told me that my presence along with his other girl cousins from Philadelphia meant a lot to him. “You guys,” she said, “are his psychological safety blanket.”
That phrase, “psychological safety blanket,” has stuck with me. To me, it means any person whose simple presence offers reassurance and comfort whenever you’re feeling awkward or anxious or about to lose it in a public or semi-public situation. I have a few of those at judo and jiu jitsu. If I’ve had a rough day and I’m feeling fragile, if one of my team psychological safety blankets are at practice, I can make it through. Even if they don’t know anything is wrong with me that day, their familiarity and easy nature will keep me steady.
Lately at work, I’ve felt awkward and anxious and like I’m about it lose it pretty frequently. Now that I’m in a management role, I feel alone a lot. I’m no longer on an interdisciplinary team. I no longer share an office with someone else in the social work department. It’s just me. When I was a team social worker, the other professionals on my team felt like a tiny family. We worked through tough situations together and celebrated together. We supported one another. It was nice. Now it’s gone. I’m team-less.
This week was difficult for me. My family is going through some stuff, which weighed heavy in the back of my mind and made everything going on at work seem either trivial or impossible. I was distracted all week. I wanted to cry in every meeting I sat through. One day, I had four meetings, so that was an especially strenuous exercise in containment. Yesterday, my dad reached out to me with more bad news. That was it. I was done. I paced around my office, door closed, alone. Was I going to cry? Yes. Do I want to cry? No. What do I do? What do I do? I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be alone. What do I do?
My gut told me a I needed a psychological safety blanket. Go to the safety blanket. But I’m at work. Who helps keep me steady at work? After mere seconds of deliberating, I dabbed my eyes with a tissue and sped down to the second floor, down the hall towards the Rehab department and into the office of my former teammate, our Occupational Therapist.
When were worked directly together, we were a dynamic duo. We got stuff done. Nothing was too hard; we’d handle anything. I loved it. I liked her from the start. Calm, empathetic, motivated, creative, efficient–the ideal teammate. More than that, we clicked on a personal level. We can talk about a ton of stuff outside the realm of geriatric community health. She’s a little older than I am, married with a family, so I like to hear her perspective on life and relationships. Her influence on me is so good. She knows life is a mess with so many hard things, but she doesn’t take it out on other people. She is mindful and self-aware, patient and giving, prioritizing her loved ones and her own sanity. Plus, she is silly and fun.
So into the OT’s office I ran. Unwittingly, she wrapped me up in that little psychological safety blanket right away with her familiar smile. I told her a little about what was going on, let myself cry for a moment, and she gave me a big hug. Then we just chatted a little, about her family, about the weekend, about silly things on the internet. She told me to go home early. I said I would, and we separated as co-workers came to her office to address actual work stuff. I went back upstairs to my office. I started replying to emails. Maybe I’ll stay. I looked around my office. I was alone again, surrounded by bare white walls and beige filing cabinets. Nope. Time to go home.
When I got to my apartment and sunk into my couch, I felt relieved. I didn’t cry again, probably because I didn’t have to fight so hard to stay composed. At 5:00, my phone rang, and it was the OT. “Are you home?” she asked. Yes. “Good. I said to myself, ‘yeah, she’s going to back up to her office and she’ll probably stay.'” She knows me well. Not this time, I told her. We talked for a moment. She wanted to make sure I was going to do something fun tonight and not be home alone. I assured her I was going to practice and my friends would be there. She approved of that plan. We hung up.
I am team-less at work, but I’m not blanket-less.
I always love my neighborhood, but I especially love it in the spring. When I walk around West Philly in the spring, my problems seem unimportant. I’m in this nice little pocket of hippie/punk/hip hop/professor chillness. It’s perfect to me.
I share with you now a three item list of things that make me love West Philly:
1. A lady pulled up to me at stop light on Thursday. I was on my bike and I thought she was trying to run me off the road. (Normal Philly Behavior). Instead, she rolled down her window just so she could tell me that she though my shoes were really cute.
2. I got to visit a legit convent recently in the neighborhood. It was amazing. All the nuns from the Sound of Music were represented. I wanted to move in.
3. This front lawn:
It is a small thrill
to strike a match and behold
fire in your hand.
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how hard everything is all the time. I don’t want to complain because that is annoying. I know that when life gets heavy, I should focus surrounding myself with people I like doing things that I like. I’m not great at reaching that goal. I let my job take over. I let it take over my time, my mood, even my unconscious, as I go through nights peppered with anxiety-filled work dreams. I start to question my priorities.
In order to surround myself with people I like and do the things that I like, I need to go to judo. Yes, judo is hard. It takes up a lot of time. Judo can stress me out sometimes and make cry, but I love it. Judo makes me a smarter, tougher, better person. When things get hard though, usually because of work, judo usually gets shifted lower on the priority totem pole. I don’t like when I let that happen. I become irritable, restless, aimless, and kind of lonely. My friends are at judo and jiu jitsu. If I don’t go to class, I then I won’t see my friends. I don’t like that.
I know I get lost in work, lost in stress, lost in the uncertainty of the future. However, for two little moments in the past two weeks, I had my priorities straight. On April 30th, I went to support my team at the 29th Annual Liberty Bell Judo Classic. Although I wasn’t competing, this tournament was a big deal to me. As little kids, my brother and I competed at Liberty Bell. My dad fought at Liberty Bell. My mom sold t-shirts Liberty Bell. It’s been a part of my family’s history forever. When I go to the Liberty Bell, I see all the people who were a part of my community as a child. Other judo kids like me, all grown up now, along with their parents, and my old coaches are all in attendance. It’s the judo version of a family reunion. I love it.
This year, it felt extra special because my little cousin was competing at Liberty Bell for his very first judo tournament. After I spent the morning watching our adult team compete, I stuck around for the kids. Actually, I helped coach the kids. While I’ve helped out in class here and there, I soon learned there is a big difference between helping run the kids’ class and coaching at a tournament. We only had five kids competing, so two coaches distributing among five kids seemed totally reasonable. But there is a lot of orchestrating for the kids that the adults can do themselves, like knowing what mat you’re on on, what match number you, if you’re white or blue, etc, etc. And then the feelings. OMG. The feelings. I mean, I’ve cried plenty at tournaments. I’ve consoled teammates who have cried at tournaments. Competition is an are emotional experience. You are choosing to get into a fight, which is judged and scored, while spectators watch. It’s a little nuts when you think about it.
I was coaching on the mat with our boys. Our other coach was with mostly with the girls, running back and forth between mats to make sure the whole team was OK. Our oldest boy lost both his matches, but he fought hard and smart. I love this kid. He’s always level-headed and patient. He’s a good role model for the littler guys. After was finished, he spent the rest of the day encouraging and consoling his teammates. In a way, he was my unofficial assistant coach in charge of feelings. My little cousin and our other little boy were in the same division of very tiny seven to nine year-olds. They each lost their first match. Now, my cousin has an admirable level of self-esteem. He walked off after his loss at an artic level of chill. His dad asked him how he felt. He replied that he felt fine, since he almost won. (Not how I saw it, but hey, I’m not gonna talk him into tears). Our other little boy, however, walked off the mat breathing heavily and sobbing. “Did I win?” he asked me. “No, buddy,” I replied, “but you fought so good. I am so proud of you. You almost had it.” He did fight a great match, but down came the tears. I gave him some praise and some pointers, and gratefully let his dad take over.
My cousin’s second match came and he won within the first minute or so. He had the tiniest little smile of accomplishment on his face. Our other little guy went out, a full force killer, and won his second match. He walked towards me, again breathing heavily and sobbing. “I’m so tired,” he heaved. I assured him he did great. He would get to keep fighting. It was going to be good day. His teammates hugged him. His dad worked his dad magic. He calmed down. I checked with the table to find out the next match number of both our little guys. “Oh,” said the kid running the brackets, “they’re actually fighting each other,” he said apologetically. I took my cousin and the little boy by the hand, and got down on one knee to be at eye-level with them. “OK, guys,” I said, “so your next match, you’re going to fight each other.” My cousin stared at me with icy resignation. The other little boy bust out crying. “But I don’t want to fight Noah! He’s my friend!” I did the best I could, calmly laying it out. This next match is just for fun. This next match is just like practice. This next match, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses. I’ve had to fight my friends at tournaments, too. It’s OK. It happens. But it’s just for fun. Let’s have fun. The little boy walked away to cry in a heap while his father and other tiny judoka tried to encourage him. I asked my cousin how he felt about his next match-up. “Well,” he said, “I don’t want to fight him, but I’ll try it.” Good boy. After a few minutes, my cousin and the little boy talked it out among themselves. They decided to go out there and try it. So they fought. The other little boy won. He was inconsolable. As the referee tried to usher them off the mat, the little boy ran over the my cousin, threw his arms around him in a bear hug, exclaiming, “I love you, Noah!” They walked off the mat. The little boy was crying. My cousin was crying. Was I going to cry? Maybe? I pulled it together. I told them I was proud of them, admired how they handled themselves. Parents and teammates offered support. The little boy’s dad asked me, “Is this normal? All the crying?” Yes. Yes, it is, sir.
We found out that if our tiny emotional warrior won two more matches, he would get third place. Our tiny emotional warrior lost it. No way. He told me he’s done. We encouraged, we rationalized, we hypothesized. He refused again. Now, I’m not this little boy’s parent. I’m not his head coach. I didn’t think it was my place to push him. He loves judo. I’ve seen how happy he is in class. He has potential that I want him to use. So I could have pushed him, and maybe he’d be proud of himself for sticking out the day. Or I could push him, and that would have been the start of him hating judo. I didn’t want to make anyone hate judo. He won two matches. He said that’s good enough for him. OK. Then that had to be good enough for me, too. Tournament over. In the car ride home with my cousins, we talked about the spectrum of emotions throughout the day. We talked about how fun it is to win, but how it’s a good thing just to get out there and fight hard. We talked about how well the kids helped each other during the tournament, probably better than the adults could. I left the Liberty Bell feeling whole and happy, despite all the crying.
I slept until 11:00 the next morning.
As I went through the work week, the feelings of wholeness and happiness began to fade. I
grew nervous as it crept near Thursday. I’ve been getting ready for the kata demonstration for my ikkyu promotion for a couple of months. While I have not been as diligent getting to judo during the week because of late days at work, I have been consistent with kata so my partner and I can practice. Our demo was schedule for this past Thursday. I felt ready, but I was also scared since I always get sucked into work on Thursdays. I stay way past 5:00, until 6:30 or 7:00, too late to make it to class. What if I do that again? What if I don’t get my act right? What if I let work win? But I didn’t. I let judo win. I made it practice. My partner and I performed our demo. I earned my ikkyu. There have been times when I didn’t want to get promoted. I didn’t think I was ready, didn’t think I deserved it. Really, I don’t fully know what an ikkyu should be. I’m not going to think about it too much though. This promotion, I told myself, is just motivation to stick with judo. It’s the reminder that I love judo and I want it to be in my life until I’m dead. Judo makes me happy. Judo is hard, but it helps me get my priorities straight.
My kata demonstration for ikkyu. Josiah made us look good.