In the winter, at a dinner celebrating some of the black belts' ascension to higher levels of black belt, they pulled out cell phone calendars and planned my black belt testing date. At the time, through my half-drunk haze, I connected that test date in early June with all sorts of mostly unrelated things, but all tangentially connected to badassery and the meaning of martial arts as a force to build confidence and stop violence.
I started taking karate when I was in the 8th grade, and continued in Yoshukai through high school. By then, I was a 2kyu, a brown belt. In college I spent a summer with a new kind of karate and jiu jitsu, then at my actual college tried yet more karate, then aikido, but by the time I took aikido, I was close to graduation. I didn't think of myself as a brown belt anymore, more like an itinerant white belt with brown-belt-like tendencies.
There's a tradition I learned, that you never wash your belt (though by all means, wash your gi, and often). Because the idea was, it began as white, and over time and training would turn darker with the dirt, proof of your time and effort. Last summer, my brown belt seemed to be going in the opposite direction, forming up white streaks which I never washed off (...salt, from sweating).
But if I had thought of myself as a brown belt since I got one, then I have been a brown belt for almost ten years. It's an interesting middle ground.. being pretty good. People have referred to me as "basically a black belt," or "like a black belt."
But I wasn't one: a distinction so fine as to be, in a different half-drunk hazed debate about who would win in a fight, slim to unimportant.
As you have probably heard, a black belt doesn't mean you've made it to the top, it means you're ready to begin.
In this case it means I crammed a ton of terminology and practiced a lot of moves an ef-ton of times. I also memorized some points (the eight key attitudes, the five elements of atemi, the four systems of training, the six distinguishing characteristics) for the supervised essay.. on the walk up to the budokan, one of the guys who had given me a ride (I tried to drive myself, but my car broke down again about 1/3 of the way there... so I pulled over, called my team and flagged down another car in the convoy shortly behind me on the road) commented that the written test had to be worrying me. I shook my head because if there's anything I can do, it's write a pretty solid essay in 40 to 60 minutes (thanks Dr. Bragg, college in general, and genetic disposition). The written test was the least of my worries -- it was the one thing I knew if I put in the time, I would get the results. Put a pencil in my hand and my thoughts will focus. Give me the name of a technique and stand there expecting me to do it, and they scatter faster than Japanese people when auld-lang-syne starts to play at closing time.
I actually did pull a total fail on something I had practiced a lot because it was one of the first things they asked us to do (luckily no one seemed to notice the extent to which my mental faculties had deserted me -- for the love of pete, it was a set movement, like a two-person kata, and I was completely changing the last 1/3 of it, repeatedly). A few other things took me some time to remember or figure out what the words meant, but I could do the stuff, almost all of what was asked, I could do, and as I saw that happening, my confidence grew and the test shrank and soon enough I knew what my result would be.
I got to wear the face-protecting riot gear for the fighting bit, which was really brief even by my standard.
My partner was a capable girl with a large, ghastly bruise on her left foot. The part I had most feared, the dreaded "We say, you do," part where they were going to choose ten techniques from about a hundred, all of which you must know, only ten of which you will show... And one by one, they said words I could put together and remember their meanings. The pair to our right got read the riot act in the second set of movements. The pair to our left, in the third. I shifted from foot to foot, awaiting our turn at sensei scorn bat; it never came.
Twelve years ago, I promised to work hard. Now I suppose I am ready to begin.