The magic of martial arts training can be like the magic of water.
Since you're always drinking it, you stop thinking about it. So it sometimes takes fresh eyes to make you appreciate something you've always had.
In Thrown, Kerry Howley's description of grappling sparring was like seeing a worn passage in Garamond and not the Impact sans-serif I was used to. Yet this new perspective woke in my heart a feeling I nearly forgot.
"[T]o describe the practice of jiu-jitsu—roll—suggests the very opposite of fixity, an openness to the universe, a making vulnerable. The aimless aim of rolling was to be never still because to stick in place was to stop the game and everyone knew that no moment was meant as an end to itself, that every position—guard, mount, half-guard—was a phase on its way to a new one, some self-contortion he didn't even notice until he found his body passing out of it and into some new form he may or may not have a name for. Positions were something to pass between, brief moments that happened to occupy semantic categories."
We use many thoughtless platitudes and phrases to describe this transcendental experience of constant motion, shifting, and transformation, but none of it captures what our heart feels. But maybe it's not beyond words; it's just beyond our words.
My gender-nonconforming grappler friends explain it as similar to their experience of gender. A few even said it was in the roll that they discovered their shifting noncategorical truth. Women have described it to me as an escape from the performance and experience of gender. It's not about who they are but what they do. They are action and experience rather than a category. Rolling, like water, like gender, is fluid.
Jiu-jitsu is a language. Moves are constantly arranged and rearranged into sentences. The aim is to keep the conversation flowing. It requires painstaking practice. But most of all, consent. Violence denies consent.
Sometimes a person comes along that breaks the conversation of the mat. Like an entitled American living abroad, rather than learning the language, they demand their overbearing tongue on others.
"His name was Joe Vedepo, and he did not play with the gentle scrupulousness of the others; when he had another man by the arm, even in practice, he would pull until it hurt. In this way he tore the fragile tissue in Erik's left elbow; and Keoni, incensed, banned Vedepo from the gym for life. This was what happened when people who did not belong in the gym were permitted to play. It was also about how to leave Valhalla, forever, and transform a bunch of brothers with whom you shared a tattoo into strangers."
When you enter the dojo, you give your back to the mats and leave your heart vulnerable to the sky. In jiu-jitsu, knowledge is transmitted through the conduit of bodies. We learn through communion with others. So what greater betrayal is there than exploiting the body entrusted to you? Jiu-jitsu as a language requires participation not domination.
As tough as the dojo is, it's a fellowship of vulnerability and must be carefully guarded against those who intend to harm us—but also from the egotists and individualists who only seek to speak with themselves.