The decorations are starting to outstay their welcome. The lights still twinkle, but they herald something that’s on the way out, not the way in. The days between Christmas and New Year always feel a little bit lost; it isn’t clear which celebration they belong to – nowhere days, leftover days, the lull before the year turns. Too soon to make resolutions, to wake up in a new life, but Christmas has grown tired; it’s last year’s thing.
There’s little to think about in these heavy days except change. Last year, my life took a turn and I wanted things to be different. I decided to take up martial arts. I was attracted by the discipline, the physical control and, of course, the violence.
The studio is perfect. It is in an old industrial unit, across a sullen car park, reached most efficiently by means of a black metal staircase that totters up the side of the building. To reach the main training floor you walk past people warming up, lifting weights, sparring amicably in pairs. The matted area is brightly lit, flanked by mirrors and training dummies. Most of the class is younger than me, all are better coordinated. I have come here telling myself that I will find this difficult but that if I persevere, I will make progress.
In the film version of my life, I struggle, I become dejected, I walk away two or three sessions in. I have an epiphany; it’s about the journey, not the destination, I go back, I start to improve, I strike up unlikely friendships and learn all sorts of things about myself along the way.
It’s often raining when I walk away, but when I come back there are no obvious signs of improvement. It’s not my physical fitness; I ace the press-ups in the warm-up session, I’m in good shape. I’ve left the girl who straggled at the back in cross-country a long way behind. But my brain is connected to my body as loosely as ever. My coordination is not there. Look in the mirror, they tell me, it will get easier. I struggle to explain that looking in the mirror makes it harder, because the image in the mirror is the other way round. People whose brains sit seamlessly in their bodies will probably never experience that disconnect: the translation is for them automatic.
I realise that this isn’t a case of keep practising until you get there. This discipline relies on training in pairs; it relies on the cooperation of others. I experience nothing but patience, sometimes accompanied by the shadow of a smile escaping from bewildered eyes. There’s only so many times I can nod along and agree while some muscular guy, barely out of his teens, tells me kindly that it was just the same in his first session. At some point there is a last session; I walk away and I don’t go back. I can’t remember if it was raining.
The trouble is that for me this fantasy of transformation is as much about obtaining a state of grace as learning a martial art, and about as likely; I crave a body that responds to the lightest touch of the reins, a face that is wearing the expression matched for the occasion before I stop to consider the instruction.
In this hiatus between Christmas and New Year, I wondered if I gave up too soon, if I should go back in January. I decided against it. Maybe one day I’ll find somebody with the patience to train me one-on-one; I won’t pull down that ideal of transformation just yet.
But this year, I’m going to try something new, I’m going to try putting my resolutions on hold. Change has limits, and those first cold, wet days of the year aren’t the time to try to be somebody else. Maybe when the weather starts to turn and the bulbs come poking through I’ll go running after cinematic endings once again; for now, I’m going to do something far more daring; take those decorations down ahead of time, and see what the new year brings.
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