A little over a year ago, I made one of the scariest and most exciting decisions of my life. After spending much of my life daydreaming about learning kung fu, I finally decided to enroll at the Shaolin Institute here in Mobile.
Growing up with five brothers, my childhood was full of cartoons, superheroes, action movies, kung fu movies, video games and epic adventures. We had a blast together, but I always got stuck playing the “girl part” in our fantasy games, which often involved being rescued in some way or another. Ick.
Like many of my female peers, I wanted to BE the brave and skillful warrior who faces danger to help others — not marry him — and I dreamed of defeating my opponents with my cleverness, speed, agility, swordsmanship and bo staff skills.
Some of my earliest heroes included characters like Princess Leia, She-Ra, Xena: Warrior Princess and especially Cheetara from Thundercats, an anthropomorphic feline warrior known for her sixth sense, bo staff skills and super-fast sprints.
I knew I needed to study some type of martial art, and given my fascination with Taoism and appreciation for the graceful and fluid movements of the ancient art, kung fu was always a natural fit.
Unfortunately professional lessons were never really an option for me as a child, and before I knew it I was an overweight and overstressed mom who would have laughed out loud at the thought of her chubby and achy-jointed self ninja-rolling across a room. However, I loved the idea of passing on the dream to my children.
My equally geeky husband and I were excited when our son finally expressed an interest in kung fu. We’ve always felt martial arts lessons are one of the best things you can do for your children, proving a multitude of fantastic benefits and life skills, but unfortunately Ben’s big plans were delayed when he developed a rare and serious illness at the age of 6.
We were extremely fortunate our son recovered and regained his health, but he went through an agonizing stretch where he struggled with intense physical pain. He was pretty clingy throughout his illness, understandably, and he found great comfort in cuddling in bed with me, watching cartoons and reading his favorite comics. During one particularly cozy rainy afternoon cuddle session, he told me he wanted the two of us to create our own comic book called “The Adventures of BenJen.”
The title character would be a two-headed, four-armed, four-legged superhero that formed when a boy named Ben and a mom named Jen were fused together after being struck by lightning while cuddling. From that point forward the two would be stuck in a permanent cuddle, but the synergetic pairing turned the mother-son duo into a fierce warrior team dedicated to fighting crime and miscellaneous Evil. Best of all, the lightning strike magnified their mutual strength and gave them expert kung fu skills and a variety of superpowers.
He loved lying close beside me and talking about BenJen, making up one wild adventure after another to distract him from the worst of his pain. I understood instinctively that it brought my son comfort to imagine himself literally fused together with his mother so she could add to his strength and help him shoulder the pain and anxiety. I also understood that as long as I kept it together through the pain and fear, he would keep it together, and I was deeply touched and humbled to realize just how much the boy trusts me.
Shortly after he recovered from his illness, we finally found the right time to let Ben try out the kung fu school. He loved it from the start and hadn’t been there more than a few weeks when he noticed a handful of adult students about my age and began encouraging me to join them. The idea seemed utterly ridiculous to me at first, and although I’d sought martial arts to promote mental and physical health and discipline for my son, I probably needed it a lot more than he did.
By then I had become incredibly stressed and exhausted, struggling with a long-term illness of my own and sleeping very little. Distracted by problems I mistakenly deemed more important than physical fitness, I had become lazy and completely out of shape, and felt overwhelmed and ineffective. I was desperately in need of a martial arts practice that could help me refocus my mind and body, and I had finally found the perfect opportunity. Sadly, the only thing stopping me was fear. I was convinced I was too out of shape to learn kung fu and absolutely terrified I would make a fool of myself.
My son seemed to sense my fear, and he patted my hand with his own little hand and said, “It’s okay, Mama. We’ll do it together, as a BenJen adventure, so you won’t have to be afraid.” How do you say no to that?
Walking into that very first class filled with warriors and athletes and teenage acrobats was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but I promised myself a solid commitment to challenge and push myself through a full year of training, no matter what, before making any permanent decisions.
Here we are a year later, and despite the occasional days when I went home in tears and struggled to walk after class, apparently I lived through it. Deep down I’m not sure I really knew I could make it through, but it meant everything that my son never stopped believing in me.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it’s a journey that has vastly strengthened my bond with my son and changed my life forever. I invite you to join me next time as I share some of the highlights, successes and epic fails of my journey, and the reasons why your family should consider studying martial arts together.
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