Jiu-Jitsu is Saving My Life

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 “Can you breathe?”

 “Yeah.”

 “Then, don’t panic.”

***

 I pushed through the door to my kitchen this evening, holding a sweat-soaked gi. I could barely move my shoulder, and my hand was trembling.

 The kids were doing homework, and my wife was sweeping the floor. 

 “Your head is bleeding,” she said.

 I was too fatigued to be surprised or respond, so I looked in the bathroom mirror. I stared at my reflection and smiled. 

 My eyes were red from sweat, a mat burn streaked across my forehead, and twenty minutes after my session was over, I was still breathing hard.

 But behind all of the baggage, something radiated. The puffiness in my face was starting to melt away, and my skin looked hearty. I felt warmth in my muscles.

 It was only my fifth class.

 For the past few months, I have watched my ten-year-old son learn jiu-jitsu. It’s impressive to watch him develop. He’s the smallest kid in his class, but you wouldn’t know that seeing him on the mat. He attacks fearlessly, never seeming out of control. He’s had his share of losses and emotional breakdowns, but those episodes are becoming fewer. He can always find something he has done well, something to learn, some opponent he wants to beat, next time. 

 He loves his coaches; he talks about them all the time. I’m so grateful for them. Coach Jay, Coach Matt, and Mr. Magao can push Mike in a way I cannot. It’s invaluable to have mentors such as these. 

 They teach respect for himself, his opponents, and the study of martial arts. IMG_3283

Because really, what do we hold sacred anymore? What ritual or right of passage exists in our society? What do kids earn these days? The tip of Mike’s belt has three stripes of athletic tape on it now. They call his name, he bows to his coaches, the class claps for him, and he beams at me through the window. He’s earned those stripes. 

 The ceremony takes seconds. It’s simple and moving, and in the end, a thin piece of athletic tape transcends its purpose.IMG_3493 (1)

 My son’s first love is basketball, Fortnite and Star Wars are never far from his mind, and he still calls for me when he’s scared at night, but undoubtedly something inside of him has changed. He makes better decisions and speaks with confidence. I believe jiu-jitsu has a great deal to do with his metamorphosis.

***

 Rob, the owner of Bushido Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Manchester and Hebron, CT, stood next to me at one of Mike’s classes. We watched both of our sons on the mat. 

 “When are we gonna get you out there?” he asked.

 A short discussion later, I agreed to try it. 

 My first day was weird. I stood there in sweatpants and a tee-shirt surrounded by men and women of all ages in gis and belts of various colors. 

 I had that feeling I get whenever I start something new. I’m too old, too out of shape, and too fat to be here. I’m going to make an ass of myself. 

 The three-minute warm-up had me gasping for breath. We started to get into the technical stuff, and a large man immediately approached me. 

 All my fears were about to be realized. 

 Without hesitation, he took me under his wing. The next ninety minutes flew by. I left there more tired and more full of energy than I had felt in twenty years. I was encouraged and coached with every step.

 The people there are always laughing and busting on each other. It made me feel part of something, like a team or a family.

 A week later, I had my gi. The jacket doesn’t quite close, and the pants are desperate to untie, but I don’t care. 

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 An initiation has occurred. 

 It’s tough, it’s painful, at times it’s uncomfortable, but I leave there feeling purified. It’s impossible to think about work or money or stress when someone is trying to make you tap. 

 So, I wear those burns and bruises as a badge of honor. The pain is a sacrifice I make to my soul. The shoulder will heal; my breath will return; my health will improve; my mind will quiet.

 That guy was right.

 “Can you breathe?”

 “Yeah.”

 “Then, don’t panic.”

 How many hours have I wasted living in fear on the brink of panic? Am I in the right career? Am I fulfilling my true purpose in life? Who am I?

 Jiu-jitsu has taught me to embrace my fear. Wait, think, slow your mind, and an opening may appear. If you can make it for ninety minutes on the mat, you’ve proven something to yourself. 

 You can endure.

***

 After Monday’s class, I leaned against the arm of my couch with an ice pack on my shoulder. My son walked over to me. 

 “So, dad, you think you’re gonna keep going to jiu-jitsu?”

 “Yeah, Mike, I think I am.”

 “Good, that makes me happy.”

 “Oh yeah? How come?” 

 “‘Cause now, we can do this together.”

-Mike Sposito

Owner Spowerks LLC

“Let your imagination set you free.”

The Swamp of My Subconscious

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I sprawl out over the sun-baked earth as if shoved. My hands burn from the scrape, and my face lands flat on its side.

I get to my knees and blow dirt from my mouth. All around me is a barren wasteland. No vegetation or shade exists except for the thin dark clouds that block the sun’s warmth. The ground is a jigsaw of bleached mud, and there is no wind.

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Behind me is the thick iron gate of my consciousness. I don’t bother turning back; there’s nothing for me there.

I stand with shoulders slumped, alone in the familiar unknown. I shut my eyes tightly until my eyeballs throb. A muffled scream of frustration shudders through my body, and I pull my hair with my fists.

Even here, I can’t fully express myself. My pain and madness dwell too deep, like a volcano erupting at the bottom of the ocean. It passes quickly, and the tears evaporate before they can stream down my cheeks.

I look up to the sky and see nothing but endless grey. I sigh deeply and start the journey again.

I’m tired of this trek. It’s aimless and exhausting and repetitive. The same visions run through my mind as I put one foot in front of the other. I look ahead and see a shadow in the distance.

Instinctively I point myself in that direction, I know it’s probably pointless, but I can’t think of anything better to do.

A thought comes to me as the shadow grows bigger.

“Is this it?” I ask myself.

Something like hope flares in my chest, and my stout legs propel me a little faster.

I smell humidity, and my tongue begs for moisture.

The shadow comes into view. It’s a swamp. I stand on its edge, letting the moist air caress my face. It smells dank and mysterious, but it’s a welcome relief to the dry nothingness at my back.

Trees twist and tangle with each other; the space between the massive mossy trunks is black as pitch. The buzzing of mosquitoes, the long croaks of bullfrogs, and the strangled screech of some unknown animal bring sweat to my brow. Still, I yearn to explore, to make some final stand at the last secret of my scoured unconscious.

I have to see what lies within.

I push aside a giant spiderweb and step onto the spongey muck of the swamp’s floor. Mud sucks at my feet with each stride. My shirt clings to my body with sweat.

It’s surprisingly still in here, and close. I push through until the trees start to spread, and I stand at the edge of an inky black bayou. In the middle is a small island.boat-2-1553001-639x852

I’m not surprised to see a battered aluminum Jon boat leaning against the arthritic trunk of a Cypress tree. I wrestle it onto the water sending ripples across the surface. I grab the paddle hidden beneath the roots and climb in.

It’s like paddling through molasses. My shoulders ache with each stroke. It doesn’t take long before the hot sting of sweat streams into my eyes.

I run aground on the island. For some reason, I hurry onto land and look back to see what’s following me. I see nothing. The shore has disappeared, shrouded in mist.

The island rises behind me, so I turn and begin to climb. I crest the little hill and stop in my tracks. Four Frogmen stand there as if expecting me. They are seven feet tall with long muscular legs and arms wrapped in multi-colored skin. Small tunics cover their waists, and each holds a long spear with feathers hanging below the tips. Huge mouths frown at me, and their bulbous eyes stare unblinking.

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The one in front has green skin mottled with black and gold spots. He points a long amphibian finger at my forehead. Electricity shoots from the tip, hitting me on my forehead above my nose. It knocks me to the ground.

I get to my feet quickly, and we stare at each other again. They look at each other as if passing some unseen communication. I pull a knife from my waistband and crouch.

“A fight? Is that why I’m here? Come on then!”

The bullfrog in front steps forward on his webbed feet. Two golden balls sit at the hinge of his jaw, reflecting the dull sunlight. He drops his spear as the others spread out in a straight line behind him. They begin to croak rhythmically and pound the butts of their spears into the ground.

He raises his arms to the sky and springs forward. He covers the thirty feet between us in one leap. I look up as he descends, thrusting my knife into the air. His hand whips my arm to the side. He lands on my chest, pinning me to the soft earth.

His strong hands hold mine over my shoulders, and he opens his gigantic mouth as if to swallow my head. I twist one arm free and slice the soft white flesh of his belly. He croaks and rolls backward. I do the same.

I rush him headlong, letting out a primal war cry. He uses his gigantic frog legs to shoot forward, his eyes squinting in focused determination. We collide, his bulk knocks me to my back. I plunge the knife into his ribs. He opens his mouth in my face, and his tongue flashes out, wrapping around the blade. He swallows it down in one quick movement. His hands surround my face like a vise.

“Why?!” I scream.

His eyes soften a little somehow, then his tongue lashes out again. It wraps around my head and across my eyes. A burning sensation erupts behind my eyelids, and I scream.

He lets me up. I thrash around blindly, swinging my arms and spinning in circles. I claw at my eyes, trying to wipe the reptilian spit away. It doesn’t work, and the pain brings me to my knees. I lay defeated writhing in pain.

“See,” says the bullfrog, “Open.”

“It hurts!”

“Open. See.”

The pain has scrambled my brain. All I can hear is the croaks of his brethren. It drowns my senses; I have no choice but to obey. I force my eyes to open, and the pain disappears.

I rise and look out across the swamp. The mist is gone. Everywhere I look, I see life. The trees glow with energy, and my ears burst with the sounds of insects and animals. The black waters teem with life.

I sob uncontrollably as tears stream down my cheeks. I look to my guide. An aura of red and gold light surrounds him. I run into his embrace and feel the warmth of his body healing me.

He pushes me away, kindly, and removes a golden ball from his jaw. He presents it to me, and I accept it. I swallow it down in one gulp. My body transforms.

“You,” he says as he sweeps his arm, presenting the swamp.

I nod. I understand.

He returns to the three Frogmen. They thrust their spears into the sky. As one, they leap high and dive; I see their light streak below the surface of the water in opposite directions.

I gather my new legs beneath me and jump into the bayou. My slimy skin lets me slip through the water with ease. I plunge quickly and push off from the bottom with a mighty extension.

I break the surface of the water like a missile. The clouds part as I ascend. The sun shines on my face, and the air cools my skin. I hang for a second before dropping. I see the swamp is a mystery of hidden living things and its power throbs below me. I hurtle downward at incredible speed. The bayou rushes towards me, and I hit the surface of the water like a nuclear bomb.

I’m the epicenter of a massive shockwave. The swamp explodes outward, and a tsunami of water and living things rolls over the barren wasteland of my subconscious returning life to all that was dead.

I paddle the boat back to that great iron gate and open it. My frog skin sloughs off my body.

I return as a man.

-Mike Sposito

Owner Spowerks LLC