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Karate: A love story

Mike Robertson and Barb Lamble

When I talk to my karate friends about why they started training, it seems that there are a handful of reasons why people start training: parental influence, inspired by a movie (like Karate Kid), fitness goals, self-defense. Not me. I started training for love.

I met Mike Robertson in my senior year of high school. He was one of the guys on the periphery of my circle of friends; I knew his name, I knew that he was a few years older than me, but not much else. One of my friends developed a major crush on him, and although the crush never progressed into anything, I learned more about him. He was a black belt. He liked to go hiking in the Elora Gorge. He didn't talk much. The more I got to know about him, the more I liked him. He was intelligent, articulate and respectful. Somewhere along the line, we connected as friends.

One day, I was sitting in my regular spot at the Leander’s Cafe, reading and having a coffee. Mike spotted me in the window and came into the cafe with a smile. He passed me a scrap of paper with some numbers in a grid sketched out on it. With sparkling eyes and excitement in his voice, he described in detail how the numbers represented a kata. I had no idea what he was talking about, but his energy was infectious so I agreed to go for a short walk with him to a place in a wooded park where he could show me this kata. I watched him perform Seipai on a soft carpet of cedar in the dappled light of the woods. He moved with a grace and power that was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was magical. I didn't know it at the time, but I realize now that this was the moment that I fell in love.

As our relationship developed, he started to pressure me to start training. While I had some academic interest in martial arts (due to my love of Ian Flemming novels and Star Wars movies), my lifestyle wasn't conducive to training. I was a student with no time and less money. Mike persisted, so I told him that I would start training when he opened up his own dojo. In March 1998, I began my training in the first white belt class at the newly opened Elmira Karate Dojo. I worked the front desk and answered the phone. I loved learning about the "secrets" in the kata, I enjoyed the camaraderie of sparring with my classmates. Neither one of us knew how to run a business, we were always broke - but we were young and our future was bright and exciting.

Then, only a year later, I got sick. I had been diagnosed with Lupus (SLE) as a teenager, but up to this point, my symptoms were mostly arthritic and the pain was manageable. The training seemed to help with my mobility, so I blithely ignored the shortness of breath and nausea that had been slowly getting worse for several months. Eventually, I went to my doctor. I remember how he looked so worried and serious as he wrote his notes. That same night, my Lupus specialist called me and asked me to go to the emergency room at Toronto Western hospital: I was suffering from multiple organ failure and needed to be admitted immediately. Since we had no car, my mom drove Mike and me to the hospital in Toronto. I stayed for few weeks, where a steady stream of doctors looked at me, poked and prodded me like some morbid curiosity. I remember one resident examining my chart and remarking with delight that I looked so healthy for someone so close to dying. I hated being in the hospital - the boredom and the confinement ate away at me. Every day I practiced Sanchin and Tai Chi in the common room on the 8th floor. I treasured those quiet mornings: the dawn breaking over the silhouette of the city, my slow breath pulling my body through the movements. In those moments, I could escape the blur of tests and treatments and retreat into the serenity of my kata.

When I left the hospital, my life descended into chaos. I was unable to work. Navigating the application process disability support through Employment Insurance was dehumanizing and humiliating. My monthly prescriptions cost $800 per month, but I had no drug coverage. Without an income, we soon lost our apartment and the meager balance in my bank account plunged into overdraft. Worst of all, the people I loved looked worried all of the time. I gained 70 lbs over the course of a few weeks of high-dose steroids, losing musculature in my arms and legs. My hair began to fall out from the chemotherapy treatments. My face became puffy and unrecognizable to old friends and acquaintances. My mind blurred with a dozen daily prescriptions and I struggled to find clarity. Worst of all, the steroids caused uncontrollable mood swings and Mike bore the brunt of my wild emotions. Yet, all through this, Mike stayed by my side, seemingly oblivious to my physical transformation and random outbursts. I stayed at the sidelines at the dojo; helping out with the phones when I could and watching my classmates learn new kata and progress up in rank. This was one of my biggest challenges – trying not to dwell on my injured pride as my classmates moved ahead of me. Unlike most karate practitioners, I began training with the express purpose of getting my Black Belt. This set-back, so early in my training, was devastating to me. I felt as though I had failed, before I even had a chance to start!

My doctors eventually relented and gave me permission to return to the dojo with one important caveat: Absolutely no contact! The chemo drugs are highly toxic, and while they do a great job of shutting down the lupus, it meant that my body was incapable of healing itself. A small injury might be devastating in my weakened state. I began to study tai chi more seriously. The changes in my body meant that my balance was off, my scrawny legs struggled to carry the weight of my steroid-bloated body. The meds made it difficult to learn the moves or retain corrections. But that hour every Sunday with Sensei J was sacred to me. Doing tai chi let me stay connected to the spirit of the dojo, even though I couldn't participate at the same level that I wanted. Stubbornly, I compromised with my doctors and began to wear protective gear so that I could spar again. Slowly, my health stabilized and my dependence on the harsh medications diminished. I ramped up my training and felt the benefits. I no longer struggled to keep my balance and the mental haze lifted. I began to forgive my defective body for betraying me. Two years after my stay at Toronto Western, life was good again. I was getting strong.

2003 marked two important events in my life. In August, Mike and I married each other under a blue sky at his parents' farm in Elora. Our friends and family celebrated with us. In December of the same year, Mike took me and one of my classmates to the Honbu dojo in Toronto as one of his first Black Belt candidates. I was proud to represent my dojo and my Sensei, but I was most excited by the prospect of becoming a teacher. I loved children, and it was unlikely that I could safely carry a pregnancy to term. I felt that teaching karate to young children would help to replace some of that maternal instinct that felt so strong.

It seemed like my marriage and black belt should somehow make up the fairy tale ending for my love story. But there’s more to the story. We married. We beat the medical odds and I gave birth to a healthy son in 2010. My lupus is now in remission. I opened my own dojo in my home town of Elora.

Now, a decade after my first black belt test, I find myself preparing for another. There are many traditional martial arts that recognize ranks based on a student’s age and experience, awarded with a handshake and not much else. While the belt represents a milestone in your training, the milestones that are set out by CNGK are not merely points in time: we are expected to demonstrate a higher understanding of the art and technical proficiency. We are asked to push ourselves to our highest potential.

So I’ve been training. It doesn’t seem to be as hard as it was when I was working towards my previous levels, though truth being told, I’m training more often and at a higher intensity. But it’s become almost easy. Almost. I think it is probably the result of my approach – don’t neglect the kata. It’s shockingly simple. The benefit of kata is in the practice, not in the knowledge. You must take care of a kata, like you would a child. If you don't nurture your kata through diligent practice, it will die of neglect. Instead of using kata practice to escape, as I did back in the hospital so many years ago, I embrace it. I have discovered truths about myself through practice. I am forced to address my weaknesses and accept - even celebrate - my imperfection. If it wasn’t for all of the mistakes that I’ve made along the way, I wouldn’t have grown so much. And the funny part is that I have no intention of stopping.

But most of all, I am grateful for this gift. This love may have been sparked by a private performance of Seipai in the woods, but it has grown into something quite remarkable. And unlike other gifts, it’s one that I feel a responsibility to share.

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