on wrapping a black belt around 45

Some of you may be having a gag reflex. Some may be thinking Kathy’s brain cancer is hollowing out her skull; she’s losing her mind. (Give me time; it may happen yet.)

Others of you may be thinking, oh good. At last someone sees 45’s greatness as the epitome of the American dream — a rich (formerly) handsome TV personality and real estate magnate with a lot of friends in high places who actually became the president of the United States. Hollywood couldn’t beat this with a stick.

Disclaimer/warning. Praising 45 is not the direction I’m heading. With all due respect, I don’t want to even say his name, hence 45. If you are a loyalist, you might want to stop reading right about now.

Let me backtrack a little before I lay out my argument. Yes, I have brain cancer — glioblastoma, the nasty kind that sucked the life out of Ted Kennedy and John McCain among many others. The day before my craniotomy I decided to wrap a black belt around my tumor and bow into it as I would a sensei. This makes sense in my world because I have practiced the peaceful martial art of aikido for over forty years. I am familiar with bowing into a sensei—to opening myself to a teaching, a discipline, a lineage, a practice—and to inviting a sensei to become a mirror for me so that I may understand my strengths and weaknesses, holes and gaps in my awareness, places I need to work on myself. I understand and honor the blood, sweat and tears that go into making a black belt. I should know; I am one.

Wrapping a black belt around glioblastoma isn’t about giving my life over to this little bit of scary star stuff that has decided to take up lodging in the warm folds of my gray matter. It isn’t about seeing the tumor as an enemy, as so many people assume, evident in the warlike language around cancer: beating cancer, kicking cancer’s ass, falling victim to cancer. That language doesn’t feel right for me because it sets up an adversarial relationship in which one entity wins and the other loses. It also increases my fear and anxiety, definitely not part of my treatment plan.

Wrapping a black belt around glioblastoma and bowing into the teaching that it can give restores my sense of balance, strength, self-discipline, and equanimity. It’s like a hotline into the most exquisite experience of mortality and the sacredness of life. I am savoring and seeing beauty all around me.

It is also clarifying like a new unblemished mirror. It isn’t news that I will die; no one escapes that fate. It isn’t even certain that I will die of brain cancer, not with the other senseis lurking about, not to mention all the other possible ways the fates could snip my thread. It is clarifying for me to realize there is no time to fuck around. If I want to carve that big block of marble into a seashell, then I better get my ass out there when the sun is just right and the wind isn’t too fierce, and work on it. If there’s someone I love, then I better tell them. If there’s something important I’ve left undone, I need to fix it. If there’s someone I’d rather not be around, I need to be honest and take care of myself. Sensei glioblastoma has given me complete license to pull the cancer card. I find it liberating and sometimes funny in a twisted and dark sort of way. It is natural for me to seek out the humor in the human condition, in my human condition, so why not now? Being diagnosed with brain cancer is like hitting the jackpot of irony and that’s worth a belly laugh or two.

Now we come to the second sensei. Earlier this spring when the pandemic came trundling along, it was natural for me to wrap a black belt around coronavirus as well. Sensei coronavirus is a sensei of epic proportions. Unlike sensei glioblastoma, who takes on one student at a time, sensei coronavirus is taking on whole countries. Hell, it is taking on all of humanity. I have written an ode to sensei coronavirus, praising it for its ability to challenge us all to push the reset button and reevaluate how we are living on this planet. The mirror sensei coronavirus holds up makes us question whether “normal” is a viable or sane way to live, considering how “normal” squanders resources, fouls our nest, wipes out species, promotes perpetual war and injustice, and is basically killing our home planet. Sensei coronavirus challenges us to take a good look at ourselves and how far we have “evolved.” Do fear and panic rule our lives? Is our community based on compassion and helping others who don’t have it as good as we do? Do we value those among us who are vulnerable or elderly? Do we value those of us who are incarcerated and stuck in a lockdown situation? Do we voluntarily wear a mask and limit our freedom to move because that is doing a favor to someone we may not know? Are we capable of acting selflessly? Or do we decide that the economy is more important and that some proportion of our population is essentially disposable. Are we that callous?

On every level, Sensei coronavirus is giving us a gigantic opportunity to change course, evidenced by the huge reduction in pollution and noise this spring, the dolphins swimming in the Venice canals, the selfless efforts of many to save lives even at risk to their own, the inventive entrepreneurs who let go of rigidity and adapted to our new conditions and parameters. Look at how many people are planting a garden.

Okay. Now comes the hard part. The third sensei. I can’t hold it for very long, but every once in a while I practice wrapping a black belt around 45. Not that he deserves the honor. Not that he has any notion of self-discipline, or of honoring the tradition in a lineage or stepping onto the mat with respect. Not that he knows how to be an empty cup willing to learn, and to shed blood, sweat and tears in that sincere effort. Not that he knows anything about peaceful conflict resolution. Far from it.

I practice wrapping a black belt around 45 not because it changes him but because it changes me. My stress level goes down, my equanimity is restored, I can breathe again and I no longer feel trapped. It won’t work for me to simply hate him or cast him as the evil villain. It won’t work for me to feel sorry for him because on some deep psychological level he is damaged goods. Although that may be true, I could build a similar case for myself, but unlike 45, I know that growing up means you take responsibility for what happened in your past, even if it wasn’t your fault.

In order to practice wrapping a black belt around 45, I have go into my own black belt body. I become grounded and centered, calm and alert, sane and peaceful. I can tap into 360° awareness. I can feel my support system, everyone who loves me and has my back, all the senseis who have taught me, and all the experiences from which I have chosen to learn. From that perspective, I can see him. No that’s not quite it: I can see through him. I can see his modus operandi. He is a one-man tornado with an incredible but (at this point) predictable instinct for picking people who lick his hand like beaten dogs, and do his bidding as a collective wrecking crew. Think of the nasty black belt in The Karate Kid who counseled his students to show no mercy, to play dirty and to use their skills for personal gain, and you might get a feeling for what I’m talking about. Still, Jackie Chan stayed true to his own discipline, bowed to the nasty sensei, and dealt with him honorably. If I embody my practice, perhaps I too will be able to maintain some dignity and reduce my ability to be fooled or taken in.

If I wrap a black belt around 45, I can see what he has mastered. He is a master of chaos, opportunism, divide and conquer, bait and switch, gaslighting, deception, and lies. He excels at narcissism, racism, misogyny, and cruelty. (Feel free to add to this list.) I can see that he is the epitome not of the American dream but of the American nightmare. And that is what sensei 45 mirrors back to us and to our nation. No wonder he’s so hard to look at.

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