final project from my course with Shaun Levin

Shaun Levin teaching a Domestika course: inspirational for creative writing by going analog, writing with pen and paper not typing on a computer. It did shift my writing, my word usage. This is the final project for the course:

A taekwondo student, we learn that the translation of taekwondo is “the Korean art of smashing with the hands and feet”; the two focal points are my hands and feet.

Every class is the same ritual: entering the building, shoes come off, placed in a cubby, bare feet hitting cool tile before stopping, bowing, and stepping onto the carpeted, sprung floor. Bare feet, sometimes painted toenails on mine, feeling the air under the floor giving it extra give, extra bounce, extra cushion. 

The black belt teaching barely pauses between the end of bowing in to class and projecting his voice: jumping jacks! Every pair of feet go out, come together, go out, come together between 300 and 400 times to warm up. My feet, all the feet, out and in, boom boom, like a bass drum setting a pace for a band. Never a slow ballad, jumping jacks seem suited to a pulsing rock beat like the Foo Fighters. As my arms come down, my hands slap my the white uniform covering my legs, the snare drum joining in the drum groove.

Feet are the guide, the foundation, pointing the way in the various stances: front stance, back stance, side stance, walking stance; learn where the toes point.

Kicking my feet through the air is never as satisfying as a kick that ends with a hit, be it the plastic-coated target or the grains of a pine board. Feet stepping back, to mark the precise distance, then step and spin or step and jump, each option ending with a foot meeting board. The distance from start to board has to be in the Goldilocks zone, not too far, not too close, just right to line up then put the foot to and through the board, at the right spot, like butter. Precision and accuracy mean more than strength and force.

In class, the feet get a break when we do push-ups. The art of smashing with hands and feet, the hands get their share of work and training. Hands in fists, under the shoulders, supporting the body, taking the weight, imprinted by the design and roughness of the carpet as the elbows bend, up and down, up and down, don’t forget to breathe. 

My knuckles lead the way, 2 of the five leading the others. Fists in punching position, knuckles feeling the roughness of the carpet that so many sweaty feet have jumped on–don’t dwell on that– germ theory comforts me here. From barely being able to bend my elbows in this position, to the latest challenge of putting the knuckles on the same unbroken boards used for smashing the feet against, my hands become the foundation.

Last night, I stared at a board, measuring my angle and distance. Two black belts fitted the board into the purple pvc holder, a bright yellow strap pinning the board to the holder, then holders hands tight. It is my first attempt ever at breaking with a roundhouse, the first time I will swing my leg around, toes (hopefully) pulled back enough to let the ball of my foot hit the hard surface correctly, breaking it. Gone are the squishy soft targets. I’m warned many times that doing it wrong–especially not pulling the toes back enough–can hurt. It hurts less if you do it right. In my head, I think, break the board or break my toes. Let’s opt for breaking the board.

I step to the board, measuring my distance back. Checking my angle to the board, my eyes calculating the exact spot I need to hit for a clean, easy break, my hands come up in fists in front of my torso. Left foot forward, right back, I kihap loudly, then spin clockwise, bring my eyes back to the spot, step with my right foot, and bring my left foot into the air, toes back, knee bent, then straighten it and put my foot through the board. I never remember the actual breaking or visual of my foot hitting the board–I only remember before and after. The split second after I kick is one of anticipation – I don’t see it, but either my foot goes through and I feel almost nothing, or I feel the reverberating thud of my foot NOT going through the board. 

I broke it. First try, toes pulled back sufficiently, easy. I’m elated, surprised, proud. Learning this new sport, this practice, this art, I feel like so often I do very little correctly or competently. Breaking a board is supremely satisfying and a concrete reminder that, even if it’s small, it’s progress.



**creative note: I’ve begun using my own photographs for the taekwondo blog series, instead of searching and using the work of others. Much of these were taken in my own home, with treasures from travels.

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