Pick Up Sticks: Reconnecting With Filipino Martial Arts

It’s eight o’clock in the evening and I’m tired from work, but I’m standing in the dimly lit parking lot of my old community college with a bag of rattan sticks hanging on my shoulder. They’re heavier than I remember, but the last time I picked up that bag was probably 2010 and maybe six years worth of dust was weighing it down.

I stared at a familiar looking building and walked toward a familiar class room and it all looked the same. It was still the same small yoga room with mirrors lining one side with a single water fountain sitting in the corner. That water fountain was going to be my savior, I knew that off that bat. My old instructor greeted me like we had seen each other yesterday and that was comforting. The only difference in the way we shook hands was that my hands weren’t calloused anymore. Tonight was night one of Filipino Martial Arts and I was starting all over again from the beginning.

Filipino Martial Arts: Day One — Again

I sat in the room and tried to remember the basics while I waited for the boxing class to end. All I managed to remember was a summary of an essay I wrote about the Doce Pares school of Filipino Martial Arts. I remembered that it was a complete fighting system that encompassed everything from stick fighting, knives, staff techniques, and empty hands. So I remembered facts and a couple of lines from a documentary I saw, but that didn’t do my muscle memory any good.

When we finally started, I was nervous. I didn’t want to embarrass myself which was a silly thing to think about. Only two people in that room knew who I was and the others didn’t know me from Adam. They didn’t know that I used to practice feverishly in my garage. They didn’t know me when I used to hit a weighted tire my dad helped me hang up until my forearms were numb. They didn’t know me when I struggled to see during a fight because the salt from my sweat was stinging my eyes. I was just a dude in a grey shirt and red shorts for all they knew. But for those two people who did know me then, I was afraid I would tarnish any good memory of me they had. Once again, that’s a silly thought. I’m prone to overthinking.

What Am I Doing Here?

Steve, the instructor, started us off with some basic drills. My movements felt clunky and I watched myself in the mirror as my hands flailed around struggling to remember basic things like blade orientation and knuckle alignment. I thought I looked like a toddler trying to learn how to walk. I expected too much of myself from the get go and I was already disappointed. I kept looking around the room instead of just looking at myself. I didn’t want to see myself in the mirror failing at something I used to be marginally skilled at. Then Steve said something that let me breathe again:

“You still have your basic mechanics down.”

Maybe my body still remembered some of it after all. Maybe it still loved it the way I used to all those years ago. Then I started to notice it, too. It wasn’t perfect, but it was still there. Bits and pieces of what Steve taught me survived years of drinking too much and exercising too little. The influence of the long range style that I was obsessed with was still there. A bend of the knee during a downward strike, a little lean forward for extra reach, putting my left hand where my right used to be every time it moved. Some of it was still there. There was some glimmer of hope.

Then I Woke Up

After solo drills he told us to partner up. That’s when the sensation suddenly hit me. The first couple of swings and I remembered why I thought FMA was the coolest thing in the world when I was younger. The first crack brought me back and it really was my first day all over again. My hand was blistering, my forearm was getting stiff and tired, and I was breathing hard because I’m slower and fatter than I used to be, but I kept swinging. My head started talking to the rest of my limbs. You’re using too much of your arms, turn from your heel up and let the torque do most of the work for you. You’re getting tired for no reason. Swing smarter, not harder. Reconnecting with Filipino Martial Arts came with the crack of sticks crossing and the loud clatter bouncing around the walls. This is going to sound painfully cliche, but I felt absolutely alive again.

I was the only one really sweating and I was the only one who was actually tired. I was surprisingly fine with that. More than that, I was happy I was so tired. It drove home that it was just beginning and I was ready to learn again. I let go of the notion of who I used to be, what I used to be able to do, that didn’t matter. I was there to learn all over again and that was fine. More than fine, it was good.

As I grew older, I gave up on a lot of things. Teaching in Japan, becoming a writer, telling stories, joining a dance crew, becoming a soul skater, and a dozen other things. Some situations had practical reasons like me having no business owning roller blades. Others came from very good excuses I told myself. My schedule didn’t line up or I was too busy. I’ve been gone too long and I’m no good anymore. Lately I’ve been coming back to a lot of things. I’m writing again which is why I’m even here telling you this story and now I’m picking up sticks and swinging as best I can. And you know that? I feel like it’s one of the better decisions I’ve made in the tumbleweed of poor decisions that is my life.

Originally published at champions.co on July 6, 2016.