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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

I am watching a room full of children finding that in life which we all search for: the sense of dancing, with tightly fixed control, along the edge of the uncontrollable. I am watching my son's karate class.

Eavesdropping, as is a parent's wont, on my kid's writing essay last week, I peeked inside his private life. "'Pack every punch with focus and with life,' my karate teacher says," he wrote, and this was galvanic: for it was a global truth. A generalizable
truth. (On the way to the class, my child tells me I have "a big taste for small things," in response to my sudden laughter at his lovely turn of phrase after he'd asked me to tie the knot on his red belt: he could only make a "sad knot" himself. It's a beautiful image, one that could easily support a poem built atop it. It also yielded another pleased laugh at his big-truth appraisal of what moves his mommy.)

Now the teacher is saying, of a student who wears a perpetual mysterious smile: "I want to know his secret--I want to be like this guy." The teacher who teaches the c
hildren is in turn taught by them.

What the children do not know, but I do, is that their sensei has a reason that the smile, its inner impetus, eludes him. He has lost someone. I lost her, too, a friend. But he lost much more, when the young woman he loved left the world upon which she shined, in an eclipse that left us breathless in the dark.

He is looking thin and pale these days, even as he exhorts his students to "get into it, with spirit--that's more than half the battle. Every day, apply yourself to something. Y
our homework, doing the dishes, your sports, whatever. If you do something, really do it."

I am learning things here, too, watching and thinking, as the late-day full sun streams through the windows at this nice school. I am thinking about going home and applying myself to something that waits for me, something I need to hit as hard, with as much "ninja spirit," as my child just hit the practice pads (thump-thud). A fleeting thought intervenes--"I wish I had enough money to send him to this nice school"--and I realize that, indeed, if I truly applied myself (thump-thud) I probably could. I thi
nk of how I miss seeing my friend's child in this class, his happy, funny presence, because now that his mother is gone, he has had to go live far away. To leave us, and start anew. To hopefully apply himself to a new life.

Most of all, I am thinking about how desperately much I still need to learn about this time I have here, however much there is left. Part of this is how to move through loss with the grace of the karate master, with application and spirit and focus and humility. At this moment, in particular, I am thinking about how you get out from under an opponent who has got you on your back, with his full weight on you and your muscles quivering with the impossibility of it. I want to know how you make the im
possible possible. I want, as the sensei now observes to the children, the feeling after battle that is "kind of losing control, but in control; kind of angry, but kind of peaceful." It's a strange feeling, he says. I am thinking I would like to feel it soon.