But seasons must be challenged or they totter
Into a chiming quarter
Where, punctual as death, we ring the stars
- Dylan Thomas, “I See the Boys of Summer”
For as long as I can consciously remember I’ve feared death. But I’ve also feared aging just as much. At least in death you’re asleep for the bad parts, whereas old age just stays with you. Your hands get weak and palsied; your sharp mind starts to slip at the corners. Everything becomes slower and harder and duller.
I do find hope, though. Once in a rare while I’ll see an old person do something awesome.
I should stress that when I’m talking about old people doing awesome things, I don’t mean Grandma baking you a cake that spells out your name in frosting for your 21st birthday. I don’t mean Grandpa reminiscing over the awesome things he used to do, back in Normandy or Korea. I mean Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups onstage at the Oscars. I mean Dorothy Parker still wielding a razor pen, even in her later years. I mean old guys who drag their grandchildren by the collar rather than spoil them. I mean old women who don’t take shit from anyone.
Things like that give me hope that old age won’t mean twilight.
During belt tests in jiu-jitsu, like the one our school had last night, the black belts stand in the back – partly to supervise the proceedings, partly to look dignified and supportive. Several students of all ranks demonstrate at once, peeling off and sitting down as their techniques are finished. Finally we just had two: Anthony and Mussal.
Mussal worked with Rob, one of the bigger students in our class. He would cock his head to get instructions repeated to him; our head instructor, Nick, tends to speak a little fast. He would start each technique with slow precision, but then whip on the final momentum. Several of the black belts nodded approvingly at his shodan wrist locks: excellent lead, enough to get a bigger man on the tips of his toes.
We ended the test by surrounding Anthony and Mussal, one at a time, and firing attacks at them in rapid succession. Nick called out an o-goshi hip throw, one of the staples of judo. I took an overhand swing at Mussal. He blocked it, stepped inside, popped me up on his hip, and flipped me over. “Too light,” he called out; everyone laughed.
Finally, we’d all attacked him and Nick called an end to the test. The class broke out in applause. Nick came over to shake his hand, but Mussal waved him off. “Where’s the other one?” he asked, his Moroccan accent thick but legible.
“You mean Vlad?” Vlad’s one of the senior brown belts, a few months away from joining the ranks of senseis. He’s built like a duffel bag full of bricks and he moves like three cats. In martial arts parlance, we would say that he has exceptional ki – good control of his breath and balance that results in good movement. I cannot consistently throw him.
Mussal wrapped up Vlad’s lead arm, pulled him off balance, dropped his hips, and tossed him on his first try.
At the end of the test, every promoting student kneels in the front and removes their old belt. Sensei Nick ties on each new belt in turn. He reached Mussal at the end of the line and leaned in close to ask him something. “Can I?” Mussal nodded.
“Mussal,” Nick told the class, “is turning sixty in 45 days. And I think all the black belts here would agree that that wasn’t just a good test ‘for someone his age’ – that was a phenomenal test, period.”
“Thank you for not giving up on me,” Mussal said.
“All of us get tired,” Nick continued. “We get injured, we get stresses in other parts of our lives. We get old. But it’s how you react to those obstacles that makes you a true martial artist.”
I know, realistically, that not every aspect of aging lies in my hands. I could still fall victim to some illness, some lingering disorder or early dementia. But to the extent that my age is under my control – in attitude, in outlook and in the way I react to the world – I don’t intend to give up yet. Or ever. I may still be scared of death, but I’m not going to start dying early by letting life pass me by. I’m dancing on my sixtieth birthday: that’s a promise.
There’s no one in here but the fighters.