Friday, November 11, 2011

I Speak Gratitude

This month my students and I are on a quest to find one thing to be grateful for every day. Our aim? To see whether the spirits of people—even those grieving a loss—can be buoyed by being thankful for life’s gifts on a daily basis. Not the iPad kind of gift, but rather the things we often take for granted.

The Gratitude Experiment couldn't have come at a better time. Life has hit me hard lately. For months I have been struggling with knee and foot issues. In late October, my partner and I had to put down our 15-year-old dachshund terrier Momo after an agonizingly long decline. Within the same week, I was served papers notifying me that an ex-student had filed a lawsuit seeking damages from an injury she had suffered while sparring 15 months earlier.

But I have faith that this exercise will help me stay out of self-pity, move through and let go of grief and anger, and stay positive. If it works, I’ll definitely pull it out every November as a homework assignment for my martial arts students—and I might continue myself year-round.

Here we go:

Nov. 1
Day 1 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful that I’m sober today.

Nov. 2
Day 2 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful that, save for my inherited osteoarthritic knees, I’m in good general health.

Nov. 3
Day 3 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for my wonderful, beautiful, resourceful, and staggeringly creative partner. She amazes me more every day.

Nov. 4
Day 4 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for my warm, cuddly, awesome pets (three dogs, one cat) that love me unconditionally and make me smile and laugh daily. I still miss Momo, our 15-year-old dachshund terrier that we had to put down late last month, but today I’m grateful that we had all the wonderful years we did with her.

Nov. 5
Day 5 of Thanksgiving: On a chilly morning, I’m grateful that SUMMER’S FINALLY OVER in Texas!

Nov. 6
Day 6 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful that I live in Austin, Texas, a super dog-friendly city with lots of off-leash parks.

Nov. 7
Day 7 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for all of life’s difficulties—the things that have made me/allowed me to face fears and overcome obstacles and adversities. All of these trials have molded me into the strong woman I am today.

Nov. 8
Day 8 of Thanksgiving: Considering the state of this nation’s economy, I’m grateful that I have a job that pays enough to cover ALL my bills.

Nov. 9
Day 9 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for family—mine and Mare’s. I have the funniest little bingo-blotter-wielding mom in the world. I’m also grateful for some awesome in-laws. I love them and they love me. Not everyone who’s married can say that. Even fewer who are gay can say that. I am truly fortunate.

Nov. 10
Day 10 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for three very important things: health, sanity, and, umm, what’s that third one there. Let’s see…O.K., so health, sanity, and—let’s see. I can’t. The third one…I can’t. Sorry. Oops…. (Thank you, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for reminding me that I’m grateful to have a sense of humor.)

Nov. 11
Day 11 of Thanksgiving: It’s Veteran’s Day, and I’m grateful for all the servicemen and women past and present who’ve fought for our country, but especially Uncle Marvin. He fought in Vietnam and then was a drill sergeant stateside. As a result of his traumatic experiences in Asia, he went through some very rough patches during his life—persevering through pain others could see but of which he would never speak. Thank you, Uncle Marvin, and all the men and women who’ve ever worn a military uniform. You’ve kept me, my family, and my neighbors, students, and colleagues free and safe. For that, I’m truly grateful.

Nov. 12
Day 12 of Thanksgiving: I'm grateful today that I can hear. I can hear the quiet of an early morning. I can hear my cute, sweet, smart yet neurotic dog Dudley bark his head off at some unseen danger in the backyard. I can hear Mare burp in the kitchen and then belt out Tarzan yells like Carol Burnett as she gets dressed in the bedroom. I can hear birds tweet outside (not the Twitter kind). I can hear, and life sounds wonderful.

Nov. 13
Day 13 of Thanksgiving: I'm grateful for one of my Taekwondo students, who years ago when he was age 9 intervened on behalf of a classmate when a bully pulled his classmate's pants down in the boys restroom. Then my student did the right thing—the brave thing: he told his teacher. As a result, school administrators discovered that the bully had done this to others, and he was disciplined. I'm proud of my student. He helped stop a monstrous bully. He stepped forward to help a weaker, smaller peer. At 9 years old, he was a bigger man than any of those "men" at Penn State.

Nov. 14
Day 14 of Thanksgiving: I'm grateful for my 12-step recovery program, specifically Step 1, which reminds me that I'm powerless over people, institutions, and certain events. It's OK to stick with the winners, and, as a result, let go of toxic, drama-addicted people.

Nov. 15
Day 15 of Thanksgiving: It's raining today in drought-stricken Texas. Thank you, Sky Gods.

Nov. 16
Day 16 of Thanksgiving: Today I have yet another doctor's appointment. My left foot is swollen AGAIN. I'm grateful, though, that I have a left foot. And a right one, too.

Nov. 17
Day 17 of Thanksgiving: I have the best dream life. I've always dreamed in color, and the images are vivid. Lately I've been having recurring travel dreams, sharing my time between Paris and Las Vegas. It's an adventure every night!

Nov. 18
Day 18 of Thanksgiving: I'm blessed with the best Taekwondo students in the world. Their growth continues to amaze me!

Nov. 19
Day 19 of Thanksgiving: I have comfort: a small (cozy) house, and in that house is a livingroom with a comfy couch. On that couch, covered by warm and loving dogs, I get to take the occasional nap. I'm lucky. I have a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food in my belly. I have comfort. Priceless.

Nov. 20
Day 20 of Thanksgiving: I'm grateful for the transformation of butterflies. They remind me that no matter what may seem wrong with my life, change—big change—is just around the corner. Today, a friend gave me the honor of releasing Monarch butterfly No. 9 from their makeshift den sanctuary. I named him Momo for our dog who died right around the time that the caterpillar cocooned. Then I let him go. It was a beautiful moment.

Nov. 21
Day 21 of Thanksgiving: I'm grateful that I don't beat up on myself for little things as much anymore—like forgetting to post this gratitude yesterday.

Nov. 22
Day 22 of Thanksgiving: I'm grateful for my day job. A competitor laid off a bunch of people last week. Times are tough everywhere these days. So I'm grateful that I have a job, first of all, and that I have the kind of job that is going to pay me to go eat, nap, and play board games with my family on Thursday AND Friday. What a gift.

Nov. 23
Day 23 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful that I don’t live in Yemen or Egypt, where a revolution could break out on any given day with little warning. I’m also glad that I don’t live in Afghanistan, where, according to a article, a woman who is raped has to either suffer 12 years in jail or marry her attacker.

Nov. 24
Day 24 of Thanksgiving: OMG, IT’S FINALLY THANKSGIVING! Today I’m grateful for Angie Van Heel, who invited others to join her in a 30 Days of Thanksgiving (Gratitude) practice. The problems I had 24 days ago have not changed. They’re all still here. Yet I somehow feel better about my life. Hmmm. Thanks, Angie!

Nov. 25
Day 25 of Thanksgiving: Today I’m grateful for a circle of good friends (who answer to either The Yayas or The Domino Divas), a good meal, the smell of sea salt, and the sound of ocean waves. A weekend with friends at the beach: Awesome.

Nov. 26
Day 26 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for old songs like “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver that bring back good memories of gentler times.

Nov. 27
Day 27 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for a day of living in the moment. Today, I had an unexpected adventure that I’d have missed if the day had unfolded according to my piddley plans. The Power of Now: It’s more than the title of a bestselling book!

Nov. 28
Day 28 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for Texas Ruby red grapefruit. It’s light and rich in vitamin C (a good thing during cold and flu season). Not everyone in the United States can get this fruit, either. Lucky!

Nov. 29
Day 29 of Thanksgiving: I won! I won! I won! I won an award in an essay contest sponsored by the Embassy of the Republic of Korea. Today, I’m grateful for the gifts of martial arts and writing. Most of all, I’m grateful to the topic of my essay: Stephen, a kid with ADHD. Through Taekwondo, Stephen developed (1) the focus to notice one summer day that his sister was drowning at the bottom of a family friend’s pool; (2) the courage to act quickly as he dove down to the bottom; and (3) the physical strength to grab his sister bear-hug style and kick them both to the surface and to safety. I’m excited about the award, but it doesn’t come close to trumping Stephen's heroic actions.

Nov. 30
Day 30 of Thanksgiving: I’m grateful for gratitude and the power of choice. No matter what happens in my life, I can choose to be grateful—to see something positive in one thing every day. If you’ve never tried the Gratitude Experiment, I highly recommend it. It has been quite a powerful and empowering journey.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gratitude Quote of the Week

“If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.”
— Anonymous

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Courage Quote of the Week

“To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Art of Giving and Receiving Love

The other day, another parent said, "We love you, Ms. Cathy."

I’ve heard it before. In fact, I get that sentiment a lot. And yet I’m still surprised. I’ve practiced Taekwondo for 19 years now (11 years teaching), and I know that I’ve done a lot of good for others, especially children. Still, I'm always on guard, trying to strike a healthy balance between good self-esteem and humility. (Trust me: My ego can balloon with the best of them.)

Parents and students do love me and the work that I do, and they show me and tell me in a myriad ways.

Families bring me cookies and cards throughout the year. During the winter holiday season, they shower me with gift certificates to Starbucks and Barnes & Noble. Students write me Valentine’s Day poems and give me lollipops on their birthdays. Some Tiny Texans run up and wrap their arms around my dobok pant legs, squeezing out a big hug. One time, an anonymous donor left an envelope containing $200 cash on my office desk. It’s rare that a parent comes up and gives me a big, strong bear hug and a kiss on the cheek, but that’s happened too. (That one may always surprise me.)

These moments of thanksgiving have happened so often that you’d think I would have gotten used to them by now. After all, I’m an empowering teacher who invests a lot of energy in inspiring others, especially my young students. What goes around comes around, eh? Yet the love and acts of kindness that my students and parents show me always take my breath away. I’m genuinely touched. And on many levels, it’s difficult to take in all that love.

It’s always been easier for me to be the compliment giver than the receiver, to Aikido-deflect a nice sentiment. It’s also always been easier for me to believe a negative statement about myself rather than a positive one.

After all these years of powerful training, I’m slightly baffled that I still have much to learn about the art of building and maintaining self-confidence and self-esteem amid humility.

I continue to try, though. If I want my students to believe all the encouraging words I say to them, then I have to be able to let those messages in myself—to not discount sweet words that parents and students often convey.

Last week at the YMCA, I got more than my fair share of practice in the art of taking compliments. Many parents were excited about the results of my latest character-building homework assignment.

To earn a black stripe on their belt, students were encouraged to do something nice for their parents—take out the trash, set the table for dinner, clear the table after dinner, clean their room, put away their toys—without their parents either knowing about it or asking them to do it.

“You can do anything,” I told students in my Tiny Texans and Youth Beginner’s class earlier in the week, “ANYTHING! Just don’t tell your parents. It has to be a surprise! And if they ask you to do that task, it’s too late. It doesn’t count. So if your parents are always reminding you to brush your teeth before bed, brush your teeth RIGHT AFTER DINNER! Beat them to it!”

On Thursday, 3-year-old Izzie—a meek and long, blond-haired Cinderella wannabe—was the first to report her progress.

“Ms. Cathy,” the Tiny Texan squeaked, “I strapped myself into my car seat without mommy’s help.”

“WOW!” I said, looking over at her parents. Izzie’s mom nodded in affirmation. “I’ll bet that makes your parents very happy because they know you’ll stay safe in the car.”

Izzie nodded silently. Her mom smiled wide, pride beaming from her face.

For successfully completing her character homework, Izzie received a black stripe on her white belt. Now Izzie was smiling as wide as her mom. As I cut the electrical tape off and pressed its end firmly to Izzie’s belt, I gave her some encouraging words.

“You’re smart,” I began. “Strapping yourself into your car seat is a very important task. It will help your parents know that you’re riding safe, and the more you do little things like this to keep yourself safe, the more your mommy and daddy will trust you in the future to take on more big-girl tasks.

“So keep up the good work!”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Izzie said softly with a shy smile. Her mom mouthed a silent “thank you.” I nodded approvingly and mouthed an equally silent “you’re welcome.”

In the next class, Ricky, a petite, 6-year-old yellow-stripe white belt, tugged on my dobok sleeve. He had something important to tell me about his homework assignment.

“Ms. Cathy,” he said, “I went to bed without my parents telling me to.”

“That’s fabulous!” I said, as I gave him a high-five palm slap. “I bet your parents appreciated that, huh?”

“Oh, yeah!” said his mom, who was standing nearby.

“I’m very proud of you,” I said to Ricky. “Do you know why?”

“No, ma’am,” he said.

“You’re helping your parents. They’re not trying to be mean to you when they tell you that it’s time for bed. You see, they know your body needs a certain number of hours of sleep so that you can grow. When your body gets lots of rest, you’ll grow big, tall, and strong!”

Ricky’s eyes grew wide.

“Keep up the great work, son,” I said, wrapping a black stripe around his white belt. “If you keep going to bed when you’re supposed to without complaint and you keep getting all the rest you need, pretty soon you’ll be taller than me!”

“Yes, ma’am!” Ricky said, grinning.

“And then I won’t want to spar you anymore because you’ll be so strong that you’ll kick me into next week.”

Ricky smiled wider.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.

Comsah hamnidah,” I said in Korean, and then in English, “Thank you!”

Ricky’s mom reached out her hand to shake. “Thank you for all you do,” she said. “You’re teaching our kids so many great lessons. It’s more than Taekwondo.”

I tried to take it in.

“You’re welcome.” I finally said.

As Ricky and his mom turned to go, I noticed another parent, the mother of a 6-year-old white belt, who had been patiently waiting nearby. She had a serious look on her face. Right or wrong, I immediately thought, "Oh no, what'd I do?"

“I don’t know if you realize how important you are,” she began. I sighed a bit on the inside. “You’re surrounded by angels. I know you don’t really know me very well, but I have to tell you that it is so refreshing to find a teacher like you. We are all so grateful. You are very special, and we love what you do for our kids.”

I’ve heard this before too (yes, even the part about being surrounded by angels). But holy tamale, I’ve never known what to say. Or do you say anything?

I stood there and practiced receiving love.

“Thank you,” I said simply. “Thank you for your kind words. I really appreciate your support.”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Indomitable Spirit Quote of the Week

“The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more.”
— Dr. Jonas Salk
Developer of the polio vaccine

Friday, July 29, 2011

Knowing When Not to Persevere

My students have really taken a liking to our “Don’t Quit” motto—even the Tiny Texans.

Case in point:

Yesterday, 5-year-old Zephyr had a gnarly stomach virus. He felt awful, but at the same time, he was sad about having to miss Taekwondo class.

So he shored up all the indomitable fighting spirit he had and declared to his mother: “I’m in control of my body and won’t throw up in class.”

Poor little thing! I was so touched that he was trying to practice the Taekwondo tenets of perseverance—and self-control.

Mean Mommy made him stay home anyway. (Smart mommy, if you asked me.)

For his willingness to come to class even though he didn’t feel well, though, Zephyr will get a special “self-care” stripe when he returns on Tuesday.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Point of Gratitude

During the summer, most martial arts schools struggle to make ends meet because enrollment dips. Students and their families go on grand Grand Canyon vacations and set their GPS destinations for Disney World and a dozen other theme parks. Today, I’m astounded when I see the enrollment numbers for the East Communities YMCA’s Taekwondo classes. We are not dipping in enrollment. On the contrary. There are waiting lists for two of the four classes I teach.

Chalk up one gratitude point.

Last year, I struggled to attract a diverse crowd to my dojang. Today, I’m grateful for the opportunity to inspire and empower students of all races, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds. I’m using what little Spanish I know every day. Funny, all I had to do was move my program a few miles east of IH-35.

Chalk up another gratitude point.

For five years, I struggled to find enough time to do all the things—besides teaching—necessary to keep a martial arts school running. Today, I’m grateful that someone else collects tuition; enrolls new students; sets up bank draft payments; pays the rent and utility bills; handles all the marketing and advertising; cleans the bathrooms, dressing rooms, and lobbies; cleans oily fingerprint smudges off the wall-to-wall mirrors; keeps the restroom stocked with toilet paper; replaces empty water dispensers; opens and locks up the building; cuts the lawn; sprays for mosquitoes; takes care of any minor flooding issues; and makes coffee for visitors.

Chalk up another big, bad gratitude point there, buddy.

But today, I’m exceptionally grateful for a little thing that’s made a big difference in everyone’s training. Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute's original location was an open-air dojang. (Yes, I know. Crazy.) Every summer, I allowed students to wear school T-shirts from Memorial Day to Labor Day (or the first cold front). But let’s face it, people: no matter how many ceiling and oscillating fans you have going, between May and September in Texas, it’s incredibly, unmercifully, diabolically HOT. I had to constantly remind students to drink plenty of water. I had to disclose not-so-pleasant examples of whether their bodies were hydrated. ("If your pee is yellow, you're not drinking enough water. If it's clear, you're good to go.") I had to always be on the lookout for faces that turned dull and ashen. We never had anyone become ill because of the heat, but it took a physical and mental toll. For example, during black belt tests, candidates not only were concerned about performing well, but they also worried about hydrating enough the day before and day of the test. The joke was that if you had a "Barbie bladder" and woke up every hour the night before the test to go pee, then you were going to be O.K.

So today, I’m grateful for one big advantage of moving to the YMCA: They have AIR CONDITIONING.

Now, I know that one day very soon one of my longtime students will come up to me and complain that it’s hot and they’re sweating (even though perspiration is obviously one of the things you can expect to happen when you exercise). And on that day, I’ll be nice. Very nice. I’ll just look at them with all the seriousness of Yoda and say, “Take our class outside like at the old dojang, should we?”

To which they’ll say with a flat, ashen face, “Oh, uh ... no, ma'am,” and get back in line with a new perspective.



Thursday, June 2, 2011

"Don't Quit" Quote of the Week

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

— Michael Jordan
Legendary basketball player

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Students Break for Breakthroughs

There are four things that you should know about me:

1. I love to break things.
2. I love rituals, customs, and ceremonial rites of passage.
3. I love to help others.
4. I love to break things.

On Saturday night, all four things came together in a unique fund-raising event that will help East Austin youth gain self-confidence, physical strength, and spiritual peace.

My mother always frowned upon me breaking things when I was a child (big surprise). But now that I’m an adult, and a Taekwondo practitioner, I’m encouraged to break wood, tile, and brick—stacks of it, if possible—and I always gleefully oblige.

Some martial artists are known for fancy flying kicks, fierce sparring ability, impeccable balance, or the ability to knock an opponent into next week with a powerful punch or kick. I’m known for my breaking ability, but in order to feel complete, I had to find a way to turn my gift into a ritual that would help others.

“Breaking for a Breakthrough” was born in 2005, and it’s been a powerful source of fund-raising and transformation ever since.

“Breaking for a Breakthrough” is a physical, mental, and spiritual exercise that emphasizes board breaking skills as a way to break through problems and obstacles, and symbolizes how oftentimes we need the support of others to move through life’s toughest challenges.

Participants select a whitewood pine board (12 inches long, ¾-inch deep, various widths) and write on it a problem or obstacle they have in their life. Something that really eats their lunch. When they are ready to let that problem go, they hand the board to a nearby martial artist to break for them. Participants take the two halves of pine home and put it in a place where they will see it every day. The day they walk by it and realize the breakthrough is complete, they set it aside to burn at their next campout or on the next cool, fall evening—returning it to the earth.

Saturday’s “Breaking for a Breakthrough” Break-a-Thon benefitted the East Communities YMCA’s Partner of Youth fund, which ensures that every kid who wants to take a class at the YMCA can—regardless of the ability to pay. The Break-a-Thon was phenomenal in many ways. Financially, we raised $225 ($25 more than our goal). At $5 per board, that’s 45 white pines to smash through. It may not sound like a lot, but for our humble little martial arts group, it was a tremendous feat of feet and hands. Here’s why: Thanks to our breakers, there now is a spiritual crack—a ray of hope—at the center of some very stubborn obstacles that have kept many people from living in peace and freedom.

Our group gathered in a half-circle, sitting side-by-side on gray folding chairs, to root on individual breakers in the center. I explained how “Breaking for a Breakthrough” worked, and we got down to spiritual business.

Little 4-year-old Lev handed me a board that read, “I can’t break a board.”

“Is this your board or someone else’s?” I asked.

“It’s my board,” he said, almost hesitantly.

“Well, how about this: I’ll break your board if you break mine.”

I showed him a 3-inch-wide board that had “Uncertainty” written on it in red marker.

“O.K.,” Lev said, smiling wide.

Lev chose to break with a stomp kick.

He only had to hit my “uncertain” board twice before it snapped.


The roomful of spectators cheered.

“You CAN break a board, Lev!” I said, holding up the two board pieces, one in each hand.

He grinned from eardrum to eardrum as I handed him the broken pieces, and then he ran to his parents for a big bear hug.

My students were not only challenged with bigger boards than they were used to breaking, but also tried by the oftentimes intense emotional/spiritual factor. This makes the boards even harder to break. Some obstacles are tougher to overcome than others, and when you participate in this kind of exercise, you quickly realize that some boards—though they may be identical in size and sap—are harder to break than others because of what has been written on them. We humans are capable of carrying around a lifetime of painful worries and fears in our souls. When dark energy has been in our cellular structure that long, it’s not that easy to free.

Still, many people were willing to let go of a lot of longstanding and heartbreaking obstacles on Saturday, and each breaker never quit. I was very proud of both parties.

One student in particular—a persistent, 7 year-old green belt—hit the mega-obstacle jackpot. He was breaking for someone who had written in black ink, “Fear of people, fear of failure, fear of economic insecurity.”

Poor kid must have hit that 5-inch-wide board with a side kick a dozen times before I stopped him. I could tell he was getting tired, but he never lost composure and wasn’t about to give up.

“Listen, this is a huge problem,” I told him. “It has nothing to do with whether you’re doing the kick right or not. It’s just a really big obstacle for this person. Lots of fear, and that’s real scary. So think about the person, about how much you want to help them overcome their fears, and then hit it hard and fast right in the center. It’ll break.

“Try again,” I said, holding the board with a good grip. I locked my elbows. As I turned my head away, I gave him the command to begin.


He hit the board with a powerful side kick. It still didn’t break—but everyone heard a little crack.

“That’s it!” I said. “One more time.”

He hit it again just as hard. It still didn’t break.

“O.K. guys,” I told the spectators. “It’s time to send good, healing chi to this person. Let’s help this young man break this board.”

Everyone nodded and leaned forward in their chairs. Some clasped their hands in prayer.

We set up again, and this time he hit that board with the hardest kick ever—accompanied by a loud, thunderous kihap.


The room erupted in applause—for him and for the person who now had hope that many lifelong fears would soon vanish.

“That was hard-fought,” I whispered to him as I shook his hand. “Good job.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said humbly, then returned to his seat.

All evening, the energy in the room was intense. Even East Communities’ executive director became teary-eyed.

“I found myself getting emotional—over a board,” she said later, looking a bit baffled.

I could tell she didn’t understand why she had such strong feelings.

“In this kind of breaking exercise, that’s what happens,” I said. “You’re feeling all that energy moving—from dark to light, from sadness to joy. Some of the people we broke for tonight have been stuck in hell for a long time, and tonight they’re on the road to freedom.

“That’s huge.”

She gave an understanding nod.

I am continually amazed at how easily our Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute’s group is willing to help others in need. I have to send out a Herculean electronic hug and thank you to all our breakers: Calvin Redman, Ziyah Parramore, Elijah Kleinman, Lev Kleinman, Jonathan Kleinman, Danielle Hamilton, Karen Rivera, and Waylon “Way-Way” Redman. They were selfless in service to others and bold in spirit.

Does reading this make you crave a breakthrough of your own over something that’s really troubling you? If you didn’t get the chance to participate in Saturday's breakthrough event, contact me via email.

I’ll never turn down an opportunity to break something.

Then again, you already knew that about me, didn’t you?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Flexibility Quote of the Week

“The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.”
— James York, mathematician / scholar

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Case for a Quiet Kihap

I encourage all my students to practice strong, loud kihaps, or spirit voices, so that they can defend themselves with ultimate power. No kihap is right or wrong. No two kihaps sound the same. If done with the right spirit, though, all kihaps should scare the crap out of you.

Three-year-old Logan loves to use his spirit voice. He takes it very seriously.

Recently Logan came running full speed into the Tiny Texans training room and made a beeline for me.

"Ms. Cathy," he began. His blond hair was ruffled and he was a tad out of breath. "I have [heavy breathing] something to tell you."

"Yes, sir, I'm all ears," I replied.

"My baby sister is coming with my daddy today!" he said, holding his index finger up in the air.

"Wow! How exciting is that?" I replied.

"Yeah, I have to make sure I don’t scare her with my kihap," he said in a serious tone, then darted off to run circles around the room with his classmates.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building Better Bodies Every Day

Our main goal at Tao of Texas Martial Arts is to build better character every day. Character development is hard work, but it can feel invigorating when we finally accomplish goals and overcome nagging issues.

Now I know how my students feel.

My Taekwondo students get so excited about a little strip of black electrical tape on their belt. In my class, I award black stripes to indicate strides in character development. These students work so hard on really tough issues and are thrilled when I wrap that one-inch stripe around their belt. The moment I snip my scissors and press the tape end to the belt, you might think I'd just delivered an empowering, chi-charged exclamation point. My students smile widely and deeply, and I am so proud of them.

Their efforts toward becoming better little people are so admirable that today they’ve inspired me to work on an issue that is challenging me to let go of old behavior and make better choices.

More specifically: To eat well.

Yes, today I humbly admit that I:
• Do not always give my body the nutritional things it needs to work at an optimum level
• Often succumb to eating what’s convenient instead of what’s healthful
• Hate to cook
• Crave fried foods and starches
• Usually give into my cravings

Martial artists are supposed to be the epitome of good health and fitness. We’re known for our strong bodies, clear minds, and serene spirits. So I’m pretty embarrassed to admit today that I often falter when it comes to putting healthful food in my body.

I have made progress. Almost 20 years ago, I quit drinking alcohol. Four years ago, I gave up sodas. Both were super duper hard to do, but now bearable—afterthoughts, in fact.

I’m hopeful that avoiding the Danish staring me in the face this morning and that fried chicken sandwich calling me for lunch will one day also just be something that passes under my nostrils and through my psyche—and keeps going.

At age 47, I can no longer afford to neglect my body by not giving it what it needs. After all, it works hard for me. My body has kept me active and healthy all this time, and energetic enough to chase after Tiny Texans and teach ADHD youths Taekwondo for 11 years.

But in the last four months, I’ve had three upper respiratory illnesses. My immune system is shot. It’s time—check that: overdue—for me to take steps to better care for myself.

On Monday, I started thinking about my little students and the black character stripes I award them, and I got an idea: I have a size 5 white belt in my gym bag. Why not use it to mark my own achievements in eating better?

Here's my character challenge: Every day I eat well, I’m giving myself a black character stripe.

“Will you take away a stripe every time you don’t eat well?” my partner Marianna asked last night.

“Oooh, that’s—a good point,” I replied. “Consequences; just like I have with my students. I guess I’ll have to.”

My plan is simple: fill that white belt with as many black stripes as possible in one month, and then take it to my Taekwondo classes and show it to my students—to let them know that I, too, have to work hard every day to become a better, healthier person.

On Monday, I received an acupuncture appointment to help boost my immune system. Yesterday I followed up with that by eating well—all day. This morning, I’m awarding myself my first black stripe! Woo-hoo!

Today I fill like a giddy little girl. Now I know how my students feel.

Monday, February 21, 2011

U.S. Open Opens World of Possibilities

Volunteering to do service work at Taekwondo tournaments
has enriched all our martial arts experiences.

On Friday morning, I led little 4-year-old Caroline by the hand at the Austin Convention Center, which for the week had been transformed into one huge dojang for the 20th U.S. Open Taekwondo Championships.

In its 20 years, the U.S. Open has been a destination for many athletes with Olympic dreams. The tournament itself has matured into one of the highest World Taekwondo Federation points-rated competitions in the world. This year it drew over 1,500 competitors from countries as Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, France, Germany, Ghana, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and Venezuela.

This season, though, the tournament was a destination for the Diller family, and it inspired big dreams in a little girl deep in the heart of Texas.

Caroline, one of almost two dozen Tao of Texas Martial Arts students who volunteered for the tournament, is one of my Tiny Texans, a mini-martial artist with a lively, energetic, and curious spirit. She came to the Convention Center to volunteer with her mom, older brother Ian, and big sister Eliza. As payment for her cute services, USA Taekwondo gave Caroline an orange U.S. Open volunteer/souvenir T-shirt that went down to her ankles, the chance to cart sparring helmets from ring to ring, and time to read her new flip book while her mom filmed matches for Dartfish. Later that morning, a USA Taekwondo staff member gave her a free meal ticket, and another passed her a clip-on koala that the coach from Australia brought as gifts. She proudly clipped the koala to her lanyard.

Many past Olympic medal winners were there—some walking around in uniform waiting for their turn to compete, some in inconspicuous street clothes. However, seeing the Olympic stars, hearing the numerous foreign languages spoken, and seeing the bright, colorful flags flying overhead from every country imaginable may not be what Caroline remembers most about her first Taekwondo tournament. She’ll one day outgrow the T-shirt and lose the trinket. But one thing she’s likely to keep forever is the sight of female leadership at the tournament.

As I gingerly led Caroline around the 11 rings, we kept our eyes open for white match sheets. They contained pertinent information such as names of the players, countries they represent, weight division, etc. When we saw a paper with a winning player's name circled, we picked it up and delivered it to the tournament desk so that the next bracket could be created.

At one referee desk, a high-ranking female official was putting the finishing touches on a match sheet, so we waited patiently nearby. This particular referee is a veteran known for her demanding style and clear understanding of the rules. She wants her referees to do right things right the first time, and she can be quite intimidating.

I've been at these tournaments before, though, so I know she has a soft side.

"See that lady at the desk?" I asked Caroline. We were close enough for the referee to hear me. "She's wearing a blue jacket, and that means she is a very important referee. She can conduct matches all over the world!"

"Really?" Caroline said, her eyes widening.

When the referee looked like she was finished with her paperwork, I told Caroline, "Ask her if she has any results for us to take back to the tournament desk."

The referee heard me and dutifully played along.

"Do you have any results?" Caroline chirped, a bit shyly.

The referee turned to us. "Here," she said with a kind smile as she handed the paper to Caroline.

I asked Caroline, "How do you say 'thank you' in Korean?"

Caroline smiled at the referee. "Com sam nee dah," she said.

"Comsa Hamnidah!" the referee repeated as she nodded approvingly. She looked at me and smiled, "You're starting them young!"

"Yes, ma'am, I am," I replied, as we turned to go back to the tournament desk.

We zigzagged our way through the rings and spotted a match that was about to end, so we hung out to take those results back, too. Nearby, a female coach was standing next to her player as they waited for their match to begin.

"See this lady, Caroline?" I asked, kneeling down next to her. "She’s a coach. I can remember just a few short years ago, there weren’t many female coaches out there in the sparring ring."

The woman turned, looked down at me and Caroline, and smiled.

"But that’s changed, hasn’t it, ma’am?" I said, looking up at the coach. I winked.

"Yes, it has," she confirmed. "We’ve come a long way."

"What that means, Caroline, is that you can be a coach one day, too," I said.

Caroline beamed. Her golden blonde hair seemed to glow.

"Me?" she asked innocently in her squeaky voice. "I can be a coach?"

"Absolutely," I said. I looked up at the coach. She nodded yes to Caroline.

It was as if Caroline had just been given a new toy. She was excited, and her thoughts immediately turned to her big brother, Ian, whom she adores.

"Then I can be Ian’s coach!" she screamed in halleluiah fashion.

"Yes you can!" I laughed.

Caroline smiled wide, and as we continued walking around the hall, she’d squeeze my hand a little tighter as she repeated, "I’m going to be Ian’s coach when I grow up!"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Practicing Perseverance in Relationships

There have been times when—talking to my sisters on the phone—I've wanted to repeatedly bang the receiver against the coffee table in frustration. So recently when one of my hardest-working students showed signs of a relationship struggle with his little brother, I understood.

In 11 years of teaching martial arts, I've learned that for students with siblings, Basic Rules to Live By No. 4—"We must build and maintain a good relationship with our brothers and sisters at all times."—can oftentimes be an annoying, painful thorn in their sides, but that it's a Basic Rule for a reason. Besides parents, there is no more important, long-term, grit-your-teeth-and-smile-anyway relationship than the one we have with our brothers and sisters.

You may love your brother. You may treasure your sister. If you've never had fleeting angry and even homicidal thoughts toward your siblings, though, (1) I'd like to meet you and (2) you’re either a freak or a saint.

Maybe I'm the freak, though. And maybe all my students are freaks, too, because poor little Carl, all of 7 years old, was struggling with the “at all times” part regarding his 3-year-old brother Wallace. Carl and Wallace are in Tiny Texans together, and Carl is a great big brother in martial arts class. In fact, he's in many ways a model student. But recently things had not been so hunky-dory at home.

In an email, Carl's mother told me that she and her husband had discussed it, and they wanted me to remove a black character stripe that I had awarded their son for being a good big brother. Apparently, the last straw was when Wallace wanted to see something that Carl had, and Carl uttered an ugly refusal.

I can understand his parents' frustration. All parents want in the whole wide world is for their children to be safe and to get along. But all older siblings want in the whole wide world is a cool toy for their birthday and space from their annoying younger siblings.

Anyone familiar with my teaching style knows I have no qualms about stripping stripes from belts when students exhibit character unbecoming a decent human being. My gut told me, though, that stripe removal or demotion would be the easy way out for Carl. Indeed, this was a great opportunity for him to practice perseverance.

On Sunday, I took Carl and his father into the YMCA’s nursery room for a one-on-one talk. I no longer have my own office, so the unoccupied nursery—though cheerfully and colorfully decorated—was the best place available to have a serious, private talk. I could tell Carl was apprehensive. He knew his parents had asked that I remove the stripe. He squirmed in his chair, expecting me to whip out my scissors and snip, snip, snip.

Instead, I asked him several questions to gauge whether he understood why his parents were concerned about how he treated Wallace at home.

"What does it mean to be a good big brother?" I asked.

"Be nice?" he replied. "And share my stuff?"

"Good! Yes! That’s what I’d like in a big brother. Now, it’s normal for your little brother to want to be around you all the time. Do you know why?"

"No, ma’am?" (Carl's answers always sound like he’s asking a question.)

"Because he loves you."

"Yes, ma’am?"

"You are so BIG to him. Like your dad is big to you. You love your dad, right?"

"Yes, ma’am?"

"Well, that’s how Wallace feels about you. He looks up to you. He wants to hang out with you because you’re cool."

"I am?" Carl asked. (This time it was a question.)

"Yes, you are," I said, then leaned forward in my chair to look him in the eye. "So next time Wallace wants to see something you have, or do something you’re doing, just remember that it’s because he loves you."

"Yes, ma’am?"

"Do you have any questions?" I asked.

"No, ma'am?" Carl said.

"O.K. then, let's train."

We stood up, bowed to each other, and Carl walked out of the nursery to join his classmates on the mat. His dad offered a handshake.

"Thanks, Cathy," he said.

I nodded, "No problem. That's what I’m here for."

A few days later, I wrote the following email to Carl to encourage him to keep working on his relationship with Wallace:

"Dear Carl,

"Remember the essay you wrote on what it means to be a good leader? Well, it turns out that if you replace the word 'leader' in your essay with 'big brother' and 'students' with 'little brother,' you already know how to be a good brother….

"Below is your essay. Read it with your parents so that you can continue your commitment to being a better brother:

" 'To be a good [big brother] you have to listen to your [little brother]. It might be important. Be honest to your [little brother] so that your [little brother] will do [things] right. Be kind to your [little brother] so [he] will like you. Respect your [little brother] and [he] will respect you. Think about your [little brother] and [he] will think about you. I think these are qualities that make a good [brother].' "

"These were your own words, so think of [your brother] as one of my students and one of your classmates. Try to be kind. When you feel impatient or frustrated or angry, don’t take it out on him. Instead, tell your parents your feelings, ask for some alone time if needed, and then in a few minutes, try again to reconnect in a positive way.

"You can do this. I BELIEVE IN YOU.

Ms. Cathy"

Yesterday, Carl’s mom told me that she had created a behavior chart so that Carl would have clear instructions regarding what is expected of him. This was a great idea, because I can attest that most children thrive amid structure.

"Since I made the behavior chart," she said, "he has been an AMAZING big brother!"

I had to smile wide. In that moment, I was proud of Carl, proud of his parents, and grateful that the Taekwondo tenet of perseverance can have a positive impact on every part of our lives.

Sometimes, life offers wonderful opportunities to be brave, strong, and responsible—to take action instead of complaining, blaming, or lashing out. There are things I wish I didn’t have to do and actions I’m sometimes afraid of taking. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that complaining and excuse-making wastes time and doesn’t change the fact that I still have to take action if I want my life and relationships to improve.

Speaking of which, I owe my sisters a much overdue phone call.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Perseverance Quote of the Week

"There have been many, many times when I’ve been frustrated because I can’t land a maneuver. I’ve come to realize that the only way to master something is to keep at it...."

— Tony Hawk
Skateboarder extraordinaire

Friday, January 21, 2011

If You Have a Voice, You Have a Choice

My newest students at the East Communities YMCA are a cross-culture mix of women and children—all in the midst of transforming weak peeps into powerful, self-confident voices through the study of Taekwondo and self-defense.

These students are learning that when they stand up for themselves and others, opportunities and hope become abundant.

My Tiny Texans (ages 3-6) can easily name the four weapons every person is born with: two feet and two hands. But no matter the age, everyone seems to stumble on naming the fifth one.

“Head!” one boy shouts out in class one day.

I nod approvingly. “Not a bad guess,” I say. “Yes, keeping a clear head is a vital asset in self-defense, but that’s not the answer I was looking for. Who else has an answer?”

“Eyes!” a girl shouts.

“Elbows!” another boy says.

“Knees!” two siblings agree.

The students keep guessing until finally the meekest girl in the room shyly raises her hand.

“Yes, Ms. Diller?”

“Your voice,” the 7-year-old squeaks.

“YES!” I shout, giving her a high-five. She smiles through missing front teeth.

Students rarely think of their voice as a weapon. Sure, everyday we see people yelling at each other on the street and on television. But rarely is the voice demonstrated as a positive, gentle-yet-firm tool to de-escalate confrontation or stand ground when boundaries are crossed.

A surprising number of women who attend my self-defense class for the first time struggle not to laugh or feel silly when they kihap, or use their spirit voice, while kicking or punching. So over the years, I’ve developed a fun, easy drill called “Blink/Don’t Blink.” When I find students who are shy about using their voice, I have them practice projecting the power of their kihap to make their partner blink. When on the receiving end of the kihap, students try to stay centered, calm, and unnerved—known in Japanese martial arts circles as the “state of no mind.”

Two new white belts—11-year-old twin brothers forever on the cusp of fierce competition and sibling bickering—had no problem finding their voice the other day once they stopped giggling.

At first they couldn’t keep a straight face.

“O.K.,” I said, “five push-ups every time you laugh at your brother.”

“One, ma’am; two, ma’am...,” they counted as they lifted and lowered their plank-straight bodies on the mat.

They each did a couple sets of push-ups, and became more serious.

“Ha!” one brother yelled. His twin still snickered.

“One, ma’am; two ma’am...” his brother counted as he did push-ups.

“Try again,” I said, encouraging them to picture themselves in a self-defense situation.

“No!” one yelled at the other, making him blink.

“Shut up!” the other retorted.

“O.K.,” I interrupted. “That was good. But I didn’t make myself clear on the parameters of this drill. Let’s be respectful. What’s another way to stand up for yourself without saying ‘shut up’?”

“Back away!” the brother shouted.

“Better!” I cheered.

Both brothers smiled. They were proud of what they were learning—forgetting that just moments before they couldn’t look each other in the eye without busting a gut.

As a teacher, it’s always a good day when you see your students grow and break barriers. Women who find their voice, though, are the most exciting for me to teach, for with this type of awakening, they tear down years of society’s messages of:
• “Be a nice girl.”
• “Don’t rock the boat.”
• “Ladies don’t act that way.”
• “You can’t say that.”
• “If you speak up like that, people will start calling you a b----.”

In addition, many women and youth I teach these days live on the poorest side of town. They may already believe messages such as:
• “You’re destined to stay poor and powerless.”
• “Your options in life are limited.”
• “Look out for No. 1 because no one’s got your back.”
• “You might as well get high because you’re life’s not going anywhere.”

Get a group of women and kids together in one of my martial arts classes, though, and watch a light go on in their psyche, a flame flicker in their spirit, and a powerful, previously squashed voice rise from the depths of their soul.

Last Sunday, one lady in my Fit for Defense class almost made herself blink from the voice that erupted like a volcano from her diaphragm. Another woman who came in with a chirp left with a voice as strong as a bullhorn.

They stumbled out of the room afterward amazed by their meager personal triumphs. I wanted to tell them that more will be revealed, but I feared they couldn’t handle any more empowerment, lest their spirits go supernova right there.

I’m blessed that on my journey, many martial arts masters helped me find my voice. I’m honored to pass on my knowledge—to help others find their voices, too. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to build hope in others?

If you have a voice, you have a choice.

And from there, anything is possible.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

When Two Garage Doors Close, Another One Opens

Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes, another one opens.”

This week, Bell’s words came to fruition: On Monday I closed the doors of the building where I started Tao of Texas Martial Arts Institute five years ago. On Tuesday I opened the door to the East Communities YMCA and walked in to the next phase of my martial arts life: teaching Taekwondo to kids from the poorest side of Austin—hoping to help them make positive life choices to counter what they see (crime, drugs, gangs) every day.

As exciting as it is to begin a new program in a new place for a new purpose, I’m feeling a mixture of sadness and fatigue today. Change for the better is still change, and there’s grief in leaving anything behind—even when you’re moving on to something better.

As I sat on the floor of the now-empty, echo-replying training hall Monday night, I fully understood the cliché “memories flooded in”. I avoid clichés, but dang it, this one is appropriate to describe how it felt to look around the dojang, remembering all the events, people, and transformations that occurred since Tao of Texas MAI opened.

What I Will Miss

I will miss that old school—and I emphasize the word “old”. It was a cement-walled, double-garage-door building with dark wooden rafters, zero insulation, and funky smelling fluorescent lights. It was frigid in the winter and brutally hot in the summer, had minor flooding issues, and sensitive electric wiring. It was always either the coldest, windiest, or rainiest day of the year—at night—when the breakers decided they had had enough and flipped out. I had to trudge outside with a flashlight and flip them back on. Oftentimes, I ended up switching off all the wrong levers until I found the correct switch.

The building may have been old, but it was because it was old that I loved it so much. It held a lot of spirit and character, and it helped me and my students train hard and dig deep. Five students became black belts, two black belts promoted to higher ranks, and I received a third-degree promotion. Hundreds of children and adults learned thousands of lessons regarding not only how to punch, kick, spar, and break wood, but also how to improve their fitness and health and become more honest, responsible, patient, compassionate, and respectful people. Not a bad five years spent, if you ask me.

With the mirrors, mats, and training equipment gone, I felt a little sad (correction: WAY SAD) about the other things I’ll miss. Things such as:

• The feeling of a cold mat beneath my feet on a winter day. My students sometimes complained that their toes were numb from the cold floor, and some claimed they had frostbite. I now treasure their exaggerations. I loved the cold, though. It made me feel alive. And cold or not, we always worked hard enough to produce a good stream of sweat by the end of class.

• The feeling of sweaty bangs and a sopping wet dobok after a long day of good, hard training at the height of summer

• The cool shower at home AFTER a long day of good, hard training at the height of summer

• The jump line, where kids and adults honed their jumping skills. Nathan and Matthew, two of my teenage students, spent a week one summer painting cement blocks on the wall—floor to ceiling—the colors from our belt ranks. (Tim Diller was the only one who actually reached “Super Red”.)

• The “Don’t Quit” sign, which encouraged me and my students to keep going even though training—and life—became hard

• The many guest instructors and visitors who helped my students see beyond Taekwondo—that life and other arts are out there and that we should always be open-minded to learning new things. Ilene Smoger Sensei of the Okinawan Karate Club of Dallas taught a bo weapons class; Andrew Budd Sensei taught Enshin Karate techniques; and my old master, Kyoshi Ivan Ujueta of the Professional Karate Institute in San Antonio, introduced my students to Jukido, the gentle, powerful way. Then there were Kelly and Mike from Toronto, Canada, who worked out with us one Saturday morning and taught everyone Tang Soo Do forms. My students still talk about all of these people, the fun they had, and what they learned.

• The anime character painted on the wall by another one of my teenagers. It was Lacy’s first paid gig as an artist, and her friend Danielle took a blurry picture of us as I handed Lacy her check.

• The very spot I stood on the mat when I realized I had to flunk a black belt candidate because she quit a task on the test. She learned a hard lesson that day, and I did, too. On her retest, she learned to persevere despite what trash her mind was talking, and I learned that by not enabling my students today, I enable them to succeed tomorrow. (Today, she is one of my finest black belts.)

• The sight of the ceiling fans and the Plexiglass windows shaking when the Enshin Karate guys hit the heavy Sabaki bag. These guys’ kicks were fierce. The small blood stains on the six-foot-tall bag proved it.

• The harsh knocking and banging sound from the Ving Tsun Kung Fu brothers working on the jong, a wooden dummy used in Chinese martial arts training. It was kind of scary to watch how these men attacked that wooden dummy.

• Lock-Ins. My students and I had a blast each time they brought their sleeping bags in for an overnight stay—and the parents appreciated a “date night” without having to come home early to relieve a babysitter. We always held a “Midnight Writer’s Group,” where adults and kids met at midnight to talk about the craft of writing and to share their work. And at around 4 a.m., when many of the kids had finally crashed, some teenager always seem to be in a talking mood, revealing thoughts, dreams, and fears that I doubted even their parents knew. I was honored to listen.

What I Won’t Miss

With the mirrors, mats, and training equipment packed away, I felt relief (correction: A HUGE WEIGHT OFF MY SHOULDERS) about all the things I won’t miss, such as:

• The long hours. Five days a week, I worked 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. as a copy editor for an educational publishing company, then taught multiple classes in the late afternoon/early evening, did financial/administrative paperwork at home, ate dinner late, and (with whatever time was left) loved on my partner, four dogs, and cat. I chose to continue working my day job to pay personal bills because I didn’t want money to influence how I ran the school. I was able to remain true to that plan, and even though the schedule was exhausting, and I missed a lot of time with family and friends, I don’t regret my choice to make martial arts training affordable.

• Keeping track of tuition payments and paying bills and taxes. Ick.

• The restroom door lock that always had to be adjusted when the building’s foundation shifted

• Those pesky mosquitoes that loved to visit our open-air dojang in the summertime. We kept them off our bodies by spraying insect repellant and keeping our limbs kicking and punching.

• The trickle of water that flowed into the building from outside during a hard rain. (Oftentimes it was more than a trickle.)

• Keeping the back lot weed-free and cut short. Students were never back there—never saw it. Heck, I rarely saw it. However, as a tenant, I was responsible for keeping it cut. It contributed nothing to the school—and was another physically taxing chore.

• Trimming the heavy ivy-like vines that grew along the electricity line just outside our garage doors. If I didn’t trim them, the mosquitoes bred like rabbits.

• Cleaning the dojang, especially the bathroom, where sometimes boys missed their intended target. Eew.

What I Learned

In five years, I’ve seen many small businesses (even martial arts schools) come and go. I’ve had some of my best enrollment months despite stock market fluctuations and hard economic times. I learned a lot by watching other businesses fail and prosper, and personally, I’m grateful to have learned that:

• I’m a fabulous youth instructor.

• I’m not meant to run a school—ever again.

• I was smart not to incur new debt (besides a meager start-up loan) and make the business support itself. Now I’m closing the school DEBT-FREE. In five years, I’ve seen many small businesses fold due to bankruptcy issues, so I feel extra fortunate that I stuck to my guns on this issue. (Wait. That was a cliché, wasn’t it? Grrrr.)

• Material goods and money don’t motivate me. People do.

• Life is too short to spend one more second doing something because others think I should, or because they think I’d be good at it.

• I’m at my best and happiest when I’m teaching and mentoring—being of service to others.

• I don’t have an inherent need to be the top dog. I don’t have a problem taking orders from others. Hence, for me, it’s less stressful to work for someone else and let them pay me to teach, pay the rent and electricity bills, collect tuition, keep the books up to date, pay (the majority of) the taxes, cut the lawn—and clean the boys’ restrooms.

As I collect all the old building’s keys and prepare to turn them into the leasing office, I know that this time next year I will have compiled a whole new list of bullets like the ones above. And that’s O.K., because if there’s one thing I’ve learned most, it’s that when one door closes, another one always opens wide to a new adventure.