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Last night around 7pm Zoe was taking a walk around our neighborhood. When she realized she was being followed by an older man, she texted me to ask what to do. She said the man had shouted to her, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” I told her to cross the street. She did and reported that he was still watching her from across the street and keeping pace with her. I offered to come pick her up and she said yes. When I picked her up she pointed out the man who was still directly across the street from where I found her. After we pulled back into traffic I asked Zoe to take a photo, just in case. We drive home with Zoe clutching my hand.

Once home, after many hugs and reassurances that she was safe, and after we ate dinner, I shared the story on Facebook. Several friends urged me to report the incident to the police. The thought had crossed my mind but I dismissed it, figuring that the man hadn’t committed any crime. He freaked out my teenager, but that’s not illegal. Eventually I decided to report it online, and Zoe described everything again in detail as I filled in the web form.

Afterward Zoe told me how glad she was that I had talked with her about how to handle situations like this. A few years ago when I gave her permission to walk to a shopping area with friends after school, I instructed her to always be on the lookout for people who made her feel uncomfortable and to listen to her gut. I told her if someone was bothering her she should go into a a store or restaurant and tell them what was happening and they would let her stay there and call me. I told her if she’s out somewhere and there’s no place to go inside that she should find a group of people to attach herself to until she can get somewhere she feels safe.

A friend (and mom of teenage girls ) on Facebook tagged a self-defense instructor in her response to my post, suggesting the need for online self-defense classes as so many kids are out walking now for exercise. I mentioned that Zoe is a black belt in martial arts. If she were standing on a mat with this man, she could certainly punch and kick and put him in holds. But she does that on the mat. With other martial artists. Not when she’s walking down a street feeling nervous. I took self-defense classes in my 20s and I struggled to get past the verbal part of the practice exchanges with potential assailants because I didn’t want to be rude. I feel like there’s a chasm between an impulse to escape to safety when you feel threatened and actually preparing to fight or defend yourself physically. I imagine the last thing Zoe was thinking of on the street yesterday was what techniques she would use if the man caught up to her and attacked her. But maybe I’m wrong.

A couple friends on Facebook also suggested I share the story on our community Facebook page to alert others, which I did. What I discovered then was that this man seems to be well known in the neighborhood. Several people who I do not know in real life commented that they have encountered the man many times and some know his name and his story. A few commenters said the man seems to show signs of “cognitive decline” and that “he drinks a lot” and acts “disoriented,” but that he’s “sweet” and “harmless.” A few people said they had been wary of him getting too close to them or their kids. A few said the man reminded them of relatives or people they knew with Alzheimer’s.

I noticed that most of the people in the “he’s harmless” camp were men, and more people in the concerned camp were women, but neither perspective was entirely along gender lines. Two women asked if Zoe was ok and praised her for being aware of a situation that made her uncomfortable and knowing to ask for help.

The gist of the discussion, which, keep in mind, was among people (with one exception) who do not know my daughter or me, was that this man likely meant no harm to Zoe. So that is somewhat reassuring. Except for the fact that he is evidently experiencing significant enough cognitive decline or disorientation or intoxication that he doesn’t know or remember it’s not appropriate to follow and stare at and shout at 13-year-old girls walking down the street.

So here’s where it gets tricky. One man on the community Facebook page said he talks to the guy frequently and that we should “treat him with the kindness and respect we’d want for our own parents.” While I am all for treating people with kindness and respect, I also hope and expect that I—and members of my family—will be treated with kindness and respect. And it did not feel kind or respectful to Zoe when this man was following her, watching her, and shouting at her.

I understand that this man has the right to walk around his neighborhood. I understand that he is friendly and talkative and seems to want to engage with people. I also understand that my daughter has the right to walk around her neighborhood without feeling harassed or threatened or unsafe. These things are both true at the same time.

Of course I want my parents to be treated with kindness and respect when they are out walking in their neighborhood. But if my dad was following girls around and staring at them and make them feel uneasy, I would be concerned about his health. I would want to make sure his freedom to enjoy safely walking down the street wasn’t keeping other people from enjoying that same freedom.

I try not to engage in weighty conversation with strangers on the internet because I know where that goes and it’s usually nowhere good. I’ve been trolled and vilified by strangers in the comments. I am so conflict averse that sometimes if I post something that ends up sparking debate or argument among my friends I will delete the whole thing. I keep considering taking down my post to the neighborhood group, but I haven’t. What about the kindness and respect we would want for our own children?

I am sitting in my car, which is parked in front of our house, hiding from my kids.

I just spent a long time talking to a friend commiserating about mom stuff. Even though I know it intellectually it is always reassuring to hear how other people’s kids aren’t perfect and are, in fact, making their mothers crazy the same way yours are.

Of course you know I love my kids with all of my being, but this 24/7 togetherness is wearing on me. I’m sure it’s wearing on them too. And they have even less opportunity to escape since they can’t drive. I guess theoretically they could go hide in the car too. But they haven’t tried. Yet.

It is not my nature to find people to blame my troubles on. Nor do I usually fault myself for everything that goes wrong. But under sustained stress I begin casting about for the culprit. This afternoon while Zeke was finishing his lunch I started clearing the space in the family room where he does his online martial arts class. I sent him to put his uniform on. When he tried to open the door to his and his sister’s room, she quickly shut it because she was about to change. Zeke came back downstairs, still in his pajamas. So I ran upstairs and yelled at Zoe that Zeke’s class started in five minutes and he needed his uniform. She yelled that she didn’t know that and stormed out of the room to change in the bathroom. I brought the uniform downstairs and turned off the video on the Zoom call so Zeke could change. I tried to tie his belt, because Zoe usually does it but she was in the bathroom, and I did it wrong because I always do. Zeke’s supposed to know how to do it himself, and he learned it, but then forgot, because the instructors or Zoe always do it for him. Meanwhile, his instructor on the Zoom call is doing a belt tying lesson at that exact moment, and Zeke is playing with Legos. I tell him to look at the screen and follow along. He says he can’t see the screen (perhaps because he’s not looking). I attempt to drag him away from the Legos to in front of the tv so he can follow the demonstration. Apparently the dragging hurts him and he crumpled and starts to cry. So I feel terrible that I hurt him and furious that he wouldn’t listen and irritated that he can’t remember how to tie the freaking belt. I am mad at myself, at him, and at Zoe. Then I shift that anger to the coronavirus. And then to Trump. And white supremacists and our white supremacist culture. Maybe I’m also a little pissed off at whoever it was in Wuhan, China who ate a bat or a pangolin or whatever animal it was that transmitted the virus to humans, thereby launching a global pandemic. And what is a wet market anyway? It sounds messy and gross.

So I’m in my car. Not meditating. Not doing yoga. I didn’t do the yoga yesterday that I promised myself. Just stewing while looking through the windshield at the hot pink roses and watching the blue sky through the window.


Zeke has figured out how to get a laugh. He just shouts or says or sings outrageous words or phrases, sometimes using funny voices. When he was learning to ride his bike he kept yelling, “Peruvian chicken!” as if it were a battle cry. Another day he circled the family room saying, “Romania! Where are you? Romania!” At dinner he’s come out with so many weird remarks that Zoe started keeping a list. Then last night I was carrying him up the stairs to bed because he insisted he was too tired to move and because I’m a sucker. He looked over my shoulder at Randy, who was at the bottom of the stairs, and said, in a pretty good approximation of an old lady voice, “Matthew! Get some water for Granny!” And I started to laugh so hard that I had to put him down because my stomach hurt.

So I’ll probably go back in the house now, because my kids are usually funny and nice. And I’m hungry.

I just found out that a friend’s mom died today from coronavirus. The friend is someone I met when Zoe and her son were in preschool together, and I haven’t seen her in a while, but I met her mom and I know how close they were. And this reminds me that it could easily have been my mom.

Three other people I know have lost loved ones to COVID-19 so far, but of course there will be more.

Randy remarked earlier that it’s like a slow-motion September 11. But on such a massively larger scale. I remember after September 11 when I was at work and I would often have to make calls to people I didn’t know and the first thing anyone would say to each other was, “Did you know anyone…” and if you were calling someone in New York, “Where were you? Did you see it happen?” But this thing just goes on and on and you can’t be horrified all the time but you can’t pretend it isn’t happening either.


I’ve read a lot of articles lately advising people not to try to be particularly productive during the quarantine or undertake a new project or create something new. I think these cautions are a backlash against overzealous memes that appeared when everything started to close down, like calculus was invented during the plague or some composer wrote his greatest symphony while people were dying from the flu. No pressure or anything.

Unquestionably I agree that we shouldn’t feel required to achieve greatness just because we’re stuck inside for the foreseeable future. But I also see the value in trying to do something–anything–to shake loose from the constantly looming specter of despair.

So today I woke up at a reasonable hour, conducted a zoom meeting with family about our upcoming virtual Passover seder (we are very flexible in our observation of Jewish traditions), and did a session of EvolveAll bootcamp on the living room rug. I was amazed by how much I could sweat in 12 minutes. Boot camp at EvolveAll is led by Soup (the man, not the food) and it is intense. In real life, I have never participated, but I have watched hundreds of classes while my kids were in their martial arts classes. I am almost always working while my kids are in class, and I can’t help but see the boot campers out of the corner of my eye. Several of them are friends. Many are parents of the kids in my kids’ classes. Soup and some of the students have invited me to join them, but I never have. Under ordinary circumstances I would rather exercise outside–playing soccer or hiking or doing something fun with people that doesn’t just seem like work. But I need not remind you that these are not ordinary circumstances.

Today while I was doing the workout, Zeke was sitting at the edge of the rug playing with legos. He frequently said, “Good job!” when I finished a particular exercise. After I was done he came over to hug me. “I’m super sweaty!” I said. He said he didn’t care, and he was proud of me.

At the beginning of the quarantine, nearly a month ago, Randy and Zoe and I joked about doing push-ups and sit-ups every day. Randy and Zoe did a bunch early on and Randy bruised a rib or pulled something in his chest. I was worried at first that it was coronavirus but he confirmed it was just a muscle. I kept thinking about movies and tv shows in which someone is in prison or a holding cell or quarantined because of contact with aliens. They’re always doing push-ups and sit-ups while they’re isolated in their rooms. Some strange logic in my brain kept telling me that if I started doing push-ups and sit-ups every day then I would be acknowledging that we were imprisoned. I understand this is not literally true. I’ve tried to reframe that desperation into a way of asserting control. Usually when I feel like everything is out of control I do something easy that I can control, like cleaning my desk or organizing a cabinet or some similar small task that isn’t really important but gives you some sense of satisfaction afterward. In quasi-quarantine I am doing plenty of dishes and laundry (as are Randy and Zoe) but they provide minimal satisfaction. So I succumbed to the push-ups. Zoe had accomplished Master Emerson’s advanced push-up challenge, but I told her if we started there I would probably not finish and that would be the end of that. So we started small, with 25. The next day, 25 again. Tonight it’s 30 although I already did 20 as part of the boot camp workout. We haven’t added in the sit-ups yet. Despite the fact that Zoe is a black belt in martial arts and a fast runner and now a cyclist, she is concerned that she doesn’t have visible muscles. She wants defined biceps and visible abs. I just want strength and endurance. I am strong–I think a lot stronger than people would look at me and guess. I am not fast and I am not fit. But I’ll take strength and I’ll work on endurance. Mostly, though, if doing a workout gets me off the computer and out of my anxiety spiral for a while, I’ll take it.

When they first announced that our schools were closing because of the virus, it was only supposed to be for a month. The kids would return to school on April 14, after spring break. I can’t believe this decision was made only two and a half weeks ago. Already it feels like forever, since everything has changed and changed and changed again since then. But way back then, I naively thought that we might still be able to have spring break. We weren’t planning any exotic trips–just an overnight to Baltimore to visit the American Visionary Art Museum, explore the National Aquarium, and take the water taxi to Fells Point. And another overnight to Pennsylvania to spend a day at Hershey Park, which Zoe requested as a birthday present and where she and Randy were going to ride all the roller coasters. Still, we had something to look forward to.

Now our schools are closed for the rest of the school year, although perplexingly that’s not the case nationwide. And Virginians, along with residents of many states, have been ordered by the governor to stay at home unless we need to leave home on essential trips. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Arlington has surpassed 100 and continues to climb. It seems like we are stuck at home for the foreseeable future. I just hope to God we can have our summer. Please don’t tell me otherwise right now. I cannot handle it.

I am feeling discouraged. My family will not be able to be together to celebrate my or my kids’ or my parents’ birthdays, or Easter, or Passover. We won’t be able to see friends or go to church.

Everything was glitchy today. Apps froze, devices crashed. Zeke collided with a bookcase and cut his arm. I cannot concentrate on writing anything for work when any children are in the room.

I do not intend to whine. I should just go for a walk. I feel this obligation to make dinner though, since we got takeout last night. I know it could be much worse and we are exceptionally privileged and lucky. But the indefiniteness of it all weighs heavily on me.

A sage person recently reminded me that two contradictory things can be true at the same time. This wisdom seems particularly relevant right now, as the world struggles with a terrifying pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of people and causing widespread unemployment, hunger, and myriad manifestations of physical, social, and emotional distress. At the same time (which seems almost cruel to say because the first thing is so awful it feels insensitive to contradict its weight) there are good things happening that would never have otherwise been possible.

In no particular order:

  • Greater appreciation of teachers and school staff
  • Cancellation of standardized testing
  • More downtime for over scheduled kids (and adults)
  • Less consumer spending (at least at our house)
  • Dramatic reduction in air and water pollution
  • Families and friends connecting more using technology
  • Grandparents learning how to use more technology
  • Individuals and families getting outside and exercising together
  • Greater appreciation of grocery store workers, janitors, garbage collectors, and other essential workers who don’t earn enough money
  • More time for kids to explore their interests and passions
  • Opportunity to be creative about learning (please note I am NOT saying this is easy or that homeschooling is simple or that most of us aren’t going berserk, just that we can think differently about what’s important for our kids to be learning and doing and maybe that’s not the same as what it has been for a long time)
  • Workplaces learning how to be more flexible
  • Greater awareness of the brokenness of our healthcare system and hopefully more public and political will to fix it (of course doctors, nurses, and medical staff are AMAZING! I’m talking about the overall system, insurance, etc.)
  • Neighbors helping each other out more
  • People who don’t usually go to church (or synagogue or mosque, etc) or museums, or the theater, or the ballet, or wherever else, may check these things out online and maybe find new destinations and communities when this thing is over.

I’m sure there are many more, but I’ve been thinking a lot about adaptability and innovation. Yesterday I was both delighted and dismayed to watch Zoe’s first home-based virtual martial arts class. Dismayed only because our family loves the EvolveAll community so much. EvolveAll has been a major part of our lives for eight years now. In recent times, since both Zoe and Zeke are students there and since Zoe was training for and earned her black belt, we typically spent six to nine hours in the studio every week. We love the instructors and the staff, we love the kids and parents, we love the warm, encouraging, and fun vibe. And we haven’t been able to be there for three weeks!

I was thrilled, however, (although not surprised!) to see the tremendous effort that Emerson, Christian, Elijah, Kamil, and the team have put in to creating a new experience for the kids. Over the past three weeks they had posted training videos online, but watching a martial arts video on your own is not that much fun, compared to the feeling of working hard together in class. So yesterday EvolveAll launched its live classes via Zoom, along with a participation component for parents and kids using Class Dojo. I could tell how glad Zoe was to see her martial arts instructors and friends again, even if only on a screen, and to get back to practicing black belt techniques.

Through the magic of Zoom, Master Emerson could see into everyone’s living rooms or basements, and offered guidance on how people could modify their techniques so as not to kick any nearby furniture. At the end of class he solicited feedback from the students, whose main request was more and longer classes.

Of course everyone would rather be doing martial arts (and ballet class, and music lessons, and soccer practice, and everything else that’s been cancelled) together in the studio or on the field and not in their living rooms, but it is so reassuring to know that just because you can’t see your people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Maintaining a strong sense of community is essential during physical isolation, and I know these kids (and their parents) will never forget the instructors, teachers, coaches, and other folks who are helping us stay together.

  • This is what you do when your six-year-old purple stripe belt has his first live martial arts class via Zoom 30 minutes after your first Google Hangout staff meeting with your new client is scheduled to begin.

  1. Make Zeke clean up rogue legos off the rug
  2. Move table off the rug–stand it up between other stuff near the back door
  3. Create a Zoom account for your six-year-old on your iPad
  4. Find martial arts Zoom invitation in your email
  5. Text it to yourself so you can open on your iPad
  6. Copy Zoom link into iCal on the iPad
  7. Show Zeke how to open iCal and click on the link
  8. Show Zeke how to login to Zoom
  9. Have Zeke remind you how to AirPlay iPad screen onto tv
  10. When Zeke asks how long until the class starts, realize you need to go ahead with that time-telling lesson
  11. Gather materials to make paper clock using instructions from PBS Kids
  12. Realize you don’t have a metal brad so try substituting with a weird plastic brad from the toolbox
  13. Assemble clock
  14. Realize the plastic brad does not allow the paper hands to move easily
  15. At Zeke’s suggestion, replace paper hands with pipe cleaners
  16. Provide brief lesson on how to tell time
  17. Make fruit smoothie because you realize you haven’t eaten all day and you’re going into a 90-minute video call
  18. Put blender in the sink and turn on faucet to sprayer mode to rinse out blender like they do at Starbucks
  19. While putting smoothie ingredients away, realize that blender is overflowing with water and faucet is now spraying water all over the kitchen floor
  20. Hastily up kitchen floor
  21. Briefly sit on patio to do conference call outside but realize that’s totally untenable
  22. Sprint upstairs to do the call in your office, which is now your husband’s office, while your husband does his conference call in the bedroom
  23. Meet new coworkers at virtual staff meeting and try to figure out four new assignments received in past 24 hours
  24. Try to remain focused despite incoming calls and messages from friends, family, and other clients

This gets easier, right?

Right?

So I forgot that I am terrible with self-imposed schedules. Homeschool kinda broke down today. On the second day. For better or for worse, after 14 years of working from home, I have fallen into a variety of habits that are not conducive to a structured homeschool day.

Both Zoe and I were up way too late last night–insomnia? Anxiety? Who knows. But as a result we were not up bright and early this morning. Zeke was. And I told him no xbox but he could watch something on PBS Kids. When I finally got my act together I did put Christian’s martial arts exercise video on for Zeke, who also practiced his kick combo a few times.

We didn’t do most of the rest of the lesson plan. Zoe worked on her school work and did a vigorous workout using an online app. Zeke and I did a couple worksheets and watched a video about Fiona the hippo from the Cincinnati Zoo. I folded and put away a lot of laundry. After lunch I got a headache and decided to take a nap. The kids went briefly feral for a while.

Eventually we rallied and went outside to the park to kick the soccer ball around. I was dismayed to see lots of people at the playground and playing basketball, neither of which maintains social distance. At least it was a nice day outside.

Then I made dinner (meatloaf, green beans, couscous, and sourdough bread) while Zeke did math games on the Dreambox app I downloaded at his request. Zoe did some reading and we’re about to play a board game as a family. I realize I was overly ambitious today and need to plan less for tomorrow.

For the past several years, each day of November I have posted on Facebook about what I am thankful for. Or, I have posted every few days a few things I am thankful for. I find it challenging to stick to doing any given task every single day beyond the basics required for hygiene and decent parenting, even if it is a task I want to do and set out for myself.

In recent weeks (maybe months?) I have found myself more anxious and stressed than usual (which is saying a lot). I have struggled to focus my attention on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. I am getting plenty of sleep. I am walking a lot. But my brain is just on overdrive all the time. It feels chaotic in my head.

I am contemplating the causes of this (not that hard to figure out, really) and working on solutions (harder). One thing I know I need to do is express gratitude. I am absolving myself from any requirements of eloquence or grace or even complete sentences. I just want to put some things out into the universe.

I am thankful that

  1. Zeke has finally made two friends in his first grade class and I’ve finally managed to contact one of the moms and have actually arranged a playdate for next weekend. I am both relieved and excited.
  2. My sister has been coaching me in how to say no. You might think this would be simple for me, but you would be wrong. I am rehearsing these lines in my head and planning to use them soon. In fact, earlier today I offered to do something for a group I am in and then I thought about my lines and I rescinded my offer! It felt good.
  3. Several people I care about are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or taking care of loved ones with life-threatening illnesses right now. This is not what I am thankful for. What I am thankful for is that these people all have access to excellent medical care, and more importantly that they are surrounded by family and friends who are providing unwavering love and support. AND that some of these people are willing and able to share what they’re going through online so that the wider community of people who care about them can know what’s going on and offer continuous love and comfort and encouragement. It’s so unnecessary to suffer alone.
  4. Tonight I watched Zoe help Zeke with some martial arts techniques with confidence and patience I have never before witnessed in that situation. It would seem that becoming a black belt and taking a recently added leadership class at EvolveAll have really made a positive difference. She was kind and enthusiastic in instructing him and he was receptive to her teaching and demonstrated immediate improvement. I was proud of both of them.

    (I was going to try to write 30 thankful things here because there are 30 days in November but as the words seem to be just spilling out of me I’ll go for 10 tonight and do the other 20 later).
  5. I have a new client that I am so thrilled to be working for and whose work is making an enormous impact on our country with the potential to seriously change things for the better in the next year. This client completely fell into my lap unexpectedly and I am thankful for the referral from someone I worked with years ago and for the new relationship.
  6. My husband is keeping up with the impeachment hearings so he can explain everything to me. He is more attuned and seemingly better able to understand political news and analysis than I am and he loves to discuss it and doesn’t mind answering my questions. And I am thankful that (hopefully) some people are finally going to be called to account for their unethical behavior. There’s so much more they should be called to account for, but I guess we have to start somewhere.
  7. There are so many extraordinary books in the world and I get to read some of them. I have read (or listened to) some absolutely stunning books in recent months, including The Dutch House; Olive, Again; The Miseducation of Cameron Post; Normal People; Every Note Played; The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl; Children of Blood and Bone; Unsheltered; Sing, Unburied, Sing; Evvie Drake Starts Over; Starworld; Little Fires Everywhere; How Not to Die Alone; City of Girls; and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. This is not an exhaustive list. But a good one.
  8. We have a washing machine and dryer and a dishwasher in our house. These are the kind of conveniences we often take for granted, but they are actually huge. We do so much laundry in our house. I am so grateful that I don’t have to take it all to a laundromat. We have nice clothes. We have warm clothes. We have plenty of choices of what to wear every day. We can be as clean and as cute as we want to be.
  9. I have choices. I am so fortunate to have plenty of options in my life. At times it may seem like too many, but what a luxury to have too many choices. What to eat, where to go, what kind of work to do, who to spend time with, how to raise our kids, what kind of vacation to take, what camp to send our kids to, how to entertain ourselves. We have immense amounts of freedom and privilege in how we conduct our lives.
  10. I play soccer with a phenomenal group of women. I love my team and I love playing with them on Monday nights and I am pretty happy with the fact that I have become a better player over the past eight seasons. And we have new jerseys for the spring season! Stay tuned for pictures come April.

    It’s time to put Zeke to bed. I am thankful that he still loves to read and snuggle with me.

This is the essay Zoe wrote as part of her requirements to earn her black belt at EvolveAll, a phenomenal accomplishment that she achieved today.

By Zoe Rosso

When I was four, a friend from preschool invited me to her birthday party at her Taekwondo studio. Afterwards I said to my mom, “I want to do that!” We found Creative Martial Arts down the street from our house, next to CVS. I did a two-week trial there, a tiny five-year-old with curly hair, and immediately loved it. It was a tiny space, but the community there was amazing. I remember sitting next to my friends Ellie, Matthew, Samantha, learning how to do a side kick. It looked so hard! I didn’t know how the instructors could do it so well. Now, side kick is one of my favorite kicks.       

 A couple years later CMA moved locations and became EvolveAll. I got my blue stripe belt there. I also had two birthday parties there, my seventh and my eighth. I clearly remember at my eighth birthday when my mom along with my friends’ parents ran around trying to play green big ball, and somehow they beat us? The new studio was so much bigger than CMA. There was a turf room that always had kids playing in it, and a huge mat.

My favorite and most clear memory from EvolveAll one is when I got my green solid belt. I heard my name called by Mr. Herill. I ran up to him. I heard everyone yell “3,2,1!” and kicked, but the board didn’t break, and after many tries I was still unsuccessful at breaking my board. Master Emerson took me aside into the turf room to try some more. And I was still unsuccessful. I remember being so frustrated with myself, but I would not cry. I needed to stay strong if I wanted that green solid! I went back into the crowded main room and tried once again with Mr. Christian to break my board, this time by myself in front of everybody there. I could hear people cheering my name, they wanted me to break it. I just couldn’t! I tried so much more in the turf room. I remember Master Emerson saying, “If you don’t break this today I can’t give you your green solid.” That thought was what motivated me to try as hard as I could to break this board. We went back in to watch the remainder of the growth ceremony. I still hadn’t cried even though I wanted to. I was close to giving up, I was tired. I just wanted to go home, but not nearly as much as I wanted my next belt. After the growth ceremony was over, and everyone but the staff and a few families had gone home, I tried again. My parents, the Zoellers, the Gookins, Samantha and her mom, Master Emerson, and a few other people were standing and watching me with their fingers crossed. Mr. Christian was holding my board. Just the strength and support from a few very important people in my life, were enough for me to finally let out that one last “HIYAH” and kick right through the board. I remember everyone yelling and cheering for me. Mr. Christian was jumping up and down, and my mom lifted me up into the air and she was probably crying. I was so happy, overwhelmed and excited all at the same time. Afterwards, we went to lunch at Zoe’s Kitchen. My mom asked me how I felt. Instead of saying embarrassed, upset, sore, or anything like that, I said to her, “I feel awesome!” and smiled. This moment has stayed with me through the past three years. If something gets hard, or I just don’t feel like I am capable of doing something, I remember that moment. If I have perseverance and resilience, then I can do anything and the feeling of completing it is amazing. Whether its breaking a board, learning a form, or getting a kick down. This also helps me work through other things in my life, like math, and especially science. 

 Another challenge for me was sparring. I started when I was around eight. I got a full bag of gear for my birthday and I was eager to start my first class. At EvolveAll one, I was sparring against teenagers like Sydney and Arnab. Since then, at EvolveAll two and three, sparring has changed a lot. Now, we warm up, condition, maybe do grappling or partner work or go over drills, and then do free sparring. It used to be where we would warm up and then go straight into sparring. We had to wear helmets, gloves, and several other pieces of gear, and then we would start to spar. From there we would rotate after every round to our right, so we had to spar against everybody. I always enjoy it now and I have learned a lot. For example, I feel much better about my kicks. I used to be too scared to kick someone, but I kick harder and higher now. I also am more confident, instead of just letting myself get hit, I counter or move away.            

One thing I am grateful for in my journey at Evolve All is the friends I have made over the past seven years. Some of them have been there since the beginning, like Quinn, Kira, Ellie, Matthew.  I love watching them grow and move up. I know that they have my back and will always support me. It is amazing that this sport brings so many people of different ages together. For example, I am friends with Kira, who’s 10, and she is just like my friends who are my age. And Sophie, who’s 16, but it isn’t any different. She is now my great mentor and friend. She is a great teacher but she is still fun. I also like that we can teach each other easily. I’m not afraid to ask my friends for help, and they always are willing to help me. I love the community with the staff as well. All the instructors are so nice and welcoming, and great teachers. What makes the teachers so good is they are fun, but work you hard. They make you feel comfortable. They aren’t afraid to laugh and make jokes and have fun with you in class, but they know how to control the class and teach it well and effectively. 

At EvolveAll one, I would always watch the black belts with amazement. In my eyes, they were bigger, older, more talented people who could do anything, and I was just a little kid who was a yellow solid. My mom would always ask me if I could see myself becoming a black belt. My answer? No way! That’s a big kid thing. I knew I would eventually get there, but it just seemed so far away that I never thought about it. If someone told me that in four years I would be writing this essay and becoming a black belt, I would not have believed it. So, when the time came that I needed to start thinking about the prospect of getting that black belt, I knew I had to step it up. I scheduled a couple private lessons, and we found out that Matthew Gookin was also doing private lessons to help him get ready to earn his black belt. We decided to schedule some lessons with him so we could practice together. These private lessons were helpful for me. I enjoyed having the extra time to practice and I think this was where the biggest part of the switch happened. I went from looking up at the higher belts and not being able to imagine myself being with them, to seeing my friends move up. At EA2, I saw people like Grant and Quinn, who I knew were my age, earn their black belts. Seeing them get achieve that, I realized that I could too. And I was just that much closer to doing it. I started to feel different. I felt better about being closer, and I could see myself improving. I was proud of myself for working hard and learning the form well.

Mr. Christian always talks about the “switch” that people have in their martial arts journey. For me, my switch was at EA2. I took a break from martial arts for about eight months because it was my last year of elementary school, so of course I had to fit in everything before I left. I was doing Girls on the Run, soccer, and gymnastics. I came back in September. A few months after we came back, I went to my second black belt test, and earned two stripes. From then on, I realized how close I was to getting my black belt.

Even though I was improving, I still didn’t feel ready. Something just felt off. Maybe I was scared, maybe I wanted more practice, maybe I thought I needed more practice teaching, or I just needed more time. When the black belt test came around, I talked to Master Emerson. I told him I didn’t feel ready. He understood. At the end of the test, I met with all the black belts. Master Emerson said that the reason I wasn’t moving up that time was that even though all the black belts thought I was ready, I didn’t feel ready, which is one of the most important things you need to move up. If you don’t feel confident, or ready, then you won’t have enough courage or the right mindset to become a black belt. This time though, I knew I was ready. I felt good, and strong. I feel ready. I got this.

When I was taking Biology 101 the first semester of my freshman year at William and Mary, and I realized I was failing, I went to see the professor. I told him I didn’t understand why I was failing–I’d never received lower than a B in my life, with the exception of some rough spots in Calculus and Chemistry in 11th grade. I had certainly never failed a class.

I had also never had to study that much. It turned out college classes were just a wee bit more rigorous than what I was used to in high school. The Biology professor asked if I was an English major. I said yes, but I didn’t understand how that was relevant. “You have to know the parts of the cell,” he explained. “You have to identify each part and where it goes and explain what it does. You can’t just understand the idea of a cell or describe the meaning of a cell.”

I realized I needed to get my act together to pass, which I did by a hair, with a D minus. I also avoided taking any further biology classes until my last semester of senior year, when I enrolled in “Insects in Society” to fulfill the science requirement I needed to graduate.

Between college and now my abilities to pay close attention, to adapt and apply focus to a variety of tasks, and certainly to take new challenges seriously, have all improved. Thankfully I have learned a few things since I was 18. But in most cases I couldn’t pinpoint where or when I figured out how to step up my game. I just evolved.

In recent years I have been privileged to watch my daughter’s transformation in martial arts from someone who understands the idea of the techniques and gets the concept of martial arts to someone who literally embodies the precision, power, persistence, grace, and strength of a martial artist.

Zoe began taking martial arts classes the same week she started kindergarten. She was energetic and determined and cute. She was not especially powerful, focused, or coordinated. Not that that matters so much when you’re five. Emerson Doyle, who owns the studio that was Creative Martial Arts when Zoe started there and which later became EvolveAll, has always emphasized that martial arts is for life. Studying martial arts is about each individual’s journey to grow, learn, and yes, evolve. The staff at EvolveAll has high but age-appropriate expectations.

Master Emerson and his team of instructors have consistently encouraged and motivated Zoe and her classmates. They are patient and kind but also unwavering in their demands that students push themselves and do their best.

I have always appreciated how in martial arts, unlike in many other settings, Zoe struggled–and sometimes failed–to pass a particular test or master a specific technique in a given time period, but never gave up. EvolveAll’s instructors have always made it clear that you will always get another chance. You have to work, and nothing is handed to you, but you will always get another chance.

For a long time I watched Zoe practicing martial arts and, while of course I was proud of the hard work she was doing with her body and mind, I wondered if she was going to really get it. Even though every parent knows they’re not supposed to compare their kids to other kids, when you’re sitting there watching other kids seemingly excel at a difficult task with ease, it can be hard not to wonder why it’s hard for your kid. Sometimes I felt like Zoe was performing a dance–which was beautiful–based on martial arts, rather than actual martial arts. I remember for the first few years she was practicing, Mr. Christian would constantly remind her to kick higher–above her belt. I remember watching her during class and seeing her mind wander as she got distracted or played with her hair or her belt or just gazed out the window. I would try to get her attention with my mind and look intently at her, motioning that she needed to look at the instructors and pay attention. I’m sure I said it out loud more than once. Probably not that helpful.

Christian and Emerson talk about “the switch” that students make at some point in their martial arts practice. The moment where they truly get it, where they lock in to how to master their bodies and their minds–at least for 45 minutes at a time–when they start to understand the black belt mindset. For a long time, I didn’t have any idea when Zoe would reach that point. She didn’t either.

At every growth ceremony when we watched students completing their black belt requirements, I would ask Zoe if she could see herself in their position someday. She would always shake her head no.

From the beginning, when she was in kindergarten, she said her goal was to become a black belt, but she couldn’t quite picture how that would actually happen.

When Zoe was nine, she earned her red solid belt, which is the final step before black belt at EvolveAll. For all the lower belt ranks, there are a series of specific, concrete requirements for students to advance to the next belt level. Once you’re a red solid, however, the process becomes exasperatingly intangible. Instructors are looking for the blackbelt mindset. They’re looking for “the switch.” And you really can’t predict when it’s going to happen.

I was worried at one point when Zoe’s friend Ellie, who she had been in class with for years, earned her black belt, and Zoe didn’t. Ellie was two years older than Zoe, and significantly bigger and stronger. It was clear that Ellie had made the switch, but I was afraid Zoe would be upset or feel like she’d been left behind. Instead, Zoe seemed to be genuinely thrilled for Ellie, and definitely nowhere close to ready to follow her. I had to trust Zoe’s knowledge of herself, which can be hard. It’s always tough to know how much to push your kid and when to back off. I’ve had to remind myself many times of Emerson’s mantra that martial arts is for life, and there is no rush, no race for Zoe to finish. There is conditioning, community, and challenge, and that is plenty.

Then, a couple years ago, Zoe started to envision her path. She made becoming a black belt her goal, not just for someday, but for that year, and then the next year. She stopped asking if she could skip class when she was tired. She started going to more classes. She asked me to take her to the studio for extra practice when a test was coming up. She started helping teach the lower belt classes. At first she was not good at teaching and had no confidence in her ability. Then she got better and gained confidence. She stopped being afraid of sparring and embraced it. She started winning some of her grappling matches. Meanwhile, she grew several inches and learned to kick higher than I thought possible.

Every growth period includes a black belt pre-test, which all red solids and black belts are invited to participate in. Master Emerson works these kids hard during these tests. It is intense. Over 90 minutes they do hundreds of exercises and demonstrate techniques and grapple and spar. At the end of the test, all of the current black belts gather with the instructors to discuss which red solids are ready to move up, and prepare to become black belts.

At the test this past June, all the current black belts and the instructors thought Zoe was ready. But Zoe did not think Zoe was ready. So Master Emerson said she needed to wait. If Zoe didn’t believe she could become a black belt, she shouldn’t become a black belt. Yet.

The next black belt pre-test rolled around this October. This time, Zoe knew exactly who she was and what she could do and she did it. After Master Emerson announced that she would be one of three red solids who were selected to prepare to become black belts this time around, all the girls in the class mobbed Zoe in a sweaty group hug. Mister Christian walked off the mat and gave me a hug, because he has seen how much time I’ve spent watching Zoe practice and had countless conversations with me about what she needed to do to reach her goals and how we could help her, and now she was there. Or almost there.

One week from tomorrow, Zoe will attempt to complete the requirements to earn her black belt in martial arts.

She will break five boards using five different techniques. She will grapple and spar with her friend and mentor Sophie, who has been patiently helping her train, insisting that Zoe use more power, more power, more power. She will read from the essay she’s written about her journey from white belt to black belt. Once she has successfully conquered these challenges, she will take off her red solid belt and hang it around her neck. Sophie will take off her own black belt and tie it around Zoe’s waist. Zoe will receive an actual sword. And she will chop fruit with it. I will probably cry.

Most importantly, Zoe will know that she worked toward this moment for seven years. Just like she was in kindergarten, she is energetic, determined, and cute. But a lot has happened since then. Now Zoe is strong and powerful, persistent and resilient, generous and graceful. Of course I will be proud. But I’m already proud, not because of what she’s about to do, but because of who she is and what she has learned about herself.

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