Joy In Unusual Places
I stepped out of my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio back into the kind of Tuesday morning that makes you wish you were at home in bed with your duvet keeping you warm and safe from the chill and Omicron infused day, but I didn’t mind being out at all. I felt snuggly, filled with joy. This was in complete contrast to the feeling of gloom and dread I felt going into the class. I wondered how could being thrown, pinned down, and arm locked while trying to free myself repeatedly for an hour make me feel so good? While meditating on this, I realized that in 2021 I have found joy in the most unusual places.
One day in the summer in a park, I saw a guy in his martial arts outfit, practicing. I said hello, and I asked him what he was training for. He replied he was doing some Judo drills. He explained to me the principles of Judo and gave me a demo of some of the moves. I told him that I had wanted to learn martial arts for the longest time. He said I should do it. There and then I decided it was time for me to do it and I was going to learn Judo as I really like that it means the “gentle way”. I waited a few months, until I had moved to a new city and figured it would be a great way to meet new people. Unfortunately, the closest Judo place to me was a 35 minute bike ride away and only had classes two late evenings per week. I knew I wasn’t motivated enough to cycle that long on dark winter evenings. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (a derivative of Judo) studio, on the other hand, was more conveniently located and had a schedule that worked for me, so I signed up.
Joy in falling and Getting Up
Why the dread going to my Jiu Jitsu class? Because every time I go in, I have no idea what to expect. And it is a completely new way of being, I have to learn to use my body in a way I have never used it before. I thought I was fit and pretty flexible. I’ve exercised daily for as long as I can remember, and I’m double-jointed and I do yoga. But grappling with and subduing your opponent on the ground, a predominant form in Jiu Jitsu requires a whole new level of fitness and flexibility. It was reassuring to read that Akram Khan, a renowned dancer and choreographer who also recently took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is also finding it very challenging (incidentally he is the same age as me, perhaps we are both suffering from middle age crisis). As a white belt (newbie) the first thing I must learn to do is survive! I have to get used to “the nature of being physically attacked, and specifically to pressure and to the claustrophobic feeling of crushing weight” (JiuJitsu University by Saul Sibero and Kevin Howell). I must learn to fall on the ground uninjured so I can quickly get up and try again. I need to be able to use my hips and body pendulum to generate power, not my hands. I now know that the value of squats and bridges aren’t just to make you look and feel good but to help you build the strength to throw, pin and escape your opponents. But the more I fall, get back up, and throw down my opponent the less fearful I am. By the time the hour is over, I feel like a toddler ninja. I leave the studio taller and lighter, replaying what I’ve learnt in my head. I tell myself how much I have to learn so I must do plenty of practice drills. Then the words of encouragement I used to get from Beijingers when I first started learning Chinese “慢慢来”(“man, man lai”) would pop in my head to remind me to take it easy, that is going to take me years and years to master these skills. I tell myself “加油” (“Jia you!” “Persist!”)！
Joy on the streets
I had long thought that London’s best attributes are its plentitude of colorful people and public parks. However, spending the lockdown in the city has taught me that the best thing is actually being able to escape it. Where you escape to doesn’t matter, so long as you escape! It could be to another city or country. However, if you don’t fancy getting on a plane or train, you could just pick one of its many museums, and monumental parks to visit. Preferably, on a quiet day, and during the week when most people are at work and in schools. I once spent half a day in Kew Gardens, and it was so restorative it felt like I had been away for a couple of weeks. 18 months of not being able to escape London has made me really dislike London, so much so that as soon as I could I packed up and moved out. Ironically the lockdown also made me see London at its most beautiful—empty!
During the lockdown bicycle shops were considered an essential service so they remained open. On one occasion, my bike needed a replacement part that was only available at a repair shop in the West-end so I cycled there. Pre-pandemic the ride would have been all about staying away from the main roads to avoid hostile drivers while constantly watching out for pedestrians attached to their phones. The rare times I did this ride, I speeded as safely as I could to get it over and done with. On this occasion however, I cruised through London Bridge and had time to take in the sights on both sides of the Bridge towards Tower and Southwark Bridges. Even though it was on a typical grey London day, the river Thames sparkled and illuminated the buildings alongside it. Cannon Street station and the adjoining streets, usually full of angsty office workers, only had a couple of joggers who seemed to be like me, reveling in the space. And it was pretty much like this, give or take the odd red bus and car, until I got to my destination. It was the smoothest ride ever even though my bike was wobbly. When I arrived I had to leave my bike for a couple of hours for it to be fixed, so with time to kill I took to exploring the streets that normally I would stay well away from.
When I got to Piccadilly Circus it was unrecognizable without the hordes of tourists, buses, taxis and street performers fighting for ground. Regent Street, known for bumper to bumper lanes of buses, a gazillion shops and pavements full of shoppers high on retail therapy, had only one bus and a couple of people walking. By the time I got to South Molton street, I was alone and had the whole place to myself. I felt like I had been accidentally locked in a national museum. I was both freaked out and thrilled that I could explore and discover its secrets. It was so peaceful and beautiful that I wandered the streets way past the two hours I was trying to kill. I knew that I may never get to see London like this again.
If Londoners weren’t in the shops, restaurants, offices and streets where were they? They were in the parks! I had never seen the parks so full. Everywhere you looked they were people jogging or power walking, some doing yoga or reading a book. It became hard to maintain social distancing. I could no longer quietly enjoy the company of my tree friends (yeah I have special trees I like to visit). I stopped going to parks but I was really missing the solace and greenery. Then I remembered that I had been walking past a cemetery for years, and from the outside it seemed to have plenty of trees and shrubbery. I wondered if it would be open. It was! It turned out that the cemetery not only dates from the Victorian era but it is also a declared nature conservation site. It became my place of sanctuary. As soon as I stepped through its gate, I’d turn off any music or podcast playing in my ear so I could hear the birds chirping away and the swaying of the trees slowly drowning out sounds of traffic. The further I walked into the grounds the more distant my to-do list, noisy neighbors and Covid-19 became. The rows of headstones never failed to remind me to be alive, to be present, because one day I too will have my name on a headstone.
Joy of books
The most joy I have gotten this year from reading came from books that sound like the exact opposite. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, based on the author Bessel van der Kolk’s four decades of treating and researching the impact of trauma, is a formidable read. I first read How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney while at university and I never forgot the impact this book had on me. It was so illuminating. I decided to revisit it for further historical context of how the modern world was formed, after reading Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules The World that examines the impact of the US’s imperialism on the world. Reading these books not only elevated my understanding of the world but also made me hopeful to know that these authors cared, and were courageous and generous enough to undertake such arduous and complex topics for the betterment of the world.
Joy from Podcasts
If anyone had told me last year that I would gladly listen to a bunch of virologists and microbiologists talking about viruses, as in “the kind that makes you sick”, for hours and hours, I would have laughed in their face. But this year, I have really loved and gotten a lot out of listening to the TWIV (This Week In Virology) podcast team lead by Dr. Vincent Racaniello dissecting the latest research on Covid-19, vaccinations, masks and more. I’m touched and appreciative of how much effort the team put into their side gig (full-time working professors, researchers and medical doctors) to help educate the public.
I’ve also found enlightening listening to the Huberman Lab podcast by Dr. Andrew Huberman, a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University. I’m learning a lot about how our brain and its connections with the organs of our body controls our perceptions, our behaviors, and our health. Yep I love listening to PhDs.! As I have written before I value and respect their capacity for learning and for making the vast unknowns of the universe known.
Joy from a TV show
The award for the most surprisingly fun show I’ve seen this year goes to Clarkson’s Farm. This is a documentary series that follows Jeremy Clarkson, the host of Top Gear (a show I have never had any desire to watch) in his attempt to become a farmer in Cotswold, England. Clarkson’s depiction of the trials and tribulations of running a farm is both highly entertaining and educational. Farming seems like really hard work and a loss-making venture even with the backing of Amazon’s deep pockets but the show ignited a desire for my own farm with a flock of sheep.
In 2021 I have of course also gotten plenty of joy from the usual places–friends, swimming, crunchy snacks, and work. To those of you that I have had the pleasure of working with this year, thank you. And thank you to those who have read my musings in this newsletter.