“Please stop talking about your bloody rats” my mother says as she sits in front of her computer screen across from mine.
For various reasons, I’d spent the week working from her flat in Trondheim, observing the news of the Ukraine war as told by Norwegian TV reports and the ever-reliably depressing 24/7 bitesize atrocity-horror that Twitter delivers.
Talking about rats in an increasingly gushing albeit manic manner has been my way of offsetting my own reactions to the event, a veritable “happy place” that has prompted my best friend to send a Daily Mail article of a woman with 50 rat children of her own. “I love you, but please don’t turn into this woman,” she wrote.
Point taken. In the case of my mother, I reverted, as per family tradition, to the subject of news, something there rarely ever was much of a break from -- for better or worse -- in our home.
“Mum, why did you send me an article about rapist Russian soldiers just as I was walking home from the gym. I paid 200 Kroner for these endorphins, please just let me enjoy them,” was one conversation we had. This is how boundary setting looks in a family that -- for better or worse -- has always marched to the beat of current events.
Children of the revolution?
I was born in Budapest in 1989 on my father’s hunch that the Soviet Union was set to crumble. He reported on those unfolding events in what was ultimately described as one of the “best years in history,” according to one historian. The good guys won.
The yoke of communism was crushed. In some cases -- as in Czechoslovakia -- thanks to an entirely peaceful movement. The nickname I accrued as a result of the timing I chose to begin existing in the world was the fond “child of the revolution”. I ceased growing at the age of three and took up the hobby of shattering window panes with my voice shortly thereafter. Joke. Sort of. Another nickname I enjoyed was “Sarah Screamer”.
After 1989, we all didn’t exactly live happily ever. But at least we could vote for our own leaders and no one needed to worry that much about whether their neighbours would shit talk them to the secret police. There was genuine hope for a better and fairer world after decades of oppression.
“OK, OK, yes, sure,” my mother replied when I asked her to hold off on the news horror after 6p. We ate Hungarian chicken soup, watched the cascade of snow outside our window, and settled on an X-men film in which the things being blown up were fictional things and not real people’s homes and where the good guys ultimately won. What a relief that was.
A nose for news?
Facetious comments about rats and sport and war aside, there isn’t much genuine escaping to be done, and there’s only so much respite available from the pervading sense of powerlessness that comes with bearing witness to an event like the war in Ukraine.
As journalists, our task is to make as accurate assessments of the unfolding events as possible in a way that determines the most likely future outcome.
That’s actually really tricky, especially when so many of our own biases come into play, and when the stakes are so incredibly high. When the intensity of emotion is all-pervasive. I’ve -- in the past -- been told to “trust my gut” and “smell out a story”. Savvy journalists are spoken of as having a ‘nose’ for news. When a beat is as broad as it is these days for most journalists -- i.e. the world and everything in it -- I’m not sure how accurate that nose can actually be.
Being told to trust your gut is as useful a piece of advice as it is unhelpful. The gut is a wellspring of emotional data points accrued via personal experience and the passing down of family experience. There is wisdom to be gleaned here, but it does not tell the full story, and never can.
Such rhetoric carries the same weight as being told to trust your intuition and apply only that in all facets of life, as if emotion alone carries all the relevant data points we need to live a good life. By good I also mean an ethical one of sound judgment, as opposed to the pursuit of pure personal fulfillment.
This is basically the same intellectual maneuver Paltrow advises women with her new age goobledee gook, and Rogan touts with his blustering macho fight talk. Compelling in its simplicity and in how it frames the individual’s place in the world, but ultimately unyielding, potentially immoral, and highly corruptible.
Putin --a real Judoka?
Journalists and analysts who remember the Cold War have come out in force to analyse the new chapter (a much needed slice in the analysis pie, of course). They will also need to do the work of acknowledging their own blindspots and their own hubris. The world is different now. And the idea of the all-knowing journalist was always a facade anyway.
This is especially the case in determining the outcome in Ukraine based on one extremely troublesome variable: Putin. What is going on in that man’s head? Think pieces abound.
There’s talk of his machismo, his imperialist designs, his (supposed) love of risk, his brooding mistrust of the world and everyone in it, the little violin he pulls out and plays to the Russian people about how mean NATO is to him, his KGB background and all the deviousness that comes with that, his underpants poisoning and his ridiculous long table.
But what game is he actually playing here? What losses is he willing to count at the end of all of this. I don’t think he even knows the answer to that.
If he is the chess player so many think pieces have described him as, his game isn’t exactly masterful and no one -- except maybe the fleet of dolled up flight attendants he filmed himself explaining his motives to -- is impressed (actually, one suspect that they, too are rolling their eyes). He’s just a boy with an armory of war toys that don’t even work that well.
If he’s not a very good chess player, then maybe we should think further out of the box and ponder his other hobbies. The fight nerd in me reflected on his Judo background. I have no Judo training myself. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (and perhaps wrestling) is the closest martial art I’ve come into contact with, and which I understand has a lot to do with rolling with the (metaphorical) punches, calmly working various levers of pain, confusion and power to force your opponent into submission.
But done properly, it’s also a strategic game. Fighters put in a great deal of research ahead of the event to determine their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses and thereby develop a strategy which of course becomes their big secret.
The stronger fighter can work on strong-arming maneuvers, the weaker will have to think a lot more carefully in terms of applying clever levers and evasive movements. Both will want to pull out of their hats new, unpredictable repertoires that their opponent cannot anticipate.
But as I said, Judo might be different. I spoke to my neighbour, who I knew had taken Judo pretty seriously since childhood. “I was a pretty crazy kid,” he had previously told me, rubbing his shoulder which was recovering from an injury that had forced him off the mat for a long stretch of time. “My mum didn’t know what to do with me, so she sent me to learn Judo. That calmed me down”.
I asked whether, from the perspective of a Judoka, Putin’s maneuvers seemed somehow recognisable.
“Oh my God, he’s not even that good at Judo, it’s just all part of his bullshit propaganda,” he said. “Sure, he’s a black belt, but his fights are staged. They bring in these top fighters and basically tell them to lose. It’s really embarrassing. I’m so glad the Judo Federation kicked him out when the war started”.
So there we have it. Even Putin’s so-called love of risk and blustering man-on-man tussling is a Potemkin village. I can’t really think of a better example of toxic masculinity’s cowardly underbelly than that one.
Strength and self-esteem
But the matter remains, that a coward cowering in the Kremlin with his big boy war toys has accrued a dominant enough position vis-a-vis the world to unleash heartbreaking destruction in what is ultimately a plea for attention and recognition. And we spectators have to do the work of paying him that attention when there’s so many other pressing issues to address.
For my own part, the witnessing has brought up experiences of my own, among them, the creeping sense of powerlessness that came with witnessing Hong Kong’s beleaguered fight for freedom. I’d like to pretend that 2019 was the year Sarah “child of the revolution” came out in full force. But she did not. She had burnt herself out worrying about the weight of the world and was checking out.
That was the year I really got into sports, having never shown any aptitude before, having channeled most of my emotions into my work -- for better and for worse -- up until that point.
For many reasons, I fell in love with gym culture and ultimately martial arts. And not for the boring reasons. The silly slogans and the sexy bodies, and the weird competitiveness of it all. The inescapable, eye-rolling machismo.
In the face of the crushing nihilism that runs through the fabric of our generation, it was just nice to get a high five for lifting something heavy. I went from seeing the racking up of numbers on my barbell as something so arbitrary to work on given all the other terrible things that required my attention, to something to get excited about.
I remember the first time I realised I had “freakish” strength. I was pissed off about something silly, and, tasked with throwing a ball at the ceiling, I made the room shake with a force that caused dust to stream down from above. The owner of the gym -- the city’s first professional female MMA fighter -- came up and removed the ball from my hands. “I’ve never seen that before,” she said.
Self-esteem ultimately derives from feeling like you are doing something well, and is very much helped along by being recognised for that. As I felt I was losing my journalism mojo (at a time when it was really needed, actually), I’d found something new that I could take pride in.
MMA the “blood sport” gets a bad rap for its brutalism. But it can be much more than that, it really depends on how you are operating, with whom, and with which motives. Not everyone just wants to throw their weight around and show off. In fact, those are the fighters that kind of get shunned if you’re training at the right place.
MMA as therapy
One woman I often paired up with talked about MMA as a way to contain and process her emotions around the unfolding events. She had recently launched a new business that was struggling due to the protests. She was in a position many Hongkongers struggled with. Understood the value of the pro-democracy movement, worried about their own livelihoods. That’s a very uncomfortable ambivalent space to be in.
For my part, it has helped do a lot of emotional work. I like working with my mind when it is a place of high-octane problem solving, and I like the mover in me that is brought out under stress. Playful, assertive, quick-footed, kind of incorrigible.
I like saying “nice” when someone outsmarts me with a clever combination, and I see the value in working to rewire some of the faulty algorithms of conflict management that do take place on an instinctual level.
I noticed that recently on my return to mat prompted by the emotions this war has brought up in me. Over-relying on my ability to withstand pain, I ate far too many punches in a tit-for-tat with a woman I’d previously floored. She was coming on strong and I was retaliating, and ignoring the fact that my reflexes aren’t what they were after a long break from the sport. Hubris right there. I paid my price for it, felt stunned and dizzy all the way home, which at least provided a nice little break for this brain that still too often overheats itself with thought and worry. Next time, I’ll be more careful, I’ll remember to leave my ego where it belongs. The bin.
Most of all, what I like about fighting is being able to put my emotions to bed after a session, and taking on the day with far more rationalism than I would otherwise. And I like knowing I am brave, and strong, and can get back up again quickly when I fall. Maybe I should put that on a t-shirt or something. The gym rats will like that.
Two perfect angels moved into Dracula’s mansion last week. When I say angels I mean rats.The transgressive and withdrawing Hermann and the convivial and attention-seeking Kotti. They are named after two U bahn stops near us.
Their human had regretfully placed them in my care having developed an allergic reaction to them. She loaded me down with their plush blankets, a pot of their favourite treats and their multiple toilet trays. She also warned me not to give Hermann too much coconut water -- it’s making him fat -- and not to smother them.
Rats like doing their own thing, and, like cats, prefer to approach their human for affection as and when suits them. After spending the day running around the flat, which is now filled with all sorts of rat toys, they retreat to their elaborate cage to munch on greek yogurt and muesli and nap in a hammock I wash each week.
Perhaps there’s a comment to be made here about the gentrification of pets. I don’t know. The more pressing point to make is that rats make excellent company. Even Hermann, whose intrepid spirit means we sometimes wind up playing a prolonged game of hide and seek in which he always thinks he’s outsmarted me -- even when he’s tucked under a pile of clothes with his tail poking out (“nothing to see here, lady”), has scampered his way into my heart.
Kotti likes to have the side of his face stroked, this is heaven for him. And if I’ve been out for long, I’ll come home to find him pressed against his cage waiting for a greeting. I put my finger through the cage once, and he reached out with his little hand (hands, not claws) placed it on my nail, and looked into my eyes. When I give them treats, they take them so politely with both hands you’d think they’d gone to butler school.
Ludvik Vaculik's Guinea Pigs
Caring for them has made me think of a Czech novel I studied at university. Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs is a dark comedy set in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia by a dissident writer. Here’s a passage:
“The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you're the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it's usually someone who knows much less than you do.”
It tells a story of a banker living under the absurd and hopeless conditions that characterize corrupt authoritarian rule. As an escape, he turns to his pet guinea pigs for solace. He takes refuge in their vulnerability, in fact, it empowers him. He finds himself playing games with them that help him feel powerful where elsewhere he is powerless. At one point, he finds himself, well, waterboarding them:
“Take a paper bag, place it open on a table and let the guinea pig crawl inside. Then twist the bag shit, just so the air can get in, and go to the movies. When you get back, you'll find everything just the way it was when you left. Take a glass, fill it with water, then change your mind and pour the water out, and take the glass and turn it upside down over the guinea pig. You can observe the guinea pig through the glass walls, watch it sit there in astonishment, its nostrils quivering in excitement, its tummy undulating nervously, and yet it doesn't even try to determine the penetrability of the wall around it, at least not during the first hour”.
Monkey see, monkey do. Especially when it comes to the exploitation of power.
Nightmares about war
The day I picked up my rats from their human, she told me she’d slept badly that night. She’d had a nightmare about a war she’d have to fight in. I’ve been having nightmares too. An elaborate one about trying to stalk down a murderer who was after a friend of mine. Another in which my teeth are pulled out. One counting dead rhinos, a whole field of them.
I have a friend in Russia who is eight months pregnant. I send her pictures of the rats doing silly things and she responds with hearts and kisses. It seems crazy to think that not even a year ago we were walking through Tempelhof together talking in German about how much we liked foreign languages. She was planning to learn Arabic. I agreed that the script is beautiful.
She’s one of my only Russian friends. Another one once falsely described Chopin as Russian. She backtracked very quickly when I pointed out that he was Polish. That was the end of that conversion. We quickly went on to discuss how great corgis are -- a far more comfortable conversation.
My own family history means that I’m wired to mistrust the Russians, it’s been a bias I’ve had to work on.
I view pictures of the Kremlin the way my Hong Kong friends think about Tiananmen. Creeps me out. So I’m not as shocked about the decisions that have been made within the Kremlin by a certain steroid-addled gnome-faced freakshow as maybe others are, but I am of course horrified.
I went for drinks last week with a journalist friend from New Zealand who's been covering the Middle East beat for almost a decade, so she is not surprised by the level of brutality that has been on display. She took in a Syrian sniper a few years ago, when she asked him what made him join the resistance.
“It was a gradual thing. He didn’t think he would fight initially, he just joined the protests. But then he did,” she said. The righteous indignation made him take up arms.
“I was thinking, if the war came here, would I stay and fight? I think I would,” she said. “Would the Germans, though. Would they stay? Are they ready for something like that?".
I don’t mean to be alarmist, and I’m not interested in making any predictions about how this war will end and what role average Europeans outside of Ukraine and Russia will play in it. As a reminder, few people predicted the fall of the Iron Curtain in ‘89, that deeply traumatic event for Putin.
A new precarious era
I think the fact that this horror feels closer to home than most Europeans of our generation are used to is worth examining.
These are the conversations we are having as we enter a new era of global uncertainty and precarity, and in which the faultlines of authoritarianism versus democracy have been clearly drawn.
If it came to it, would I stay and fight? Like those Ukrainian women cutting down their lacquered nails to hold AK 47s? I know I’m in the physical shape for it. But the mental game? And the threat of rape? Let’s move to another topic. A clip from a female Ukrainian politician who has stayed to fight plays out in my head a lot. She talks about going to bomb shelters and teaching children to “drop down and play turtle” when the siren goes off.
“What our generation wanted was for our children to grow up without trauma. We failed them,” she said.
I went for drinks with a group of non-Europeans this weekend, hoping to get a break from the doom scrolling.
We were in a very Berlin bar where burlesque dancers poured hot wax onto one another and complained about a meddling neighbour trying to shut them down. An American had been saying that, if push came to shove and they needed to get out of Europe, Central America would be their exit strategy. Imagine that. Leaving Europe for the safety of Central America.
“I’m sick of how Eurocentric the coverage has been,” said another friend of Asian descent. These were words I didn’t really want to hear, given how painful the last couple of weeks of witnessing have been. But there is a point there, too.
Living without the precarity of a looming war (with, albeit, the threat of the looming climate crisis) has been a privilege here. As has living with the assumption that freedom can be taken for granted. That was something that really depressed me when I first came back to the city two years ago, having witnessed Hong Kong’s bitter fight for freedom.
That’s changed now, at least, perceptually.
Nothing can be taken for granted.
In which the writer faces a second lockdown in her host city, watches a historic triangle choke, remembers her old newsroom and listens to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
As our week comes to a close and a drizzly winter creeps upon us, Berlin ushers in a grim reality.
Perhaps this second lockdown will not be as challenging as the first, hopefully it won’t feel as indeterminate and perhaps we’re all better prepared than we were the first time round. But I can’t shake a sense of weariness that feels to be everywhere. Can’t unhear every ambulance siren.
On a more mundane level, the clocks changed (something that doesn’t happen in Hong Kong). I wouldn’t have noticed as much if it hadn't been for the failure in an adjustment to be made on some of the analogue faces of the metro system here– the clunky and bewilderingly dysfunctional BVG that has, for the first time in my life, made me wish I had learnt to drive.
You glance up at these clocks as a shock runs through you, confronted as you are by their falsehood. Are you late? No, you are not late. Berlin is late.
I partook in my ‘last dance’ on the mat. I felt tired and performed with very little enthusiasm, though it felt good to be around athletes. I don’t consider myself an athlete so much as an interloper in these worlds where people live in the moment and milk it for everything it can offer. That is why they mean a lot to me, I envy that courage to think less, and do more.
Recently I have felt a deeper pull to the world of words and analysis, out of a combined sense of duty and passion. A sense of feeling needed and useful. This a good feeling, but one not without cause for worry: will I start falling into old habits again?
I bought a packet of cigarettes for the first time in months this week. Reading a pile of newspapers amid a pandemic and ahead of a disconcerting election kind of makes you do that sort of thing. I’ll smoke one more, throw the rest in the bin. It seems selfish to treat my health this way given the wider context.
This said, it's felt good to feel more plugged in, engaged with a world that used to be my everything. Felt nostalgic for the stimulation and the unique forms of interaction you get at such places, especially when things are working relatively well and you've carved out a corner for yourself where you can do good and meaningful work under the right mentorship,
There are a lot of good feelings out there, but I do think living with purpose and a sense that you are contributing to the world is one of the best. And that doesn't have to mean unearthing the darkest of dark stories, though such work usually does earn you more kudos. It just has to be a story that knocks you off your feet a little bit, widens your aperture around the possibilities that come with experiencing and learning about this world.
"Look at this bird, Sarah. How stupid does this bird look?" my former editor, a foul-tempered but goodhearted and rather brilliant Scot said as he pulled out a print out of a Chinese species of chicken that did indeed look pretty weird. "I need to put a picture of this stupid bird in my newspaper. Find a story, Sarah," he said. And I did a bit of digging, and there it was. A story decent enough for page three. My favourite page.
Reporters salivate over making the front-page, and yeah that feels good because you feel kind of cool and important for about two seconds. But further on is where the interesting, quirky stuff goes. The stuff that's not quite news, not quite fluff. The in-between story.
The in-between stories remind us that life isn't always a constant bombardment of horror, nor is it bubblegum. It's a stupid-looking bird with black flesh and poodle-like plumage unique to Chinese cuisine with fluffy feet that could potentially pose a health risk should another bird flu outbreak present it itself (as they often did) given that it shares the same susceptibility to the flu as common poultry -according to a New York-based WHO-affiliated scientist I found, but are not recognised as such by Hong Kong's clunky food and health bureau.
Something that has cheered me up– besides newsroom reminiscences and thoughts about fluffy birds– is a link someone sent to a historic MMA fight that took place last week in which the famed Khabib Nurmagormedov emerged victorious after wrapping his legs around the neck of his opponent using the triangle choke, a move I have tried and continuously failed to master, and which I tend to prematurely tap out of when I am on the receiving end– more out of shock than the genuine threat of being ‘put to sleep.’
It’s such an uncomfortably intense situation to be in. Worse than being screamed at by editors insistent that you have made a mistake when they’re actually the one in the wrong,
“Yeah, enough about the triangle choke –what about after that?” I was asked. That is, the bit where Khabib, overcome by emotion, falls to his knees and cries, joined a few moments later by his defeated opponent, who wraps his arms around him and comforts him.
Yes, it was touching. And yes, this is the world I fell in love with, the world I escape to.
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool”.
These are the words of America’s lauded rock critic Lester Bangs, a gloomy type but a fantastic writer whose essay on Van Morrison’s endlessly charming Astral Weeks is my go-to feelgood read.
I can’t find it now, which is annoying, but it describes a weariness with a scene and culture he had felt had grown stale and performative somehow. The album blew that away, that nihilism, and sense of social dead-end-ness, a posturing turgidity– to use an expression that feels like something that might be uttered in conversation between Raskolnikov and Holden Caulfield. Astral Weeks brought something real and raw, something that inspired wonder.
It reminds me of the ebbs and flows of passion, numbness and pain, and how there’s always the prospect of something waiting, just around the corner, that might make us feel –in Van Morrison’s words– born again.
It is a beautiful album and I’ll listen to it now as I smoke this last cigarette.
In which the writer makes an inventory of the bruising inflicted during a particularly passionate week of fighting and learning.
Early morning. Birds moving mostly in one direction, brown has overtaken green and leaves jitter. Visually, winter’s approach is palpable. Physically, also. I wear woolen socks my mother knitted. My feet still feel a chill, but it’s fine. The sensation wakes me up, keeps me alert. These are in fact the perfect conditions for writing. Mild, austere discomfort, and quiet. As I take this inventory of subtle hallmarks of a seasonal shift, I notice changes that have occurred in my own body this week, too.
A greater determination and focus has seen me commit more time to the mat, and the ensuing improvements in performance have lead to me taking greater risks, and showing more tenacity and confidence in a fight: Has led to me showing up, in a fight. Working actively, not just reactively. Though my hesitance in committing to a takedown pervades. I continue to opt for the process that has worked time and again: Keeping low, letting my opponent execute the takedown, and allowing my body to do what it often seems to do of its own accord in this particular context, that is, somehow land and flip things around such that I end up having the upper hand.
“You always fall on your feet,” my mother likes to say.
This shift in tenacity and confidence writes itself into my body. My shins, first, are peppered with subtle green and purple bruises, and there’s a cut on my ankle proving that a sparring partner has not abided by the rules and forgotten to clip his nails. These mementos don’t feel all that strange to me; anyone athletic or outdoorsy would have them.
And they remind me of a session we had with my first coach and his motley crew of fighters who were, by the way, some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met, and besides journalists, the best community I’ve found in terms of being able fling this way and that some great zingers. (‘Go read Moby Dick, nerd’ one guy used to shout at me, before demanding I make him a sandwich. Of course, I lined up my own retorts, and fired them in his direction in between rounds. He, a serious gamer turned Muay Thai nut, was a super fun guy, and I really miss him.)
But yeah, this session I was reminded of, in which our coach told us to stand in a circle and commit to a chain of low kicks, going round and round, learning to instinctively twist our thighs around and tense up the muscles as we received the kick. “You just have to build up resistance to getting kicked so you can focus on other things during a fight,” he said. You learn to laugh off the pain and see bruises as essential to the learning process.
The further up my body these bruises go, the stranger I feel about them, the more I feel like they ought to be hidden somehow. What would people think if they saw them: The purple patch around my wrist the size of my palm which speaks to someone’s attempt to get me into an Americana which I resisted by tensing my bicep, sliding my other hand under him, creating leverage, and clinging to that endangered hand as I slivered out from underneath him.
“In this session, would you like to talk about why you like to fight men?” a therapist asked me last year. The answer to that question is, if given a choice (class ratios tend to be 10 per cent women, if that); my optimal opponent is a woman who is just a bit stronger (doesn’t happened all that often, I have to say) and more experienced and knowledgeable than me (happens all the time). This is optimal for learning.
The women I fight with, on the whole, tend to be more communicative and gracious, and the experience of being dominated by one tends to stir fewer complex emotions in me. Although I am getting better and distinguishing between the male opponents who want an interesting and challenging fight, and are helpful and cool, from those that, it seems, really struggle with the idea of being overpowered by a woman, and who can get carried away when that prospect presents itself.
I can feel it, when those emotions come up in them, and something in my body prepares accordingly. I sharpen, and focus, and something within my chest jitters like those winter leaves, almost impalpably. I operate entirely in a defensive mode and play a long game. I try not to tap out in fear, and I try to get the upper hand as and when they start to gas out from all that huffing and puffing. I protect my wrists. Because these are the guys who especially enjoy a nasty wrist lock which disables you quickly with a sharp, searing pain. A cheap shot.
Most importantly, I stay put. I don’t run. And at the end of the round, I shake hands/ bump elbows, and look my opponent steady in the eye.
I’ve been told, by women, that the guys you need to watch out for are the ones who show up having watched a bunch of YouTube videos, eager to fling their weight around. Dedicated guys are not really about that, they say.
“You know, if it was easy, I wouldn’t keep coming back,” said one guy this week, who taught me two new submissions and to whom I admitted struggling with these complex maneuvers. It’s true. If it was easy I wouldn’t keep coming back, either. And I feel exactly the same way about facing a blank page, too. If writing was easy, I don’t I’d do it so much.
There are other bruises, few of them I remember the specific event in which they were inflicted, and which I certainly did not feel as they were inflicted: An ugly and heavy brownish purple one on my arm that has faded surprisingly quickly, and a big annoying purple one on my right elbow that makes itself known every time I attempt to rest on it, and which made me jolt slightly with pain during a meeting in one of those strange moments where the professional persona you have is rudely interrupted by the person you are in your other worlds.
Creep higher up my body still and we have something that has never occurred as a result of my recreational activities before: a little bruise on the side of my chin which I would cover up with concealer if I could be at all bothered with applying make up on a day-to-day basis, and a nearly imperceptible scratch on my left eyelid.
This reminds me of a great line from my first coach when he returned victorious from a fight in preparation for which he had had to cut 10kg of weight in under a month while studying his opponent – a kickboxing brawler-type known for his unpredictability in combat.
“Still pretty,” he said, on his first day back, pointing at a face that was almost blemish-free. In an interview with The New Yorker, Ronda Rousey, MMA’s (now retired) golden girl (whose face is also blemish-free) said that it was the girls who didn’t look like they fought that you had to watch for. They were the ones who were good. The woman who played a part in coaxing me onto the mat with the line; “I can’t wait to see your first KO” - Hong Kong’s first female professional MMA fighter, who quit her high-powered job in management consulting after smashing up too many computers, also didn’t “look” like she had fought.
Some might read the anecdote above as an indication that the person probably most responsible for this strange hobby of mine had anger issues. This simplifies who she is, and what learning to fight does for people like her, people like us. I think some people in this world are racehorses trained to work in pony pens. Intense emotions, like anger, are symptoms of something underlying, something that is wrong, and that needs to change. It’s the lizard brain screaming “enough!” – the part of yourself you learn to talk to, negotiate with, and tame, on the mat in way you don’t get to anywhere else. Not even in a therapist’s chair.
I am not sure I can call myself a racehorse. I believe I am little bit too awkward a person for that label. Racehorses are so suave. But what I am doing is operating within a lane which is quite different from what it’s “supposed” to be, and I think what martial arts is helping me do, is find the courage and the tools to commit to this path. And the result is I have a life I love, bruises and all.
Read more on Sarah's Mixed Martials Arts journey via the links below:
1. Fight Club
2. Lessons from the mat
3. Good and bad algorithms
4. Taming the lizard brain
Read her summary of why she fights, and what cultural value MMA brings in her BIO.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.