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Nucleus

Written by Maggy Stacy

Within an atom, there’s a center, a nucleus of protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of chaotic electrons. Easton Training Center is that nucleus for me. Life yanks me into the electrons and I circle back to that nucleus with a magnetic rhythm. The nucleus has become such a priority, I’m turning down work opportunities, because it would conflict. Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu meet me where I am. When I train, thoughts and ego fall away. There’s no time for philosophy on the meaning of life or mental meandering about purpose. Martial arts training is humbling, real, and it takes all of me.

In hard times, it infuses me with strength, confidence, and endorphins. In smooth times, I go to feel alive and to push myself in new ways. I started three years ago, and I train Muay Thai as a blue shirt and Jiu Jitsu as a 3-stripe belt. Yes, martial arts has impacted my life. What I learn on the mat informs how I respond off the mats.

Muay Thai is like navigating a complex conversation. Gauging your partner’s distance in Muay Thai is like inquiring first in discussion to find out the other person’s perspective. From there, you navigate by listening. Muay Thai says to test your partner’s reactions, and respond with good timing. I have connected interactions when I use what I learn on the mats: to be relaxed and alert. Move with my partner’s energy, instead of just throwing punches.

Have you heard the phrase, “he gasped his last breath”? I discovered its aptness not long ago. In the first hour of the morning, I watched my friend John take that gasp in his living room. He was an old family friend, always there for family gatherings and holidays, this old wiry lifelong trucker who spoke with a rumbling drawl and made people laugh and feel at ease. I offered to relieve his caregivers one night during hospice, so they could rest and have time with their kids.

They drove away, and I fidgeted. I re-read the simple instructions for administering morphine and recording the time. What else did he need? Could I get him water? My instinct was to help. To heal. To make things better. How do I know what he wants, since he’s no longer able to speak? Suddenly I halted, and became very still. There was no problem to fix… nothing to heal. There was nothing to do because there was nothing wrong. Every living organism on the planet reaches its end, and this was John nearing his. My body softened, my mind quieted, and I pulled a chair to his side to sit.

I surrendered to the moment as I learn to surrender in Jiu Jitsu and Muay Thai. By “surrender” I mean the opposite of “giving up” or turning away from action. I mean surrender to the reality of your present moment with open eyes and ready stance. Resistance would not serve me. Distraction or denial would only make John feel alone. On the mats, I learn not to shell up, but to engage and respond with the flow. I don’t close my eyes against impact, I move with it.

I went to keep company with a dying man, and I ended up bearing witness to him as he died. They say the most fundamental form of love is attention, and that’s all I had to give. I couldn’t heal him. I wasn’t supposed to. But I could hold his hand. I could sit consciously and hold space. I could create vibrations in the room with my voice and my touch. I could remind him of people who loved him.

I don’t know how long he lay, breathing unevenly, moving his wasted shell slowly as if gently suspended in water. I followed the impulse for ritual, so I lit a candle and said things, punctuating the silence with a low voice. I think I sang at one point. I placed my hand on his heart, his shoulder, his forehead. I sat. I stood. I moved slowly, matching his energy. I watched him. I felt totally focused and completely lost, all at once.

That’s how I feel in Jiu Jitsu. That’s how I feel sparring in Muay Thai.

A single inhale was followed by a long silence. I didn’t move at first, just noticed the stillness and the subtle shift of energy before my hand extended to feel the place I thought a pulse was supposed to be. I had no idea what I was doing, I was just doing it. It was so quiet. Emotion didn’t wave up until days later, so in that moment I felt suspended in time. My mind was clear. The night was silent.

I’d never been alone in a silent house with the husk of my dead friend in the middle of the night. Going to another room felt strange, as if I was denying him, so I sat back in my chair. I may have meditated or fallen asleep, but three hours later the respectful men in suits finally arrived.

A few months after, I sat at the bedside of another friend the day before he died. An incredible artist, playwright and poet, whose body of work resonated with me right away. He couldn’t speak with the tubes, but the alertness in his eyes was unmistakable. I read aloud some of his work. I smiled. I connected with hands and eyes.

Later I became wracked with self-criticism. A sudden fear gripped me that I had done it all wrong… that his last moments with me should have been different or better somehow. Should I have read a more light-hearted piece? Something more profound? More beautiful?

Jiu Jitsu tells me that I showed up. I was willing to be there and willing to feel like I failed. Muay Thai tells me that if I stop to analyze the move I just made, I won’t be aware of the current moment. So I keep showing up, on and off the mats.

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