when the music takes you

I started boxing today. I mean, really boxing. I stopped playing a sport called “let’s beat up on Hannah while she stands there,” and I started boxing. This is especially good because the name of the sport I used to play is not so catchy. I don’t know exactly what instigated the change—probably a combination of things, but finally, something clicked.

It all started when I sparred with my opponent for Haymakers on Wednesday night. We went only two quick two-minute rounds, and that’s the last I’ll see of her until October. While it didn’t go as badly as it could have, it didn’t go nearly as well as I’d hoped. Her punches weren’t as hard as the ones I experience on a daily basis at Redline, but she was faster than I had expected. During the first round, I went with a defensive strategy similar to that of prey animals like the opossum—if I don’t move, maybe she won’t see me. This was an important lesson on how not to box. During the second round, I did better. I threw some decent punches and landed a few. My trainer says I took the second round, but I suspect he’s probably being generous. It was close enough that I’m fairly certain my opponent’s trainer is telling her she won both rounds.

I left disheartened and frustrated even though my opponent has been boxing something like six and a half more years than I have, so anyone would expect her to have the upper hand. It wasn’t that I was beating myself up as I often do, running through all the should-haves, would-haves, could-haves in my head. The truth is that I actually did my best out there. I did what I could, but it wasn’t good enough. Simply, I felt defeated.

That night and the next day, my trainer went over some things I should work on. I thought about them and worked on the bag a little. I fell asleep running through combinations in my head. I watched some other boxers sparring. All the same things I’ve been doing for the past six weeks. This morning when we sparred, the first round was no different from any other round. My punches felt unnatural and awkward. I still felt essentially defenseless against my opponent. Then something changed. I have no idea what it was, but between the first and the second round, I became a boxer. Maybe it was that I stopped focusing on throwing the right punches or slipping the right way* and finally trusted my body to do what it has trained for the past six months to do. Maybe it was because I picked just three things to work on: throwing the jab when an opponent is coming at me, turning my hips with my cross instead of swimming, as I am prone to doing, and trying out once or twice this weird move we’d been drilling in class (I’ll refrain from describing it here because I’m convinced that one day it’s going to be my secret weapon). Other than that, I just fought.

I fought for my life, and I fought for the love of fighting.

And it was like night and day. I don’t know whether I felt more like I was playing a distinctly different sport or like I was a wholly different person. I felt relaxed and fearless. I fired or moved anytime my opponent came at me, rather than standing around waiting to be hit. I connected with my jab and my cross. I felt my hips turn with the cross. I even tried implementing my secret weapon (OK, we all laughed the first time I tried it, but I’m telling you, some day it’s going to win the fight). I felt like a boxer for the first time, instead of some unfortunate duck who accidentally waddled into a boxing match. I had fun. On top of that, unless my sparring partners were giving me a break today, it seems like people don’t hit you as hard when you’re hitting back. This is great news for my head and ribs and also for my girlfriend who has told me she’d prefer that my face remain the way it is. It was in every way different from what I’ve experienced in the ring before.

Sparring today seemed the difference between playing the notes and playing music. There have been performances during which I’ve hidden behind my harp thinking, “What’s next? Oh no, here comes the hard part. Don’t mess it up. What now? What’s the next part? Shit, I don’t remember.” I wasn’t playing music. I was perhaps playing the notes (if I didn’t completely psych myself out and choke), but I was not playing music. On the other hand, there have been performances where I have forgotten about the notes, and I’ve played music like it was the voice of my soul. Times when I quieted the chatter in my mind, knowing that months of practicing the notes, perfecting my technique, the long hours of repetition were behind me, and my hands were ready to play this piece of music like a songbird is ready to sing. I abandoned my fears, and I was no longer a person playing notes but part of the music itself.

This morning, I became a part of the music. I forgot about playing the notes, I let go of the plan, and I simply trusted my body to keep me safe and fight for itself. Did I slip a single cross? No. Of course, there remain a million (possibly more) things I have to work on. But that’s OK because I know that the defense we drill and the combinations we practice over and over will pay off, and when my body is ready, I will get in the ring and it will do exactly what it’s trained to do. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in being a boxer.

* Slipping is a defensive technique. To slip a punch means to turn your head and torso just enough so that a blow aimed at your head doesn’t connect.

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