Review | Smile at Strangers, Susan Schorn

I remember the first time I tried karate. I have never been athletic, and admittedly, one of the appeals of karate class was the rather low-key way the teacher introduced me to the drills. I may not be able to do a jumping, spinning, flying back kick, but even unathletic, uncoordinated me is still perfectly capable of forming a fist and throwing a punch. And the kiai? I thought I could at least mask the wobbliness of my kicks with a karate yell loud enough to rattle windows.

Here’s the thing about karate: you stick at it long enough, you work at it hard enough, and you eventually realize that your body is actually beginning to change. And I don’t mean just getting fitter. Your moves actually get sharper — and more importantly, you’re aware of just how sharp they are and just how much sharper they ought to be. You become in tune with your body, aware of the slightest movements and aware of the slightest shifts in balance. There’s a line in Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers where she talks about a black belt’s unconscious grace. I don’t think I ever quite achieved that grace (alas, my natural klutziness has no cure), but I did have a taste of what she meant. And even now, when I see karateka perform, I marvel at the fluidity of movement, the sharpness of force, as beautiful as it can be deadly.

9780547774336Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers is a personal memoir of her life in karate. More than just a retelling of stories however, she organizes her book into kowa, Zen proverbs. Fall down seven times, get up eight. If you want to feel safe, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. You’re doing it all wrong, and that’s perfect. The best part about karate isn’t the physicality, but rather the mental preparedness the training instills. Schorn writes about her experiences in the dojo, but primarily to support what she has learned for life outside karate.

In the beginning of the book, Schorn wonders about the math behind “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” If you fall down only seven times, how can you be down an eighth in order to get up again? She eventually interprets it as an added emphasis on defiance. No matter what crap life throws at her, she is going to leap up fighting — and leap up fighting one extra time just for good measure. Later on, however, something happens that makes her realize that, while she was prepared for a battle in her own backyard, the real danger happened elsewhere, far beyond her control, and she was left to wonder what, exactly, she was readying herself to battle for.

As Schorn writes about her karate journey, and how karate classes have helped her deal with personal challenges, we see her progression, from a frightened, outwardly defiant person to a calmer, more confident one much more useful for battle. This isn’t to say that karate transformed her completely — as with my natural klutziness, Schorn still cannot escape certain fears and insecurities. But she does learn a lot, and she takes us on this journey with her.

I read this book from the perspective of someone who has learned quite a bit about karate. So when Schorn writes about how karate has better equipped her to deal with life, I completely understood. Her karate experience differed greatly from mine — she studied Kyokushin (a close fighting, full contact style) and at a women’s only dojo with a focus on self-defence. I started with Shotokan (long-range, point sparring), which is probably the furthest from Kyokushin stylistically, and even though I eventually ended up with a more mid-range style, it was still very different from Kyokushin. So I loved reading about her school’s approach to teaching karate.

Will this book resonate as much with someone who has never studied karate? I don’t know. But there is an especially striking scene that I think most of us, even non-karateka, can relate to. As part of their self-defence training, Schorn and her classmates were paired off, and one had to make a series of requests while the other could only say “No.”

“No,” I told her. “No. No. No. No. No. No.”

This would have been boring if the embarrassment weren’t so agonizing. “I hate this,” I thought; “I hate it so much I can feel it physically.” The sensation of saying “no” to another person’s face made me writhe internally, and it took all my energy not to squirm…

It occurred to me, somewhere around my twentieth “no,” that I had probably said the word more times in the preceding half-minute than I had in the preceding month. I thought back over all the times I could have said “no” and didn’t…

Repeated over and over, without explanation, without placating gestures, without apology, it formed an unassailable verbal wall made of just one brick, one tiny word: no. [pp 15 – 16]

How often have you wanted to say no but then acquiesced to be polite? We’re ingrained to want to please people, and there are people who take advantage. The mere training then, of developing the confidence to say “no,” is something I think many of us will find useful. And you don’t need a black belt to learn it.

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Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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