"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem," by Rembrandt, 1630

Can You Believe It?

“Can You Believe it?” is a meditation on a weekend the author spent with some friends at a kung fu retreat about twenty-five years ago. Through this personal narrative, the author ruminates on the nature of belief, reviewing how martial arts and religion have had an influence on him and the culture at large.

Five of us were gliding through the hills of Pennsylvania in a 1970s Chrysler Town & Country station wagon. “Das Boat” as I called it, had belonged to my deceased father, who had succumbed to chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) a few months before. The car itself would die a few months later on a drive from his apartment in the Bronx, to an estate auctioneer’s warehouse. The year was 1999, nearly a decade after I had graduated from a Christian college, and mostly from Christianity itself, and began practicing Chinese martial arts. We were leaving Pennsylvania spending a weekend of seminars in Kung Fu, at the feet of ‘real’ masters, each purporting to be the true lineage descendant of whatever style they practiced. Our school’s instructors, or ‘Sifus,’ who arranged the excursion through great efforts, would have called us apostates in that Chrysler.

Cabin fever had prompted my martial arts training in 1992 after a snowy winter imprisoned in a studio apartment in Staten Island, NY. I had no particular rhyme or reason for choosing Kung Fu, which roughly translated means ‘excellence over time,’ and could apply to piano lessons as much as martial arts. The Chinese just call it boxing, or ‘Quan.’ A phone book and an entry-level salary guided my research for a school, which meant one in a loft bereft of heat or AC above a partly burned-out storefront. I justified the expense by saying, “I stay in shape always learning something new,” and ended my training twenty years later saying, “ouch, why won’t that heal.”  In between, I bopped around to different schools because of life changes and a devolving belief system. The result is bookshelves of dusty ‘chop saki’ videos and books.

In 1999, my faith rested on that ancient car getting us through those mountains safely, while it smoked, thankfully from cigars, and swerved ever slightly from peppermint schnapps. If you’re familiar with the type of vehicle and the era it was created, the slightest touch of the steering could send us all careening down a mountainside from which even a true lineage descendent was not going to extract us. She was beauty in her day though: woody by design, with power windows and three rows of seats, the rear one facing backward. The ‘we’ consisted of four regulars at a school that sounded like “homemade pie” whenever our grandmaster mentioned it. The fifth passenger was a person I will call ‘Sometimes Y,’ the periodic transient every martial arts school that ever existed gets, who is sometimes a practitioner and sometimes not. This Y was in the rear-facing seat trying to moon any car that dared follow us.

“Taoist Immortals Celebrating Longevity,” by Tomioka Tessai

Does it matter if you know my compatriots by name? We were no different from any protagonist of a Bruce Springsteen song. One was a construction worker who would later become a Reiki practitioner; another had a sweating problem who would become a Sifu; and another is now a right wing militia leader somewhere in the South. Sometimes Y could be that homeless person I ran into the other day. The thing was, we had gone through a weekend boot camp, sweating through esoteric katas and philosophies from white men dragging around Asian geriatrics to legitimize the culture they appropriated. It gave us stories to tell, jokes to laugh at, and pains of which to be proud. The cigars and schnapps were never sweeter and the buzz never higher. Even that car had stories to share.

The seminar we had left occurred at the bucolic site of some guru who had been doing an annual invitation-only event for thirty years. The various Quan we went to learn were considered the more advance internal or ‘soft’ styles: tai chi, baqua, hsing yi, and bajiquan. Each involved some form of static or moving meditation to cultivate ‘chi,’ internal energy for power. Most believed that one went from hard styles that engaged physical prowess, to soft styles as one aged. Health and longevity are the benefit. In practicing these techniques, that carload was full of the apostates’ apostles. By studying and teaching us those styles, our Sifus themselves were themselves committing Kung Fu heresy; promoting something other than what grandmaster ‘homemade pie’ taught. Careening through Pennsylvania smoking and drinking, we were spending whatever hard wrought benefit we had supposedly gained from the weekend. I might later regret that.

If you are looking for a belief system, I suppose you could do worse than the Taoist and Buddhist thought woven into martial philosophy. Unfortunately, that only seems to produce wimpy libtards and flaky longhairs who sell wind chimes in beach communities. I was not looking for faith replacement when I trained, especially since I, by practicing martial arts, was a heretic according to my recent Christian past. No doubt evangelicals might have approved training in Krav Maga, because it is an Israeli fighting system. In addition, mid-thirties was not a time for midlife crisis. I backslid because I was weary of bible thumpers who said that all of life’s answers were found in one book. Then as now, I get more out of the bible as a literary work, than as holy writ. For this greybeard, you can find truth elsewhere. I ran across this tidbit from Gandhi just the other day, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.” The saying certainly speaks to the octogenarian you sometimes hear about who goes back to school, spends a decade getting a college degree, and dies shortly thereafter.

Some may say that the Freudian elephant in the room for me during the car ride was my father’s death and that I was seeking solace immersing myself in eastern philosophy. Doubtful, as I had been practicing Kung Fu for seven years prior and martial culture falls prey to the same issues as religion. Each claims to be the one ‘true’ art. Yet the Japanese co-opted Chinese wrestling, Shuai Jiao, and called it Jiu Jitsu. Then the Brazilians borrowed that and made it world famous only to have Vegas steal it, pollute it with boxing and wrestling, and sell the result back to the other three for billions of dollars as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I believe that most people who practice martial arts are seeking family more than faith. Maybe that is what bound the five of us in that station wagon. The fighting arts have all of the requisites: lineage, tribalism, and the myths that reify it all. Sometimes Y was just a deviant.

Here is what truly binds me to this memory, and it does partly involve my father: I too have chronic leukemia. However, that is where I hope our similarities end. I am very early stage, even in remission. My oncologist put it in perspective saying that I would probably die of old age before needing treatment. Thank you, God, if you’re there. Dad lived with it for fifteen years; had previously smoked and drank and never exercised; was a plumber who worked in every asbestos filled crawl space you could think of; and had quadruple bypass surgery during that period. Besides, he was a unique case. He gave up on life at the age of sixty-two because his wife of twenty years, my stepmother, died in his arms of a bronchial embolism during a routine doctor visit. He passed only three months later. The actual cause according to his attending physician was that, “the leukemia ate away at his heart.” How much more literal could a broken heart be?

Boer War, 1900-1901 — “Last Summer Things Were Greener,” 1901. Artist: John Byam Liston Shaw | Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Admittedly, having my father’s car was like having a piece of him. It had conveyed him to the flea markets he frequented with my stepmother, and then home alone after that fateful day in the doctor’s office. That Town & Country sat like a loyal pet, waiting for him to come back when he entered a hospital for the last time and refused to start for me when I first tried. I wanted to keep it as a third vehicle I could use for when my wife and I finally moved into our first home, which turned out to be a few months later. My memories teem with visits to various outdoor markets floating in the Chrysler around New York City. My nightstand still has a few tchotchkes emblazoned with the yin and yang symbol because dad and stepmom were never familiar with any of my other interests beyond the martial arts. Well, maybe a bit more as evidenced by all the nautical trinkets I accumulated when I was in the Navy a decade and a half earlier.

My wife and I, and an auctioneer who called herself the Colonel, where the passengers for Das Boat’s final mission. We were making the two-hour trip to her shop in in Port Jefferson, New York, after loading the most marketable of dad’s stuff. Halfway to our destination, after my wife started to settle from the shock of finding my stepmother’s ashes in a dresser drawer and me after finding a cache of weapons under my father’s bed, the power windows in the station wagon stopped working. The alternator. I like to think it was dad’s spirit who powered the car battery just enough to reach the Colonel’s where the car actually caught fire. We would get $2,000 for my father’s stuff at auction and $300 for Das Boat from a pothead mechanic my brother knew. Our final vision of her was Sometime Y’s butt print emblazoned on the back window as she was towed away.

I said before that I might regret wasting the benefits of longevity afforded by rigorous practice of internal martial arts. Today, I am nearly ten years removed from the last time I trained, twenty years from the car ride. Would I be cancer free now or less dilapidated at my current age if I had practiced religiously? The answer might be just another one of those myths a body uses to force a sense of purpose on this world. Since my Kung Fu period, I have been biking, kayaking, hitting the gym, and occasionally doing yoga. Therefore, yes, I do believe that, had I not stayed in shape, I would be a depressed diabetic with body issues who has had open-heart surgery and stage four leukemia. Dead a few times over.

Let collars and scholars fight grandmasters over life and the hereafter. As a person who values literature, I am still intrigued by the notions that God chose to die for a world we fucked up and in which Job needlessly suffered and God’s only answer was, ‘I am.’ Over my nearly six decades, our species has been digressing back to at point at which bears will joke, “Do humans shit in the woods?” Centuries worth of religion and philosophy have not prevented us from trolling and scrolling our way to hell on smart phones. Yet back in that car in the hills of Pennsylvania, I and those other passengers were between myth and reality. If you’re lucky, you find a few friends there, and if you’re crazy, a savior in someone like Sometimes Y. Otherwise, our species demands we choose a tribe or die alone. No, we were not seeking truth in those precarious drunken moments, we were living it.

Donald R. Vogel holds a Master’s Degree in English from Stony Brook University and has attended the Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference. Don has published both fiction and nonfiction in several literary journals, most recently in anthologies for the Wising Up Press. He is the Director of Estate Planning at New York Institute of Technology. He lives in Long Island, New York with his wife and son.

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