I’m seven years old and hanging out in the den with my grandfather. I’m dutifully brushing a pink and cotton-candy blue pony’s tail on the burnt sienna shag carpet. Sometimes the mall plastic brush catches the carpet in its bristles and snags the expensive flooring. Thankfully no one notices. It’s late enough I should be in bed, but never having been one for a decent bedtime, I’ve been relegated to my grandfather’s den while my grandmother pulls my mother’s hair through a bleaching cap in a makeshift salon just off the garage.
Silvery coils of cigarette smoke slither between my face and the large television screen. I hear my mother yelp when the small crochet hook piercing the plastic highlighting cap manages to narrowly avoid brain tissue. My pony’s tail shines. I’m in a trance and can’t quit brushing its rainbow-colored tail. This figure on television has me transfixed. I’m watching, on a brand new bit of technology known only as a VCR, Rocky Balboa win.
I don’t remember which Rocky I’m watching with my grandfather in the wee hours of the morning. I know he has this thing for action movies and material not suited for young viewers. It doesn’t occur to me to be worried by the blood battle on television, I don’t care about the loud volume or the smoke clinging to my brunette hair, as shiny as my pony’s. All I care about is that this man on television wins.
A seedling germinates in my guts. I’m too young to know what’s taking place, but I feel ownership of his success, as though I somehow contributed to this Hollywood championship match. I do not have a word for it, but a glimmering loyalty for the underdog has taken root in my soul. The following day I ask my mom to put that VHS tape in the mysterious VCR so I can watch the movie again. Much to her horror, she realizes what that cad of a grandfather had her eldest daughter up watching at midnight.
This is perhaps how my life as a fighter began. Thanks Papa.
As an adult, I take to running. So much so that I buy a treadmill and set it up in the living room with little or no concern for aesthetics. That Christmas, my little sister gives me the Rocky box set, much to her chagrin. I think she’s still holding out for a big sister with whom she can go to the mall and perhaps get pedicures. “But you’ve seen all those moves.” She laments when I tell her that’s what I want for Christmas.
I put Rocky II in the DVD player in the living room. I’m wearing a pair of Scooby-Doo underwear, a tank top and tennis shoes. My mother walks through the space and comments under her breath that, “Somethings never change.” I run through the training and the boxing and the melodramatic downturns in favor of the opponent. Every time I watch Rocky movies while I run I get anxious, as though I don’t know how it will end. My hope never changes, though. I want Rocky to win.
Such is the nature of optimism, it is bitter and it is sweet. You hope for a win, but damn it when Ivan Drago has you on the run, it’s hard to see past the blood in your eye. Rocky IV is my favorite because of Ivan Drago. I like him not because I’m a fan of Dolph Lundgren, or because Sylvester Stallone happens to have a beard in parts of this installment. I like him because the Ivan Drago character is an archetype of sorts that goes to battle quite often within the confines of my very own ribcage. He is in a constant battle with my heart. He is the tourniquet against the flow of hope.
I was talking with one of my friends in yoga one night before class and I mentioned my yogic philosophy of Ivan Drago. Her sweet perplexed look gave me room to pause. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’m sick in the head. Perhaps this might be the front on which Bruce Lee and Swami Sivananda might join forces and tell me I don’t know what in the hell I’m talking about. Sometimes, the fact of the matter is that we don’t go to the mat, the gym, the treadmill or the heavy bag because we feel pretty and accomplished, life is perfect and we have high self-esteem. I don’t know about some of my fellow yoga practitioners, but sometimes I end up on the mat when I feel dejected, as though my optimism for writing, yoga, relationships…. even life has been broken.
When I’m training, I’m almost always provoked by pain. The new yoga pose I’m trying to get into hurts my mind more than my thighs and I have to back out of it. Pain shows me the body’s tethers and reigns. That extra mile I’m running is milking my quadriceps and I have to stop and stretch. Pain teaches balance between ferocity and stupidity. Life is not unfolding as I want it to, right now, and I have to have a talk with myself about non-attatchment, which usually ends with me poking myself in the chest and then practicing yoga. The pain of disappointment teaches the release of letting go of results.
When Ivan Drago looks down at the tiny Balboa and says, ”I must break you”, I can imagine how that feels. But by my estimation that’s just fuel for the fire. This character represents the things against which we batter ourselves. Each cinematic moment represents the currents in our lives that seem to try to take us away from our heart, perhaps breaking it in the process. The Tao of the Stallion is not one to be broken. Unlike Bruce Lee’s famous phrase, “Be like water”, the Rocky character doesn’t negotiate new avenues or plans of attack. Hell, he doesn’t even switch to south paw when it would be most advantageous. He just stays with the opponent. He sits with the enemy.
Sometimes I feel very small when I picture myself against the things in life that don’t seem to be going the way I’d like. I feel unprepared for life’s currents, like a track and field star tossed into the Gulf for a triathlon. Sometimes I just feel like I’ve just done everything I’m gonna be able to do and that there’s nothing left but to sit with the situation. Sometimes the best we can offer is a witness.
But part of being human is having a heart. Not only the literal organ that pumps blood and thrums the rhythms of life, but Heart. The heart that can break a million times in one day and can keep beating, maybe even more furiously, not in spite of but because of that stone fighter in our ribs trying to break us. And there we are, trained to the teeth, every wiry sinew furious and fighting to just stay in the game, not even battling for a specific win but to just keep beating.
Life’s most difficult and frustrating times can break a heart a million times. The heart’s resources are sweet and impervious to attacks from even the likes of Ivan Drago. Sometimes I scoff at my own well for hope, lasting sometimes until the very bitter end. Because I’m small and life sometimes seems so big, there is so much negotiating and hoping and things that are out of our hands. That’s the worst, the things we can’t control.
But Rocky couldn’t control anything but his training. He couldn’t do a damn thing about the fact that Ivan Drago had bigger and better equipment. Ivan had a stable of trainers. Ivan had steroids. All Rocky had was some damn tree stumps in the frozen tundra of Russia.
Sometimes sitting with the enemy is hard, but sometimes sitting with our own stubborn optimism is even harder. It might be easier to just get the hell out of the ring and put the gloves away. But that is not the Tao of the Stallion. That’s not the way of the Heart.