#23 Consensual recreational violence
A guest essay by Jess Miller
Hi my beautiful friends!
I hope the 23rd edition of SIL finds you content, unshaken by the April-ness of things, and equal amounts jazzed and relaxed.
This week’s edition of Sorry I’m Late is by guest writer Jess Miller and I am SO in awe of what she’s written, it’s simple, beautiful and deeply profound.
Some thoughts on why I love guest writers:
I think it is SO COOL to get inside someone else’s pink brain. What a trip, what a gift. How lucky we are to have words and vulnerability!
Yes, I started this newsletter so that I'd be forced to write more, and that box has been aggressively ticked with a purple gel pen, but I also want it to be interesting and unique and worthy of your time! Guest writers are a whole new world (and a refreshing break from me).
The editing process (!!), it’s a lovely skill to learn to lovingly finesse and tweak someone else’s words. And if you’re a reg reader of SIL you’ve probably noticed grammar isn’t my strong suit, so it’s a nice opportunity to learn. NB: in all honesty, this one required barely any involvement from me at all, Jess is a brilliant writer.
I’ve known Jess since I was born, our dads bolt gunned a toilet to a tree together in the 80’s and it became a sculptural landmark on an arterial road in our hometown for about 30 years. Iconic.
Jess is an incredible person. She’s self-determined, smart, cool, curious, strong and brave. I’ve always observed her with awe, she struck out into the world as soon as she turned 18 and she’s been making waves ever since.
She’s a grassroots gun; she became the deputy lord mayor of the city of Sydney at the age of 33, she’s a passionate environmentalist, activist and a mum to perhaps the most intelligent and charming child in the entire world.
She hasn’t written about any of that today though. Instead, she’s written about her relationship with her body. Undulating, at times toxic and always changing. And the unlikely role of consensual recreational violence in its strength.
You’ll love it.
Peak Jess ❤️🔥
I was wrong.
I was wrong to think that the Melbourne Demons football club would never win a premiership in my lifetime.
I was wrong about eyebrow rings.
I was wrong about cigarettes & alcohol.
I was wrong about Clinton Bourke.
I was wrong about leaf-blowers.
Especially the leaf blowers, leaf blowers are rad.
Most importantly, I was wrong to think that consensual, recreational violence between adults was stupid, and only for stupid people. This realisation, I only fully began to grasp in my thirties.
Let’s start with a quick run-down of the dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship I had with my body for the first couple of decades of my life:
Pre-teen, we were mostly ok. It worked. I mostly existed in my head. I wasn’t aware that we shouldn’t really be getting on until I was about 8 or 9 and my Pop would start weighing us grandkids – but only the girls, mind.
Then we get to the teens and twenties.
If my body were an Airbnb that I occupied - I’d give it about 3 stars. It reeked of Impulse Vanilla Dreams, to mask the smell of Peter Jackson Super Milds, and cones smoked out of hose pipe and used plastic spring valley bottles behind the back shed before school. See? Even then I was up-cycling.
I moved to Brazil straight after high school. The land of the ‘tire dentes’ – which means dental floss, barely-there bikinis that epitomised a body-obsessed culture I was not prepared for. Just turned eighteen, I dealt with this loneliness and anxiety about my body by throwing-up. The pattern was that when my mind wasn’t doing well – my body expressed it, by trying to regain control, or completely losing it. This anxiety was compounded every mealtime when my Avo (Brazilian Grandmother) would insist on feeding me – even if I wasn’t hungry - and then in the next breath remark, “Jessica, voce engordei” – you’re getting fat. In Brazil, and in many other cultures – everyone seems to be entitled to an opinion about the female body. It’s the original troll-magnet.
In my early twenties, my body was regularly soaked in booze, reeling from the night before, and exhausted from working from 6am till past midnight most days of the week.
Nonetheless, my body brought me joy, it became remarkably good at step aerobics. To the point where a small group of us at ANU, would learn choreography involving perilously gliding over not one or two, but FOUR steps. I loved getting up at 4am and rowing on the lake. It healed from a couple of accidents, and I’m grateful that it remained robust.
All in all, the relationship I had with my body throughout my teens and twenties was casual, aloof – I wasn’t invested in it. I wasn’t aware of any points of interest and I didn’t see any reason to maintain it. It didn’t feel like something I ought to have pride in. It was lived in but it never felt like my home.
I was wrong.
My general attitude toward my body was that as long as it didn’t get too fat, worked ok and was just pretty enough in the eyes of others, it would do. Our relationship was abusive and superficial, I figured that was how it would always be.
I was wrong.
When I was around twenty-four, an Oxfam charity auction, a broken treadmill at Fernwood Broadway, a fierce Thai banker, and a blood-stained gym on Castlereagh Street conspired to literally knock some sense into me.
At twenty-five I became a student of a world champion kickboxer and martial artist who would forever change the relationship that I have with the flesh and blood that encase my thoughts and feelings; my body, myself, and everyone around me.
Picture in your mind what a world champion kickboxer looks like.
Big muscles, silky shorts, a crooked nose, the stuff you see on the UFC – a thug, right?
It’s an image based almost entirely on a body. I thought that was all there was to it.
I was wrong.
Martial arts, and specifically the art of which I have been a student now for 13 years, Ukidokan, is a style of full contact karate or kickboxing. It was pioneered by Sensei Benny ‘the Jet’ Urquidez, a contemporary of Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. He continues to pass his wisdom on to my teacher, Sensei Nadine Champion. A 5’6 blond woman, who if you met outside of the gym, you’d be forgiven for thinking is a little bit goofy, funny, wise and sweet.
But not if you met her like I did at the gym.
At the peak of her fighting career, she was like a superhero with a force field surrounding her. She was intimidating. She remains one of the most truly powerful people I have ever met.
It took me about 12 months of being at the Castlereagh Street gym before I even plucked up the courage to talk to her, and longer still to eventually ask if she would teach me. Lucky for me, she agreed.
Fundamentally, full-contact sparring in kickboxing is violent. It is sweaty, bloody, exhausting, messy and at times, tearful and overwhelming. But it is not ‘fighting’ in the sense that the purpose and intent is to win through the domination of your opponent through points or by knocking them out.
Full contact sparring is controlled, in its full brilliance it looks and feels more like a dance with energy flowing between the partners. Or like a physical game of chess, but much less boring to watch.
You test what you have been training and get immediate feedback. It’s one of the very few contexts where it’s ok to fully express super intense physical energy, especially as a woman, while simultaneously trying to keep your emotions calm and clear. I can think of few other scenarios where you truly get to practice keeping yourself together under pressure.
Joe Rogan said it best, “martial arts is high-level problem solving with dire physical consequences.”
And I absolutely love it.
For me, it changed my relationship with my body, myself and others. Radically.
When I began training seriously, it was Mum that noticed that I had (finally) stopped hunching. I also stopped shuffling when I walked and avoiding eye contact, by looking down, or off and away.
Fun fact: when boxers go ‘chhhh’ they’re not being dickheads (well most of them anyway). Instead, they’re using their breath to contract their abdominal muscles to protect their organs from impact. You do that enough, your core gets stronger, your posture improves.
I began to feel strong. I felt like my body had power. I began to move with intention. I gained the confidence to look people in the eye.
When you begin sparring in kickboxing and boxing, or even rolling in martial arts like jiu jitsu, it is super weird and incredibly emotional.
It’s true, everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face – Mohammed Ali is often associated with the full physicality of boxing, but what I think he is describing is the emotional ‘punches’ in the face, which as women we’re too often expected to just absorb.
Sensei describes sparring in the ring as a ‘pressure cooker’. Whatever issues, pain, emotion you walk into the ring with, will come up. Sometimes it can feel like an air-fryer, or one of those fancy convection stovetops that in seconds, transforms a cool pan into a bubbling, spitting hot mess of vicious oil.
It’s difficult to deal with at first.
But over time the experience of dealing with it again and again, gives you a depth of understanding about what Sensei says, “lights you up”. Sometimes your opponent will purposely set you a trap or push your buttons. At the beginning, you just feel it all and react in a way that will get you into bigger trouble - Will Smith.
I learned how to breath.
In the ring, as in normal life situations, you can get really tired, exhausted sometimes. You can get the wind knocked out of you. But learning how to breath helps to regain control of your body, your mind, and emotions, and halts the spiral from frustration, anger, fear and anxiety.
I learned how to become more sensitive
As you become more experienced in sparring, you get better at recognising what is really in front of you.
If you go into it thinking solely of what you’re going to do to the other person, you:
a) aren’t paying attention to what they are trying to do to you
b) can’t defend it, and
c) are not prepared to counter what they are throwing.
So, you have to connect with non-verbal energy. Maintain awkward eye contact. There is no talking in sparring. For people who spend too much time in their heads, it’s both difficult and amazing.
I am learning to use my body to fully express the things that don’t have or need words.
Rage. Pride. Aggression. Power. Force. Sublime Beauty. Grace. Art. Confidence.
When I listen to how younger women and my ten-year old daughter speak about things. I am sometimes intimidated by the way they are able to articulate the anger, rage, sorrow, sexiness, and pride they feel for their bodies. Their self-possession means that they can articulate clear boundaries.
During the Airbnb days in my body, I certainly didn’t feel that skill, or even that I had the right. It sounds odd to say it, but my body mostly existed through the eyes of how others saw it. It wasn’t me who decided its value, it was other people. Like the woman in David Jones who did the bra fittings, or some stranger in a club, or something I saw in a magazine that defined what I ‘should’ feel about it.
My being was completely disconnected from the thing that did the doing; my body. Training in martial arts and in sparring you have no choice but to be in your body.
Through this love of high-level problem solving with dire physical consequences, I am reminded that I am allowed to feel these things and am allowed to express these things that I don’t have or may never have the words for. And that they are magical.
I have been doing this now for thirteen years. Long enough to gain confidence that I know what I’m doing and am beginning to really enjoy refining, perfecting, playing-with and expressing the true art of it. It’s not unlike learning music, where the hours of tedious repetition of scales means that eventually you have the skills to breathe life into something that was written 300 years ago.
And they said, immortality and time-travel don’t exist.
They were wrong.
As I get closer to forty, I no longer feel an overwhelming desire to take what I love about the experience of sparring – the peace and grace of it - into a full-blown competitive fight. I don’t have a desire to prove that I am not weak, or invisible or small. I’ve let go of a lot of anger and shame that would otherwise compel me to do something like this.
I have gained confidence, what Sensei describes as ‘a knowing’. A deep knowing that means that I can calmly sit across from an absolute dickhead in any given context, with full composure, grace and a quiet power born from knowing that if wanted or needed to, I could really mess them up.
I thought, I was small and weak.
I know now that I was wrong.