I woke up shivering, my teeth ground together and my temples aching from the pressure. My fingertips felt numb as I consciously uncoiled them from the sleeping bag, which I was clutching around my body. Only a few feet from me was a black pot-bellied stove, a pile of wheat-colored wood next to it. I took a breath and peeled the sleeping bag from around my shoulders, kicking my legs to escape the pupal casing. A thick cloth, not unlike an oven mitt, wrapped around the coiled handle of the front of the stove, I pulled it down and back to open the door, the tired embers blinking weakly at me as the black door swung open. I let go of the handle and reached down with my right hand to grab a slice of wood to stoke the fire, my left hand automatically reaching up and over to balance myself in my squat – quads tired and cold – as I reached for the wood. My right hand wrapped around the wood at the same moment my left hand landed on the top of the stove, burning the entire palm in one moment of contact. I ripped my hand off the iron stove and fell backwards. The room was dark, only the sleepy embers gave any light over the bodies, inert in their slumber, scattered around the room. I threw a couple pieces of wood into the belly, feeding the beast, then shut the door, forgetting to latch the spiral handle back up. My hand burned, seared, stung. I remembered the Indiana Jones scene where a villain’s hand is burned from grabbing an amulet out of a fire and he races into the snow, plunging his hand into the powder to stop the burning. I know I should do this, but I’m too ashamed and afraid to creep over the bodies of my schoolmates to make it to the door and out into the snow just outside the cabin. So I just crawl back into my sleeping bag and try to squeeze my eyes tight enough to conjure sleep.
I was maybe 12 or 13 on that Outdoor Ed trip. Fast forward more than 20 years and I’m in an opposite situation. I’m sitting on the filthy canvas of an outdoor ring, the black of the canvas and the red of the mats that line the floor staining the bottoms of my feet. My shirt and pants stick to me from being soaked in sweat and I’m exhausted, chugging water that is only cold in my memory of pulling it out of the fridge in the morning. Yodkhunpon is talking, his gentle voice barely audible over the fan that blows from one corner of the ring. But I know what he’s saying anyway, so I nod along with the occasional “ka, ka” to affirm I understand. He’s excited. He paddles his hand in the air for me to stand up because he wants to show me something. We’ve been sparring for the past hour and I’m feeling like I just crawled into my cocoon for the first time and standing up is ripping me out of it. I hesitate, but then I stand. He commands me to kick, which I do, and he catches it, then lifts my leg high into the air and I’m forced to get on the very tips of my toes on the standing leg and hop to keep my balance. He pushes me around a little bit, showing how I need to practice this balance, then lifts and shoves in one swoop to collapse me back into the ropes. I am hurled back, but it’s farther to the rope than I estimated in my mind and I fall somewhat short of the “safety net.” Instead, my hand flails behind me in an attempt to steady myself and slaps hard against the ropes. This is like hitting water in a belly-flop versus diving into it. Ropes are unbelievably hard when you hit them wrong. They bite your back and arms and face if you fall into them instead of dancing against them. My knuckles hit the middle rope and then my fingers tangle as I slump to the canvas. Yodkhunpon asks me if I understand – like the black stove asked me if I understood as I ripped my hand off of it 20 years ago – and I nod my head. Then I swallow the pain and hide my growing ache as I collect my equipment off the ring and load it under my motorbike seat. This isn’t quite the embarrassment of what I felt in the cabin as a kid, when I seriously burned my hand, but I don’t want him to feel badly that he’s just hurt me. A decade of training as a fighter has also made me very adept at hiding pain, so it’s the same instinct as a kid but now it’s finely honed.
I can’t squeeze my brake as I drive home and the swelling between my knuckles is turning black. Many years ago I broke my hand in a fight and got straight into the car to drive 16 hours up to Chiang Mai to fight again. All night I moved the hand in ways that hurt, keeping the range of movement. So I did that now; I’m right-handed, so this isn’t hard to do, but I forced the hand to cook breakfast, use tongs, open door handles that it couldn’t even grasp… anything to challenge it and keep it from freezing. I’m training the hand in a way that I’ve trained my mind from that early morning being burned by the stove to that morning being cast into the ropes by Yodkhunpon. One is shame, the other is deliberate. Even if they’re not that different, the intention is. The morning when I burned my hand I kept it hidden from everyone, which in winter weather is easy. I wore a glove and grimaced through the pain of holding a cross-country ski pole in my palm for a few miles before finally not being able to grip it and just dragging it alongside me with the wrist loop keeping it attached to me. Some teacher noticed and asked what was up, which forced me to remove my glove and reveal a blister the size of half a baseball, covering my whole palm. It was red and weeping clear fluid. She was horrified. I was ashamed. But my injury from the ropes feels different; like I took that shame and made it into a shield… or a Hulk. For nearly a week now I’ve been unable to use it in training, although I’m constantly forcing it to remain my dominant hand in day-to-day tasks, through pain and immobility, because submitting to it will make it worse. Interestingly, wearing one glove in training and just using my right arm for elbows, almost exclusively, has made me a much better fighter in other ways. And while hiding my burn as a kid didn’t make me better at anything, it made me better at what I’m doing with myself now. Because I’ve been here before, and truthfully, that’s been my method for surpassing my own weaknesses all along.