In a low-lit bar, I stare at the hot pink swirls of chalk on the wall across from me and the odd, creative names of the 32 different beers currently on tap. The bartender is ignoring me and the noise of the crowd is starting to get overwhelming. This is not how I would've chosen to spend the evening after my first day at a new job.
Sighing, I wonder why I even bothered putting a bra back on and dragging myself out of my cozy apartment to go to a famous beer bar -- when I didn't even like beer. But despite the lingering first-day nerves, I had agreed to meet a new coworker for dinner.
Still unable to get the bartender's attention, my eyes turn to the printed menu in front of me. In small type at the very bottom of the cocktail list is a drink called "The Smash."
"Did you make it through your entire workday without punching anyone?" the description reads. "Then you deserve this drink to celebrate."
Why yes, I had made it through my entire day without punching anyone - but that was the problem. For me, it's a good day when I get to punch something.
Three years ago, an argument about high-heeled shoes led me to an unassuming warehouse building in the middle of Glenview -- a place I would come to call my dojo.
The argument was between me and my roommate. I was adamant that a shoe with a stiletto heal would be best to use as a weapon in case of a mugging; she stubbornly believed that a heavy wedge would be the better option. After a heated debate, we consulted an expert - as one does in such important matters -- who had been training and teaching karate for 20 years. He triumphantly explained that the shoe didn't matter; it was how you used it. He then made his pitch for trying karate with him and the next day I ended up at North Shore Dojo.
Sipping on my blueberry-flavored "Smash," I reflect on the things that kept me from losing my sanity, breaking down in tears, or just plain giving up over the hardships of the last year. The answer was as clear and bright as the neon chalk beer list in front of me -- North Shore Dojo is the reason I persevere.
This bar is loud; the dojo is louder. While my body performs the repetitive Shotokan Karate movements in response to Sensei Jeff Kohn's instructions, something incredible occurs. My mind, one that constantly races with anxious thoughts -- or spits out annoying song lyrics at inopportune moments -- shuts down. For an hour each day, I experience peace.
During my first group class at the dojo, I wasn't expecting much other than how to use any kind shoe in order to defend myself. I got a whole lot more. After a brief warm-up of sit-ups and stretches, I was already sweating. Then I was paired with another beginner to work on the basics of punching. After the third or fourth time of being reminded to "use my other left" hand, I found myself laughing. It was one of those full-belly, unexpected laughs that instantly releases all your stress and tells you that you are exactly where you need to be. I hadn't felt that way in as long as I can remember. Each time I came back to class, I chased that feeling.
What I have gained from North Shore Dojo goes beyond a few moments of Zen. There have been times in this past year when it was habit alone that forced me out of bed each morning. Karate takes discipline. That in mind, I was dumbfounded when my mother, whose idea of exercising is carrying large shopping bags around the mall, joined me at the dojo.
When she started, she couldn't even do a single sit-up; now my amazing mother can do more sit-ups than me some days. Doing a sit-up or improving a skill may not happen as quickly as she would like, but my beautiful mother continues to show up for class. This attitude, as well as the inspirational individuals who teach and train at the dojo, allowed me to approach each day this year with a latent determination I didn't even know I was experiencing.
That inspiration expands beyond karate too. Sensei Kohn also runs the Karate Can-Do Foundation. This means that his classes are a hodge-podge of children and adults, some with disabilities, some battling illnesses, and some just battling the urge to be curled up on their couch at home.
Thinking of slacking in class today? Well, the kid to your left came here in a wheel chair and was able to get through the exercise. That woman on your right? She had chemo this morning and hasn't uttered a single complaint. This motivation inside the dojo was exactly what I needed to encourage a positive outlook outside of the dojo as well.
Work was particularly difficult at times this year. A bad day not only takes an emotional toll, but drains all your physical energy as well. When I decided I was ready to make a change in my career, I found support at the dojo. One woman spent time counseling me on the values I wanted to obtain in a new career path. One kid introduced me to an older brother who excitedly shared information about a grad school program, the one in which I am now enrolled. And more than one of the adult karate students were happy to listen to me weigh my options over a glass of wine after class.
As I finish my drink, my new co-worker walks into the bar, and my anxiousness melts. I am instead feeling really thankful this holiday season. More and more I face each day filled with an excited energy; my thoughts become less anxious and more positive. The gratitude I have for the North Shore Dojo is immeasurable.
The dojo's motto is to "believe," and it has given me the gift of understanding that believing in yourself is a habit. Like karate, believing in yourself takes discipline, motivation and the support of a strong community. Even when things are going wrong, North Shore Dojo reminds me to just believe.
Plus, on particularly bad days, I get to punch things.
Danielle Bohrer is a young adult living in Chicago and searching for her Jew(ish) identity, and the best brunch spot in the city. She currently works as a clinical applications specialist while pursuing a Graduate degree at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Karate keeps her sane, Musical Theatre gives her a creative outlet, and her awesome dog, Kayla, makes sure she spends as much time outside as possible.
For more stories in the "Just Thought I'd Say Thanks" blog series, visit oychicago.com/thanks.