(thanks for the inspiration Ray)
"Don't Stop Believin'. Hold on to that Feelin'" - Journey
We sat on the floor in the Big Villa, on cushions or yoga mats. Tired from a hard days' training, wondering what Guro Fred, Sifu James, Guro Claes would have in store for us. The days of Peaceful Warrior Camp were filled with training, starting at 0630 on the beach, and ending every night with a group conference on health, personal development or spirituality. It was simply amazing.
Guro Fred talked about believing in ourselves and deliberately choosing happiness. He talked about letting go of everything except the desire to have the life we want. Most of us are already avid Tony Robbins followers, especially Guro Fred's inner circle of instructors, most of whom have read the books/listened to the audio, watched the Youtube videos, etc. Still, the constant reminders to never let go of our dreams help us to refocus on what we really want from our lives; from ourselves.
Guro Fred asked me to tell my story. He's heard it before.
There was a time in my life when I couldn't tell it at all - for years I was afraid that people would reject me if they knew the truth of what I went through. I was ashamed of who I had been. As I got older, wiser, stronger I realized the story might help others and I agreed to tell it.
Take a Deep Breath...Here goes...
After I was born at Norfolk Naval Hospital in Virginia, my birth parents moved to Chicago. My dad had developed a severe drug problem in Vietnam and was prone to violent outbursts. He came from an abusive home in New York City. My mom knew it wasn't safe for me and that she couldn't raise me on her own. Their marriage was dissolving rapidly. Finally, they placed me into foster care at Illinois Children's Home and Aid just before I was a year old. I still remember the corkboard walls and the big red VW beetle they let me play with while my foster family did their paperwork.
I grew up in the Illinois State foster care program, with a social caseworker and weekly therapy until I was in junior high school. Small, but with a big mouth (still), I was bullied constantly, to the degree that I had to have a teacher nearby throughout the day to avoid being beaten by the other kids.
At 14, I started my martial arts journey, in a garage-turned-dojo in Bloomington Heights. I got a part-time job just so I could pay for lessons. My parents refused to drive me to class so my teacher would pick me up every day. I kept on going, training daily until I was 21. My teacher required me to get good grades, so I did. He required me to be respectful, so I was. For every hour I spent training, he gave me another hour or more of lectures and books on Japanese history, military history, strategy, tactics. The Book of Five Rings, The Art of War, I studied and read constantly. The more he told me about Japan the more I wanted to go.
It wasn't just about martial arts. It was about breaking out of all the labels I had been given, having the freedom to choose my life and not being stopped by who I had been before or my being property of the state. It was about deciding what I wanted and going out and getting it. I made up my mind to get to Japan no matter what. I had no idea it would ultimately take me 10 years.
The first plan for me to visit Japan was through my connections in the USKA. I had been a competitor and judge for a while and was getting known in the Midwest circuit. My teacher told me that Grandmaster Robert Trias, one of the first non-Asians to open a karate school in America (back in 1947 in Arizona), was assembling a team of delegates to travel Asia as ambassadors of martial arts in the US. I was to be the youngest member. It was like a dream come true.
Unfortunately, Grandmaster Trias was a heavy smoker and was diagnosed with lung cancer that year. The trip was cancelled and he died the following year in 1989. I was heartbroken.
The second time, in 1990, I was bartending at a club in Lombard called The Pacific Club, owned by legendary Chicago Bears football player Walter "Sweetness" Payton. For some reason, the club had a sister club in Osaka, Japan. I was excited. I applied to be transferred. Everything seemed to be going my way, and the summer flew by as I thought of nothing else but Japan. At the end of the summer, the club fired me, saying that they were cutting back on staff. I cried so hard I couldn't drive home and I sat for several hours in the parking lot in my car, alone.
The third time I was a junior in college at North Central College (go Cardinals!). I had been studying Japanese for nearly a year already and hoping I might get another chance. NCC had a fully funded sister program with Nagoya Gakuin in Nagoya - one place only for ten applicants. I knew I had to get it because I was destined for it. This was MY TIME. As a junior I wouldn't get another chance. If I missed it, I'd graduate the next year, get a job and that would be that. I put my heart and soul into the interview and waited confidently for a good result.
Sato-sensei, my Japanese professor, called me at work himself to tell me the news.
"I'm so sorry, John-san" he said. In an instant the world went black. I dropped the receiver, my hands shaking, tears streaming down my face in front of the dining room, the waiters and waitresses, the other bartenders. Without a sound I took off my apron and walked out the front door...I was ready to die that night.
Three strikes and you're out.
Tommy King, my friend the waiter, saved my life. He shoved me into his car and we drove downtown. I don't remember much of the following desperate days other than vague recollections of me chugging pitchers of beer while standing on tables at Dick's Last Resort (we got thrown out of course) and possibly stealing a Pirelli off of a similar car in the early morning hours to fix Tommy's own flat tire. Thanks, Tommy, wherever you are. I owe you my life.
When I got back to school Monday I had lost all motivation. I had been a straight A student in Japanese and now I just didn't care. I would graduate in a year and forget Japanese just like I had forgotten the 6 years of French I aced in junior high school and high school. Why bother? Those were some of the darkest days of my life, marking time like a dead man walking, waiting for my coffin to close.
A week later Sato-Sensei called me in for a one-on-one. He asked me to apply again. I refused. He begged me. He told me he would write my recommendation letter himself. He told me how much he believed in me, and how he could feel how much I loved Japan and wanted to go. At his insistence, I applied to Kansai Gaidai in Osaka. Sato-Sensei, if there is a heaven, you are in it.
Needless to say, it worked. I was accepted. I spent 1991 in Osaka and have never looked back since. I am writing this post happily from Yokohama, surrounded by my wife, children and in-laws, having had the adventure of a lifetime here in Japan. I've now been here for more than half my life, and I intend to stay. Forever.
I will never forget touching down at Narita Airport that first time, 26 years ago. I knelt down in the terminal and put my forehead to the floor. After 10 years and 3 failed attempts --- I had finally made it. My dream was my reality. I knew, like I knew my own name, that I could achieve anything I ever really wanted to do. In that moment, I became invincible.
Sometimes I still can't believe all this really happened to me. I worry that I will wake up back in Chicago, back in an orphanage, back in foster care. I won't. I'm right where I'm supposed to be.
We all have dreams in our hearts. I got mine for real. You can get yours, too.
I know this. I've been there. I've seen the deepest darkness when you are ready to give up, to let go. I've also felt the incredible joy of achieving something everyone else told you you would never do, something you even doubted yourself about sometimes. When I tell you your dreams can come true..Trust me. I know.