I had never broken bricks with my bare hands, despite starting martial arts at the tender age of six, and he was bothered by the fact that the skill levels I possessed as a black belt had never been translated to external measures of performance.
“But it’ll hurt, I’m scared I’ll break my bones,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” he said with a mischievous smile, as he set up two cinder blocks vertically to support one slab of brick.
“Now, I want you to focus your Qi, and when you feel ready, hit it with your palm,” he said, motioning to me by example.
We did all the breathing techniques he taught me, and I struck the brick with my hand while yelling with a loud Ki Up.
I screamed in pain and leaned back clutching my hand.
I looked over at the stack: nothing happened to the brick.
Without missing a beat, he said: “Now kick the brick, stomp your leg through!”
I gazed at him, doubtful of myself and whether to proceed.
“Do it! You have shoes on! What are you waiting for?!?” he said.
I kicked the brick and my leg went through, smashing it into two pieces.
I didn’t show much emotion.
“Well?” he said authoritatively. “What changed?”
“I knew I had shoes on, so that it wouldn’t hurt.”
“Right,” he said. “So what you’re telling me is, it’s really mental for you, not physical.”
“No, it’s partially physical too!” I said defensively. “It’s obvious my leg is way stronger than my arm,” I said with an eye roll.
“Try with your hand again now,” he said dismissive of my last comment.
He carefully placed another brick in the same manner as before, and waited for my strike.
“C’mon, you can do it!”
I struck it perfectly, and held my follow-through with a confident and focused look on my face, determined and intense, as if I knew all along it would happen.
“What was different this time?” he asked.
“You made me believe,” I said.
Wow, I said to myself. I stood there in awe, standing over the first brick I had ever broken with my bare hands.
He then laid two bricks, one on top of the other.
“Go for it,” he said.
“No way, I barely broke one! You’re crazy,” I said.
“If you are only truly strong enough to break one, your hand will stop at the second one and we can go home, no big deal.”
I struck at the new stack.
A repeat reaction from before ensued, with me screaming in pain and clutching my hand.
He reacted to the sequel of my self-doubt with the same outburst of laughter.
“You didn’t even break the first one,” he said with a critical tone, pointing at how not even the top one broke. “You are clearly strong enough to break ONE. You just did it a minute ago. My mere action of putting the second brick on top intimidated you and put your mind in distress.”
I nodded, still clutching my hand, letting the redness go down.
“Kick it,” he said.
And just like before, I broke the stack.
“Now use your hand,” he said and placed two bricks stacked together again.
I struck at the stack, this time breaking both in one fell swoop.
“See? You did it!” he said.
We repeated the pattern and got up to three bricks before we stopped.
I couldn’t believe it.
When we left Home Depot, I said to Sal: “You know, I’ve been doing martial arts since I was six, and I never knew I could or even tried to break bricks, let alone a stack of three! What an amazing feeling! Thank you for showing me.”
“You had it in you all along, it was all those years of training, finally coming out. Don’t thank me, thank your uncle for teaching you at six. I just cleared your mind and injected confidence, brick by brick.”
I often meet other transgender and lesbian women who ask me how I came out to my family and friends, let alone managing to find work in Aerospace Engineering again while presenting in my true gender identity, as a woman.
I tell them it was a long process, iterated in steps, with each iteration containing important milestones of growth that fueled my confidence and understanding of who I was, revealing more clearly where I needed to go to be happily authentic.
The women questioning me often get irritated, and reiterate their question in ways that contain clarification statements that they think I missed: “No no,” they say. “What EXACTLY did you tell your family, using what PRECISE words? How did you know that during that exact morning of September of 2005, that you would tell them?”
As I continue to tell them it’s a process, and not a singular event contained in one days of work, they get upset. They somehow believe that if they just arrange the exact order of words in an exact context and manner, similar to the way I did it in 2005, that they will get the same results.
They only want the technique Salvador showed me at Home Depot in 2004, and not to have to invest in the 19 years of training I did in martial arts that led up to the moment prior for me being able to break bricks at age 24.
They think if someone recorded my hand going through the bricks, that if they mimic my angle, technique, and strike speed, that they can do the same thing.
To an extent, they probably can. But there was so much more to what was going on than what could be seen with a precursory glance.
It is very likely someone with no prior martial arts training, who is very angry or in a focused state, can break bricks. However, to conjure up that strength and focus without the emotional energy fueling their actions will perhaps yield a different outcome. And a truly well-trained martial artist can conjure up that focus and strength much quicker at their disposal than an untrained individual.
I have found that transitioning and being seen in the world as a woman involved similar processes and learning curves. The more I practiced owning my narrative and feminine heart, the more my energy became apparent to those observing me, with my visibility as trans decreasing involuntarily while my status of being out as queer went up by choice.
Coming out, in my experience, is an extended process. We come out every day, a bit at a time, and when the culminating event occurs, people who are present only see the end result, without seeing how much blood, sweat, and tears has gone into the preparation and accumulation.
“Practice,” my Guru always tells me. “Practice.”
I can still recall just how much practice it took to just be able to turn the doorknob and leave the house when I first transitioned.
It took more practice to be able to go out in public and interact with people, to endure the anxiety of being a new and raw girl, visible and seen, going through an internal puberty and crash course of growth despite looking like a 30 year old adult.
It took even more practice to be able to find a job, and eventually share, after over a year and a half of working there, a written piece of mine with a coworker and not succumb to the urge to remove the word “transgender” from my essay.
It took yet even more practice added on top of the confidence gained from my former practice to be able to swim nude, in broad daylight, at Esalen up in Big Sur, in the public pool area where random guests could and did see me.
I’m so much more out than when I first started dressing up as a woman and going out on weekends at transgender nightclubs in 2001; than when I first came out to my parents in 2005; than when I first transitioned after mustering up the courage to see a gender therapist in 2011.
Yet, all of those days of practice were undetectable, invisible for those who asked me the simple question of “How exactly did you come out to your parents, Natalie?”
I turn to these people and say: “Brick by brick.”