THE BEAT OF SUMMER (finding the 1)

Sometimes I just do the best I can. I’d like to think that I am sometimes brilliant, but I know that sometimes I’m not even striving to be brilliant…sometimes I just buckle down, white knuckle through and do the best I can.

I often feel that way at the end of the academic year as I move through final classes and performances exhausted. I show up on time (hopefully!). I smile (at least I think I’m smiling!). I try to be organized and prepared. I try to stay focused and present…but one foot is already out the door as I find my way through those final, year-end commitments….in my mind’s eye, I am already floating around the lake, kayaking down the river, riding horses, spending time with family…

The funny thing is, once the classes and performances are over and I am actually out there floating on that lake or paddling down that river, I am usually thinking about taiko. I am either composing or arranging music or planning the next strategic steps we need to take as a group or envisioning new costumes or thinking about next year’s classes and performances or throwing drum sticks and a drum pad in my suitcase as I head out the door. Good grief. It’s hard to shut it down.

And of course I don’t really want to. I am a taiko drummer. Removing taiko from my life would be like cutting off my arm: an extremely painful loss that I would grieve for a long time as I would struggle to readjust. Taiko is no longer something I do; it’s a way of being in the world. At some point, taiko became a lifestyle, part of my identity. I play taiko because it’s fun, but I am a taiko drummer because, well… because I am. It’s become a personal demographic, like being a Caucasian, middle-aged female or a Midwestern American. It just is.

Like most things that are meaningful, “doing” taiko as a job requires more than just showing up…it requires an investment, an extension of myself that needs to be balanced. And counter-balanced… I don’t want to shut down the drumming, but for a while I am happy to not be expected to show up and drum at a certain time and place. I am happy to not be responsible for guiding a group through a process. I am happy to float around the lake, soak up the sun and splash out random rhythms with my hands on the water…

I only have two more residencies before I am officially on taiko summer break. During the month of June, I’ll be teaching taiko as part of two different art camps. This is not my first rodeo….I don’t know exactly what will happen, but I can make some best guesses based on past experience. I’ll pack my taiko kit, travel to location and work with whoever shows up. They’ll come in curious. Sometimes excited. Frequently wary. Usually willing. We’ll only have a few days to explore the vast world of taiko. A few days. Where does one start?

I’ll first show them photos of taiko drummers from the book The Way of Taiko. I want them to know I haven’t made this stuff up. That taiko is an ancient art form based on Japanese tradition and that even though there’s not much taiko here in Indiana, there are places in the world where taiko is rampant. Then I’ll get them moving.

“We’re going to learn how to find the 1,” I’ll tell them as I put a stool or a chair or a box or my backpack or something (anything!) in the middle of the room. I’ll line them up against a wall and put two sticks down on the floor end to end to mark a starting line. “You’re going to go one at a time, run and jump over the stool (or chair or box), keep running until you touch the chair on the other side of the room and then circle back to the end of the line.” At this point, they’re usually smiling and whoever is in front has leaned down into a “start” position like a racer about to run around a track.

I’ll point to the sticks on the floor and add, “But no one can cross that line until s/he hears the 1.” Now they look confused. I walk to a drum and begin improvising. “Ready and go,” I say. “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8…” The first person usually misses the first 1 and takes off on beats 3 or 4. I’ll let the moment pass and keep going. Part of the game is letting them figure it out. And so the line continues with running and jumping and circling and drumming and counting and smiling and panting. I wonder if they realize that a good portion of this game is about letting them burn off energy so we can sit and do activities that require more focus. And of course we are building relationship. Quickly. (We don’t have much time together!)

About the time they figure it out, I’ll pause the game and explain we’re going to do it in sets of 4. Before I start counting again, I’ll ask if anyone wants to join me on the drum. Usually at least one hand goes up. I’ll give this new drummer sticks and a smile. No instruction. This moment isn’t about technique or rhythmic accuracy. This is about the joy of drumming, of making spontaneous music with friends. And of course, finding the 1. We’ll continue with me counting, “1, 2, 3, 4…” and so on. Then we’ll do it in sets of two. Usually I increase the tempo. And at some point, I quit counting for them. They’re on their own, moving faster and faster, trying to keep up, trying to hold on to the 1, until the whole game deteriorates into exhausted laughter (and sometimes rolling on the floor!) I’ll call them to a circle and prepare to hand out sticks.  But first I’ll ask, “What does that have to do with taiko?” Then I’ll let the group sort out the answer.

Taiko is so much more than beating on a barrel. More often than not, the best way to teach the art of taiko is to let students experience it from the inside out–especially when you only have a few days! Some of them will think taiko is weird (it’s certainly unusual here in Indiana) and hard (indeed it is) and they’ll be glad when the whole thing is over. For others, this experience will launch a whole new way of being. Some will intuitively sense that this whole idea of “finding the 1” is about some bigger truth (even if they don’t yet understand what that might be). They’ll have the fever and will continue exploring their world from a new perspective whether or not they ever drum again.

I certainly have the fever. Rhythms play in my head on a more or less ongoing basis. Apparently, my subconscious drums a lot–at least that’s what friends and family tell me. Apparently, I unconsciously drum while driving. (As evidenced by several accidents resulting in several totaled cars!) I drum while day dreaming. Even while sleeping. (Or so I’m told!) And since taiko is a mind-body form, this practice frequently involves movement and draws some unusual and curious attention from bystanders. Sometimes it’s full-out rhythms being played mindlessly on the steering wheel or grocery cart or kitchen table or my body. Sometimes it’s just small movement impulses that don’t appear at first glance to have any organized meaning but just look like bizarre tics. (This can create some embarrassing moments when out in public!) Sometimes it’s verbal rhythms articulated through “taiko” language muttered under my breath. (don, doko don, doko don, kata ka ka!) Sometimes it’s just a far-off stare that causes me to appear to be disconnected from my immediate environment. Someone who knows me well will say, “You’re drumming right now, aren’t you?” And I’ll return from my reverie back to a shared reality.

Once when I was coming out of anesthetic from a medical procedure, I started moving my arms and wrists in an odd manner. The observing nurse expressed some concern, commenting that she had never seen that reaction before and asked my mother if she knew what I was doing.

I was told my mother sighed and said, “She’s probably drumming.”

To confirm, Mom prodded me. “Hey, what are you doing right now?”

“Just making sure my wrists still work!” I answered in a drug-induced haze as I continued moving my arms in a rhythmic sequence. “Don do ko don, kata ka ka.” I said, muttering taiko language under my breath.

“Yep, she’s drumming!” Mom concluded.

Just goes to show…when push comes to shove, the beat goes on. Here’s to the beat of summer….and finding the 1!

 

 

INFINITE POSSIBILITIES

The game emerged spontaneously when my daughter, India, was about 5 years old. The two of us were enjoying a rare moment together on the upstairs deck of our rambling Victorian. That upper porch was one of our favorite places in that big, dilapidated house and the sun felt so good that spring day that I found myself basking in a rare moment of reprieve. I was drowning in financial stress, pending foreclosure and an unhappy marriage. Frozen by an uncertain future, I had grown so accustomed to everything being so hard that the warmth of the sun on my skin melted my heart. It felt so good, it was almost more than I could stand.

India had her Pocahontas toys spread out on a blanket. I laid down beside her, closed my eyes and breathed. I was mindful of the warm sun on my closed eyelids, my arms, my legs….but I wanted more. I jumped up and took off my dress in one swift motion revealing the bathing suit I happened to have on underneath. (It was not unusual in those days for me to wear a one-piece under my clothes. Somehow it helped me feel contained; somehow it helped me hold myself together.) I laid back down. Oh, so much better! I could feel the sun on all those places that had been covered.

“What are you doing?” India had stopped playing and was looking at me.

“Mommy’s just lying in the sun,” I reassured her.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it feels good.”

“But why did you take off your clothes?”

“Because I want to feel the sun all over!”

“Oh, can I lie in the sun too?”

“Sure you can!” I sat up. “We can do whatever we want!” I scooted toys over to make a place for her to lie down next to me. By the time I looked up, she had ripped off her dress and underwear and was standing there stark naked.

“Oh, that does feel good!” she smiled and pranced. “I like doing whatever we want!” I was momentarily aghast, but that fleeting feeling was quickly replaced with joy. India started jumping up and down, chanting, “We can do whatever we want!”

I stood up and joined her as the creative movement teacher in me took over. “I can march like this!” I said. We both started marching around the porch as we chanted, “We can do whatever we want!” I quickly realized our chant needed three quarter rests at the end to make it an eight-count rhythmic phrase, so I snorted like a pig and jumped three times. India squealed with delight, then snorted and jumped with me. One, two, three!

“I can spin like this!” she said and we both started spinning. “We can do whatever we want!” Snort, snort, snort. India squealed again.

My turn. “I can slither like this!” Here we go… “We can do whatever we want!” Snort, snort, snort.  The noise must have called my husband James upstairs because suddenly he stuck his head through the door. “What is going on?” he asked. “India! Put on some clothes!” He looked at me as if to ask, “Have you gone crazy?”

“No!” India protested. “We’re playing We Can Do Whatever We Want! And I don’t want to put on clothes because the sun feels GOOD, doesn’t it Mommy?”  Seeing the look of sheer ecstasy on her face, I smiled in agreement. “That’s right!” Just for good measure I added a snort, snort, snort. India squealed again and echoed three snorts back. James rolled his eyes and left. India and I happily continued our game.

Before too long my son Jacob came out onto the porch. “What are you doing?” he asked, surveying. “Why doesn’t India have on any clothes?”

“Because we can do whatever we want!” she chanted with delight. James must have still been upstairs because I heard him say, “Leave them be Jake. It must be a girl thing.”

Yes, please, please, please just let us be…we danced and chanted and snorted and chanted and danced until we were both exhausted and fell down on the blanket laughing, completely spent. We laid together holding hands, basking in the sun and our joy, panting from all that exertion. When we could both breathe normally again India asked, “Can we really do whatever we want?”

“Absolutely,” I said without hesitation and squeezed her hand. I added no caveats for considering consequences or admonishments about safety or responsibility…I just laid there in the sun and planted seeds for infinite possibilities.

My now-grown daughter and I have revisited that day and its memorable We-Can-Do Whatever-We-Want point of view many times through the years. Whenever I stand at a pivot point, that voice of my younger self calls to me. She inspires and reassures. She reminds me that I am always free to choose whatever courageous future I have the audacity to imagine.

NEW ADVENTURES

Over Memorial Day weekend, I attended a workshop in Toronto Canada with Anne Marie Scheffler on how to create a one-woman show. As I revel in the excitement of this new adventure, I feel a whole new world open before me. I am reminded of other pivotal moments in my life and a dream I had long ago….

I am walking down the street in a hurry. I am having problems finding my way. I am confused, disoriented, distressed. Am I in Chicago? Fort Wayne? Hong Kong? I hear a loud, male voice directing me. I am trying to locate it, but it has no source. It is everywhere and nowhere–it is disembodied. But it is giving me directions, telling me where to go, so I listen and take heed. Turn here, turn there. The voice leads me to a subway portal. I go down the stairs and am standing at a turnstile, hesitant to enter, not wanting to commit. “Take the subway!” The voice booms. So I do. I get on the subway train and take a seat.

I am the only one on the train. The world outside the window races by in a blur. Sometimes the train is below ground and I see only darkness. Sometimes the train is above ground and I see a whirlwind of color and shapes, but I can’t make sense of any of the images. I am blindly traveling through as if I am being carried in a womb. Inside the subway car, the temperature is controlled; the seats are comfortable. I nap, I eat, I read. I am grateful for the opportunity to be still and rest. When I finally get bored, the train stops. I am as hesitant to get off as I was to get on. Where am I? I stand at the open door, unsure. “Get off the train!” The voice booms. So I do.

I take the stairs to the street and emerge at a familiar intersection in Fort Wayne. I look up into a blue sky as a bright sun warms my skin. A soft breeze carries the song of birds and the lively banter of people. A man sitting across the street smiles and beckons me over. As I get closer, I see it is my deceased father. I run up and hug him. “What are you doing here?” I ask. “I am so happy to see you!”

He pats me on the back. “I just want you to know how proud of you I am,” he says. “You’re doing a good job.” There’s that voice. It was his voice directing me!

I burst into tears. “I’m tired all the time,” I say.

“I know,” he nods.

“And I’m afraid. Half the time I have no idea what to do.”

He nods again and gets up as if to leave.

That’s it? That’s all he has to say? The man has traveled beyond and back and all he offers is a nod?

He starts to walk away, then turns. “You don’t have to always know up here.” He taps his head. “Just pick a direction, then go along and enjoy the ride.”  He turns away and disappears.

To new adventures….Bon Voyage!

THE DIGITAL AGE

The box was full of newspaper. It was Christmas morning and I was opening a present from my son–a large box of newspaper. I rummaged through it while he sat laughing until I uncovered a much smaller box wrapped and tied with ribbon. Opening that box, I was stunned to find an iPod. I had mentioned I was finally ready to leave my CDs behind and tentatively enter the new digital age, but I hadn’t expected him to buy me an iPod for goodness’ sake. He was a senior in college, in his last year of design school; he wasn’t yet working. “You have no business buying me an iPod for Christmas!” I said.

He shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said, “You’re my mom.”

A little overwhelmed by his generosity and more than a little techno-phobic, I carefully set my new iPod on the table, still in its box, waiting to explore it after all the presents had been opened, all the paper had been gathered and all the chaos had settled. When I returned my attention to my unexpected gift, I carefully opened the hinged plastic cover and found the iPod encased in a plastic sheath with small prongs on each end. Mechanically challenged, I nestled my cup of coffee between my legs so I could use both hands to free the small electronic device. I carefully pulled and turned and twisted the plastic case until the iPod suddenly popped out of its protective cover, flew up into the air, somersaulted and plopped into the cup of coffee in my lap. My hands froze mid-air and silence filled the room as all eyes riveted on the tail end of the now-immersed iPod that peeked over the rim of my coffee cup.

My son broke the silence. “I can’t believe you just did that,” he said shaking his head.

“I can’t believe it either!” I cried in dismay as I yanked the iPod out of its private pool of caffeine. “I have no idea how that just happened! Do you think it still works?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed and continued shaking his head as he walked across the room, sat down next to me on the couch, took it from me and began pushing buttons. He placed the iPod in front of a fan and suggested we give it some time to “dry out.” Apparently, caffeine doesn’t boost electronics the way it does me because about 30 minutes later my son officially pronounced my new gadget was “not responding properly.” Still shaking his head, he repackaged the iPod and handed it to me with the receipt saying, “Maybe you can take it back.”

Looking at the receipt, I once again felt overwhelmed by his selfless act of generosity. It swept over me all night long as I continued reliving that unbelievable moment when my incredible gift somersaulted through the air. The next day I went to the store and handed my iPod and receipt over to the man working the customer service deck. “I received this as a gift and would like to exchange it,” I said.

“Is there anything wrong with it?” he asked.

“It doesn’t seem to be responding properly,” I said as a subtle smell of coffee wafted between us, feeling no desire to describe the caffeine adventure we’d shared during our short time together. “I’d like to exchange it for one just like it,” I smiled. I gratefully took my new iPod home and humbly let my son remove it from its case.

THANKSGIVING GOODBYES

I develop clarity and focus and set my intent. I act on that which comes to me.

My four-year-old grandson died Thanksgiving Day 2018. On Tuesday morning he went to school with a slight cough and no fever. On Tuesday afternoon the school called his parents saying he wasn’t feeling well and they needed to pick him up. Before they got him home, he quit breathing. They started chest compressions and called 911.  By the time they got him to the hospital, his heart had stopped and started three times. They transported him to a larger hospital. He arrived with a pulse, but was not breathing on his own. They put him on a ventilator and began testing for brain activity and there was none.

Tuesday morning he went to school. Tuesday evening he was brain dead. On Thursday, Thanksgiving morning, he was taken off life support. By 7:30 Thanksgiving morning, he was declared dead. The doctors tell us it was a respiratory virus that seized him fast and furious; three strains of parainfluenza narrowed his airway. He was a healthy 4-year-old…it is a harsh truth for my family and me.

We are in shock. Our numbness is penetrated by waves of grief. We have no profound insights; we simply move from one breath to the next.

His parents decided to donate his organs. On Thanksgiving Day, a number of families on organ waiting lists received the call for which they had been waiting. Who is to say our grief is bigger than their joy, relief and gratitude? Talk about an exchange of energy….Donor Alliance tells us that his heart, liver, and kidneys were successfully transplanted, saving four lives; his pancreas and cartilage went to research.

We are grateful even as we grieve. We are grateful that in the wake of this tragedy, in spite of his short time here on earth, his life has meaning…not only to us but to others as well. We are grateful for the opportunity to know him and to love him. I trust he is on his path and his story is unfolding as it should. His mother tells me that out of the blue last Friday he asked her what happens when you die and then he asked what happens when you stop breathing. She said he wasn’t angry or sad or upset or even particularly serious; he just casually asked these profound questions as he continued playing. She explained that if you stop breathing you die and no one really knows what happens when you die and then she asked why he was asking. He said “Because I think I’m going to quit breathing and die.” In typical Mom fashion she exclaimed,  “Don’t say that!” so he dropped it. And then a few days later, that’s exactly what happened. I choose to think an angel was there with him while he raced his toy cars around the room, talking to him quietly, preparing him with a gentle spoiler alert! It reminds me that the veil between the worlds is thin… the veil is very, very thin.

In the midst of all this sadness, I bless and celebrate both his sweet short life and his passage. I develop clarity and focus and set my intent: I intend to explore a new relationship with him now that he has left this 3D world. I trust an exciting journey awaits us. I choose to act on that which comes to me.

 

SWELTERING HEAT

I rushed into the car rental place, bringing the heat outside into the air-conditioned room. “I need to keep my rental car for another week,” I explained to the man behind the counter.

“Ah, Allison,” the man said walking towards the customer service desk. I was a little startled. I didn’t realize Gary (the tag on his shirt said his name was Gary) knew my name.

Of course, I had been in several times the previous week. My old beat up Subaru was on its last legs and was in the shop. For the last several years I had been commuting to graduate school in Chicago. My car and I were both weary of the eight-hour round-trip. I was now finishing the last few weeks of my summer fieldwork assignment in Chicago and was desperate for transportation. I had come in the first time the previous week asking for a good rate on a rental car. My budget didn’t allow much room for the unexpected and it certainly didn’t allow for extensive rentals of expensive cars.  I came in needing a cheap car for a few days. Simple enough.

But then the mechanics working on my Subaru reported they were having problems and it was going to take more time and cost more money…so I went back to the rental car place a second time to see if I could keep the car longer. And to negotiate the cost below their normal rate, somehow trying to make it fit within my precariously unbalanced budget. Now the mechanics were saying my Subaru still wasn’t done and probably wouldn’t be done until next week. So I was back again. Good grief. Gary didn’t seem particularly happy to see me.

“I need to keep my rental car for another week,” I said again. “But I don’t need it the whole week. How about I keep it on your lot and only actually rent it from midnight Monday to midnight Tuesday and from midnight Wednesday to midnight Thursday?”

I figured that way I could get to Chicago on Tuesday and Thursday as needed without having to pay for a full week’s rental. I had no idea who was going to give me a ride to and from the rental car place at midnight or how I’d get around the rest of the week; I was just trying to focus on one thing at a time. Like expensive rental cars, planning and prevention were luxuries I could not afford. The demands for my time, attention and money kept hitting faster than my limited resources could keep up. The best I could do was triage and try to tend to whatever problem was screaming the loudest at any given moment.

“If you still need the car, why don’t you just keep it for the week?” Gary sounded slightly annoyed. I probably would be too if I saw myself from a well-planned, well-ordered perspective based in a world of plenty.

“Because I can’t afford a whole week’s rental,” I said bluntly. I was way beyond shame.

Gary held my gaze for a moment as if considering. “Your car is in the shop, right?” he asked. I nodded yes. “Didn’t they tell you it was going to be ready last week?” he probed.

I nodded again. “Yes, but I guess they’re having some problems with it.”

“What kind of problems?” he asked.

Good grief….I don’t know! Problem problems. The kind of problems mechanics have when they work on cars. How was I supposed to know?  “I’m not sure,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. Gary was still looking at me.

“Maybe you should have your husband call and talk to them about your car,” he suggested.  Great idea Gary, but that leads us to yet another problem.

“I don’t have a husband,” I said flatly.

“Well, then your boyfriend,” he said, shaking his head, exasperated and gesturing, obviously annoyed by details that were beside the point. Clearly, his point was I should ask whatever man was in my life to talk to the mechanic.

“Look,” I said, suddenly embarrassed. “There is no one to make that call. I mean, there was someone…” Why was I embarrassed? Why did I feel the need to explain? “I was married. But then we separated and then we divorced. And then he died. Suddenly and unexpectedly…”

And then suddenly and unexpectedly, I started crying. “He died last Christmas Eve!” And then I started wailing. “I still can’t believe he died on Christmas Eve! He left our kids standing on his porch, knocking on his door, looking forward to having Christmas with him…they were still in his driveway waiting when the police came and hauled his dead body out the door!” By then, Gary seemed embarrassed too. Poor Gary.

“Well, maybe your Dad could call and talk to the mechanic,” he said quietly. He no longer sounded annoyed; his tone was beginning to twinge with compassion.

Oh boy, I could feel it coming… is he ever going to be sorry he said that! I involuntarily rested my elbows on the counter and held my head in my hands while great sobs wracked through my whole body.  “Daddy’s dead too!” I cried. “He died the year before! They’re both dead and I’m trying to finish graduate school in Chicago while I live and work and raise my kids here in Indiana!” I was beyond embarrassed. I was pathetic.

Gary must have been afraid to say anything else because he waited in silence until I regained some composure. He handed me the tissue box from his desk and asked quietly, “Allison, where is your car and what kind of car is it?” I told him and he looked up the number in the phone book. He dialed the shop and said, “This is Mr. Ballard calling about the Subaru that my wife brought in last week. I’ve been on a business trip and just got home and discovered the car is still not ready for pick up. I had understood it was supposed to have been ready last week. I’m not happy to find that she’s still driving a rental car. I need an update on the Subaru’s status and need to know when it’s going to be finished.”

Go Gary! The conversation went back and forth on the phone. Mechanical banter appeared to be a language my new husband could speak.  “Okay,” I heard him say. “So she should be able to pick it up this afternoon? Great! And if you have any problems, could you please call me at this number? Thank you. Goodbye.”

Gary got off the phone and handed me his business card. “Allison, if your car isn’t ready for you this afternoon, give me a call.” He came around the counter and awkwardly patted me on the back.  “It’s okay,” he said reassuringly. “Everything is going to be okay.”

I resisted the impulse to bury my head in his chest. Instead, I mumbled thank you and walked out of the cool air conditioning, back into the sweltering heat.

THE PINK APRON

The pink apron tied just like my Japanese-style taiko drumming costume. I wrapped the apron around my naked torso. “The only pink taiko coat I’ll ever wear,” I thought as I tossed my purse, water bottle and clothing into the bottom of the empty locker. My stainless steel water bottle clanked against the metal as it landed. The sound caused me to pause and take notice. I thought maybe I should hang my clothes up, but decided it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to be here long enough for my T-shirt to wrinkle. I turned, opened the curtain and walked out into the empty waiting room.

I ignored the pile of magazines and directed my attention to the TV. A woman was flipping houses, talking about how painting interior walls in neutral colors shows off beautiful woodwork and makes a house easier to sell. I thought of my own house. The blue living room, the yellow striped kitchen, the purple office, green music room, orange foyer and hallway…the bathroom that ended up Pepto Bismol pink. (Not necessarily the color I was trying for.)

“If I have breast cancer, maybe I should repaint the house in neutral colors so the kids can sell it without having to put too much work into it,” I thought to myself.  If I have cancer. That appeared to be the question of the moment. This was my second mammogram in two days. The first was a routine screening. And then they called asking me to come back. So here I was, sitting in the same chair, wearing another pink taiko apron.

A nurse with laryngitis came in with an inviting smile, gestured me into the hallway, then into the screening room and to a chair. She sat next to me and handed me a piece of paper that explained I was there for a second screening due to concerns that had surfaced after the first one. It also mentioned that my insurance might need to be notified. Insurance had paid for the first screening at 100%. I hoped it would pay for this second one as well. Especially since I might be needing cash flow to buy a whole lot of paint! I told the nurse that I had not contacted my insurance company and she whispered,  “We did that for you.” She touched my arm, smiled again and said, “It’s taken care of.”

“Okay, well, so far so good,” I thought. I appeared to be in good hands. Efficient hands. Hands that wanted to manipulate my right breast into a machine that flattened it out to “get a better look.”  I stood in front of the machine I had met for the first time a few days earlier. The nurse reached in under the pink apron for my breast and became tangled in the ties. I took the apron off and threw it across the room into a nearby chair.  The nurse smiled at my willingness to be bare breasted. If that was the biggest challenge of this whole experience, I was good to go.

The nurse placed my breast onto the flat panel of the machine, then instructed me to grab onto a bar above and look up in the opposite direction as she turned a knob that pressed the breast flat between two panels. I could feel my pectoral muscles stretch taut from the odd position. “Don’t breathe,” the nurse instructed, catching me on an exhale, leaving me wishing I had held on to that last inhale a little longer!

The nurse took the picture, removed the breast and repositioned the machine that suddenly sprouted an array of knobs and dials that I hadn’t noticed. This machine could clearly be positioned many different ways, capturing breasts in a wide variety of holds. I wondered why such engineering genius didn’t include some rounded corners that would prevent these sharp edges from digging into the tender side of my upper rib cage and armpit. Ouch! To divert my attention from the discomfort, I focused instead on timing my breath to avoid being caught on another exhale. And I also focused on the photograph of a large pink ribbon hanging on a street lamp in what appeared to be a downtown venue. Must have been part of the annual breast cancer awareness campaign. I had, of course, noticed the ribbons when they were hanging. Each year, they lined the city streets for a month or so causing everyone to notice. But standing here with my breast pressed in this machine that was taking a second screening, I was more aware of the photograph of this single hanging pink ribbon than I had been when driving by an entire street full of them.

The nurse removed my breast one last time, handed my apron to me and gestured for me to sit down in the now-empty chair. We looked at the images together, the nurse pointing at the area of concern. A white circle. A single white circle. “I’m going to call this a glob,” she whispered with a smile. “That’s not a medical term by the way, but since we don’t know what it is, we’re going to call it a glob.”

“Good enough,” I thought. “Sounds like a feeble opponent. I’m not sure I can win a bout with cancer, but I’m pretty sure I can tackle a glob!”

“I’ll show these to the radiologist and we’ll see if she wants an ultrasound,” whispered the nurse.

I nodded and looked at my watch. 2:30. When I scheduled this 2:00 appointment yesterday, I explained I had to leave at 3:00. I had actually suggested coming in next week, but the scheduling nurse had said, “No, let’s get you in tomorrow. We’ll make sure and get you out of here by 3:00.” I mentioned this now to the laryngitis nurse, explaining I had to teach a taiko drumming class at a school at 3:30. The nurse didn’t ask what taiko was. She just smiled and said, “I’m sure you’ll be fine” and touched my arm again. I wasn’t sure if she meant I would be able to leave in time or that she was betting on me being able to beat the glob. I decided to wait it out. I had 30 minutes to enjoy this familiar world where my biggest concern was whether or not I would get to taiko class on time–I wasn’t giving up a single second of it.

The nurse smiled goodbye and I was ushered into an ultrasound room by a technician who introduced another machine that wanted me to take off my pink taiko apron and lie down against a support. I raised my arm above my head and felt that now-familiar stretch as the tech spread warm gel on my breast with a probe. I turned my head back around in an awkward position so I could watch the glob on the screen. I wanted to see it in action, wanted to get to know it better. Apparently it was a chameleon because on this screen it appeared as a black circle. I wondered when it had moved in and made my breast its home. I wondered it if was planning on redecorating and if so, was it going with a creative color scheme that would express its individuality or was it choosing a practical neutral décor that would have a greater resale value? The probe continued moving, capturing the glob from many angles. The glob was quite photogenic and did not appear to have a side that was noticeably better than another. It appeared glob-like from every angle. And it appeared to not have a busy schedule. It was just hanging out at 2:45 in the afternoon, not at all concerned about getting to taiko class on time.

I noted that the technician had taken about 30 photographs. Surely this was a large enough portfolio for any glob! Glancing at my watch, I began scheming exactly how I could get off the table, wipe off the gel, retrieve my clothes and escape unnoticed. And then the technician stopped. She put the probe back into its place and handed me washcloths.

“You can clean yourself up,” she said. “I’m just going to send these images off to the radiologist and we’ll have some answers for you in just a minute.”

“Should I go get dressed?” I asked, ready to put my escape plan into action, ready to get my water bottle, purse and T-shirt…ready to gather these simple items that would indicate I was a normal person in the midst of a normal day.

“No, you just sit right there,” the technician said firmly as she wheeled her rolling chair to the computer in the corner of the room.

I looked up at the wall and saw another photograph of pink ribbons; this time, they were tired around trees. I hoped these annual campaigns had raised a lot of money for breast cancer research. Enough to identify this glob and know what it was capable of doing.  I looked at my watch again and thought about my class. I needed to leave in five minutes. I suddenly felt vulnerable and was no longer willing to sit bare breasted. I put on my pink taiko apron and wondered if it was still raining outside. I imagined a bunch of pink ribbons hanging dripping wet. I wondered if they resumed their shape once the sun dried up all the rain.

I thought about what a diagnosis of cancer would mean to my family. My 23-year-old daughter’s fiancé was getting chemo and my daughter was struggling to manage not only the stress and worry that came with his diagnosis and treatment, but also to finish grad school and her thesis. My eldest was taking a much-deserved month off before starting a new job. My newly married son had moved to Colorado to start a new business. And I had just started Skype sessions with my 4-month-old grandson in Texas.

I really wasn’t interested in introducing any of them to the glob. They had already lost their dad to a heart attack and their grandfather to mesothelioma. If I had cancer, I decided I would just keep it to myself. So much for research that suggests love and support can expedite healing. I wasn’t sure that sharing cancer news with my family would change my treatment plan or improve my prognosis or reduce my symptoms. I was, however, certain it would bring chaos into their lives…unwanted chaos they could do without. I decided I would shield them as long as possible. Maybe they wouldn’t notice my long, curly hair falling out. I could always claim a sudden desire to shave my head and celebrate my ability to finally drop some unwanted pounds. And wouldn’t a good prosthetic conceal a missing breast? Maybe they would never even have to know.

The technician wheeled her chair back across the room. “The radiologist said you appear to have some fluid-filled cysts in your breast,” she explained.

“The glob has a name!” I thought. “And apparently it doesn’t live alone, but has moved in an entire family!”

“Your breast are very dense so we just wanted to make sure we knew what we were looking at.” I sat on the ultrasound table with a blank look on my face. “What does she mean I have dense breasts?” I pondered. “Have my breasts always been dense? Do other women have dense breasts? Are mine the only ones?”

The technician stood up. “This is good news,” she smiled encouragingly, somewhat confused by my stupor. “You are free to go. Make sure you come back in a year for another screening.”  She opened the door. I glanced at my watch. It was 3:00 on the dot.

I thanked the tech and left the room. I got my things out of the locker and put on clothes. I dumped the pink taiko apron in the laundry basket, walked down the hall, smiled goodbye to the nurse with laryngitis, walked outside and took a breath. A full inhale and exhale followed by another. And another. As my breath slowly resumed an even rhythm, the sky started sprinkling.  I walked across the parking lot, not minding the rain. I called my mom as I walked to my car. “Did you know that I have dense breasts?” I asked. We laughed together as I drove to taiko class. I was relieved that, at least for now, I had enough time. And I was grateful that each year pink ribbons line the city streets. Happy Breast Cancer Awareness Month!