LAUGHING. STILL.

I watch my grown son play with his 21-month-old daughter.

On my mother’s living room floor.

Amidst furniture and photos and miscellaneous relics that carry years of familiarity.

I watch my martial-artist son play with his very young, very kinesthetic daughter.

He is sitting. She is lying. On the floor.

She tries to sit up, putting weight on her arms.

He sweeps his forearm, gently knocking her arms out from under her.

He gently sweeps her support away.

She falls back to her belly, giggling.

She moves her weight to her knees and tries again to sit.

He gently grabs her foot and pulls it out from under her.

He gently sweeps away her support.

She falls again and lies still. Laughing.

And the game continues.

She moves her weight here and there and back to here, all the while trying to sit.

Each time, he pulls or pushes, gently sweeping her support away.

She keeps trying.

She draws from this place, then that…knees, hands, arms, torso, shoulders, now the back of her head.

She arches her spine. She explores her body.

Her ability to leverage herself.

She contracts, extends, contorts.

She creatively strives.

At her own initiation.

In relationship with her Dad.

With curiosity. And trust. And joy.

She discovers there are infinite ways to sit, to move oneself from down to up.

She tries one place and then another.

Over and over.

She is still laughing.

He quits and the game comes to a quiet end.

She sits, then stands. A little dizzy.

She reels slightly and finds her balance.

Laughing. Still.

I watch my grown son play with his 21-month-old daughter.

On my mother’s living room floor.

Amidst furniture and photos and miscellaneous artifacts weighted with years.

I see a collective future, lovingly sculpted.

In this landscape of familial relics.

I share a silent promise blessed with curiosity, trust and joy.

THE PEOPLE IN THE CLOSET

In my dream, my mother asks my husband James, “Would you set the table?” In my dream, he moves towards the pantry to get plates.  “Oh, don’t go in there,” she says. “We never go in there. The plates are over here.” She gestures towards the cabinets hanging above her head.

He pivots and heads towards the cabinets instead. “What’s in the closet?” he asks. She takes the muffin tin out of the oven and begins spooning cornbread mix over the hot oil that lies waiting at the bottom of each gaping hole. “Oh, that’s where we keep the people. You know, the People in the Closet.” The mix of cornmeal, egg and milk drops down the sides of the bowl. She wipes it clean with a wet cloth. “We don’t ever open that door.”

James stops mid-reach. “What do you mean the ‘People in the Closet?’”

My dream mom wraps a hot pad around the filled muffin tin, puts it back in the oven, closes the door, wipes her hands on a nearby towel and turns to look at him. She takes a deep breath and speaks slowly, so he’ll understand. “You know, the People. The People in the Closet.” Conversation over, she sets the oven timer and walks out of the room. “We’ll be eating in about 20 minutes,” she announces to the family. It is an ordinary day blessed with an ordinary family meal.

Later in my dream, James and I continue this conversation back at home. He is outraged.“What did your mother mean?” he demands. “Is your family really keeping people in the closet?” I shrug dismissively. It’s no big deal. I don’t understand why he is so upset. They are just the People in the Closet. They don’t deserve to be treated like real people.

“Don’t you ever let them out? Do you ever feed them?”  He is livid. And it doesn’t stop. Weeks pass and he is ranting and raving and carrying on and I am tired of it. “Allison, this is criminal!” he says. “It needs to stop!”

“Okay, okay,” I finally relent. “I’ll let them out, but not now. I’m too busy right now.” I realize how much time and energy they are going to need once they’re released. Between the kids and my job, I just don’t have time to deal with them right now.

But he doesn’t let up. “When are you going to let the people out of the closet?” he asks me while I am washing dishes, running the kids’ bath, folding clothes. I come in from work and instead of “Hello, how was your day?” he says, “When are you going to let the people out of the closet?” I sit down with a book and he interrupts my few rare, sacred minutes of quiet. “When are you going to let the people out of the closet?”

Finally, I’ve had enough. “You want me to let those people out of the closet?” I yell. “Fine!” I march over to the closet that is strangely now in my house and not my mother’s. I open the door and the people fall out. They lay in the middle of the floor: a starved, dirty little girl underneath an old man drooling tobacco juice. “There. They are now out of the closet! Are you happy? And now I have to go to work.” I step over them, grab my briefcase and purse and head out the door.  I step over them when I return home. I walk around them when I am talking on the phone and cooking dinner. I continue stepping over and around until James’ mantra changes.

“When are you going to deal with these people on the floor?” he starts asking.

“When I have time,” I say, avoiding the look in the little girl’s eyes. Enough already.

I wake up with the dream echoing through my head like a muffled scream. I am terrified. My fear devours me slowly, but not completely. I have not yet disappeared. I am still here to feel every agonizing moment. The terror straitjackets my heart and my blood runs cold. I am frozen. Literally, I cannot move. Not arms or my legs; not a single finger can I even twitch. Only my eyes can move. I throw my focus frantically around the room. My wild mind is searching for an escape route, a safe place to land so I can stop free falling through space and time.  James is sleeping beside me. I want to wake him up. If I can just wake him up, I’ll be safe. There is safety in numbers, isn’t there? This terror can’t stand true before a witness.

I try to move my hand to shake him awake, but it is glued to the bed. I try to call to him, but my voice is silent, my breathing quick and shallow. Something is dragging me to a place where everything is dark and cold. A closet. A demon is dragging me into the closet saying, “I’m here to take your soul.” I am desperate. Helpless. Frantically clawing inside, frozen outside, I am alone. Except for a small voice that calls to me from beyond. Barely discernible, it whispers, “It can’t control your breath. Breathe. It can’t control your thoughts. Surround yourself with light.”

In a last-ditch effort to claim sanity, I force myself to breathe. Slowly. Deeply. This is Custer’s last stand. With every ounce of energy, focus and courage I can summon, I visualize light all around me, inside and out. I breathe light into every cell. Open the closet door. Open all the closet doors. I breathe light into every crack and corner and crevice of my mind and heart and soul and house. I breathe light into the people I love and the people I don’t. If light is everywhere, there is no room for darkness. I breathe light until I am a bright, shimmering ball free to move and feel and be as I choose.

The demon flees. My breath continues, slow and deep and I begin to relax and go back to sleep. In that halfway place between the everyday and the ethereal, the fear returns. I flash awake and am paralyzed again. Again I am frantic. And again, I am reminded to breathe. I focus and regain control. I am caught up in a game against some formidable foe armed with the clammy palm of evil. My ally is a still, small voice. A tiny speck of spirit deep inside that keeps burning when everything goes black.

 

This is an excerpt from my new, recently-completed one-woman show, I Am the One Who. This biomythography portrays my healing journey from childhood trauma to empowerment.  The debut performance will be presented October 12, 7:00 pm at the Red Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto, Canada and will feature internationally renowned taiko drummer Tiffany Tamaribuchi!  (Yahoo!) Come check it out, but be aware that even though it’s grounded in a message of hope, it includes portrayals of sexual violence and childhood ritual abuse. Run time is 2 hours and includes a 15-minute intermission. A post-performance discussion will be held.

For tickets, go to universe.com/iamtheonewho

ETUDE

She is inside me. She is outside me. She surrounds me.

She is chewed fingernails. She is exalted esteem.

She is drowning in the distance.

She is floating in a tomb.

In a womb, she is floating. Face down, she is floating.

She flops herself over. She is breathing through her nose, her mouth.

The water rushes in. She is full, not choking.

She spits as needed. She knows how to spit. She knows when to spit.

She spits well. She spits far. She has learned.

No longer choked full, she gags with a force that cries “No more!” And she is quiet.

She is resting. She is listening. She is waiting.

She speaks. I’m not listening. She cries. I’m not listening.

She pleads. She whines. She screams. I’m not listening.

She is silent. Where did she go?

In her silence she knows I am seeking.

We play a game of mouse who is quiet and cat who does not chase,

but runs away all the way around until it’s coming back.

When you run in circles, halfway around is as far as you can go.

She waits for me to run halfway around and back. I find her waiting.

I ask her to speak and she answers with a caress that soothes,

with tears that fall,

with truth that beckons.

“Who are you?” I ask and she answers “Just me.”

Wisdom drawn from simplicity.

She holds strength like a volcano that lies dormant.

She holds pain like a fire that has settled.

She holds truth like a mirror that reflects.

She holds so much she needs to be held.

Not by some anonymous someone….she needs to be held by me.

She beckons, “Come closer.” On hands and knees I inch.

She beckons “Come closer.” On my belly I approach.

She beckons “Come closer.”

“I am right beside you,” I answer. “How much closer can I get?”

She does not speak. She crawls inside and settles. She is floating face up. She is alive.

She is breathing. Through nose and mouth water rushes in.

She does not choke. She does not spit. She swallows.

She absorbs me. I am embodied, a container unto myself.

I evolve neither chewed nor exalted.

I am just me.

I am whole.

I am divine, a six-pointed star.

I am the one who.

This is an excerpt from my new, recently-completed one-woman show, I Am the One Who. This biomythography portrays my healing journey from childhood trauma to empowerment.  The debut performance will be presented October 12, 7:00 pm at the Red Sands Castle Theatre in Toronto, Canada and will feature internationally renowned taiko drummer Tiffany Tamaribuchi!  (Yahoo!) Come check it out, but be aware that even though it’s grounded in a message of hope, it includes portrayals of sexual violence and childhood ritual abuse. Run time is 2 hours and includes a 15-minute intermission. A post-performance discussion will be held.

For tickets, go to universe.com/iamtheonewho

BUTTERFLY DANCE

I hit the play button on the CD player and feel a satisfying rush as drum music booms out of the speakers. I turn around to find that all the 3- and 4-year-olds in my creative movement class have stopped dead in their tracks. Their free-spirited, pre-class running has come to a complete standstill and been replaced by stunned, pained expressions.  Some of them are even covering their ears with their hands.

Ah-oh! Maybe this music wasn’t such a good idea. I find the relentless beat of intense, driving percussion soothing. Reassuring. The more intense, the better. Add a layer of sinister mixed with volume and the recipe improves. Throw in some thrashing and you have a full-course meal.

I have been spending long late-night hours thrash dancing to pounding music at local clubs after putting my own young children to bed. It’s not a social event; it’s a purge. I rarely talk to anyone and seldom do I drink alcohol. I carry in a bottle of purified water and thrash, sweat, guzzle, then thrash, sweat, guzzle some more. I go home exhausted, gratefully sleep through the night and wake up, muscles sore, wanting more. When I can’t go out, I thrash at home to my own personal collection of percussion music. But apparently, this is not the best musical choice for these young, carefree hearts. I desperately need a quick transition. I stab the stop button, grab a nearby djembe drum and strap it across my chest.

“Let’s see if we can stomp like monsters!” I say. Their faces burst into relieved smiles and they stomp around the room while I play a steady pulse, a base beat that guides their movement and steadies my heart and mind. My body-mind. It is becoming harder and harder for me to separate the two. And that, I am finding, may be a good thing, thrash dancing and all.

“1, 2, 3, 4, stop!” I play an accented beat and they all stop on cue and freeze in shapes with twisted spines and curved arms and bent legs and I revel in the simple landscaped beauty of these young bodies. “1, 2, 3, 4, skip!” My drum and I continue guiding them through a sequence of locomotor and non-locomotor movements. Uninhibited, they sneak and slither and gallop and turn and jump and reach and freeze and freeze and freeze all prompted by the louds and softs and fast and slows and starts and stops that come out of my drum until it rumbles quietly into silence. Somehow, this little drum organizes all my internal chatter into rhythmic patterns that anchor both them and me. I play. They dance. Cause and effect. Action, reaction. A simple, satisfying symbiotic relationship sprinkled with fun.

I feel blissfully connected. I am not wandering through the void. I am not distant and detached. I am not crouched and hiding. I am not thrashing into purged oblivion. I am here. I am present. I am now. I am the afternoon light that filters through the window creating shadows in the studio. I am the oiled wood floor under bare feet. I am the smooth skin of the drum under swollen fingers. I am stretching muscles and beating heart. I am breath moving around and through.

A new sensation shimmers and floats lightly like a butterfly dancing. It flutters and pauses and invites me to give it a name. I watch it closely as it flickers and whispers and beckons. It seems vaguely familiar–it looks like, sounds like, feels like…I think…I think…I think it might be hope.

I play my drum while the children twirl and run and smile.

ALL EARS

The flowers sing. And I listen. To whispered chants that murmur through my garden. To the lilting psalm of my shovel as it grates against freshly-turned dirt. To quiet incantations that rise up out of the earth, bounce off blue skies and grow into perennial promises, annual sprays and trellised vines. To arias that burst into operatic foliage adorned by colorful blooms.

I listen to rain that drips and drops and pounds and patters and mists and pools in ostinato puddles. I listen to the sometimes soft, sometimes piercing sun that warms and warms then burns and browns my now-no-longer-tender skin. And I listen to the quiet serenade of night, wooed by the drone of rest and restoration that comes gift-wrapped in the soft lullabies of stillness.

I listen. To trilling birds and buzzing bees and tinkling chimes. I dig. I plant. I water. I think. I sit. For hours I sit. Still. And listen. To silence. To wordless mantras made of sun and wind and sky and rain and dirt. Each serene voice offering its own unique harmonizing song. Subtle, quiet, almost imperceptible melodies….so different from the pounding, booming rhythms that fill my taiko drumming world.

My summer schedule moves slowly like the oozing heat and drizzling rain and shifting shadows. My body is tired. My mind and soul are tired. My ears are tired. And so I grow a garden full of quiet song. A place where I can sit. Still. And listen.

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.