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!

 

 

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!