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!

 

 

LAKE MICHIGAN JULY 2018

Sun. Sand. Water. Wind. Waves. I sit on a beach at Lake Michigan. I sit for hours, doing nothing in particular. I stare at water so big it meets the horizon in one expansive curved line. I position and re-position in awkward angles to catch the sun. I brush at sand that clings and dries and grates against tender, sunburned skin. I swat at flies. I shift my hat. Guzzle water. Turn my head. This is the extent of my effort. I am simply being. Here and now.

Here comes a wave….and now it is gone. There’s a shaft of light…and now it is gone. A cloud… a breeze… a thought…they ruffle by and rifle through and they are gone. What lingers is the sense that I should be doing….something. But if I sit here long enough, that too will be gone. If I sit here long enough, the impulse to take action will dissipate like the eroding beach.

I float in this new rhythm of nothingness knowing that even my sitting is an act of doing. Even as I sit, Fort Wayne Taiko moves forward. I founded the group in 1998 as a program of the Fort Wayne Dance Collective. At the time, we were the only performing taiko group in Indiana and one of the few in the midwest. I have continued directing the group since that time.

Under my direction, we have developed a group of four core drummers and a larger group of 15 practicing enthusiasts, learned repertoire and composed original music, built and acquired instruments, created youth outreach programs, presented guest artists, developed mentoring relationships with nationally/internationally renowned taiko drummers, become mentors to regional emerging groups, been recognized and celebrated by our local/state arts and funding communities, attended conferences and workshops, spent three weeks in Japan studying with Japanese taiko masters, presented original performances and played at schools, community events, corporations and the 2014 World Taiko Gathering in Los Angeles. All while I worked to make a living, maintain a household and raise kids as a single parent. No wonder I’m tired!

In my absence, Fort Wayne Taiko drummers are teaching classes, performing at festivals, learning repertoire, assessing equipment and expanding skills. Seasoned drummers are assuming new leadership roles. New drummers are learning to create energy and become their own anchors. The next wave is gaining momentum even as I sit.

I am not finished drumming. Or teaching. Or serving. I am not finished leading. Or holding vision, Or strategizing next steps. But today I simply sit. Today, that is my offering. I honor the foundation I have left in my wake by getting out of the way. I yield to sun, sand, water, wind. I resist the impulse to take action. Today I simply sit and let the next wave move through.

KNOWING I AM LOVED

The situation was bigger than both of us; neither of us knew what to do. After 7 or 8 hours of my intense abdominal pain, my mother and I both felt helpless. After 9 days in the hospital with pancreatitis, I had been released so we could get to my son’s wedding in Florida. My doctors had wanted to remove my gallbladder which was the culprit of this problem, but had to wait for my lipase level to fall from its alarmingly elevated count of 10,000 to a normal range of 70-80. The treatment while waiting was nothing by mouth…. it had been over a week since I’d had food or water.

For the past 9 days I had been hooked up to an IV that kept me fed, hydrated and soothed with pain medication. By the time my lipase count fell, there was no time for surgery. My son was getting married. In Florida. Mom and I were already two days past our scheduled arrival date. She had changed our tickets and we were out of time. I needed to get on a plane. With my lipase finally stable, my doctors had released me with cautions about what to eat and drink and a warning to schedule gallbladder surgery immediately after my return home.

My mother had picked me up from the hospital and taken me to her house for final trip preparations. We had to leave for the airport the next day at 4 am to catch our early morning flight. I moved slowly and tired easily in my compromised state, but I was moving. I was glad to be out of the hospital free from my IV umbilical cord, grateful for my mother’s help, grateful to be heading south. Together.

I still hadn’t finished packing when I felt the first stab. After weeks of this intermittent pain, I feared what was coming. I threw my remaining clothes in the suitcase and zipped it up, knowing it was likely this all-too-familiar intruder would soon demand all my attention. And so it did. My world was reduced to a raging gall bladder attack that ranted with relentless vomiting. My mother watched helplessly as I crawled to and from the toilet, in and out of the tub, changed positions on the couch, paced around the room, tried to distract myself with TV, wrapped a heating pad around my aching belly and bargained with the universe for some small morsel of relief…but nothing helped.

Exhausted, I surfed from one breath to the next, hoping for the wave to crest, needing to ride it in before 4 a.m. We needed to get on that plane. That dominant, unspoken thought hung heavy between us. We weren’t just attending the wedding as guests or beloved family members; I was supposed to officiate and last I heard, there was no firm Plan B. If I was a no-show, they would be scrambling for a last-minute alternative. Plus I wanted to be part of this blessed, once-in-a-lifetime event. We needed to get on that plane.

At some point as I tossed and turned and crawled and paced and writhed, my bare feet ended up sticking over the end of the couch right in front of my mother’s nearby chair where she held vigil. “I’ll be right back,” she said and left her wake. She came back with a reflexology book and opened it to a diagram that mapped the pressure points of the foot. Her fingers circled and prodded and pressed and pushed. They fervently kneaded, stroked and rubbed a whispered plea for deliverance. It didn’t stop my agony, but it sure felt good.

In the early morning hours, when it became clear my pain wasn’t going to subside, I encouraged my mother to go to bed. I knew we faced an early morning whether I was on that plane or not. She left my side begrudgingly and I took Benadryl hoping it would knock me out. But I was still awake several hours later when I heard her alarm go off. Still writhing, still pacing, still bargaining…but my terms had changed. I was no longer hoping to get on the plane; I just wanted to get to the emergency room. After 15 hours of wracking pain, I was ready for something stronger than Benadryl. Hook me back up to that IV!

Mom emerged from her bedroom. “How are you doing?” she asked. “Did you get any sleep?” I sat up, grabbed my belly and shook my head no.

“I can’t get on that plane,” I whispered, staring at the floor, “I need to go to the emergency room and you need to go to Florida without me.” She cried no and I looked up. “Mom, he needs one of us there. You have to go without me.”

She turned away silently and went to get dressed. I pushed myself up off the couch to go gather my things. I was going to call a friend to take me to the ER and knew I would need some basics once they admitted me. I staggered into the bedroom. There was my suitcase, zipped and ready, my clothes spread on top. A surge of determination fueled by grief rippled through me stronger than the pain. I wondered if I could get myself dressed. I threw my pajamas in a heap on the floor and managed to put on clothes. I managed to brush my teeth and wheel my suitcase into the hallway. I managed to grab my purse and water bottle. Each step was an act of faith and courage.

Mom walked out of her room and looked at me questioningly. “I’m going,” I said. “I’m not missing my son’s wedding.”  We wheeled the suitcases out to the car. The early-morning night was dark and rainy and tense. I was a blubbering, writhing mess. But we were in the car, heading to the airport. I was grateful for the wheelchair assistance Mom had arranged and ignored the accusing stares of people who appeared to assume I was able-bodied and unnecessarily taking advantage of this service. (Like I’d rather be wheeled around than up and walking on my own two feet!) Fortunately, I was too exhausted to care.

Sometime during the flight, my pain finally subsided and we landed safe and sound, albeit emotional…my frayed nervous system felt like it had survived a torture rack. When my son greeted us, Mom and I both burst into tears! I slept through much of the four-day wedding adventure, but I did indeed officiate. I got myself there, got him married and got myself home and scheduled for gall bladder surgery.

And my mother shadowed my every step. When I was hurting, writhing in pain, she rubbed my feet. It sure feels good knowing I am loved.

HAWAII AUGUST 2018

I am on a month-long work retreat at Kealakelua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. I am living on a live volcano in a cottage 300 feet from the water. I come out every morning to sun and read and swim and I go in every afternoon to work uninterrupted. The energy is primal and deep, the sun is hot and the water is d-i-v-i-n-e and blue, oh so blue. And that is why I am here….to be in and on and around all that water. This water. It calls to me all the way back home in Indiana.

I swim in the bay every morning with yellow fish and sea turtles. The water is warm and clear and not too deep. Free of gravity and pumiced by salt crystals, I am my happiest, most authentic self when I am immersed in all that blue bliss. Infinity beckons and I am never afraid.

If I swim to the north side of this protected bay, the water is calm; on the south side, waves roll in and crash against black and white lava rocks that line the shore, making it look as if the Gods and Goddesses salted and peppered their favorite meal. As a result of this perpetual loop of aquatic yin and yang, big pieces of lava rock have created a tidal pool on the south side that visitors use as an entry point. It is really the only access point available on this rocky shore. Unless someone is inspired to do a mad climb down and over slippery, sharp rock, anyone who wants to access the water enters through the tidal pool.

Children and families love it because it creates a game: the waves crash in and the pool fills up; the waves recede and the pool empties out, pulling everything in the tidal pool with it. It’s not necessarily a strong pull…it’s usually easy enough to resist…but nonetheless, swimmers feel themselves being sucked into a channel bordered by sharp lava rock on either side and sharp lava rock submerged below… so whether yielding or resisting, one has to maneuver the waves and rock. If moving through and out into the blue beyond, this channel needs to be navigated. If hanging out in the tidal pool, this channel needs to be navigated. Either way, one has to figure out how to avoid cut feet or scraped limbs or God forbid, a banged head.

After a week and a half of this daily maneuver, I have learned a few things:

Be alert.

Plan ahead.

Position self carefully.

Consider others.

Protect your feet.

Be wary of what you cannot see.

Take all variables into consideration (wind, water, current, tide, bodies, etc.)

And then I realized the same is true with almost anything. Seldom do we just jump into bliss; the access point usually has a channel that must be maneuvered. A channel made of whatever whatnot applies: learning curves, physical challenges, intrapersonal dynamics, interpersonal dynamics, communication issues, logistics, funding, equipment, space, time, infrastructure, hierarchies, energy, creativity, resources, motivation, clarity… the tide surges in and out creating waves that can scrape you up against these myriad sharp rocks. Navigation is needed.

Fortunately, the beckoning of infinity has a call that is primal, deep and full.

Like living on a live volcano.

Like the lull of the water.

Like the resonance of a taiko drum.

Like working as part of a cohesive team.

It’s that feeling of being in flow.

This beckoning is like a GPS system that calls to me. Pulls me. 

Not to some geographic location, but to an expansive place where I can be my most authentic self.

And that is why I keep diving in!