Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Finding the rhythm—and courage—to beat my drum

My friend Henry invited friends to celebrate his 50th birthday by sharing a story in a format similar to The Moth. Each storyteller took a turn at the front of the room telling a story with the theme of "lost and found." Wearing my little black dress, my cowgirl boots, and my elk antler canoe paddle necklace, I beat a rhythm on my African djembe drum while I shared my story:

As a kid, I marched to the beat of a different drummer. But it was the 1960s. A girl could be a teacher, nurse, secretary, or if she were really adventurous, a flight attendant. I dreamed of adventure: traveling to Africa, flying a plane, and being a girl drummer. I created drums from household objects: Mom’s pots and pans, empty boxes, the living room radiator.

When we were six, my cousin, Dave and I formed a band, Sue and her Swingers. We didn’t have a clue what a swinger was, but we liked the alliteration. My drumsticks were Lincoln Logs, and my drum was an empty oatmeal box. But Dave, who was nicknamed “Hippy Dave” and wore cool, striped bell bottoms, played a real guitar that his mom gave him. Our repertoire consisted of “Lay Down Your Head, Tom Dooley” and “Down the Valley." We played living room gigs for our parents. Cool, huh?

I kept drumming, but still didn't have a real drum.

For my tenth birthday, for some inexplicable reason, I was sure my parents were giving me a drum set and a real chimpanzee. Imagine my disappointment when I opened my gifts and found neither chimpanzee nor drum set, but instead a tall, metal high chair for dolls. What the heck? It didn’t take me long to discover the doll high chair made a great drum! It was tall enough that I could stand up to play my drum solos! I played a lot of gigs on that doll high chair.

By sixth grade, kids could take band class and learn to play an instrument. My hands shook with excitement that first time I held real drumsticks and played a snare drum. Even the names of the drum rudiments were thrilling: flam, paradiddle, triple ratamacue.

Although my family couldn't afford to buy a new drum, the band teacher let students rent old marching band snare drums for $1 a month. Covering the large drum in a plastic garbage bag, I lugged the drum home on my bike every day after school so I could practice drumming.

That Christmas, Mom surprised me with a gently used silver snare drum. It was a beaut! I don’t recall where Mom found it or how she afforded it, but it remains one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

I was a drummer in the school band from sixth grade through high school. In our small school, being in the band meant playing in concert band, marching band in parades and pep band at all the football and basketball games. By then, drummer Karen Carpenter was a role model, and I was joined by two other girl drummers. I loved being a drummer! When a popular kid at school referred to me as "the little drummer girl," I beamed. 

But when I moved away to attend college, my drum gathered dust. Mom asked if she could sell it in her garage sell, and I agreed. When would I play a drum as an adult woman?

Shortly after college graduation, I got married and was busy raising a family. I loved being a mom and a wife. But as my kids grew into older teens and young adulthood and I had more breathing room, I realized that I’d lost myself. Although I found great joy in spending time with my kids, the adventurous girl I'd once been had been replaced by a shell of a person. I felt completely alone in my marriage. To cover up my grief and emptiness, I ate chocolate--lots of it--ballooning to almost twice my high school weight.

After counseling and mediation sessions, my husband and I eventually divorced.

More than thirty years had passed since I'd played a drum. Now 50 years old, did I remember how to play my own rhythm? Did my heart still have the capacity for joyful song? I didn't know the answers to these questions, but I was ready to find out.

I joined a women's dragon boat team, the Mighty Women. Paddling three times a week was therapeutic for my soul, and combined with mindful eating and other exercise, helped me trim almost 50 pounds from my 5-foot-2 frame.

It was while paddling on the water that I began breathing again. And smiling. My success in dragon boating spurred me to try other adventures: zip lining, kayaking, stand up paddleboard, snow shoeing, belly dancing.

With each new experience, my courage increased.

The next step was a doozy. Dipping my big toe into the online dating pool, the first few dates were duds. I did meet a couple of kind men who had some shared interests, and it was fun going to dinner or a movie, and nice having someone to talk with. But nothing really clicked.

Then I met a Mountain Man, a fellow adventurous spirit who is finding his way back to happiness and joy. Even more incredible, he was a drummer in high school too. He'd recently bought an African djembe drum at Rhythm Traders in Portland. We went to Rhythm Traders together, losing ourselves in more drums and percussion instruments than I'd ever seen, tapping out rhythms, laughing and finding joy in the moment. I was the only woman there. The only girl drummer. During our second trip to Rhythm Traders, I bought my own African djembe drum. It's a beaut!

Together, the Mountain Man and I have paddled skin-on-frame kayaks, camped in his tipi, hiked, explored museums. He's taught me western swing dancing, archery and alpine skiing. I'm editing his book and helping him publish and market it.

We've played music together under the summer stars and in the falling snow. Who knew life in my fifties could be so rich?

I've come a long way from the empty shell I was. Each morning, I step forward expectantly, anticipating whatever adventures might lie ahead. And sometimes, I strap on my drum, my hands tapping out a rhythm while my heart sings.

Kirby and I playing our African djembe drums in the garden.


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